Why YouTube Subscribers Don’t Matter

In general, YouTube creators (and viewers) are a bit obsessed with sheer numbers of subscribers. It’s fool’s gold, friends. While early views are often predicated on developing a subscriber base, as a creator’s presence on YouTube matures, subscribers simply don’t matter nearly as much as people think. What matters is quality not quantity. I’d trade you half of my 250K subscribers for 1000 actively engaged viewers.

I say that to offset the prevailing belief that subscribers are everything, but recognize it’s a provocative overstament. A solid base of “fans” or avid viewers is invaluable. But after a while, the “subscription obsession” can be lazy and dangerous. Here’s why:

  • There was a time where we thought most subscribers viewed videos, and in fact that was more true in 2008-2009. Today (with the exception of a dozen top channels), the majority of views by the top 500 YouTubers are driven by “related videos” and micro-featuring (spotlighted videos). Almost 80-90 percent of my daily views (ranging about 200-250,000 daily) are not from subscribers, and “search” drives only about 1 percent. Obviously a healthy subscriber base (especially those who interact with the video) has a cascading effect on related videos and microfeaturing. But…
  • One loyal/active subscriber is worth more than 50 passive ones. Since only about 1 percent of viewers tend to interact with a video (and the creator’s relationship with his/her audience has a lot to do with that), the active viewer is GOLD. The passive troll (or dead account) is fool’s gold.
  • Let me put this in simple terms. Of the quarter of a million views I get, perhaps ONE PERCENT of those are driven by subscribers deciding to check my latest video. That fact initially demotivated me and I shared that with YouTube staffers: why kill myself making new videos if it barely makes a difference to daily views, which sets my income? Lately, however, it makes me highly motivated to create more regular and better videos to maintain and grow a recurring audience. Sure- I feel fortunate that I have some momentum from the thousands of hours and thousands of videos I’ve created since 2004, but also very nervous about losing that momentum because of a simple shift in YouTube’s “programming” or algorithm.
  • All subscribers are not created equally. Those who subscribe to my channel via “box-for-box” are often inadvertent viewers prone to leaving hate comments. As time goes on, you invariably increase the percentage of total subscribers who are not fans… they may find one video they like, subscribe, then complain or bail.
  • I define the “health” of a YouTube channel as the recurring views that recent videos get. So while I’m happy to be getting millions of views a month, they are radically tilted toward old videos. My new videos get seen, with some exception, about 20K times… which is just 10% of my total subscribers (250K I think, but I’ve stopped checking).
  • Even when I was about 100K subscribers and getting about 40-100K views per video, that was deceptive. First, a lot of those views came not from subscription but from the 10K plus people that would check my channel daily to see what’s new (that’s dropped). Also my recent videos were automatically adjacent to my legacy videos, which changed a few years ago. So what I saw as subscriber views were often driven by the dozen enduring videos (Scary Maze, Farting in Public). Now the videos that surround those are unlikely to be mine, thus the “binger” is less likely to get caught in a Nalts binge.
Being on the popular "BarelyPolitical" channel "additional channels" box drove #s but could have invited an audience that's a poor fit
  • Finally, I suspect that the increase in “trolls” on my Nalts channel may partially be the result of the kindness of BarelyPolitical to “box” me on its channel (this morning, I respectfully invited them to remove me from their “related channel” box). It drove high numbers of subscribers, but mostly people unfamiliar with me. For instance, my daughter posted a video last night (embarrassing brothers) and it fetched about 80 comments before day break… about 10 of them I needed to delete before she saw them. I expected the “get back to prank” comments, but the 10 were lude and clearly not people you want subbed.  The video, which is consistant with what I’ve been making for 5 years, is simply not going to please a typical BarelyPolitical subscriber. The trolls come from a variety of sources, but when I see people refer to me as a third person I generally assume they didn’t subscribe with any premeditation.

    So why is this important? It means independent creators are highly dependent on YouTube’s “programming,” which is currently an algorithm. If tomorrow YouTube made a change, my mature channel would evaporate instantly. These rules apply to all channels, but especially to those that have already built some momentum and wish to build on it…

    The New Rules…


    1. Stop checking subscription numbers and focus on the quality of your relationship with fervent fans.
    2. Produce regular videos. I used to post daily, and when I stopped (on advice of many that said they’d prefer a good video weekly than decent videos daily) I lost a lot of momentum. Frequency is as important as quality. We are creatures of habit, and we’ll push that peddle over and over as long as a food pellet comes out (or to use gambling terms, we’ll keep playing the slots as long as we occasionally get a prize). But after a while, people stop checking your channel for new content. A month or two of zero or poor content can produce enduring damage… people simply forget to check your channel.
    3. Produce what Ryan Nugent at YouTube calls “Temporal Programming.” Produce content about current events, and plan content around major events… Shark Week is a nice example, and so are videos posted days before a big event (post your 4th of July video on July first so it builds steam).
    4. Third, BYOA. Bring your own audience. Annoying Orange drives a large chunk of his views from a very popular Facebook page. I’ve not had as much luck driving traffic via other mediums, but “seeding” is another way to garner views. Produce content that a popular blogger may enjoy and let him/her know about it. Look for other ways to syndicate your YouTube content beyond YouTube.
    5. Reconsider your “ask.” Should you ask for comments/ratings/favorites? Sure. That’s what makes a video jump on YouTube’s “most viewed” charts. But also consider other “asks” of your audience… subscribe via e-mail, check every Friday, etc.

    The Onion used to publish online on Wednesdays, and I still wake up on Wednesdays and reflexively check (even though content is now regularly updated).

