YouTube Shorts vs. TikTok and how creators—and brands—can cash in on short-form video
Kevin Ferguson comes to life upon a question about an old, stodgy business school term. “Is there a first-mover advantage for some?” the YouTube exec repeats. “Potentially.”
Forgive him for being coy. Ferguson is the director of global operations and partnerships for Shorts, the 60-seconds-or-less short-form video platform YouTube first launched in 2020 as a direct answer to TikTok and Instagram Reels, which had staked long-standing leads in the space.
But Ferguson is certainly equipped to lead the long road ahead for YouTube. Forget his Harvard degree and Stanford MBA. Ferguson, in fact, came from TikTok, having spent more than two years there back when it was still called musical.ly. He knows keenly the challenge that awaits, though he also knows keenly the ammo he has now behind him. “I think the strength we bring to the table,” he says, “is: YouTube.”
From southern California, Ferguson discusses new ways—aside from ad revenue—creators are soon going to be raking in big bucks from short-form content, how Shorts stands apart from TikTok and Reels, and whether he feels discouraged when he sees TikTok videos re-uploaded to YouTube. “Right now, no,” he says. “If it's a year or two from now, and we're still seeing a good number of TikTok re-uploads, my answer will be yes.”
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Banknotes: We've heard a lot about Shorts over the past 18 months or so. It gets top billing in a lot of YouTube’s year-ahead priority rundowns. Your CEO, Susan Wojcicki, talks about it a lot. What is your evaluation of how Shorts has done so far? Has it lived up to its end of the bargain?
Ferguson: I'm really happy with how Shorts is doing, but it's still very much the beginning of our journey. Shorts to me, really, is a natural evolution of what YouTube has been doing since 2005, right? We're giving creators an opportunity to express themselves creatively, post content, connect with audiences. And for many they're able to build a business. I think Shorts is a continuation of that for some who have been on the platform for years. And it's an introduction of that to a new generation of creators—this next crop of mobile-first, digital storytellers.
Right now, we have over 30 billion views on Shorts every day, which is still astounding to me when I look at that stat and how it's gone up over time. We're seeing really awesome stuff happening on the creation side when we think about these endemic YouTubers, who have started to leverage Shorts as a way to grow viewership and [subscribers] for existing channels, to diversify [their] audience, and continue to build [their] business.
We have allowed this next generation of creators—folks who maybe months ago wouldn't have called themselves creators—a new place to express themselves and connect with audiences. What I'd highlight, the reason we say it's only the beginning, is our product is still being developed. There are still creation features and collaborative features we haven't brought to market that we're so excited to bring to market—a lot of that product development work is still ongoing. And I think obviously allowing creators to build businesses and to monetize [content] is super central to what YouTube has done for the past 17 years.
Banknotes: It's easy to parse from your language that there are things you’re not totally satisfied with just yet. In your estimation, what has gone really well for Shorts in its infancy, and what still nags at you that is not where you want it to be?
Ferguson: The stuff that's gone really well is bringing all of YouTube to short-form video, and all of short-form video to YouTube. What I mean by that is, Shorts is not a standalone app. It's built within the YouTube platform, and we're working to ensure that Shorts is presented in the right way to our users and creators—that there's the right connective tissue between the different formats we have on YouTube.
So if you think about long-form, or VOD (video on demand), or Shorts, Live, Audio—we want these formats to sit together and work together in a meaningful way. And I think we're at the beginning of an exciting journey when it comes to that.
I don't want to say what could be going better, but the things that I'm excited about that we are on the journey [toward], I'd say, are improved creation tools. More collaborative creation functionality. And I think search and discovery, and certainly trends, are super important to these short-form video platforms. We want to ensure that we are getting the right content to the right audience. So that means understanding deeply their viewing patterns, their sharing patterns. What do these audiences love to watch, and how do we ensure we're feeding them the right content?
Simultaneously, so much of short-form video, the broader short-form video ecosystem, is about community and communal participation. And that means that the participatory trends are really important—ways to enable folks to create, in a really turnkey way on their phones, by kind of surfacing and highlighting interesting trends. I think we're at the beginning of that journey on Shorts, and I'm excited to see where that goes over the coming months.
