The YouTube #Hashtag is Eating Your Lunch

33M subscribers — that’s how many people subscribe to YouTube’s #News channel. Identified by the # symbol at the beginning of the channel name, hashtag channels are automatically generated by YouTube to aggregate content on a particular subject. They’re also very bad for established media companies working to build an audience on YouTube.

If 33M sounds like a big number, that’s because it is. If you were to combine the total number of YouTube subscribers to channels from ABC News, CNN, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The WSJ, Sky News, CBS News, The Guardian, Fox News, Reuters, NBC News & The Washington Post, you’d still be short by about 27M.

The reason for the sizable difference in subscriber count is simply that YouTube promotes these channels ahead of all others.

When browsing YouTube channels, it’s the auto-generated channels that are prioritized

This can be seen during the sign up process, when browsing new channels to subscribe to, and from their regular appearance in the recommended channel list. This is not because YouTube knows nothing about you on arrival to the site. If they chose to, YouTube could recommend to me the CNBC channel based upon my reading an article on their site a few days ago. Instead, YouTube encourages me to subscribe to its own #News channel.

The role of an aggregator is simply to surface relevant content for the viewer. In an ideal world, the aggregator will reserve some semblance of quality across the content being surfaced. This may be determined by the reputation of the publisher or the popularity of the content, for example. YouTube’s hashtag channels take a slightly different approach. According to the support page:

You don’t need to do anything except follow the normal best practices for discovery of a video: Have a really good title and description.
Remember to focus on quality of tags rather than the quantity.

Title and tags. That’s it. Not a single mention of the actual content that people are there to watch. The result of this approach is that content from a reputable publisher such as the Washington Post will frequently appear alongside lessor know publishers like slow911.

A story playlist from the #News YouTube channel

Why then is YouTube claiming subscribers for itself and devaluing top media brands by placing them alongside the latest upload from anyone with an iPhone? It’s not due to the popularity of the video or the time at which it was uploaded. The truth is that it all comes down to the way in which ads are purchased online.

The most sophisticated ad buyers, and therefore those with the largest budgets, are interested in purchasing an audience, regardless of what they may be watching at the time. To that end, YouTube is interested in a user watching a video, any video, in order to serve an ad. If a viewer is subscribed to a hashtag channel, there’s an endless number of videos available to support the placement of an ad. Alternatively, if a viewer is subscribed to a publisher’s channel, the number of ad placement opportunities is limited to the frequency in which the publisher uploads new videos. And from what it looks like, it’s a strategy that appears to be working given there are now hashtag channels for even the most niche topics.

The lesson here is that building an audience on a platform other than one that you control comes with a great deal of risk. For at anytime, the platform may choose to compete directly with you for subscribers, and even worse, leverage your very own content to do so.

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