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Why YouTube is no longer the place to go to find an audience

Internet famous:
4 minute read
Internet famous: Shutterstock

The revolution has already been streamed and gone. And while we are still led to believe anyone can now be a famous video creator, unfortunately reality has other ideas.

When YouTube first appeared, it's fair to say that it was seen as a bit of a joke. The video quality was woeful, and internet connections of the day struggled even with the pitiful data rates that the service catered for. However, those with foresight and who began to use it early on to make real content reaped the rewards later on. Casey Neistat is a prime example of someone who made a sizeable amount of money as a YouTube celebrity once the service allowed monetisation.

YouTube has created a good number of 'celebrity' creators and influencers. Often much maligned in popular culture, the impact YouTube has had on enabling anyone with a camera to stand as much chance as anyone else of becoming popular cannot be denied.

But, as the service has become larger, so the search algorithm has evolved too, and not always in ways that are conducive to original content. Ever noticed how certain topics get covered at the same time by multiple producers? That's because even the people with the largest numbers of followers need to follow search trends. The simple fact is that if you make a video on a subject that people aren't searching for, you are unlikely to get recommended. And if lots of your videos are on subjects that nobody is searching for, you'll be seen as a low priority in YouTube's eyes, even if you make a single video on a popular subject.

In other words, if you want YouTube's search algorithm to take you seriously, you need to be making videos on highly searched for topics. All. The. Time. You also need to be attracting lots of 'likes', consistently have people watch your videos most of the way through, and attract lots of new subscribers and enabling of the notification icon. All of that feeds into YouTube's view of how your channel is performing. Made a video that gets lots of clicks but that people turn off five seconds in? Sorry, you're out of luck buddy. YouTube sees that as content that didn't meet viewers expectations.

Unfriendly search

Now, I needn't have to point out that this makes YouTube increasingly unfriendly towards new creators, or those who want to make videos on sub-topics that aren't so popular. It might mean that your channel on filmmaking can't go into the detail on pesky important subjects such as safe light rigging, for example, without paying a penalty. Well, you can make such a video if you want, but don't go doing it all the time. That won't feed the hungry monster. Monster needs clicks. Monster needs popular.

It's all logical in the eyes of YouTube. After all, low popularity subjects won't bring in any ad revenue. YouTube has to maximise exposure for its ad partners, and so it will always prioritise videos that get clicks, views, and a loyal following over those that don't. It's just business.

What's the takeaway from all this? Well, the first is that getting an audience of millions is not necessarily the preserve of the mainstream television channels or streaming services. But, just as with legacy media, as things have grown, so too has the need to make it pay reliably. YouTube is no longer a place where you can make the content you have a passion for and expect to build an audience quite so easily and make some income from it. Today, you need to be on the ball with trends and you need to capitalise on them before the world moves on. Put simply, if nobody is actively searching for the content in your videos, your view count will number the tens. Your video might look nice, it might be edited well, and you might be very proud of it, but the YouTube search monster doesn't care.

As we're seeing, the younger generation is eschewing traditional search engines like Google and video services like YouTube in favour of quick hit content and subject matter on sites like TikTok. When you can get your content quickly and accurately like that, it's easy to see why YouTube's shine has begun to wear off.

Alternative distribution

That doesn't mean that it's all bad news for serious regular content creators. Those who are lucky enough to have a large following, or who can get a personal recommendation from other well known creators, can get their content onto a service like Nebula. Unfortunately this makes it a bit of an old boys' network, although it does ensure certain standards are met.

So, where is all this going? Despite the wafer thin veneer of democratisation of video content creation and audience capture over the years, the fact remains that for filmmakers and serious documentary makers the traditional routes of distribution are still the most effective, and also still the hardest to break into. Sure, you can get your work onto Amazon fairly easily, but if you want to be on Apple Movies or Netflix, or even in the cinema or on Blu-ray (anyone still use that?) then you'll still need to know someone who knows someone. Oh, and you might need the budget for a proper production, too.

The reality is that sites like YouTube have given people the power of self distribution, but it's a very similar situation to self publishing a book on Amazon. Sure, there are occasional stories of people who have made the big time, but the vast majority of people make pennies or nothing at all, and they never make the charts. Likewise, YouTube does produce the occasional star player, but the vast majority of people make nothing. Even then, the ones who are making ends meet still have to play to the tune of the advertisers. The real power still lies with the big producers, acquisition agents and distributors. And thus it ever was, the low hanging fruit will always get pulled away just as it seems reachable. Still, there's always the dream. Unfortunately it may always remain so.

Tags: Production Opinion Streaming