When Tanmay Bhat emerged from his social media hiatus after stepping down in 2018 as CEO of comedy collective AIB, he didn’t make a beeline for the stage. Sure he performed at the odd lineup show in Mumbai, but where we grew used to seeing him was YouTube. Except he wasn’t putting out comedy sketches anymore, he was now vlogging, and live-streaming games like PUBG with some of India’s top-tier streamers, YouTubers, and later, comedians.
“Yeh kar kya raha hai?” the rest of the comedy community and Bhat’s fans wondered out loud, while he kept at it—live-streams, mega-streams, charity streams, live reaction videos—swiftly growing his channel from a few hundred thousand to a couple of million subscribers in a matter of months. Simultaneously on the internet, game content streaming and live-streaming culture in general was amassing legions of fans. Amazon-owned Twitch’s viewership numbers multiplied at warp speed, nudging YouTube Gaming to invest heavily in live-stream integrations, giving them the largest year-to-year increase in the space.
Through the lockdown, Bhat has only found ways to level up with an audience that’s already heavily invested in whatever he’s doing. He even has a second YouTube channel now, dedicated to a podcast that he’s still figuring out, and… personal finance.
Podcast host and Glitch Media co-founder Varun Duggirala was as confused as the rest of us about this pivot but also suspected Bhat may be onto something we couldn’t see yet. In an episode of his podcast Advertising is Dead, titled ‘Staying Ahead of the Content Curve’, Duggirala grills him on WTF he’s up to and why. The conversation threw up several important insights.
Here are some quick excerpts (edited for clarity):
On Content Creator Models
There are two ways to exist. You can be the expert, which is when you come three times a month but you hit hard. You have three shots, and one of these three has to be the mood shot. This is what a lot of comedians do—you put out 3-4 videos a year, one of them goes boom, you’re good. Or you can be a PewDiePie model, which is that you are in an audience’s life every single day, and that breeds likability. To me, being an internet personality is so much about likability—especially if you’re being funny. Because someone who doesn’t like you will never admit that you are funny, ever. At AIB, we never worked on the likability aspect. In hindsight, we were the experts—we would come, do our bit and exit. We were never in people’s consciousness until the next time we came. Now I’m in your life consistently.
On Being a Super-Creator
We were a need-based app (like MakeMyTrip), but now I’m like WhatsApp. [With this] you can be a super creator, you can do many many things because your cadence is daily. A vlog is a super format—it can be emotional one day, it can just be five sketches strung together the next day, on the third day it could just be an ad for a hotel… but it’s still great content because people are invested in you—you are the content. It’s a very big difference. I find that the second one breeds fanaticism. They are so loyal to me, and my loyalty is to them. I think about what they would like to see next. The daily active users (DAU) on this format is very high. AIB wasn’t that, I find this very different and a lot more advantageous.
YouTube keeps saying be consistent. One of the things in the YouTube playbook manual also, they actually tell you: find a format that works for your channel and then stick to it. So Epic Rap Battles in History will only always ever do rap battles in history, they will only do rap. Which is why a lot of people will open a second channel [dedicated to a theme/topic]. I like the PewDiePie way better. Which is I am here, and I will just keep doing whatever I want. If you like me, if you’re invested in me, you will consume anything—which is the model I’m going for, which is where live-streaming comes in.
A platform’s job is to enable their creators’ claim to being a “rockstar”. So YouTube enabled video makers’ claim to [be] rockstars. TikTok enabled anyone who could sing dance, perform, look good… to become rockstars. Twitch does this for gamers. Now of all these, who is the largest audience? Gaming. Everybody plays games, every single person. So to me it was a no-brainer that something like a Twitch would exist and would do phenomenally well. Because most people play games in some way or the other. I was never a “gamer”… I’ve always played games, I just wasn’t very good at them. To me the insight was high dopamine release plus any genre is significantly better. Gaming inherently is very high dopamine levels, but I [also] knew that a comedian gaming would be interesting.
When I went through peak depression, I was addicted to Soul Mortal, Scout and all these guys. I was watching their videos all the time, I didn’t know why. Then I started doing some reading on my brain and I realised there’s dopamine release, there’s a comfort in familiarity. I said okay, maybe I should start streaming.
The streaming was a desperate attempt at trying to get out of the depressive phase. I felt like I’m not being productive, what if I just stream what I’m doing six hours a day anyway, at least some media will come out, and media will lead to disproportionate returns etc.
