Mention “YouTube” and “British government” and “failure” to most people interested in online politics or comms and the chances are they will think of Gordon Brown and that YouTube film with the unusual smiles.
There is however a quieter failure, going on every day and hitting many Whitehall departments. It is quite simply this: lots of films made, almost no-one watching.
Take the example of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Plenty of films on its YouTube channel but not many viewers. The most watched at the time of writing has just under 4,500 views accumulated over two years. No film less than a year old has more than 1,300 views. Yet individual films with lower viewership feature not only high profile figures but also topics hotly discussed online – such as Vince Cable on digital rights (under 800 views).
BIS is not the exceptional bad child at the back of the class though. Other departments blessed (or cursed, depending on how you see it) with high profile and controversial issues have produced films on them but they consistently get lower viewership – witness the Department for Education and free schools. Sometimes the figures are almost embarrassingly low when you consider the size of the potential audience, such as with the DCLG’s Happy Hanukkah message. Not much happiness was spread there.
The Department of Environment and Climate Change gets close to good performances, with a couple of films in the last year that have broken the 3,000 views barrier. One of those however has had the bulk of its views come via the DECC website and the other via a dedicated official micro-site about redesigning pylons. In other words, whilst DECC is getting the benefits of video hosting for free from YouTube, it is not benefitting very much from the ability to use YouTube to spread videos to a wider audience.
There are some good films, and some nice digital touches – such as the increasing standardisation of YouTube channel names to all end in “govuk”, so that it is easy to spot (or guess the name of) official channels. Nor should every film be expected to succeed. There is merit in doing several on varying topics, planning that one will hit the big time but covering your bets as to which one it will do by producing them all.
Yet if there is some intention to reach audiences, it is hard to see what successes are really being had. It is also notable how exceptionally rare it is to see YouTube films from government departments embedded in political or news blogs, despite the very healthy state of such blogging in the UK.
Overall however, some honourable exceptions aside, it is very much a case of lots of films, little viewership – leaving the nagging suspicion that use of YouTube is being judged too much by inputs (“Good news Minister, we’ve done another film”) and not nearly enough by outputs.
If you’re putting time and money into getting the Home Secretary to make a YouTube clip about the recent riots, shouldn’t you be getting more than under 1,500 views in a month?