YouTube Fitness Is Broken
Let me preface this piece by saying that for my first year of YouTube, I’m happy with my growth. Thrilled, actually. Going from zero to ten thousand subscribers is something I’ve worked extremely hard for, and many bigger fitness YouTubers that I’ve talked to were very encouraging about this early growth. I’ve put easily a thousand or more hours into my channel, and everyone has been really supportive so I can’t really be too disgruntled. I genuinely love making videos and interacting with the viewers.
That being said…YouTube is broken. Being inside the system looking in makes that so much more clear than when I consumed fitness content. This article will not be providing fixes or solutions; it is merely addressing that there are many major problems with the platform in regards to fitness content.
The Three Major Problems
Content discovery is incredibly broken. As a content consumer, you might not really worry about this, but for a creator? It’s our livelihood.
Out of 220+ videos this year…perhaps 5–10 of them placed in search at all. Polling my subscribers, only three percent of them discovered my channel through search. As a small content creator, you cannot place in search for anything mainstream, it just gets absolutely buried under a decade of content that already has the metrics that they are looking for.
The majority of content that places in search has a name in the title; this explains why response videos, call-outs, natty-or-nots and the like are all staples of most big channels. Trying to place for “bench press” is not going to happen.
Same thing for suggested videos. Out of the top fifty videos that drove traffic to my videos…forty eight were my own. I am only placing in suggested videos…for my own content, what’s the point of that? Sure, people can watch another video of mine if they liked the first, but this doesn’t help the channel grow.
The Mysterious Algorithm
This is when YouTube systems pick up a high performing video and suddenly places it in front of a very, very large audience. This could be months or even years after the video is created — sometimes it’s even on channels that are thoroughly dead.
Here are another couple — the channel had so few views before the algo struck that there was no red line, a channel really went from almost zero views to over a million in a day just because one video got “picked up”.
However, there seems to be absolutely zero correlation between quality content and what gets distributed. Let me repeat that, because it’s the heart of the problem:
Bad content does better than good content.
If people are clicking and watching, it’ll keep showing this trainwreck to people.
That’s tough to explain to people. That because my content is informative and useful are the very reasons that it doesn’t do well.
So What Stats Actually Matter?
What primarily determines the success of a YouTube video — and thus of a YouTube channel — are click through rate (CTR) and watch time.
That’s basically it.
Tags don’t matter at all any more. Many top creators don’t even bother.
Description also doesn’t seem to have any impact at all. Most big YouTubers might have twenty words here just to show up in search results.
Comments? They used to be a factor, but now, they don’t even seem to matter. I might get 10–50x the YouTube average on comments, due to a very consistent and supportive fanbase, but that has had minimal impact.
Same for “likes”. A very high rate on my channel, often over 10% of total views, but seemingly no effect at all. Dislikes seem to actually be more effective…
They dumbed down the algo to only really care about if people are clicking on it, and how long they are watching. Nothing else.
I watch a lot of channels that talk about how to get better at YouTube. I’ve slowly realized two things:
- Many were full of shit. As a small YouTuber, search, suggested and organic growth are sort of a pipe dream. Optimizing your tags is just silly.
- The ones that weren’t full of shit…all of their advice can be boiled down to: get people to click, then get them to stay. Everything else is secondary to the point of being useless to focus on.
Clicks and Viewer Retention Are King
So, you must get a lot of clicks. Ten percent or more if possible. This means clickbait. This means controversy. This means drama, and entertainment, and call-outs and accusations and he said-she said bullshit. This means exploiting the stupid side of humanity in order to advance your channel. It sucks but it’s entirely YouTube’s fault for devising a system that prioritizes click through rate above all else. I’m not sure how sustainable this is.
Then…you must keep people watching. This means being exciting, upbeat, lots of cut scenes, never the same frame for more than three seconds, abs and boobies, emotions, extreme workouts, plot tension, pranks, explosions…exactly what is counterproductive for nuanced, educational content. People want a 24 arm workout, or 6 minute abs. They don’t want to hear about moderation and consistency. They want to be yelled at, or see some ridiculous cringy bullshit. They want to see girls picked up at the gym, not how to elevate their own training.
