It’s a precarious time for professional creators. In all of my years of being an attorney for YouTubers, I’ve never heard clients more anxious and cynical about their futures. They’re worried about drops in ad revenue, competition for audience attention, and the ever terrifying question, “What will my career/business/life look like a year from now?” This isn’t a new concern for creators (see Gaby Dunn’s “Get Rich or Die Vlogging”), but it’s one that’s growing rapidly as our industry expands.
Between the advertiser boycott, demonetization expansion, and content-censorship controversies of late, there’s plenty to be concerned over. But within all problems lies opportunity. That’s why I’ve teamed up with YouTube veteran Michael Buckley to launch the first Independent Creator Summit, ClamourCon this May 9-11th in Palm Springs, CA. We’re building a safe space for over 300 professional creators to unite as a community, address the issues affecting creator careers, and plan a road map for the future.
More on that later, but first let’s take a look at the current climate, what creators are saying, and most importantly what we can do about it.
Navigating The Recent Shakeup
Casey Neistat’s recent “Do What You Can’t“ video captured why I love working with career creators. The message is simple: Don’t let anyone else’s rules hold you back, because creators are doing impossible things everyday. And while that’s true, the inevitable follow-up question is “How can I make a life-long career of this?” How do you plan around the uncertainty, the algorithms, the personal attacks, the scheduling, the invasions of privacy, the details of running your own business, and the challenges of maintaining relationships with people who see your business as a hobby?
The question of the day is: “What happens when revenue that I depend on suddenly isn’t so dependable?”
First of all, there’s no cause for panic. It’s hard to know what practical impact the #Adpocalypse will actually have on creators. Analysts predict a $750 million loss in ad revenues, which are split between YouTube and its content creators, though who among the creators will be affected is complicated (see CGP Grey’s “This Video Made $XXX at Auction” video). YouTube has responded, giving advertisers more control over what content their ads play against and expanding their demonetization system. Inevitably, creator Adsense revenues will likely be affected and the YouTubers dependent on that revenue will be facing tough questions about how they are supposed to plan their future.
Second, this is a great wake-up call for everyone. As a creator advocate, my job is to take the long-view of my clients’ careers. Growing your audience on YouTube with no plan beyond monetizing those eyeballs through Adsense is not a sustainable business model. But I get it, once on that hamster wheel, it’s hard to get off. The way to do it is seeing the innovative ways your peers are doing things differently, comparing your experiences, strategies, and business plans. Michael and I have always shared the conviction that creators need more opportunities to do that, especially given how rapidly the online video industry changes.
Clamour was formed to make that happen, to build spaces where creators can come together as professionals away from the fans; to build out a support system, discover new resources, collaborate on projects, and prepare for market shifts on the horizon. After years of running retreats, we’re now preparing to launch ClamourCon as the next step in spreading that experience to the broader professional creator community. As Casey put it, creators are doing impossible things everyday, but each one only has a piece of the larger puzzle and so much more can be revealed when we all come together.
So How Are Creators Building Long-Term Careers?
When you make your personal life public for a living, it can be hard to tell where your life ends and your work begins. But through your videos you’re creating a product and distributing it in exchange for compensation that allows you to create more. You are an entrepreneur with an audience and there’s no career more exciting than that.
So, as entrepreneurs do, most creators have learned to diversify their revenue streams to include brand deals, merchandising, crowdfunding, appearance fees, and other freemium business models. But all of those options still rely upon you maintaining popularity on YouTube year after year, living at the mercy of tweaks to the algorithm, hustling in that hamster wheel for…ever?
There are alternatives though and Casey himself provides a great case study. As he recently reminded us in the “The Vlog is Back,” his vlog was created to share his tech company Beme – to build an audience excited about what he was doing that would use the product that he was making. He’s not alone in this, lots of creators have effectively leveraged their YouTube audiences to launch businesses that may last them the rest of their lives, whether that’s a fashion line, a consulting firm, a commercial production company, or Olan Rogers’ The Soda Parlour.
Being an entrepreneur is all about working smarter, not harder; learning from others’ successes and failures, not just in online video, but throughout the whole startup world. Just like any other startup, your first step is understanding the different ways that you can generate revenue, cut costs, divide labor, and finance new projects, so that your company can continue to thrive.
