What YouTube’s policy change means for smaller video creators

Two days ago, YouTube announced changes to its Partner Program. Apart from being communicated fairly poorly, and causing some substantial confusion about the ongoing availability of some features, the announcement went relatively un-remarked upon, especially by larger content creators. Which is surprising to me, but in hindsight, shouldn’t be.

Now, to bring you up to speed, here’s what’s changing:

Currently
Creators with 10,000 lifetime views on their channels, can apply to be a part of the YouTube Partner program which opens up the ability to monetize your videos. There’s no watch time requirement, no subscriber requirement, and it’s a relatively low bar for entry. (Though I can tell you, those first 10,000 views are often the hardest to get as a new content creator.)

As of February 20th, 2018
Creators must have 1,000 subscribers to their channel AND must have 4,000 hours of watch time (or 240,000 minutes of people’s eyeballs on their content) within the previous 365 days, to qualify to apply for YouTube Partnership.

YouTube has pitched this as something that won’t affect the majority of YouTube creators, and as a way to deal with some of the “bad actors” and copyright violators they’ve had running rampant on the platform. In their blog post, YouTube says:

“Though these changes will affect a significant number of channels, 99% of those affected were making less than $100 per year in the last year, with 90% earning less than $2.50 in the last month.”

Which sounds okay right? It’s only the tiny hobby creators who aren’t trying to be a part of the big game that this hurts, and if it makes the platform safer and less prone to content theft and “bad actors” it’s totally worth it. And, in some ways, I do agree with this logic. I want the platform to be better and safer too.

But the lack of acknowledgement to some key ways that this disproportionately hurts smaller and newer creators is, frankly, infuriating.

So, let me outline a few key ways that this policy shift is a big deal to smaller creators.

Feelings

I start with feelings only because it’s the thing I’m hearing most at the moment from other small creators. We feel betrayed, disenfranchised, let down, and like YouTube is pulling the rug out from under us with these new requirements. And that’s not wrong to feel that way. It stings.

But we forgot that YouTube is not in the business of making our lives better as creators. They are in the business of making money.

There have been clues all along the way that YouTube is prioritizing the needs of advertisers over the needs of creators. (The backlash from adpocalypse anyone?)

But the feeling is akin to running a 5K, and when you’re just 50 meters from what you thought was the finish line, hearing that the race directors have suddenly moved the finish line another 5K up the road…oh, and there aren’t any more water stations either. It’s the ultimate “JUST KIDDING!” hoodwink, and it sucks. The rules changed mid-game, and a lot of us are disheartened and frustrated by that, with good reason.

But there’s much more going on here than just creators feeling bummed out. So let’s move on to some of the more salient issues that affect the number, and trajectory, of small creators in BIG ways.

Money

There’s been this toxic idea floating around, created by YouTube and perpetuated by a lot of larger creators, that says “well, these smaller creators weren’t making money anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

Yes. We know. We weren’t making money…YET.

The way the system works currently, you can see the pennies of ad revenue creep up over time, and once you hit that $100 mark, YouTube sends you a check. (Woo hoo!) The argument is that these new standards are equivalent to that $100 mark, so if you aren’t hitting those standards, you’re not seeing a paycheck anyway.

But this is where pacing comes in. I’ve been monetizing my content for a little over a year now and have been watching the pennies trickle in. I’m currently sitting at about $60. Not much in the grand scheme of things, sure. But I’d probably be hitting that magical $100 mark this year. And that’s pretty motivating.

But the new requirements require a higher level of watch times within the last year, not the slow and steady accrual over a few years (see the Time section below for more on this.) So if I wanted to keep on pace to make $100 every year and a half, or every two years, I can’t do that anymore.

And this is where I say, to all of the creators who are making “real” money on the platform:

Just because that $100 doesn’t seem like much to you, doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly valuable to someone else.

That $100 over a year or two or even three, might mean new equipment or software to try something else cool and innovative. It might mean helping pay a bill that month. It might just be some extra pocket cash. But regardless, it has value, even if it’s accrued over a longer time frame.

So don’t patronize me with “well they weren’t making any real money anyway, so why are they so upset?”

As a woman building my business, the tiny slice of the YouTube ad revenue pie that was growing slowly but surely, signaled the potential for a future passive revenue stream for me. Not a big one anytime soon, sure. But the potential was there. It added to my sense that it was worth it to keep plugging away at making videos.

Unfortunately, the intoxicating potential of actually being paid, no matter how little, for cool stuff we make, had us all a little blinded.

Now, this is where I acknowledge that ad revenue is a poor model to plan on, which is why I haven’t been planning on ad revenue alone. I’ve started a Patreon, and I’m diversifying in other areas of my business. Because I have to. This YouTube policy shift is just the latest hurdle in a long line of hurdles to building a business. But it requires a significant shift in my plans, and in how I think about my videos and their value as a part of my business.

Time

The issue of the pace of content production is my biggest beef with this new policy. So, let’s talk numbers.

I’ve been on the platform (on my channel Developmental Enthusiast) for about 2.5 years now, uploading relatively consistently, but not as diligently as I could, partly because I had other priorities to manage. Over that time, I’ve been able to attract 826 subscribers (which I’m thrilled by!) so I’m fairly close on the new subscriber metrics of 1,000 subs (woo hoo!) But in the last 365 days, my watch time sits at 70,893 minutes (of the required 240,000.)

UGH.

