Mosquitoes. Lice. Bed bugs. For some, they’re the stuff of nightmares: Insects that torment us and are devilishly difficult to get rid of. But to the audience of our YouTube science series Deep Look, the details of how these insects use their claws and mouthparts are endlessly fascinating.
At Deep Look, my colleagues and I create three- to five-minute videos that give our viewers a uniquely close-up glimpse at small animals and plants. Our episodes about the tiny animals that live off of our bodies are some of our most popular. The series’ most-watched video, with 19 million views, is one in which we reveal how mosquitoes use six needles to suck our blood.
Health is a topic that draws large audiences, so it’s gratifying that we have found a way to tell health stories on a wildlife series. And videos with a health angle might be a way to tackle our biggest challenge: getting more women to watch our videos.
Fewer women are watching Deep Look videos
Our series, produced by KQED, the public media station in San Francisco, California, and presented by PBS Digital Studios, is very successful by any measure. We get 5 million to 9 million views per month, but only about 30% of those views are by women.
Research we’ve conducted over the past two years with Texas Tech University’s Science Communication & Cognition Lab suggests that health-related episodes of Deep Look are more likely to be viewed by women than our other episodes. A content analysis of the titles of the nearly 100 videos we had produced through 2019 showed that the average percentage of female viewers was higher for videos about animals and plants that have an impact on human health.
“Our hypothesis is it’s because that information is more relevant, or useful, to people’s everyday lives in general,” said Asheley Landrum, assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech, who oversaw the research.
When we realized that a higher proportion of women were viewing our health-related videos than other types of videos we make, we conducted a few experiments to see if we could find evidence that women would more readily watch videos with health-related titles.
The results of our research were inconclusive. In three separate experiments, we changed the titles of several of our existing videos so that they emphasized a health angle. We presented these modified titles to men and women in two surveys and as ads on Facebook. We also offered participants the videos with their original, non-health-related titles. On Facebook, women did click on the health-related titles more often than the non-health-related titles. But in the surveys, women didn’t choose the video with the health-related title more often.
Landrum and a group of her graduate students conducted the research as part of a multiyear project led by KQED with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate how public media can attract more millennial audiences to science content.
Deep Look’s audience consists largely of millennials, so we’ve already achieved that goal. But drawing in women has proven difficult since the series launched in 2014.
When we began the NSF-funded research project two years ago we first set out to determine if this gender gap was caused by YouTube recommending our videos to fewer women than men. A survey conducted for us by Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project found that even when our videos were played outside of YouTube, fewer women than men were clicking to watch, which means that something about our videos’ presentation is not as appealing to women. The good news is that when women do watch Deep Look videos, they watch for as long as men and are just as likely as men to share the videos with their friends. A subsequent survey by the Yale team didn’t find a gender gap in viewership, but research on our videos’ titles by Landrum found the gap again.
Could health – and sex – stories draw more women to Deep Look?
Of the more than 125 videos that Deep Look has created so far, only a handful have been watched by as many women as men. Two of those have to do with health. One is our popular episode on the microscopic mites that live in the pores of our face, which has received 3 million views since we released it in 2019 – 44% by women. The other one is our hit about how lice clamber around our hair. Since its debut in 2019, this episode has been seen 12 million times by a predominantly female audience (63%). On the other hand, our popular video about the mechanics of a mosquito bite has an overwhelmingly male viewership (77%).
We were intrigued about the possibility that health videos might be a way to draw in more women. So Landrum and her colleagues conducted a series of studies analyzing our videos’ titles. The Deep Look team spends a lot of time crafting titles, since we know that, together with an evocative photo or other image, the title is key to enticing someone to click on a video on YouTube. And the title is a proxy for the episode’s storyline, so finding out more about how women perceive our titles should help us choose and develop stories that interest them.
