Cracking the code: YouTube Shorts

By 12/07/2022
Cracking the code: YouTube Shorts

The introduction of Shorts to YouTube was, perhaps, inevitable.

YouTube has made attempts to compete with just about every major platform that offers some video experience.  YouTube Gaming to compete with Twitch, Stories to compete with Instagram, and community posts to compete with Twitter and Facebook.

Taking on TikTok with Shorts makes sense for YouTube. We now have a forever-scroll area, where users need only swipe their finger to immediately start a new video without deliberately clicking on it. And indeed, Shorts can quickly acquire a large number of views. This in turn means that shorter videos have become a more viable path to high viewership.

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For a number of creators, Shorts represent an exciting possibility. They, at least in theory, create an opportunity for creators who would struggle to produce long-form content to still succeed in generating viewership. Content types such as animation can compete on more even footing thanks to a one-minute maximum. Even among channels that can produce long-form content, Shorts could provide an opportunity to supplement and add to their content repertoire.

Normal videos, by contrast, tend to bias formats and creators who can produce long content quickly. In their whitepaper on collaborative filtering and the nature of candidate generation, YouTube described the goal of candidate generation and ranking as a “generally a simple function of expected watchtime per impression.” As a general rule then, creators were incentivized to maintain high watchtime (via both longer videos and high retention) as well as strong CTR to maximize watch time per impressions.

Shorts is shaking up watchtime

Shorts, by virtue of being autoplay, don’t have a real distinction between impressions and views, meaning CTR isn’t relevant to the Shorts shelf.  The one-minute limit prevents us from doing much to maximize watchtime (beyond trying to make content that merits more than one loop). Without having to concern themselves with these metrics, creators can make content that would struggle to exist in long-form videos, and give it a chance to thrive. The setup also gives Shorts a more lo-fi feel. Rather than 20-minute videos with high production values, Shorts can be simple sketches filmed vertically on a phone.

That said, Shorts also represent an exciting avenue for more typical channels as well. If a channel’s long-form content is costly and difficult to produce with frequency, then Shorts are an appealing alternative. It’s small wonder a wide variety of creators are playing in the space.

But do Shorts actually help us achieve a large and enthusiastic audience? Can they serve as a springboard into a successful content business? Can Shorts bolster the success of an already successful channel?

So should creators go all-in on short-form? Let’s check the data.

Little Monster has long maintained that one of the most important things a channel can do is solidify a single value proposition and deliver on it consistently. Shorts by their very nature will upset this balance for a large number of channels.

Even if we try to deliver on a similar format, shorter videos can alter the value proposition. Could Hot Ones work as a one-minute piece? If it can’t, can First We Feast see real benefit from adding Shorts into their roster anyway? What kind of Shorts should we look to produce?

There’s a lot of questions, and data has been scant.

In an attempt to shed light on Shorts and better understand their value, we partnered with Gospel Stats to investigate channels that have had a great deal of success with Shorts. While there are plenty of questions left to be answered, we believe we can start to investigate general strategies around optimizing Shorts both as an independent medium and as a companion to more long-form content.

In early February 2022, Gospel Stats began by creating a data set of approximately 70,000 channels based on these criteria:

  • No music channels
  • At least 10,000 views over 30 days
  • At least 10,000 average views per shorts over a 90-day period
  • No “made for kids” videos.

The goal of these criteria was to filter out channels that had no Shorts success to analyze. But note our only means by which we can distinguish something as a “short” video is to look at videos that are less than one minute, even if they are not a vertical Short (and thus not eligible for the Shorts shelf). Music stands a high chance of clouding the data with shorter videos that wouldn’t represent what we’re trying to analyze. Similarly, kids’ content doesn’t interact with the Shorts shelf normally.

From there, we filtered out a number of other channels based on a more stringent criteria. We included these restrictions to ensure channels that were operating from a place of quality. While content farms that upload thousands of videos with identical titles and thumbnails can accrue viewership, they aren’t a good lodestone for audience development.

The next round of channels we cut included:

  • Channels with no listed subscribers. It’s possible that subscriber metrics are simply hidden here, but whether hidden or truly at zero subscribers, these channels often correlated to channels that were new, channels with controversial content (that were also avoiding comments and likes), and channels that failed one of our other criteria.
  • Channels uploading more than 30 videos per day
  • Channels with negative viewership over the last 30 days (often occurs when a channel is frequently deleting/privating or forced to delete/private content as a result of community guideline issues)

In total, this left us with around 60,000 channels. We then analyzed this data through March and April 2022 and synthesized it into findings originally presented at Vidcon in June.

While our dataset is relatively permissive (29 uploads per day is still an obscene number of uploads in a day), it should help reduce the presence of unusual actors whose methods and techniques likely won’t help channels seeking normal organic viewership.

