Different studies show that while we humans are self-aware, we are also highly impacted by our bodies, their chemistry, and external stimuli. As a result, people and products can try to influence us by appealing to more primitive parts of our brains and prey on our basic instincts. We are also born addicted to dopamine, the reward chemical fed to our brain.
The combination of all of these things is exactly why short-form videos are so addicting — each brief video ends with a little dopamine spike in our brains.
As we approached 2020, YouTube (and the rest of the world) saw this phenomenon around short-form videos explode as TikTok skyrocketed in popularity. YouTube saw an opportunity to join the transition towards short-form videos and released YouTube Shorts.
In this article, we’ll explore this case study about YouTube Shorts and how they came to be. We’ll also discuss how TikTok’s presence threatened YouTube despite its enormous platform and forced it to adjust to new preferences.
A Short, as part of YouTube’s products, is a short-form video that is less than 60 seconds long and meets the resolution supported by modern mobile phones. YouTube Shorts are designed to be fun, creative, and engaging, and they can help users discover new content, content creators, and general trends on YouTube. YouTube Shorts can also be monetized so creators can earn revenue from the YouTube Partner Program.
As we discussed, it was hardly an innovation — many other social media platforms began developing their own versions of short-form content once they caught on to TikTok’s disruption. We’ll go into this history in more detail.
The story begins with a product called Vine. It launched in the US in January 2013. It allowed users to create and share six-second looping videos. Vine quickly became popular among young users and content creators, but its owner (Twitter) shut it down in January 2017.
The main reason Vine as the “OG” short-form video provider failed is the lack of monetization and support for creators. Perhaps it was a little ahead of its time and the technology needed to develop before a true “attention black hole” could emerge and this actually started the year Vine was closed.
TikTok, the current leader in short-form video, was originally launched in China in September 2016 under the name Douyin, which means “shaking sound” in Chinese. Only a year later was it rebranded to TikTok for international markets.
In 2018, TikTok already reached 12 million active users in the US alone. The rapid growth of the Chinese product pushed other major social and video platforms to release their own TikTok clones. Thus, Snapchat Spotlight was launched in November 2020 as a feature within the Snapchat app, followed by YouTube Shorts in March 2021 and Facebook Reels just five months later.
There are also smaller platforms that offer similar features, such as Triller, Dubsmash, Likee, Firework, and Lomotif. However, TikTok, YouTube Shorts, and Meta-owned platforms currently take the market lead.
YouTube announced Shorts for the first time in September 2020 as a short-form video feature to compete with TikTok. It initially launched in India after their TikTok ban in August 2020.
As a product manager, I think that copying a successful format on a platform already dedicated to hosting and sharing video content is a no-brainer. Additionally, I could realistically foresee YouTube’s version of TikTok as the future Western countries’ short-form video provider leader. How? Well, TikTok has been accused of spying on American citizens through its technology and was close to being banned several times under the two most recent US administrations.
Additionally, there is a conspiracy theory that TikTok intentionally delivers content that can have adverse effects on users (while still keeping them entertained at the moment). At the same time, its Chinese version is heavily regulated and provides mostly educational content in line with the leading party’s viewpoints. The spying allegations are not yet proven as of November 2023 and the difference in content between China and the rest of the world is officially attributed to different users’ preferences.
True or not, those controversies could one day lead to TikTok disappearing from some countries, leaving the spot of the short-form video provider empty. However, even with the prominent position of TikTok, YouTube Shorts has more than 2.3 billion monthly active users as of July 2023, up from 1.5 billion in June 2022.
YouTube Shorts videos receive 50 billion views per day, up from 30 billion in 2022. More than 70 percent of YouTube watch time is through mobile devices, which makes YouTube Shorts a suitable format for the majority of YouTube users.
All those numbers are indeed impressive and whoever decided to clone TikTok must be praised at Google. In light of such a resolution, let’s turn back time and look at YouTube through the lens of a product person.
As already outlined, the idea behind YouTube Shorts is not outlandish at all. At the same time, the idea didn’t happen until TikTok came to prominence. Vine didn’t grow to a point where it would threaten YouTube and a Vine clone never materialized into a product. So why didn’t Vine cause action when TikTok did?
We can entertain two theories:
Let’s start by looking at the first case. It’s clear that the problem being solved is to “stop user exodus to a competitor.” Thus, the easiest way to fix this particular problem is to match the other party’s offering. Was there a risk to YouTube by doing so? Yes, it’s twofold.
For one, YouTube prioritizes videos based on watchtime. The more users watch certain videos, the more recommended those videos become. Without further consideration, the short-form video could break the system and leave users without good recommendations, decreasing the value of the product.