There are several reasons for my lower watch times, the first being the type of content I tend to upload. I prefer shorter videos, for a host of reasons. They’re a challenge to make, but I like working hard to be concise. I create largely educational content with the hope it will be used in other spaces like classrooms, professional development trainings, or presentations — and I’ve used them in all of those settings! The shorter content is a part of my video strategy.

But the pacing is the real kicker. I work to upload videos once every 2 weeks. I haven’t been that consistent over the last two years though, in part because of other priorities, but in part because of production time. In order to compete with a lot of other content on YouTube, I’m working long and hard on my videos to make them as high quality as possible. I do this not only to try to make my content more discoverable on YouTube, but I do it because it’s important to me to make high quality content for my audience.

But this shift in the yearly watch time requirement means that I would have to MORE THAN TRIPLE my current watch times WITHIN A 365 DAY WINDOW in order to hit the new standard to qualify for monetization again.

It’s the “within a 365 day window” part that is the problem here, and the part that a lot of larger content creators seem to miss.

In order to reach the pacing necessary to hit that mark, I will have to upload longer content, more quickly in order to have any hope of hitting those marks.

It requires me to effectively shift my entire strategy and go “all in” to YouTube to make that possible. And frankly, that’s not always feasible for creators like me, who are doing YouTube as a part of their larger creative endeavors.

YouTube’s policy shift signals it cares about only one model: Go all in (and kill yourself creating content and jumping through hoops to hit these metrics), or go home (we didn’t want your content here anyway because it doesn’t make us money.)

As a corporate business decision, and as a way to address the larger problems YouTube is facing, I understand it.

But from the perspective of a small creator, we just got shown the door and told we’re not welcome here.

Essentially, the new policy lacks a nuance of understanding how some creators use the platform. I’m not using YouTube as my whole business strategy, but it’s a PART of it. But pouring myself into YouTube to try to run their rat race, in hopes of one day being able to monetize my content again, is probably not a smart business move for me.

So the rules have changed. Which, fine, I’ll pivot. But I’m pretty likely to pivot away from the platform entirely, as will a lot of other small creators I suspect.

And it’s not just because we got our feelings hurt. It’s because we’ve seen very clearly that we can’t trust YouTube as a stable place to create in the ways that work for us.

Related…the timing of Twitch’s announcement of their new feature allowing uploads of pre-made videos is intriguing…hmmm…(but I digress….)

Value

There’s also a value judgement regarding this shift. With this change, older content, which we’ve been earning money on all along, will cease to make money going forward, until we hit those numbers again.

This video, which was the 4th video I made on my channel, is far and away the most viewed, and has earned me the most pennies.

But, basically, You Tube just said “Hey, you know how you were slowly accruing money on that great content you made a few years ago? Well, we’re gonna stop giving you money for that going forward. Oh, and also, you need to work twice as hard on your channel in the next year FOR FREE in order to have the opportunity to get paid for THE SAME CONTENT again…cool?”

No. Not cool.

It’s especially insulting because it basically says “your content was once valuable, but it’s not anymore.” Which, okay, fine. I understand that content might depreciate in value over time. But the slap in the face is that this content will suddenly have value again, when you hit this completely arbitrary metric YouTube’s decided to hang its value hat on.

It’s not like they’ve offered to grandfather anyone into the partner program based on years on the platform, or channel consistency, or any other measure. Don’t hit these specific metrics of value to YouTube? Nope, you’re out.

What they could have approached with some sense of nuance and respect for creators who have been adding value (no matter how small) to their platform over the last several years, they instead bludgeoned with a blunt axe. (They have a history of this kind of behavior too. I’ve had colleagues get mistakenly caught up in the net of sweeping policy changes in the kids content world, for example.)

And I get they have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. This is the line they can deal with because it hurts the people who are the smallest, and thus have the smallest megaphones to articulate why this policy is a problem. It’s the easy way out.

Oh, and by the way, who’s to say if I bust my butt to hit these new metrics, they’re not just going to change the rules again anyway?

So now, the question for me is, simply:

To what degree am I willing to chase YouTube’s new metrics, potentially at the expense of other opportunities for my business?

That’s not an easy question. I love making videos. I see they have value. I didn’t start a YouTube channel for the ad revenue. But the policy shift DOES significantly change the game I’ve been playing. So I, and so many other smaller creators, have to decide where to draw the line in the sand, and where to move next.

New Creators

YouTube has always billed itself as one of the only places on the internet where creators can build an audience, AND earn a part of the ad revenue in exchange. They were the only platform for a while that actually shared money with its creators, no matter how small. The promise of the potential to get paid for what you make was an alluring part of YouTube for a lot of creators, no matter the size of the paycheck.

But now, the bar for entry into the “cool kids club” is too high for most new creators to justify the cost.

I’m honestly curious to see how much of a decline we’ll see in new creators starting channels over the next year. Personally, I can’t in good conscience recommend starting a YouTube channel to anyone who wants to make online video ad revenue a small part of their business model. If you want to do it as a hobby? Sure, great, go for it. If you want to grow it into a vibrant, sustainable passive income source? Maybe try Twitch instead.

The landscape of opportunity has changed. And that’s fine; that’s what opportunities do over time. I’ll adjust, because that’s what I do.

But you can’t tell me the big creators of the world would have been “totally cool” if this kind of change had happened to them when they were struggling to figure out if their channel was sustainable long term.

And it’s pretty disappointing how quickly so many of them have forgotten that reality.


I’d love to hear from other small creators: What barriers does this new policy create for you? Will you keep making videos? Are you looking at trying a different platform? Let’s talk in comments.

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