Once we filtered the data, we established a number of distinct groupings based around viewership, subscribers, and upload frequency to compare the performance of both short and long videos. This formed our basis for understanding Shorts and has become a set of working principles for Shorts content.

If you’re an established creator, you’ve got a better shot at making Shorts work

Because Shorts accrue viewership without requiring clicking on a video through normal means, they’re an enticing possibility for newer creators. After all, so long as YouTube places their videos on the Shorts shelf, they should have some ability to accrue viewership, right?

Possibly, but the reality of the situation is that larger channels will still do better here. You might think that lower-subscriber channels have an advantage as compared to long-form videos, but it doesn’t play out. Channels with more subscribers enjoy more views per video on average. We expressed this as VP90, or the average views per video over its first 90 days after being uploaded.

VP90 Vs. Subscriber Class

As we graduate from one subscriber class to the next, the one thing we might be able to say about Shorts is that there is less difference moving from sub-50k subscribers to more than 50k subscribers. The percentage change as we move up from one class to the next is much more minor here. Otherwise, it looks roughly the same between performance for short and long videos. 

Graph Comparing Percent Change in VP90 as subscribers increase.

When we look by viewership, we see much the same result.  Channels with higher viewership overall are those with higher viewership per video. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, but it indicates that we’re still mostly seeing Shorts success in channels that are already experiencing long-form success.

VP90 as compared to monthly views for a channel.

These channels are also much more likely to upload more frequently as well. Broadly speaking, the best channels are uploading more and seeing more success on each upload.

Comparison of upload frequency by monthly viewership class.

Broadly speaking, Shorts are not meaningfully different from long-form videos in how they distribute success.

The best channels will receive the most views. That success begets more success. Shorts, while perhaps having less production value, do not magically become an avenue by which channels can accrue success with no sense of best practices. On the one hand, this likely disappoints channels looking for easy wins. On the other hand, it demonstrates that there are best practices by which shorts can succeed.

Here’s what an ideal Shorts strategy looks like

Shorts should be at least 10 seconds long.

Overall, when it comes to the average video duration of videos, channels with an average duration of less than 10-15 seconds are unlikely to achieve strong viewership on any given video.

Comparison of the performance of shorts vs the duration of said shorts on average.

Granted, a relatively small number of channels upload videos that are this short on average, but it makes sense that videos should be at least this long.  Even if these videos are short, bite sized pieces of content.  They should still tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end.

Take, for example, the below Short from Kaden Lee. It’s a parkour video, so one might be tempted to think it’s merely a case of showing off a visually exciting stunt. However, he starts with a relatively simple stunt. Then he shows off a natural escalation of said stunt. Finally, he delivers on this escalated promise.

It’s not enough to have one impressive stunt. We want to deliver on that stunt in an exciting way. We do that by telling a story. If we were telling a joke, Shorts wouldn’t permit us to suddenly skip the setup and jump to the punchline.  It’s very hard to create a beginning, middle, and end over the course of only ten seconds, and unless you have a compelling way to do so, you shouldn’t try.

Choose a quality or quantity approach.

Previously at Little Monster, we identified that there existed two broad strategies that channels could use to achieve success. The first was to opt for seeking high quality content that uploaded only a few times per week. This strategy seeks to carefully curate each video, deliver on a single value proposition as strong as possible, and analyzes the results of videos carefully to determine what should be different about the next upload. 

A quantity play, by contrast, attempts to upload as many videos as possible and plays a numbers game. Under this strategy, we still seek to upload quality content, but we don’t worry much about the specific success and failure points of any given video, only observing results in broad trends.

Under this strategy, the sky’s the limit for the number of uploads. Between the large number of uploads, you’re bound to see some measure of viewership, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of uploads is bound to capture some attention. This tends to hold true in Shorts, though the absolute number of uploads is much higher.

Here’s a look at views per video in terms of quality versus quantity.

Overall, the fewer the number of Shorts we upload per day, the more likely any given Short is to succeed.

A comparison of shorts performance vs the frequency of shorts per day.

When we see this view, it suggests that we should be very cautious about uploading much more than a couple of Shorts per day, and we should.  If we plan to grow any kind of regular audience or fanbase, we want every video to succeed. However, if we look at VP90 multiplied by Shorts frequency, we see that aggregate viewership tends to increase as we upload more.

A comparison of aggregate views compared to shorts uploading frequency.

Mind, we have hardly any channels that attempt to upload more than five Shorts per day. Still, with up to five Shorts uploaded per day, we tend to see an increase in aggregate views.

A comparison of aggregate views vs upload frequency in shorts.

Similar to a quantity play in long-form videos, we end up spending less time focusing on building an honest audience, trusting in the raw numbers to work in our favor. Because YouTube biases fresher content, our own uploads will cannibalize views from uploads earlier in the day. As a strategy, this can accrue strong aggregate viewership, but it’s not exactly a method for building an audience.