First, Landrum and her team classified the titles of our videos into 15 categories, such as “health or home relevant,” “sex and mating,” “use of attack words” and “gross or disgusting.” Through this content analysis in September 2019 they found that videos with health/home titles had audiences that were on average 29% female. This is in comparison to a baseline 19% female viewership that researchers calculated by adding up the percentage of female viewers for each of our episodes and dividing the total percentage by 97, which was the number of episodes we had created when they did the analysis. Episodes about sex/mating also stood out, with audiences on average up to 36% female.
In this title analysis, researchers didn’t find that videos with gross/disgusting titles, such as “These Termites Turn Your House into a Palace of Poop,” were less likely to attract women, something we had thought might be the case.
Experimenting with health- and sex-related titles
Once we found out that videos with titles that pertained to health/home and sex/mating had, on average, a higher proportion of female viewers, we wanted to see whether rewriting the title of an episode to make it tell a health story or a story about sex would make more women click on it.
To test whether a health-related title would be more attractive to women, we changed the title of our episode about mantis shrimps from one that emphasizes the speed of their attack – “The Snail-Smashing, Fish-Spearing, Eye-Popping Mantis Shrimp” – to one that focused on a health application discussed in the video: “Mantis Shrimp’s Incredible Eyesight Yields Clues for Detecting Cancer.” In a national survey of 1,600 people in April 2020, the title with the health angle did get more women to click (58% versus 51%), but the difference wasn’t statistically significant. We repeated the experiment earlier this year with 3,000 participants and a wider variety of modified titles. The results were also inconclusive.
However, in a separate experiment on Facebook this year, the health-related mantis shrimp title did get a higher proportion of women to click than the episode’s original non-health-related title. In that experiment, we compared the two titles by offering them as Facebook ads.
We also experimented with showing survey participants a title we had changed to tell a story about sex. We’re particularly interested in this storyline because some of our videos about sex and mating are among a handful that have been seen by as many women as men. Our episode about ladybug reproduction has an audience almost 60% female. Our video about fish that mate and lay their eggs on the beach and our episode about snail sex have both been seen by as many women as men.
When they were presented with the titles of our videos about cricket chirps, firefly signals, earwig pincers and jumping spiders, which we modified to make them refer to sex and mating, women in our 2021 survey chose the titles with the sex/mating angle more often than the videos’ original titles (58% versus 55%). The difference isn’t statistically significant and thus researchers conclude that we didn’t get much of a bump by emphasizing a sex/mating storyline.
“The reason might have to do with the specific titles that we chose to use in those studies,” said Landrum.” Indeed, we found that it’s hard to write a title that falls exclusively into one category.
Who are our female viewers?
What we did find in this survey is that women were more attracted to the episode about crickets than the others. So as we continue to search for ways to draw more women to Deep Look, we are now studying whether some kinds of animals make more attractive subjects than others. And since every Deep Look video is accompanied by a photo of the animal or plant featured in the episode, we are investigating what makes for an appealing image. We’re also trying to get a clearer picture of who our female viewers are. For example, do they prefer certain areas of science over others? Jocelyn Steinke, at the University of Connecticut, oversaw a survey and interviews conducted May through July to investigate these questions. A report on her team’s findings is in the works.
As part of a larger national survey, Landrum is exploring whether women might be watching YouTube videos for different reasons than men. She believes that women’s motivations for watching might hold a key to attracting them to Deep Look.
“One of my questions going forward is, do women have more instrumental goals with consuming science videos than men? With men, curiosity-satisfying goals may be enough – they see there’s something interesting in digital video and they’re like, ‘Sure, I’ll watch how a sand dollar’s breakfast is totally metal,’” she said, referring to the title of our episode about how sand dollars eat minerals that keep them weighted down to the seafloor.
“If it is true that women are likely to engage with digital video for instrumental purposes,” Landrum added, “then if we’re aiming to engage more women, videos are going to have to provide that evidence: ‘This is how you can use this information or how this information is useful to you.’”
You can read the full reports linked here: “Exploring Titles to Attract Female Viewers to KQED’s Deep Look Science Videos," Report 4A and “Exploring Titles to Attract Female Viewers to KQED’s Deep Look Science Videos, Follow up Study," Report 4B, and attached below.