Banknotes: Shorts has entered what you know to be a very competitive space. Obviously, among your chief competitors is TikTok, where you came from—whether or not it was still called TikTok when you were there or not. What are the most relevant takeaways from your time there that apply to making Shorts the best product it can be?
Ferguson: I was hired as employee number five at musical.ly in the U.S. back in 2016. I was there for nearly three years, and my job evolved there in a number of different capacities. I ended up leading the charge on the U.S. side of the rebranding effort as we converted musical.ly to TikTok. TikTok was announced in August 2018 to a lot of excitement and curiosity and questions, obviously. So what I took away from that period, I'd say a few things:
One is that the voice of the creator is super important. Especially in the early days of musical.ly, we had creators visit the office. We talked to creators incredibly frequently. [musical.ly] was a product that was built with creators in mind, with their feedback front and center. I feel similarly when I think about Shorts. We are building Shorts for our creators. We are building it with their feedback and with their desires in mind as we go through our product [development] cycles.
Another thing is: I worked on the sales and brand partnership side of musical.ly at first. And one of the takeaways from that experience is [that] musical.ly was catered to Gen Z. We are building Shorts for all audiences, but we're excited about the potential Shorts has to really captivate Gen Z creators and users. And when I think about that audience, one of the main differences or distinctions for that audience is that they don't want to be pushed.
This is a generalization, but I think a lot of the Gen Z creators we work with are incredibly creative [and] expressive. They want to tell their own stories. They have unique and diverse interests. And I think when you build a platform, you need your platform to be respectful of that diversity of interest. I feel like we see a lot of niche topics come up that not only have creators who are creating compelling, interesting content in those topics, but simultaneously you have audiences that are really excited to consume content in those sub-sub-verticals.
So I think musical.ly, the beginnings of that, showed me that there will always be popular sounds and popular trends. And these platforms are certainly a place for those bigger media assets to shine. But simultaneously the amount of diverse, creative voices we can really create something special for on these platforms is something that energizes me. That's certainly something I'm taking away from musical.ly.
Banknotes: You were quoted recently in . You said, “A lot of times, people equiate shortform video content with TikTok. We’re still at the beginning of this thing.” And the subtext there is, Shorts isn’t the first to market on shortform content—in fact, it might not even be second, with Instagram Reels here, too.Fast Company
How do you view this idea of first-mover advantage, and how does Shorts specifically go about combating not having it?
Ferguson: It's a really good question. What I'd say is, in a way we are the first mover. Because when YouTube launched in 2005, it launched with an 18-second video called, “Me at the zoo.” So short-form video isn't new to YouTube. YouTube videos have evolved. And when people think about a typical YouTube video, they might not think about a sub 60-second video, but that was always part of our ethos. We built Shorts because we were seeing what our audiences were consuming on other platforms, and what they wanted from YouTube itself.
Does first-mover advantage matter? Sure. But the two things that I'm excited about as we build Shorts: One is that, because we are doing it in a really thoughtful way, some might argue, “Oh, they're a little late to the game.” We're building this platform in a really methodical way that takes into account feedback and learnings from 16-plus years of dealing with creators and users. And in particular, as we build Shorts, we're getting feedback from our creator community.
This is really what my team does. I manage a team of community partner managers globally, where we listen to creators, and we are the voice of the creator for our product and [engineering] teams. So we bring back product feature requests and concerns about the platform and insights around what types of features are most exciting.
The second thing I'd highlight with first-mover advantage and short-form video: All of these platforms are different. Sure, right now the 15-second video set to a sound—it feels similar on every platform.
[But] I wouldn't have taken this job if it wasn't at YouTube. The reason I'm excited about building Shorts is that it is embedded within the framework of YouTube and the connective tissue between long-form and short-form content. It's not just lip service. It's a very real thing. And we're bringing that to life in terms of our product development. We launched a feature called Remix, where there are billions of videos on YouTube, and users can take sound from those videos—in some cases, video from those videos—and use that as material to create their new short-form stories. That's something that can't happen on any other platform. That's super exciting to me.