Some content niches favor Shorts over long-form videos.

While some categories on YouTube tend to be stronger than others, there are differences in performance between short and long videos.

A comparison of shorts and long performance by category o YouTube

By the nature of our data collection, Shorts were always going to be higher, but what’s most interesting here is how certain categories are closer in VP90 than others.  If we take these categories and compare them as a ratio…

A comparison of the ratio of shorts/longs performance versus YouTube categories.

…we can see which categories tend to overperform and which tend to under perform. Comedy, travel, science, and education show some of the strongest returns. Meanwhile film, gaming, and entertainment tend to be perform worse.

One way we may be able to explain this is to consider the ease by which we can divide up these kinds of content.

Comedy, for example, can be divided into single jokes. Education could be divided into single factoids. A gaming video (outside of, perhaps, esports) is a touch harder to divide up into one-minute segments. The same holds true for films. 

Consider the difference between chess and poker. At a high level, tournament poker and competitive chess both take a long time to conclude a match. However, poker easily divides up into single hands, each which gives you a satisfying “dose” of poker. By comparison, there’s no way to divide up chess. From start to checkmate, there’s very little you can extract out of a full game that will feel like chess.

Just as we want Shorts to be long enough to tell a full story, we don’t want Shorts to feel like they are lacking critical context. This isn’t to say we should avoid Shorts in gaming or film, but it’ll require more care and finesse to create strong content.

Can Shorts views feed long-form traffic?

Another avenue that channels are excited to explore is the idea of using Shorts to bolster long-form content. If Shorts can effectively build subscribers in a channel primarily devoted to long-form viewership, then we can build audiences and increase our programming schedule without the need for adding another major video into the schedule.

Unfortunately, in practice, we often find that the more of one type of video a channel uploads, the less likely the other type will be.  If we take channels that upload primarily Shorts and compare them to other channels, we see that Shorts channels tend to see worse performance from long-form videos.

A comparison of the performance of longform videos on shorts and non-shorts channels.

Similar to our understanding of why some subjects are more powerful for Shorts than others, this generally seems to be a case of value proposition. 

If your channel is known mostly for long-form videos, then your audience will come to expect long content and will self select accordingly. If we suddenly start uploading short content, it’s far less likely to match the value proposition of our normal content, and therefore far less likely to entice viewers in. Conversely, a channel that mostly uploads Shorts won’t have an audience built to enjoy this kind of content. Shorts do not let us bypass the need for having a strong and consistent value proposition.

Since our research, YouTube has announced that shorts viewership will be considered in recommending long form content, though to what degree is still undetermined.

Can Shorts and long-form videos be complementary?

Under certain circumstances, they can. While there isn’t a single strategy by which Shorts can work for any channel, they have provided avenues for certain styles of channel to supplement their content. The main conceit here is that Shorts must somehow fit into or supplement our primary value proposition. There are a few broad ways to do this.

Use shorts on channels that are already uploading content on the short side.

If our content is already only one to two minutes long, then a Short will not feel very different from our long-form videos. Our audience will not be put off by Shorts, and any new audience from the Shorts shelf will feel right as home as well.  A common place to see something like this is in animation. A good example is GH’Studio‘s channel.

Use shorts on channels that deliver fast “kicks.”

We often discuss channels in terms of delivering a “kick,” or a small hit of dopamine. In something like Dude Perfect or How Ridiculous, their videos deliver a kick every few seconds. In this sense, even if their normal videos are much longer than a minute or two, they will still feel similar to short-form content.

Use shorts on channels centered around a personality.

A personality can be the defining value proposition for a channel. If our channel functionally sells itself on being connected to one person, then the specific format and length of a video may matter less. A personality can use Shorts to experiment with new ways to deliver content to their audience, such as MIKECRACK.

Use Shorts as supplements to videos that can’t be produced regularly.

Some content has value, but struggles to be produced on a weekly or even monthly basis. Shorts allow for us to provide something to our audience between long breaks. 

They can also be used to provide updates. For example, LegalEagle might spend a long time covering an ongoing case, and release a video before a verdict. When the verdict for a case does arrive, there’s not enough meat on the bone for a new long-form video, but our audience may want to hear something by way of update. A Short can serve as a follow up to the video without committing to a major time investment.

All that is to say…

…Shorts are not a silver bullet solution to audience development. They aren’t a secret route by which channels can suddenly accrue massive success with less effort. They are a somewhat separate set of videos with different parameters.

While this makes them, perhaps, less exciting and mysterious, it means they can be predicted and understood. If they can be understood, they can be optimized.

We remain intrigued by and optimistic about the potential of Shorts. With YouTube just starting to monetize Shorts, we are a ways away from seeing them emerge as a business model unto themselves. Still, strong channels willing to integrate Shorts into a cohesive value proposition and employ strong fundamentals can still see large audience growth.

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