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  • Sam

On the Misconceptions of Subscribers

I commit to the idea of writing down your goals. Giving yourself boundaries and producing a tangible outline works wonders to make those ambitions manifest, and it is a good exercise to clarify exactly what you want. To write down your goals is to check in and take inventory, to stabilize, and then to prep the legs for the upcoming run. At the end of last year, I imagined the year ahead of me and wrote down my goals for Magic in 2017:

I would now like to break down that first goal specifically and assess how I succeeded in establishing a much larger viewership than I had last year. In spite of this, however, I want to argue that subscribers are just a number in a much larger game, and only serve to represent a superficial stock in your brand.


YouTube is a shapeshifter. A few years ago, subscriber counts used to matter a ton to creators, and my experience as a user was largely informed by the channels to which I was subscribed. Back in the day, it was rare that I was watching videos that weren’t produced by the creators I followed: there was simply much less infrastructure in place to push me out of my self-made bubble.

Nowadays, however, I never check my subscriber feed.

Rather, if I’m watching YouTube, I’m almost exclusively going through this feature:

Quick shoutout to North 100. Y'all are my favorite Magic podcast at the moment, and I don't even play your format!

In general, the algorithms behind the recommended videos are solid. They are tuned to my preferences and most of my discovery of new material is brought to me by this feature. Since I don’t spend much time watching videos, this section of curated material is a boon for me. It saves me time and gets straight to the point.

The flip-side, of course, is that I’m missing out on the channels I once chose to prioritize by subscribing in the first place.

This leads me back to my first goal of breaking 25k subs. Given that my experience as a user of YouTube is entirely molded by its algorithms, I have placed much less stock in my subscriber count as a result. Apart from feeling a small boost in confidence and a tickling of the ego, that number means much less to me than it used to. There are two reasons for this waning interest.

The first is that I do not believe the majority of my views come from my subscribers. I am no guru to how the system works at all, so excuse my ignorance in my perceptions. I do understand, however, that my upload model stands in direct contrast to what YouTube prefers. A year or so ago, the platform shifted away from short-form content to heavily rewarding longer videos. Once upon a time, a video producer couldn’t even upload a video longer than 10 minutes. Now, we have 10 hour loops of SpongeBob endlessly hollering “I’m Ready!” into the aether.

As a quick aside: do you realize that fraternities across the country utilize this kind of shit to torture freshmen through initiation? Can you imagine being locked in a room all day with any of the following videos as your only source of stimulation?

Alongside very long videos, YouTube also now loves the channels that upload daily. TV shows (Kimmel is the best example) thrive heavily off of this coupling. Three years ago when I started TheMagicManSam, I could make a couple hundred bucks a month from my very short videos that released at random. Now, my earnings look like this:

Currently, I’m uploading one video of roughly 10 minutes in length per month. This is reflected in my earnings above: one giant spike when the video goes live, then a sharp decline once the initial views have been harvested, followed by a long lull until my next upload. Since longer videos mean creators can insert ad breaks periodically throughout the video, they equate to more revenue. And a daily upload means that the sharp drop in earnings you see in my graph above never happens: the line instead stays steady across the month. YouTube, in short, wants to adopt the network model and become television. My videos, in contrast, behave in the exact opposite way, and so my revenue suffers greatly as a result.

This brings me to subscribers. I started 2017 with just under 15,000, and I’m happy to announce now that I more than doubled my goal of hitting 25k. When I look at how these people found my channel, however, I’m presented with an all-too-familiar line graph:

More specifically, Analytics show me where the overwhelming majority of these numbers come from:

This year, I gained 30,000 subscribers from “other sources”, which more than doubled the amount of new viewers who clicked the subscribe button while watching one of my videos. YouTube does not specify where these come from exactly, but it’s not farfetched to believe that these subscribers are discovering my channel the same way I do: vis-à-vis the recommended feature. In fact, I know they are:

One of the more fortunate events to happen to my channel this year was my One With Nothing video going viral, twice. The first time brought an avalanche of comments just like the one above from folks who have never played Magic but enjoyed the video essay format.