We launched a new feature called Green Screen, [where] similarly you have access to the full YouTube corpus of content. And these short-form storytellers, whether they are new creators, or whether they've been on YouTube for years, can access this vast library of content and really use it to play around in this new creative realm that we have with Shorts.
So is there a first-mover advantage for some? Potentially. But I think the strength we bring to the table is: YouTube.
Banknotes: Access to the sheer breadth of YouTube's video library, obviously, is probably point number one on this list. But aside from that, how else does Shorts stand apart from TikTok?
Ferguson: [One thing is] the unique approach to partnerships we're taking. The way our model works is that we manage creators at scale. We bring them together in digital and [in real life] sessions. Because of COVID, we've been doing a lot of platform education about Shorts and YouTube more broadly in these digital forums, and that allows us to speak to a large number of creators directly. The thing I love about these sessions is the creators talk to each other. They tell each other stories about what's worked for them and not worked for them on Shorts, on YouTube more broadly, on TikTok, [on] Reels, on [other platforms].
The other piece is monetization. We launched Shorts globally last July. In August, we announced the Shorts Fund. So within a month of launching this platform, we launched our first monetization solution. And last year, I think it's 40% of the people who were paid via the Shorts fund had never made money on YouTube before. So not only did we announce and launch monetization, we're paying new people for content who've never received a check for their content in the past.
Banknotes: We previously spoke with Samir Chaudry, one of the guys behind Colin and Samir, who are pretty prominent creators doing good stuff on YouTube specifically. We got talking about short-form content in general, and they conceded that short-form content is not really a money maker just yet for creators—for a number of reasons, but most notably that there’s simply not enough seconds in a short-form video’s duration to stuff a bunch of ads into.
How do you view this challenge for Shorts, when inherently there are other forms of content that are more lucrative for creators? How do you pitch this idea that they ought invest in short-form content now?
Ferguson: Is there as much money right now in the short-form video ecosystem as there is in the long-form one? Probably not. But what I note about short-form video is it serves multiple purposes. You can very quickly gain a high number of views to [your] content. You can identify new audiences, you can drive subscribers to a channel through short-form content that can lead to channel memberships, off-platform business opportunities—even if the payment you receive for your short-form video content, in and of itself, is not something that for many can sustain a full career.
There are so many different opportunities that stem from those short-form videos that it becomes a compelling value prop in terms of monetization and what's possible. The other thing I noticed [is that] a lot of our creators post content both on Shorts and they post longer form VOD videos. Shorts for them is often a gateway into viewership—a new audience. They bring people into their channel, and their channel is maybe the core way they monetize. They might also be monetizing on other platforms. That's one thing we like to note. Our pitch to our creators is never, “Hey, use YouTube exclusively. Or, “Use Shorts exclusively.” We want these creators to be multi-platform, multi-format storytellers. We want these folks to tell their stories and reach as many audiences as they want.
The thing that I'm excited about with YouTube proper is that we really feel like the one-stop shop to tell stories across multiple formats. We are the only place where you can tell digital stories via VOD, Live, short-form, and Audio.
Banknotes: The last note I wanted to pull from our chat with Samir Chaudry is that he believes short-form content is a great way for creators to initially find their voice. Because videos don’t have to be long, or particularly well produced, you can try new things with short-form and try them often when you’re just starting out.
That’s great for creators. But from the Shorts side, do you worry about too much poor quality content diluting the product for your audience?
Ferguson: I don't worry about it because ultimately it works itself out. Our algorithm will ensure that the right folks see the right content, and the right feedback signals go to those creators via their analytics and the data they get back. Ultimately, we view Shorts as a playground for creativity. Samir is exactly right. It's like, “Use this platform, use this [short] format to experiment, to play around with new concepts, ideas, different parts of your voice.” And you will see over time not only how you feel about the videos you're producing, but how your audience feels.
