Burnie Burns discusses the challenges behind Rooster Teeth’s success
We talk to Rooster Teeth co-founder Burnie Burns about how a group of Halo fans became one of the most successful online video companies in the world.
Ahead of his Storytime panel at PAX Australia later this week, we had a chance to chat with Rooster Teeth co-founder and creator of the popular Halo machinima series Red vs. Blue, Michael "Burnie" Burns, and discuss the state of the online video industry, the challenges Rooster Teeth has faced in growing from a small band of Halo enthusiasts to a hundreds-large video production company with millions of dedicated fans and where Burnie sees Rooster Teeth and the industry at large heading in the future.
To kick things off, we asked Burnie about the obstacles he's faced over the course of his fourteen-year career since creating the first Red vs. Blue short back in 2003. The online landscape was a very different place back then, and we were curious what challenges that posed in the early days of Rooster Teeth.
"For us, it was always evolving to changes in the online media landscape, which meant being adaptable as new things arose that would benefit our business," Burnie told us. "But then it also meant having the faith to hold onto things that worked for us, that nobody else was really putting value in. For instance […] we started about three years before YouTube. When we started, we couldn't put ads on our web videos because there were no video ads. Those things just did not exist. So we had to make things like subscriptions and merchandise, selling merchandise like T-shirts in order to fund our productions. In a lot of ways it was similar to what Penny Arcade was doing at the same time.
"And once we got to the golden age of pre-roll ads on YouTube, a lot of people had the same plan, they went all-in with pre-roll ads and it was the number one way that people financed all of their content. But for us, we held on while we added in that part of our revenue pie. We still held on to the things that worked like merchandise and subscriptions, and over time those became the most valuable parts of our business. And now we have pieces of our company that other people are trying to figure out how to build, and we're just trying to figure out how to scale that. How to make our customers happy."
By realising that people are willing to pay for high-quality, ad-free video content, Rooster Teeth found itself paving the way for services like Netflix, Giant Bomb and YouTube's own YouTube Red, which now hosts Rooster Teeth's first feature film, Lazer Team. But while being ahead of the curve gave Rooster Teeth a distinct advantage on its competitors, it also introduced its own challenges as the small band of aspiring video game reviewers rapidly grew into a full-scale video production company with its own Let's Play network and the hugely popular anime series RWBY.
We asked Burnie what the most difficult aspects of Rooster Teeth's impressive growth have been, and how the company is handling them.
"Externally, our biggest challenge is with the rise and popularity of online video," Burnie told us. "It's easier than ever for people to create their own content, which is great because that's what we do. But also it does make for a lot of voices out there. And there's a lot of noise to cut through in order for viewers to be able to find content that they want to watch. Having people discover our content, even after we're really well established, it's still a big challenge for us every day.
"And then, internally, one of the biggest challenge we face at scale is holding onto and honouring the culture of Rooster Teeth. One of the main reasons we've been able to last so long is the culture that we have in this company and our approach to making content, the way that we interact with our community. Those are all things that we try to hold onto. So that's probably our biggest internal challenge. And I feel like we're doing a good job at both."
Having people discover our content, even after we're really well established, it's still a big challenge for us every day.
Maintaining that distinct brand of humour is certainly one of the driving factors behind Rooster Teeth's continued success, but we were curious what the company's business partners think about its penchant for irreverence. How does Rooster Teeth balance its no-holds-barred attitude with the needs of sponsorship partners like EA, Microsoft and Google?
"I think part of online media, especially online media that's geared towards gamers, is that the content itself has to be genuine," Burnie told us. "If gamers are being pandered to, they can sniff that out really quickly. But for years, marketing messages pointed towards gamers were just ridiculous, "Hey you're a gamer and you game, radical!" Clearly, a lot of those messages were coming from people who had no concept of what it was like to be in game culture. But we do.
"We came from this culture. We came from Internet forums and video game clans, things like that. And I think it's important to maintain a genuine voice. That is one of the biggest factors by how we determine whether or not we're going to work with a brand. Because if we pick a brand that doesn't fit with our content, that really stands out. And if a brand isn't a good fit for us, then we're probably not a good fit for that brand. That's important. We want to be able to provide a lot of satisfied relationships for our community and for our clients as well."
Of course, this approach doesn't always fly with every brand that wants to work with Rooster Teeth. Burnie's okay with that.
"We have to be able to work with brands that trust us, trust that we know how to message to our clients," he told us. "A lot of marketing partners say like "Okay, we'll do this placement and you'll talk about it for 15 minutes." And it's like, no, we're not going to talk about it for 15 minutes, that's really long. "And you'll make 10 tweets and Instagram posts about it." Nope, our audience will hate that. So we like to work with brands that understand that we know how to communicate to our audience."
Burnie's commitment to preserving Rooster Teeth's origins has clearly served the company well, but not all online personalities are so transparent in their operations. In the next part of our interview, we'll discuss the problems with PewDiePie, the dangers of DMCA strikes and the importance of honesty when producing online video content.
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