Many of them were confused as to how the video ended up in their recommended feed, but gave it a shot and decided to subscribe. The second time it went viral, it was met with the same reaction: confusion, yet a surprised enjoyment, followed by a decision to stick around to see any future work:

Reflected in this behavior is my average viewcount per video. Typically, the number of subscribers to a channel will outweigh the total views that any given video will receive by a multiple of four. For example, if a channel has a million subs, their videos will usually get around 250,000 clicks, with variance depending on the interest in the content. A more popular video will get about half of the channel’s total subscriber count in views, and the viral ones will match or, very rarely, exceed the number of subscribers. Casey Neistat’s work is a solid example of this idea. With 8 million subs, the “normal” videos hover around 2 million views, while the more viral content can triple that average:

This, of course, makes sense: not everybody will watch every video you upload. But channels like mine defy this trend. The number of views on my videos significantly outnumber my subscriber count, especially for my Card Studies series, which will forever be more popular than the niche topics I cover in my videos on art. Looking purely at views alone, my videos totaled over 2.5 million views across the course of 2017. I only produced 17 videos total, which means that if only my subscribers watched my videos, then every single one of them would have to watch each video three times to account for this number!

All of this suggests, like I stated above, that subscriber counts do not translate well to viewership. People are finding my channel through YouTube’s recommended feature far more often than they are through their subscription tab. They’re also coming from social sites; Reddit and Twitter are especially effective for my visibility. There is no doubt that Twitter is my most potent tool for promoting my work and establishing myself in the community. Without it, I would be invisible to viewers, since my upload schedule does not fit YouTube’s preferred revenue model that I touched upon prior. Retweets are especially effective for bringing in new viewers, and since the advent of the ‘Pin to profile’ feature, I am able to consistently make clear my latest video to newcomers to my page.

The second reason that subscribers matter much less is a bit more abstract, but it has to do with the perception that the subscriber count holds on a new viewer. Last December, I knew that the single most important factor to succeed in growing my subscriber base was to make it impossible for anyone to know how many people were subscribed to me. Luckily for me, YouTube gives creators the option to hide this feature, and it has been the only aspect of my channel I have been heavily private about for the entirety of this year. Anyone can see my Patreon earnings. Anyone can see my tweets, my website, my articles, and my videos. I have been transparent about everything except for subscribers.

Normal channels have an indicator built into the button:

All year, mine has looked like this:

In general, this number has so much influence on a new viewer’s perception of the quality of your show. Likes, dislikes, and views hold some power, but your subscriber count is the pinnacle of first impressions. It is the handshake, the smile, and the introduction to your brand, and it can make or break a newcomer’s decision to subscribe to your channel. Twitter followers have the same swaying power. In essence, every brand has to reach a certain critical mass of followers before they snowball into popularity. A year ago, I could gather a few followers a week on Twitter. Now, I receive about ten a day, and I believe it’s largely due to me surpassing that critical mass.

Remember this video? It's the exact same principle in action.

On YouTube, however, 15k subs is a Herring in the Pacific. For better or for worse, I knew that nobody would subscribe if they saw just how few followers I had. To hide the subscriber count meant that new viewers would have to make their own decision to stick around rather than being heavily influenced by the crowd. I am fortunate to have grown so much considering this tactic. That critical mass is real, and I was far from it this January.

Currently, I am witnessing this exact problem with a newer CS:GO YouTuber. His videos are unstoppable, yet his subscriber count represents but a fraction of the potential he has to grow. Despite the fact that his videos get 100k views, nobody is subscribing. I believe it’s because he has not reached that critical mass, and the best thing he could do would be to hide that number.

Like I stated above, however, the subscriber count can be misleading. Numbers of subscribers are not fully representative of the quality of your product: they’re just a quantifiable representation of your potential reach. It is hard to remove yourself from simply following the pack, but I encourage you to do your best to not let a number inform your decision to commit to a creator you enjoy. On YouTube especially, the first 25,000 are the most important. Like the dancing dude above, they will become your base, and the rest will ebb and flow. Initially, however, I would recommend to any creator who is looking to grow to keep that number private. Sadly, it is the nature of the beast.

In spite of my tumultuous relationship with my subscriber count, though, I have a new goal for 2018.

How vain, I know (especially after arguing that subscriber numbers don’t matter!). It’s a trophy I would like to hang in my house, though, as I still see it as a significant accomplishment for the efforts I’ve put into my channel. It is a tangible object that represents an otherwise unfathomable quantity of people who have been impacted by my work, and I think that a 100k plaque is a reward of great pride.

To be clear: my intentions in writing this are to encourage other YouTubers to look past their subscriber count as a strong indicator of the quality of their show, as well as highlight how views can be gathered from other sources. There is a huge difference between feeling gratitude for your subscribers and recognizing the number as potentially misleading. Of course I’m grateful for gathering such a following; I’m also wary of it being a reliable tool for measuring my reach and influence. So henceforth, my subscriber count will be visible as I work towards the plaque. I’m stoked to have met my goal, and I’m ready to set the bar higher for next year.

Here’s to aiming for 100k.

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