The second risk was YouTube’s monetization model. The schema at which ads are shown on YouTube doesn’t work at all. You can’t precede a minute-long video with 30 seconds of existing ads. That meant a need to adapt the ad system to also support shorts friendly format and make sure that the advertisers were open and willing to use this format.
You could say that TikTok proved that it’s doable and successful, but there was still a risk that YouTube advertisers are a different segment and won’t adapt easily. It’s also worth noting that even today, according to the YouTube channel “Logically Answered,” Shorts monetizes 20 times worse than long-form content. This may be the reason for stagnant YouTube financial figures and the recent increase in YouTube Premium price.
The second scenario is less dire and simply supports typical product growth with a well-known format. In such a case, it’s a win for product managers. While copying successfully doesn’t always happen between different products (Instagram stories in Skype, which has proven to be a great failure), adapting the TikTok format to YouTube didn’t pose a significant risk.
The focus on the Gen Z user demographic can’t be neglected either. Without such focus, YouTube could potentially join Facebook’s fate and become perceived as an “old people’s product,” thus limiting potential growth.
The risks are shared by both scenarios, which differ only by the product manager’s perceived problem to solve. Who knows? Perhaps the PM wanted to address both challenges. In any case, YouTube shorts have been successful and evolved over the years. Thus, before closing the article, let’s look at the role of YouTube Shorts today,
YouTube has everything any product dreams of: loyal users, star creators, a good monetization model, and a freemium reliable entry point. Now it’s only a game of not losing it all to any new market trend or shift.
So, say you are the head of product at YouTube. What are Shorts for you? Given the monetization issues, they might actually be a necessary evil. You can’t really drop them, because this is where the consumer demand has shifted and growing, or even keeping the current monthly active users (MAU) numbers depend on having those shorts.
Thus, as a PM there, you again appear to have two choices: improve the monetization model or change the function of YouTube Shorts.
In improving YouTube Shorts’ monetization model, the goal would be to clear the income gap between Shorts and long-form content. If you can figure this out, that secures YouTube’s stability and you become a hero at Google. What would be that solution? Well, if you are from Google and you are reading this, give me a call — I’ve got just the solution for the low price of a product position there 🙂
And if you use YouTube regularly, it won’t be crazy to say that YouTube and Shorts feel like two separate video platforms stitched together. You can watch the long form from your subscriptions tab, the homepage, and creators’ pages, OR you can sink into an infinite black hole of swiping through Shorts.
What if they were more coherent and short-form videos did a better job at promoting creators’ channels? I’m not saying they are not, but there is no call to action, no incentive to move the user from a Short to the creator’s long-form videos, and that’s where YouTube product managers would like to see their users go.
So, how can they do it? Well, this isn’t anything I will sort out in this article (doesn’t mean I don’t know how 😉).
Those two are most likely the biggest modern product challenges for YouTube Shorts and I encourage you to think through and figure out your solutions. Who knows, maybe such a question will one day appear in a product management job interview.
YouTube Shorts aren’t original or innovative, nor do they do anything particularly better than the alternatives. It appears that short-form content is simply effective, regardless of whether they are packed in a dedicated platform, or partnered up with long-form videos or even social networks.
The motivation for adding Shorts to YouTube might have survival or growth, but regardless, it was a successful implementation. The question is: now what?
Shorts appear to be fun but also carry addiction risks. Will those be ever confirmed which will lead to some kind of regulations (like with loot boxes)? Perhaps the industry will act first and regulate itself. Perhaps this is just harmless fun in the form of a successful product any PM would love to lead. What do you think? Sound off in the comments!
Featured image source: IconScout
LogRocket identifies friction points in the user experience so you can make informed decisions about product and design changes that must happen to hit your goals.
With LogRocket, you can understand the scope of the issues affecting your product and prioritize the changes that need to be made. LogRocket simplifies workflows by allowing Engineering, Product, UX, and Design teams to work from the same data as you, eliminating any confusion about what needs to be done.
Get your teams on the same page — try LogRocket today.
Authentic leadership occurs when you’re genuine and act consistently with your principles and values, as well as with honesty and integrity.
Ajoy Krishnamoorthy, Chief Product Office at Cin7, discusses data-driven decision-making and his experience launching v1 products.
In our pursuit of innovation, we must be aware of the crucial aspect of letting go — the decision to shut down a product feature.
Justin Kim, VP, Product at Vimeo, discusses the importance of applying ruthless prioritization across the board and curating a clear vision.