Imagine you are David. You are young, Internet-savvy, educated. You love learning new information and expanding your knowledge base. You care about culture and you’re interested in art, but you’re not an expert.
As you’re browsing through YouTube, watching videos about San Francisco’s changing cultural landscape, you discover that your favorite art museum has a YouTube channel. You think to yourself, it would be pretty cool to learn some new things about art just by watching a video. So you go to the channel, and the first video you see is titled:
“Marianne Fitzsimmons on Green Sands on My Body”
David has never heard of the artist Marianne Fitzsimmons. Have you heard of Marianne Fitzsimmons? Probably not, because I made her up to help put you in David’s frame of mind. To someone like David, or you, who has no familiarity with Marianne Fitzsimmons or her seminal work Green Sands on My Body, that title is next to meaningless. You have no compelling reason to watch this video; you can’t imagine what it’s going to show you. Furthermore, you might wonder: Am I supposed to have heard of Marianne Fitzsimmons? Maybe this channel is for people who are more in the know about the Marianne Fitzsimmonses of the world than I am. Maybe this video is not for me.
Now imagine you’re Julie. Like David, you’re curious about art and you wish you knew more, but your motivations are a little different. You know that art can expand your horizons, make you see things in a new light. It might not occur to you to find the YouTube channel of a specific museum — after all, you’re interested in art in general, not one museum in particular.
You might want to know how an artist’s point of view could change your perspective on nature, spirituality, or even something like fashion, which seems very related to art. So you go to YouTube and type in something like “art and spirituality” or “art and fashion.” As of June 11, 2015, none of these searches returns any museum videos on the first page. This means that Julie will not be watching the video on Marianne Fitzsimmons.
It is likely that a lot of potential Marianne Fitzsimmons fans will not find this video on YouTube, either. And that’s unfortunate because in the alternative universe in which Marianne Fitzsimmons exists, she’s a really amazing artist known by very few people. Her work Green Sands on My Body totally recontextualizes the way we see nature, spirituality, and fashion, all through the medium of green sand. Because of the way art museums tend to present video material online, people like David and Julie aren’t likely to find the kinds of videos that can expand their relationship with art.
Good titles on YouTube serve two purposes: they help videos surface in search engines, and they let people who have found the videos decide what will be interesting to watch. The key to that first step — getting found — is identifying the keys: keywords or key phrases that people are likely to use in searches.
When I analyzed 210 videos from thirty-five museum YouTube channels, titles with familiar elements related to broad topics and themes showed up much more often in channels’ top videos than titles that were likely to be unfamiliar to an arts-uninitiated YouTube user. Phrases in titles of popular videos were general and well-known enough to be likely search terms used by a general audience. Most YouTube users won’t be thinking about lesser-known artists and artworks when they type their queries into the search bar. But it makes sense that videos with titles that reference more widely known concepts, like “The Art of Video Games,” “Masterpieces of Chinese Music,” or “The Mummification Process,” would be discovered more often through search.
Here at SFMOMA, we suspect that in addition to keywords, snappy, intriguing titles also draw in viewers. But what exactly would these titles look like? My colleague Tim Svenonius has been conducting an experiment on some of the videos on our YouTube channel, to see how changing video titles might — or might not — affect how many views the videos receive. Stay tuned for an article from him about this in the near future.
For more tips on how to craft a successful museum YouTube channel, check out the full findings from my research and other SFMOMA Lab articles below.