Today's YouTubers are repeating the mistakes of yesterday's bloggers

Today's YouTubers are repeating the mistakes of yesterday's bloggers
Photo by Christian Wiediger / Unsplash

I watch a ton of YouTube, on the order of an hour or two each day and I can honestly say the no-ads premium family account on YouTube is one of the best bargains on the internet for everyone in my house.

Lately, YouTube creators are going through a reckoning, and I think it's unfortunate to see some creators I've come to know and trust over the years squander their work as they chase percentage points of revenue instead of focusing on the craft.

It reminds me a lot of how blogging changed around 2005-2009, when ad money came pouring in, and while it was great for bloggers that previously were just publishing for the heck of it (myself included), eventually the money tainted the process as many people rushed to improve their bottom line, often at the expense of whole reason they created their sites.

YouTube has had money attached for much longer than blogging, and larger channels producing weekly videos are often an operation with 4-5 people offscreen that are never mentioned doing much of the editing legwork. So they run much more like a small business with staff that needs to be paid and a monthly burn rate. Any changes YouTube makes to revenue structures tends to derail these small businesses.

Like blogging, YouTube is vague about how much money anyone makes off the platform but there seems to be a relationship between number of views and number of subscribers as well as the time each person spends watching videos as well as publishing frequency, but nothing is concrete and the numbers change frequently so people tend to get together and share notes on forums and try and read the tea leaves, much like the entire world of SEO on websites and blogs to try and optimize their revenue and production (usually at the expense of user experience of their readers).

I don't seek out this information, but it seems like the prevailing wisdom from a few years ago was that you should make your videos around ten minutes long to make the most money, and as soon as I heard this, I realized about 90% of creators I follow on YouTube put out a 10-12 minute video each week. Once you see it, you can't unsee it, as everyone followed the conventional wisdom.

But then YouTube introduced a copy of TikTok/Instagram Reels called Shorts and they started paying people much more if they used this new weird vertical video format that doesn't quite work well with YouTube apps or the YouTube site, but the money dragged all the biggest channels into it.

Subscribers started complaining that they didn't want notifications on "a new video!" only to find it was a re-edited old ten minute video, truncated to 30 seconds long, and creators often respond that it was a great way to get new subscribers and they'd continue to do it (because: new revenue).

There's been a slew of popular creators leaving YouTube and quitting completely, as their ad rates and conventional wisdom were no longer supporting large editing teams behind the scenes and it reminds me of the blogging world once advertising became the biggest source of revenue.

An old ad company I worked with on my own blogs started making ever weirder requests of my sites after a couple years of simple money-for-ads exchanges. They'd say things like "hey, if you introduced a new blog or an entire category of your site to Gaming, we could give you a huge contract with a gaming company" and I would tell them I'm not interested in gaming, but I would see some other popular blogs launch new gaming-only offshoots and knew they were taking the bait.

Advertising on blogs started as simple banner ads along the side, but increasingly morphed into basically companies asking bloggers to endorse their product directly in ads, with photos of the bloggers and a big quote about how great the product was. Getting a check in the mail for displaying an ad banner saying "drink more Ovaltine" was one thing, but eventually the money ran out on those simple ads and people wanting to be paid as much as they used to had to create their own ad copy and get professional headshots so ads on your site could proclaim that you, the author/owner love Ovaltine so much that it has changed your life and all your readers should try it out.

I see the same trend happening on YouTube. Creators chase whatever the current rules of thumb are, and lately people are obsessed with making one to two hour long videos because a few creators that only release a handful of very long videos each year were making a lot of money when millions of people were watching 2 hours of their videos, slurping up ads every ten minutes.

So a lot of channels I follow are obsessed with "long videos = new money" so they're often reformatting a dozen of their weekly 10 minute videos into 1.5-2 hour long compilations, and like with YouTube Shorts before, subscribers aren't happy to see a new video notification only to find out it's a bunch of 2 year old videos they've already seen but in a new wrapper.

How does it end?

Eventually, the blogging ad market changed so much that if you were consistently making money with blogging your site had to morph and change drastically to fit the needs of advertisers, not your readers. And you tend to lose lots of readers in the process, as your site strays so far from its original intentions.

YouTube is here to stay for the long haul, and popular creators on the platform will continue to create videos and hopefully find ways to be compensated for it, but it sure feels like there are a lot of parallels between the heyday of blogging and current YouTube reckoning from creators.

My hope for YouTube creators is much like bloggers. Don't spend all your time chasing the tea leaves and conventional wisdom. Focus on your channel/site and keep creating things you love that will resonate with your viewers/readers. Hopefully the money will follow, but obsessing over how to eke out every last cent from your work will make your work suffer.