Streaming breeds loyalty because in an increasing world of hyper-connectivity, individual connect is greater than brands. Hence, if you’re in someone’s life in the most authentic way, where they can touch you very easily will breed loyalty. Let me explain—streaming is low effort, and you can stream anything every single day in real time. Anybody who is live right now is doing so in their most authentic way because when I see you live you cannot be lying about who you are, especially if I see you every day, four hours a day. When I say “touch you” I mean—if 100 kids spam you [in the chat] saying watch this video, I’m watching chat, I will watch that video. In the history of broadcast, this level of control [that the audience has over a creator] has never existed before. It was destined to be big and will continue to grow.
On Audience Retention
How many people will come to watch you live depends on the algorithm. If you have bell notifications on, those many people will be notified, what your title is… people will come for the title. Second is retention. When people come to your live-stream, if the average retention time is high, you are more likely to get a huge audience. 100 people come, they watch for 3 minutes, the algo will say ‘okay people are staying let me push to more people on their timelines’. What do you do to retain people? Retention purely comes down to dopamine release. How is dopamine released? One of the ways is prediction. If the audience has predicted something and it comes true on screen, dopamine is released—anticipation-prediction. In gaming, the game is built for maximum dopamine release. Then there’s the dopamine release that the creator brings on—looking at the chat, interacting. If you create anticipation like “if I get 10 kills this game, I’m going to dance”… you’ve built anticipation so they’re just waiting for that moment. Then you game that even further. You build a loose framework of what you want to happen through the stream [and then just react, be agile while you’re at it]. Streaming is the most exciting way to create content.
On his Second YouTube Channel
When I started gaming, [I got] a super young audience—50% is 16-24 years old. A lot of these kids, their prefrontal cortex (the context part of their brain) is still underdeveloped. They’re very young, very immature, they don’t know how the world works, they don’t know the truth about life.
I thought there needs to be another vehicle to separate the kids who want to learn and grow from what I do here. Also I have an older audience that’s grown with me for a very long time who don’t like me for this, they want me doing what I do. So I created a separate channel for that, and I realised that because of high dopamine addiction—learning is very difficult because your brain’s tolerance for dopamine is far too high. Learning also releases dopamine, but it’s the longer, harder process and less dopamine is released. It’s going to be insanely difficult for the next generation to learn and grow. So I looked at this and said there has to be a way to bring back dopamine into learning. And I thought comedy is an easy dopamine release so let’s do that. Now you have kids speaking the gaming language but with neuroscience in it—“prefrontal cortex OP!” I’m like cool, at least they’re learning something through this.
On the Shift in Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing can change dramatically. I’m going to go back to PewDiePie and G Fuel [an energy drink targeted at gamers]—it’s the ultimate love marriage. You don’t think of any other beverage around him. Whenever he sees a beverage, he plugs in G Fuel. I’m pretty sure there’s an equity deal there, I’m pretty sure his skin is in the game, and it makes so much sense [for him and them]. I don’t think enough long term partnerships are being created with influencers, especially recognising influencers that you know will be around for the long term. I think people are expecting far too much from short form influencer campaigns.
Or if you’re going to do influencer campaigns, this is one thing I’ve learnt—doing ridiculous things at scale gets far more attention than doing something normal at scale. If you open your Instagram feed and 50 influencers are doing something ridiculous, I’m not going to forget it for a long time [as opposed to] of four of them doing it in an Instagram story somewhere. Don’t pay for that, pay for the signalling, pay for the trust. And all that happens when there are long term partnerships. I think more and more brands should do that.
Everyone Should Be A Creator
No matter what you do, even/especially if you’re in marketing, you should be a creator, to refine your judgement. If you are working in an agency, please actively create something on the side—privately if not publicly. Find yourself an enjoyable feedback loop that you would do for no money. What would you do if you had all the money in the world? I would run a YouTube channel. It’s so joyful to realise ‘ahhh this happens if I do this’. The human brain is designed to find flow. Flow is when your challenges meet your skills: when your challenges are too high, then it leads to anxiety; when your challenges are too low compared to your skills, it’s boredom. And the best feedback loop is when it’s just the right amount for both. As you up-skill, you have to increase your challenge. This is exactly what a video game is. Life is a video game!
You can listen to the full episode here.