While it may sound scandalous and go against what has historically been cited as a best practice on YouTube, it’s time to stop asking for people to subscribe and instead urge a viewer to watch another video on your channel instead.
Contrary to popular belief, subscribers are not as important to the current version of the YouTube ecosystem as you would expect them to be. There are even some who believe that subscribers in general might be phased out of the YouTube experience in the next couple of years.
So, why is begging your audience to subscribe still a cornerstone of nearly everyone’s audience growth strategy?
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The truth is, subscribing is barely more than a deep-funnel engagement that doesn’t directly tell the algorithms to show your audience more of your content. Sure, smashing that subscribe button still adds some value, and the vanity aspect of the subscriber count is as important as ever, but if your goal is to position your content to be more algorithmically exposed to your audience, subscribing isn’t the most reliable way to find a share of voice in that audience’s YouTube experience.
The algorithms of YouTube are currently geared toward audience satisfaction. The machines behind the scenes want a viewer to spend as much time on the platform as possible. The videos that are surfaced to a viewer are chosen based on a complex equation designed to deliver choices that are most likely to net a longer session time for that viewer. If you are subscribed to a channel, but only watch infrequently, the algorithms aren’t going to keep showing you options to watch more of that content creator if there are other videos it thinks you are more inclined to watch.
The best way to ensure your content, both new and old, is continuously exposed to audiences is to establish that your audience is more likely to keep watching your content in a single session, or over multiple sessions, than content from other channels.
Basically, the more of your content audiences watch, especially new viewers, the more reliably they will be continuously exposed to your content over time.
Keeping this in mind, what tactics can we explore to foster that audience behavior? Well, virtually every channel devotes some time in their videos for a call-to-action (CTA) to like and subscribe.
Why not use that time instead to promote other content viewers of this particular video might enjoy next?
Don’t ask audiences to engage—give them a reason to watch your videos instead
Almost certainly, any viewer of your content who can become a part of your core audience has heard hundreds, if not thousands of, pleas for likes, comments, and subscribes.
This is not new information.
Even if you are successful in generating that engagement, they still have to watch more of your content for the algorithms to keep showing your videos. These traffic sources include browse features, suggested videos, even YouTube search.
So let the countless other channels out there promote these basic YouTube features, and use your precious time in front of a viewer to promote something else they are going to enjoy.
Respect the intelligence of your audience
Assume they know when to like a video or subscribe to a channel they enjoy. Spend that time in the video to drive your audience to more content.
We know direct calls-to-action can work, but effectiveness can be limited in a world where similar CTAs are being watched on repeat. No one is very likely to devote time in a video to promote your videos, so these CTAs will be unique and stand a better chance at influencing the actions of the audience.
A single view is a starting point, not a win condition. You won’t grow a channel on the back of a single video, so get very good at making sure any audience you have knows about your other content. Make them excited to watch more of your videos as soon as possible.
So…what should you be doing?
Let’s break this down so you can take this perspective and use the underlying theory on your content:
Theory: Changing your in-video CTAs to focus on promoting your own content will be more effective to grow your audience than CTAs focused on engagements or subscriptions.
Why this would work: Generating multiple views from a viewer is more likely to surface your content to that viewer algorithmically.
Hypothetical example: Let’s take a fictional channel that creates reaction commentary videos. In your video about reacting to humorous animal videos from TikTok, where you would have otherwise asked your audience to like, comment, and subscribe, instead pull a reaction clip from a previous video with a vocal CTA stating the title of the other video and let the audience know they can watch more of this kind of content in another upload in your library.
Key performance indicators to watch: If this strategic change is working, after a few uploads of this new CTA, we would expect to see a general rise in overall impressions. More specifically, we would also want to see growth in suggested videos and browse features. You can track success by parsing the difference in performance of your new uploads versus library uploads as well as the percentage of new versus returning viewers to your channel.
Don’t just judge the effectiveness of views directly on the videos you promote in your CTAs. While generating more direct views on these videos is a natural side effect of this tactic, the goal is to increase the algorithmic reach of the channel, and the impact might not be directly trackable on individual videos.
Ultimately, if successful, you will see more views on new videos and a higher floor of performance on the channel as a whole. The win here is getting your content exposed to more audiences more frequently. If you achieve this, it will be incumbent on the content to elicit clicks and retention once viewers choose to watch.
It is important to note that not all strategies work for all channels. You will need to understand the core strategic theory and what you are trying to accomplish to adapt this to a specific channel.
That said, in general, doing this will be changing what you do with your CTAs and will have an impact on audience behavior. That means you are now focusing on what the algorithms care about, and not vestigial tools on a platform that has evolved several times over since their inception.
Just remember one core truth
The algorithms aren’t out to get you. It isn’t a final boss you need to beat for an audience.
The top-performing channels today, and always, have one thing in common: In their moment, they are producing content that works with the algorithms on the platform. Sometimes that is accidental, sometimes it is sound strategy.
Either way, to win on YouTube you need to consider the algorithms as a partner, one whose goals can align with yours. Effective change comes from aligning more with its goals, which are ultimately the same as yours: reaching audiences and building a reason for them to come back to you.
Wally Weilbaecher is the SVP of SuperBam’s Amplify content lab, where he helps creators and media companies find greater success on YouTube and Facebook through improved programming and engagement strategies. With a prior resume that includes serving as SVP of Little Monster, VP of Audience Development at Group Nine, and EVP of Jash, Wally has been helping creators and companies find success on digital platforms for over a decade. He also serves as a VidCon advisory board member and is considered a foremost expert at YouTube optimization.