From there, you can make the next set of decisions. Are you going to focus your Shorts videos on one type of content based on the signals you are getting from your Shorts content? Are you going to make decisions about maybe posting a longer form video? Are you going to go live and interact with fans? And what are you going to talk about? I think that's exactly the right way to think about it. Some folks have been doing this for years and they know exactly what their shortform video content should be, but many of our newer creators are using it to play around. And I think that's the move.
It's up to us, it's up to our product, to make sure that the highest quality, most relevant videos get to the right place.
Banknotes: Do you ever get discouraged when you see TikTok videos re-posted on Shorts?
Ferguson: If it's a year or two from now, and we're still seeing a good number of TikTok re-uploads, my answer will be yes. Right now, no. And the reason why is, it's still the beginning, a lot of people are still finding out about Shorts, and I think Shorts is still in the throes of a pretty significant product development cycle. I understand why people are re-uploading TikToks to our platform right now. And I'm okay with it if those TikTok videos are giving users stories that they're excited to see. Ultimately, I care about the user experience more than anything, because an amazing user experience powers a great creator experience, and it powers creator sustainability. That's why we're not restricting anything right now.
We really want Shorts to be open to creators to play around right now. Over time, our hope is that we are building tools that these other platforms cannot replicate—tools that are specific to YouTube, and our ethos, and the product we've built over the past 17 years. So once those tools are fully out and accessible to our creators, I'm really excited to see the types of stories that will be told on our platform using our tools.
Banknotes: Instagram rather prominently came out last year and said its algorithm would not promote Reels that had the TikTok watermark. Does YouTube do this, and if not do you see YouTube ever doing this?
Ferguson: Right now, we are not deprioritizing content that comes from other platforms—as long as it is your content, and it's not being stolen. I can't say what the future holds, but right now, for us, it is all about bringing the right content to the right audience.
Banknotes: Late this spring, Glossier became the first brand to sell products through Shorts. What does the future of shopping on Shorts look like to you?
Ferguson: We believe there's a big opportunity for eCommerce on YouTube. Right now, you're not going to go to YouTube to buy toilet paper, paper towels, or Amazon Essentials. But for products that command a certain degree of user interest and excitement, why not allow creators and influencers to bring those products to life in an entertaining way for our audiences?
So we're playing around right now with launching shopping experiences on YouTube. You'll start to see more and more experiences on YouTube, and on Shorts specifically, where our creators are telling stories and creating videos that feature products that users can buy.
Similar to what we're doing with Shorts, we're figuring out the best way to bring these more commercial experiences to life in a way that resonates with fans and is rewarding for creators. A lot of these creators have become [stars]—I think about beauty and fashion creators, in particular. They're experts in their field, and they are so trusted. So is there a way for these creators, who have established such authenticity and trust in these spaces, to kind of move to the next logical step and actually sell product in their videos?
Banknotes: So that covers us from the creator side. How do you see brands getting the most out of Shorts in the near term?
Ferguson: We're launching ads on Shorts, so obviously there's definitely a media component to it, but [my experience with this] hasn't changed from the conversations we had with brands on musical.ly back in 2016. These are platforms that [companies] have to get on early and start the journey as a user. Brands are most successful, in my opinion, when they act as users of the platform.
Back in the day—five, six years ago—our first brands that we worked with on musical.ly came on board and started posting content. They engaged with users, they posted on users' videos, they participated in trends and challenges using popular audio. If I were a brand marketer, that's how I would be playing around with TikTok, Reels, and Shorts right now. Act as a user, engage with the fans, join the community, really embrace what it means to be a part of this.
And, yes, on top of that there will be media opportunities, and paid bespoke challenges, and all the things you could imagine. But I think the real opportunity [for brands] is to roll up your sleeves and get in there.
Banknotes: I’m glad you brought up ads, because that’s been in the news recently. A YouTube spokesperson told that while Shorts has started running ads in feed, “There won’t be a direct revenue share from these ads at this time.” TechCrunch
YouTube has been very tight-lipped about monetization for creators on Shorts outside the initial Shorts Fund. What can you say about the future of revenue sharing with creators from advertising?