It’s the modern world and YouTube is trying to capture and keep as many eyeballs as possible — having TikTok as competition has ruined what made YouTube great. It prevents creators going into detail on many topics because too many people will click away, and thus almost no one will see the video, even if it’s overall more helpful.
I know exactly how to do the above. It’s clear who is successful, and why, which is why so many bigger channels just get copycats. But it’s also really hard to do those and be true to creating content that is actually quality.
Here’s a dirty little secret: if someone subscribes to your channel, they will see your videos…at least at first. But every time they don’t click on your content, it becomes less likely that they’ll see your content again in the future. Eventually, they simply will never see your videos surface again.
You’ve used YouTube, right?
Think about all the channels you are subbed to and yet never see their videos on your home page. You stopped clicking, and they stopped showing you them. If you see a content creator once, twice, thrice…and don’t click, they are pretty much dead to your feed.
What does this mean for a content creator?
It means that every video matters. Every. Single. One.
If you have a video on a topic that people don’t click on, it doesn’t just hurt that video. It hurts all your videos, especially the ones right after that. If a video bombs, it drags down everything.
But this is an absolutely terrible situation for creators, because some of the most important topics just won’t get clicked on very much! For example, I made a video about how to help prevent night time binging.
Incredibly important video, that helps a small portion of the population immensely, and has the power to actually positively impact lives. It was well received. A ton of people were genuinely thankful, and still send messages about it months later.
But…total flop! #10 out of #10 on recent videos, by a mile. Super low click through rate, which is expected: most people just don’t care about night time binging.
I knew it would do badly. And I made the video anyway.
But if I made a video calling out some influencer with a million instagram followers, or reacting to a controversial topic, it would be #1 or #2 on recent videos. Guaranteed. Even if it’s by far and away a less helpful topic.
Out of my top twelve most viewed videos, ten include another person’s name. That represents a tiny fraction of my 220+ videos, most of which are not controversial, yet they all do overwhelmingly well.
Content creators are forced to decide whether to create bad content for the algorithm or good content for people.
Education flops, entertainment flys.
But that’s exactly the opposite of what is actually helping people, or of why someone should be creating videos in this industry in the first place. I can honestly — and sadly — say that my best content goes largely undiscovered, not just by the platform as a whole, but by subscribers as well.
This has lead to a lot of larger creators creating secondary channels for themselves, and posting more regularly on there. KSI has his main channel of 22.4 million subs, but has only posted there twice in the past month.
On his side channel of 11.8 million subs, he posts much more often — and actually has more than double the views!
Why? Because he can post “lower” quality, more frequent videos on his secondary channel for his more hardcore fans without killing his bigger channel when less hardcore fans don’t click on them.
Mr. Beast has no less than six channels: his main one, a gaming channel, and a reaction channel, plus a second channel, a channel for shorts and even a channel merely labelled “don’t subscribe” that has amassed nearly a million people who don’t have very well-developed reading skills.
All just to keep segmentation, and stop their main channel from losing momentum or losing reach due to content dilution, while still being able to reach true fans.
So for smaller creators, what can you do?
You can’t place in search for all but most obscure, unsearched-for-anyway terms. You can’t collab because who’s going to collab with someone with no following? You can’t get a following because no one sees your videos. You can’t place in suggested as you don’t have the views.
You. Are. Screwed.
You might hear about the occasional, rare success story, but when you hear titles like:
“This guy proves it’s still possible to make it on YouTube in 2021!”
…then you find out that he did multiple collabs with YouTubers with tens of millions of subs and it wasn’t organic at all, he had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on stunts that just happened to pay off…
Is that not a sign that things are pretty dire?
I guess you pay for ads. That seems to be the solution that most social media companies are happy to push. You pay for reach, because organic growth for creators willing to do things the right way is pretty damn dead.