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YouTube’s Ads Leader board

In the USA...

Convince people to engage with our brands….

As marketers, we share a common goal.

Truth be told, it can take a lot of work to make this happen. That’s why I’m always struck by YouTube’s Ads Leader board, an annual list of the most-watched video ads of the year. In a world of unlimited content, millions of people actually choose to watch these ads, so it’s useful to consider what makes them so successful.

While no single formula exists for a viral video ad, we can make observations about what works to inspire our own media strategies. Here are three proven approaches to try, pulled from the latest Ads Leader board.

Anchor your campaign in YouTube watch trends

For its “Harry Potter” 20th anniversary special, HBO Max wanted to reach two distinct audiences: die-hard “Harry Potter” fans eager to be reintroduced to the magic of the series and a new generation of younger viewers who hadn’t yet embraced the franchise.

To appeal to both groups, HBO Max leaned into a powerful trend: people like watching content that makes them feel nostalgic. With that trend in mind, the brand designed a video ad to give viewers a heart-warming, retrospective experience full of “Harry Potter” memories. Beyond showcasing the cast’s memorable moments, the ad pulled in fans and authentically celebrated their journey too.

HBO Max and Warner Media bring together the stars and creatives to relive the magic of “Harry Potter” in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

HBO Max used YouTube to power the campaign. As JP Mallo, VP of marketing for HBO Max Originals, explains: “YouTube is often our initial indicator when we release early marketing assets for how our audience is engaging, what sentiments we’re seeing, and what — if anything — they’re responding to in terms of content themes.”

YouTube proved to be an ideal home for HBO Max’s ads, since people of all ages gravitate to the platform for nostalgic content. According to a 2022 Ipsos survey, 80% of Gen Z reported watching YouTube to feel nostalgic;1 by running a nostalgia-based campaign on YouTube, HBO Max could appeal to “Harry Potter” enthusiasts, while also grabbing the attention of a younger generation.

The campaign launched mid-November with bumper ads, plus non-skippable and skippable in-stream ads to drive awareness and consideration. Then, in the days leading up to the New Year’s Day premiere, HBO Max used YouTube Select to feature the ads alongside premium content. Finally, they concluded the campaign by leveraging YouTube Masthead before and after the New Year’s Day premiere, placing the video on YouTube’s home feed to drive mass awareness. In the end, the approach drove 12.7% awareness lift — remarkable for a brand with high awareness already — and reached 49 million unique users.

Build creative to match viewers’ screens

WE, Egypt’s primary telecommunications company, needed an ad campaign that could cut through the holiday noise during the busy Ramadan season. To achieve this, it strategised videos that would help viewers understand evolving trends of Ramadan.

Since WE’s message had to appeal to viewers across multiple generations, the team determined that “the campaign should include a diverse mix of ads,” says Eslam Nassar, the brand’s head of digital marketing. “That’s why we turned to YouTube to tell a compelling, creative story across ad formats and screens.”

WE planned and executed a full-funnel video strategy that leveraged a unique blend of short- and long-form ads. For viewers in the awareness phase, the team launched 6-second bumper ads to tease the campaign and deliver a quick call to action.

Then, to further engage middle- and lower-funnel audiences, WE created a full-length, in-stream video. The campaign was a success, with the ad receiving over 3.3 million views and generating buzz on social media.

Last year, BMW launched its first ever fully electric BMW iX sports activity vehicle in the United States. To promote this milestone during the Super Bowl, BMW created a 60-second hero video ad that showed Zeus, the mythical Greek god of sky and thunder, retiring to Palm Springs and rediscovering his spark when gifted a BMW iX by his wife, Hera.

To extend the ad’s reach during this peak moment, BMW made YouTube a core part of its Super Bowl strategy. “YouTube is a great amplifier of content, which not only increased the audience size exponentially but extended the longevity of the spot,” explains Albrecht Pagenstert, head of brand marketing at BMW. “What ran once during the Super Bowl lives online and has received millions of additional views.”

BMW’s strategy hinged on reaching a wide variety of passionate Super Bowl fans through YouTube AdBlitz, the premier hub for fans to watch Super Bowl ads with playlists for the most comedic, dramatic, action-packed, and inspirational spots. Through AdBlitz, BMW could target specific Super Bowl-related video inventory, such as NFL Highlights watched by sports lovers, and Big Game Music Lineups watched by audiophiles.

Once the campaign peaked viewers’ interest during YouTube AdBlitz, BMW then strategised to satisfy their hunger for more content. It released behind-the-scenes videos, including interviews with the hero ad’s star-studded cast and director.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of BMW’s campaign. In fact, many YouTube commenters enthusiastically asked for the hero video to be turned into a full movie. In the end, the video drove 17 million unique views and 970,000 clicks. In addition to being recognised on YouTube’s Ads Leader board in the U.S., BMW earned the No. 7 spot in USA Today’s Ad Meter.

HBO Max, WE, and BMW struck gold with video ads that entertained and engaged key audiences. By aligning their ads with popular YouTube trends, building bespoke creative for different platforms, and following the ABCDs of video effectiveness, these brands showed how to successfully combine immersive storytelling with the power of YouTube.

In conclusion, these three approaches to creating successful video ads on YouTube can serve as a starting point for marketers looking to engage with their audiences. By anchoring campaigns in YouTube watch trends, building creative to match viewers' screens, and leaving eager viewers wanting more, brands can create impactful ads that resonate with their target audience. YouTube provides a unique platform for brands to reach a vast audience and these tactics can help them make the most of it.

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