Ferguson: We know creator monetization is important, as it's been for years. I think we are at the point where we are working cross-functionally to figure out what that ideal, long-term creator monetization model looks like going forward. So we're not making any claims or statements at this time around what that will be or won't be, but I think we know that, beyond the Shorts fund, there needs to be sustainable creator monetization on Shorts.
Banknotes: We touched on the Shorts Fund, we touched on an ad business that is out now, and a revenue share business that is likely to roll out someday. In five years, how do you think we're going to look back at the most impactful ways creators have used to monetize their content on Shorts?
Ferguson: I think the thing we'll note is how multifaceted [monetization] is. It's never going to be just one thing. YouTube has paid out $30 billion to creators and artists over the past three years, which just boggles my mind. Right now, YouTube allows creators to monetize in ten different ways. I don't know what that number's going to look like in five years, but I think it's going to go up. And I think creators who create compelling short-form video content will have myriad ways to monetize.
My hope is that the long-term monetization solution we're working on [for Shorts] is one of them. But there are going to be other complements to that. We talked about shoppable Shorts before. For those creators, that will be something significant. I’m excited to see the diversity of monetization solutions we're going to be able to bring into life.
Banknotes: Of those ten ways you can make money from YouTube, ad revenue is still king and is going to stay on top for some time. What other means of monetization that are a little lower on that list today—things like merchandise, and stickers, and direct chat—do you see becoming more lucrative pursuits for creators over time?
Ferguson: It's hard to say, but when I think about it, there are things like channel memberships that could grow over time. Especially now with Shorts acting as a new way for creators to get discovered, that could lead to someone discovering a channel that they might not have known about before. And they could really be interested in that content.
We have a creator called The Fitness Marshall whose Shorts posting really helped drive up his channel memberships, and it was something he didn't quite anticipate—and we didn't quite anticipate, either. We talk about the connective tissue between these formats a lot. What I think we're going to see is that the connective tissue between these formats breeds some pretty unexpected and exciting monetization outcomes.
I am as interested in it as you are, though. I'm curious to see over time the extent to which [all these things] drive a creator's overall [monetization] pie.
Banknotes: You gave a previous interview about an advantage Shorts had in the marketplace, and you said, “The reason I believe that is because we are prioritizing creator needs and creator feedback.” What’s an example of a time where you got a piece of creator feedback about Shorts that’s directly made it into the product?
Ferguson: I'll give you a couple big examples. We heard from some creators in one market that their [video] views were going down in a certain week, and they were like, “Hey, this seems odd.” These creators, many of them are so methodical about their analytics and their data, so the fact that a few came to us and said that—we investigated, and we found a bug. So literally creator feedback led to our detection of a bug that wouldn’t have gone undetected otherwise, but I think [the feedback] really sped up our ability to detect it.
We've gotten a lot of feedback from creators around how short-form video and VODs, long-form [videos], should sit together. “How should these videos look next to each other? If they sit together on a channel page, what should that experience feel like? What are my subscribers going to see when they go to my channel? And now I have some Shorts, what does that look like?” So that feedback from creators is directly powering how we think about Shorts and VODs sitting together. We have ideas and we do research, but hearing [it] from the creator's voice, how they anticipate their audiences will feel about different ways their content types fit together, it's been super, super helpful.
Banknotes: Last one: Who in your mind are some creators who got their start on Shorts that you’d bet are going to become the next stars in the larger YouTube universe?
Ferguson: I’m going to give you two. I don't know if you've heard of Jeenie Weenie, but she was a flight attendant—and that's what we're seeing on Shorts a lot of the time. We're seeing people who have a really successful separate professional career who make videos about their career. She really tells funny stories about flying and all these airport and airplane tips and tricks. She is on YouTube and TikTok. She's great.
One who is developing a presence on YouTube is a guy named Joe Porter. He's a percussionist and a composer, and he started to upload performance videos to YouTube. He actually started uploading 10 years ago, but the transition to Shorts really helped his channel grow.