Test New Ideas – AKA “Innovate Or Die”
In the startup world, one of the most repeated phrases in the startup world is “Fail forward.” Launch products quickly, identify what didn’t work, build it better, and launch again. On YouTube, every video uploaded is another opportunity to modify your product and get immediate feedback, something few businesses are able to do with such regularity.
The best thing a creator can do to ensure their long term viability is experimenting across media, whether that’s launching a new show format, a spinoff channel, a livestream, a podcast, a crowdfunding campaign. If it’s not working, you can always quit, but you won’t discover what’s best for your business if you’re not willing to fail. And I promise, no one will care (or even remember) that you started a podcast and quit after four episodes.
Test a new thing, review the results, then keep what works, ditch what doesn’t, and move on to what’s next. But how do you know if something works? That brings us to…
Another classic startup mantra, “What gets measured, gets managed.” There are so many different metrics to keep an eye on in your business, cash flow, direct costs, net profits, etc. Knowing how much money is going in and out of your accounts is key to laying out a plan to expand your business, whether that’s by upgrading your equipment, investing in software, or bringing on an assistant. A fundamental responsibility of any business is to figure out which numbers matter and which ones don’t.
So let’s all get real about the Subscribe button. YouTubers have long lived and died by their sub counts. This past year, watching channels lose subscribers amid a scandal practically became a spectator sport. However, looking at the analytics, often the channel’s viewership barely dropped a fraction of the rate that their subs did. YouTube curates content based on the data it gets from audience behavior (engagement, watchtime, etc.) rather than the tick (or untick) of a button, because studying actual viewer behavior is better feedback for them than what viewers say they want (see CaptainDisillusion‘s YouTube Algorithm video).
With so much content on the platform, the fact is that most users’ subscription are flooded with too many videos for them to possibly watch and the algorithm is providing them with steadily more effective recommendations on their home page that they’re choosing those videos over sifting through their sub feeds. As a result, the subscribe button is losing relevance and now a channel’s sub count mostly just reflects how effective a creator was at convincing people to click it over the life of their channel. (Fun fact: YT Kids app doesn’t even have a subscribe button, which is why so many channels with kids content have much higher viewership proportional to their subscribership/engagement.)
There are lots of metrics to watch in this business, whether that’s audience engagement, returning viewership, watchtime, merch sales, or audience conversion to other platforms. Your job is making sure you know which metrics you’re trying to move with each change you make. Hank Green did a recent public deep dive into the Vlogbrothers analytics which was revealing and informative that I recommend every creator watch. Additionally, there are tons of great analytics platforms like TubeBuddy, VidStatsX, SocialBlade, and ICX Media that you can use to get the data you need in addition to YouTube’s own creator analytics.
Invest In Your Core Business
The cost of starting a business has plummeted thanks to technology that can save you time and money on operations and administration. Knowing all of the resources available to you, from Social Bluebook‘s brand deal calculator to Rise9‘s influencers-only social network, is critical to building out your business model. Tech startups know they have to outsource things like invoicing, HR, accounting, and hosting to web apps or specialized firms because it affords them time to focus on improving their core product. You too should feel okay about paying a monthly fee for a solid analytics platform, personal assistant, or a bookkeeper, so you can focus on cranking out great content and developing your audience. You’ll get a return on your investment in increased productivity, and maybe even extra time to spend with your family. If you’re having cash flow challenges, there’s even a growing market for small business loans and other financing available to YouTube channels secured by their future Adsense.
Take It Offline
Until now, fan conventions were the only place for creators to meet each other in person, swap advice, recommend new tools, and vent about the #creatorlife. Professional creators need a space of their own now, so we’ve launched the ClamourCon Creator Summit this May to allow the creator community to come together–away from fans–to discuss the industry, how to handle algorithm changes, plan for the long term, and meet brands and industry thought leaders for future partnerships.
We can tell that we’re on the right track. So far over 300 amazing creators on the platform have registered for ClamourCon—from family vloggers to gamers, makeup artist and travel vloggers, to comedians and educators. We’re passionate about elevating the level of dialogue in our industry and we hope you’ll join us, too.
Jonathan S. Katz, Esq. is an entertainment attorney representing online influencers and a founding boardmember of the Internet Creators Guild. He is also co-founder and CEO of Clamour, host of ClamourCon 2017, launching May 9-11th in Palm Springs, CA. ClamourCon is by invitation only; creators and organizations are encouraged to SIGN-UP at ClamourCon.com.