YouTube Shifts Focus to Social Shopping With Shorts, Affiliate Links

Social shopping has begun to take form on YouTube, from shorts to live videos.
Last month, YouTube launched the ability for some creators to make money through affiliate links.
Shopping efforts are a main focus for the platform this year.
Social shopping has emerged this year as a major focus for YouTube.At VidCon, the annual conference for creators, industry professionals, and fans, YouTube Shopping made a splash. Michael Martin, YouTube Shopping general manager, and Bridget Dolan, managing director of YouTube Shopping partnerships, each spoke about the platform’s new affiliate program. And inside the conference center, fans lined up to participate in YouTube’s immersive shopping installation: Drop Shop. The booth featured exclusive creator merchandise, and products from brands and creators like Dream, Smosh, and Blogilates.While some shopping tools, like the merch shelf, have existed on YouTube for years, social shopping kicked into high gear on YouTube this year with the launch of the platform’s new affiliate marketing program.YouTube had been laying the groundwork for the new program for years. In 2021, YouTube began quietly testing shopping tools like product pins with a small group of creators. Creators didn’t earn affiliate commissions from those sales. Instead, YouTube paid a monthly rate to use the feature. Some earned between $50 to $100 each month for using the feature, according to documentation viewed by Insider. Then, earlier this year, that pilot program and related short-term incentive programs ended, making way for an official launch. The new affiliate program, which launched in June, lets creators earn commissions from third-party merchants when they tag products in their videos, including shorts, long-form content, and livestreams. First, merchants pay the creator a specific percentage, then YouTube takes a cut of that commission and pays the creator the remaining amount through the creator’s AdSense account. US creators with more than 20,000 subscribers who are part of YouTube’s Partner Program can access the affiliate program, though it isn’t eligible on channels with content made for kids.The feature looks similar to the in-app shopping tools on TikTok, with a “view products” button on the lower half of the video. When clicked, the button triggers a side bar next to the video with a list of products that viewers can browse, and click to purchase directly on a retailers’ website. “Shopping, when you’re doing it right, is a browse and experiential thing,” said David Katz, VP of product management at YouTube. “Not having the shopping experience disrupt the viewing experience. And trying to build in all those elements also helps creators understand how to curate shopping to their viewers in ways that feel natural and complementary, and not pushy.”So far, YouTube has partnered with over 50 brands, including Sephora, Ulta, and Wayfair. And the platform wants to position itself to support its creators who’ve launched their own products, like Cassey Ho’s fitness line Blogilates or Simply Nailogical’s nail polish line Holo Taco.Other tech giants like TikTok and Instagram have experimented with social shopping, but have seen mixed results. TikTok has been leaning more into shopping tools with affiliate commissions for US creators and testing selling and shipping its own goods in the UK, with plans to eventually roll it out in the US. Instagram, on the other hand, ended its native affiliate program in July 2022, and cut back on some features, like live shopping.

Shopping tools include a “view products” button on the lower half of a video.

Screen shot of YouTube/Amanda Perelli

YouTube’s bet on affiliate marketing and short videoSocial shopping still has a long way to go on YouTube, but it appears that the new affiliate program is an easier way in for the platform.Earlier this year, YouTube partnered with Coachella to sell merch during the livestream event. But going forward, live video isn’t the format YouTube expects to be the primary driver of sales and shopping interest.”Live works really well for apparel, it’s interactive for the audience, but short-form video content, to some extent, is almost everything a Gen-Z consumer really wants,” Martin said. “Long form, when you’re thinking about high consideration, and high-price-point products, is perfect for research and really getting deep and into it. Live is important, but it’s not the only thing.”YouTube’s program is similar to other affiliate networks, like the Amazon Associates Program and LTK, but it’s too soon to tell how much revenue creators will make from YouTube’s tools. Similar to Amazon and LTK, creators earn commission from everything the viewer purchases using their special links, and are paid out between 60 to 120 days after a product was purchased to allow for any returns and processing.Even when the influencer industry gets a sense of actual dollar amounts creators are earning from YouTube, it may not tell the full picture.Jay Kent-Hume, the cofounder of the talent-management firm The Sociable Society, said that with affiliate marketing, the real value is in the data collected from product sales.”I have these conversations with my talent where I say, ‘You’re not going to get rich off doing this. You’re probably not going to make more than a couple of bucks. But this is data we can then use to show that you can sell,'” Kent-Hume said. “It’s data that shows what their audience is interested in, even if they don’t make much money from it.”

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