    The bottom line is that audience development is about building yourself into the habit/routine of an active audience, not by getting a quantity of lukewarm viewers via a magical orange button.

    19 Replies to “Why YouTube Subscribers Don’t Matter”

    1. Smart… From an advertising standpoint, what good is millions in Reach if response is zero?

      I talk about this when I speak with clients about YouTube channels for their businesses… That they’re better off engaging a small core of loyal – engaged, as you say — fans than going for sheer volume.

    2. of course if you posted videos of hot chicks in bikinis getting chased by video game characters or cartoon apes, this theory goes RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW 😛 in all seriousness, i’m glad you gave up gardenig to contemplate youtube, i like feeling validated by your opinion and i SUCK at gardening 🙂 i tell all these youngins the SAME thing, its not about the numbers!

    3. oh and when are you gonna get on katie to stop using commercial music? she’ll never get partnered like that!! cant she dance and sing to kevin mcleod/incompetech music 😛

    4. I wrote a really long comment that got lost. Bottom line, I. Dont comment on your nalts videos anymore b/c you have too many subscribers and they do not get my peculiar sense of humor/sarcasm, which people I ‘know’ appreciate or at least tolerate. This has taken about 75% of the fun out of youtube for me.

    5. Subscribers are more of a Guideline depending on your Audience. Mine are up and down with views because I do very different types of videos. And Sometimes I don’t directly talk to the audience. My Nyan cat Spoof is a prime example. But I do try to engage with Annotations in that instance.

      There is another extreme example on YouTube: HappyCabbie. He weeds out subscribers and deletes those who have not logged on in a while or he thinks are just empty accounts. He attempts to keep his audience completely fresh and it seems to work for him. He is totally enganged into his audience with his style of personal vlogs and fun videos combined with great Balloon Building HowTo Videos. He does Balloon sculptures that are totally amazing!

      Nalts you should study him.

      I just have to figure out how to use my website properly. maybe bloopers and extras. Maybe some Obscure news.

    6. On SocialBlade, my YouTube Stats Site I’ve been working on a new metric called the “SB Score”. Think of it like klout for youtube. I still haven’t 100% finalized the formula but it ranks youtubers by how they are performing in terms of how many views they get daily & how strong their network is rather then how many subscribers they have. It takes a bunch of data points into consideration to give you a score 0-100 based on your influence.

      Here is the current top 500 list based on this score:
      Congrats nalts, you’re ranked #84 🙂

      As I’m still tuning it would love any feedback as well anyone might have.

    7. Excellent and interesting article, Kevin. There is no question that the overall number of subscribers is now virtually irrelevant. The landscape at YouTube has certainly changed substantially over the past few years. With so much competition out there, it definitely seems necessary to focus on building a loyal audience and communicating with them if you are to get traction with your YouTube channel. But focusing on the number of subs isn’t worthwhile.

    8. Kevin, I agree with you for the most part, but I think you are overstating some points a bit due to your personal situation/experiences and channel style. For many creators (e.g. RWJ, WheezyWaiter) their views are driven far more by recent videos than old classics compared to your views. Also, I’d imagine obscure vloggers don’t see tons of traffic from related videos. For regularly producing creators with consistent style of videos, subscribers are quite important. The actual number listed on their channel page is not the best indicator, but the number of people who subscribed intentionally with desire to keep up with new videos is critical. Your perspective is also slightly skewed by the fact that you are oversubscribed to channels to the point that you almost might as well be subscribed to no one since you don’t really use your subscription box to influence what videos to watch. Personally, subscriptions account for maybe 75% of the stuff I watch on YouTube.

    9. Yeah! According to Social Blade my numbers KiddsockTV:
      SB Score: 3.2
      Rank: 6328

      I wonder what the Kiddsock Channel would be like if I still had my partnership there. although I have been rejected for partnership on KiddsockTV. actually not officially rejected, but I won’t be able to use it. 🙁

      Here is one of my video that gets like 10 views a day on average. It did shoot up to over 300 in May 2011

      But it does well because of related videos. but the related videos are:
      -Eat the Banana
      -Texas Star Banana Tree
      -Girl Caught With A Banana
      -Sarah and the Banana
      -Tahirfarid2006 Banana.wmv
      -making of SHOOOOP video!

      BUT I don’t have BANANA in my description, title or tags. I don’t get it! The Thumbnail is something interesting but IS part of the video. It is a woman playing a Carrot Recorder.

      It’s the same Parody I did with of of Nalt’s Veggie Video. Did a Voice over to Make the Veggies scream like they are being tortured. Ever see it Kev?

    10. Some great points! I think finding your market/audience is more of the challenge on Youtube. I don’t think our channel for example would have loyal fans from Breaking NY…

    11. Sorry one more point I found interesting. Today I noticed on the side YouTube was suggesting channels they thought you would like. So you click on it and up pops a video from people you are not currently subscribed to. I tried that several times today.

    12. Great article Kevin, just a side note, speaking of things that affect YouTube viewer traffic. I noticed recently that there is a problem with views from YT players embedded in Facebook not counting toward total views. I’ve done some research and it seems both YT and FB are working on it. I just became a YT partner and I’m by no means a big player but my FB network is a great source of viewer traffic for my videos… Hopefully they work out the kinks soon.

    13. Wow, good to know. Who knew sub numbers were nearly worthless now. Dang. Hmmm. Seems to me the best way to grab an audience and keep ’em glued to your channel IS to crate kick butt videos. I personally think that using humor that is relevant and relatable is the silver bullet for good videos.

    14. I think subscriber counts really matter in the early days of a channel, when you are first getting started and building an audience, but past the 10K mark I think it really does become irrelevant.

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