One month ago, a dog I have never met died. His owners are YouTubers Simon and Martina, a Canadian couple who make videos about the delicious food they eat in Tokyo, where they live. After their extremely old, extremely beloved dog, Spudgy, peacefully passed away, they took to YouTube to drink and cry and tell stories about the best moments of their little dog’s life.
This messy, raw window into their world was so arresting that by the time I started wondering why, exactly, I was sniffling over an internet dog, I was over an hour into the video. I wasn’t alone. The 75-minute video drew an audience of well over 300,000 people, all willing to give up an hour and 15 minutes of their lives for a rambling pet eulogy.
My viewing habits (while admittedly eccentric) are actually what YouTube wants them to be. Long, long, long videos that last anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours have become not only common but successful on the platform.
That might seem counterintuitive. Not so long ago, YouTube videos resembled long-form Vines more than anything approaching a 22-minute sitcom. But as more people watch video via mobile, the lines between highly produced television show and a rough YouTube vlog have blurred. These days smartphone users spend a whopping 54 percent of their video-viewing time on videos over 20 minutes long—that’s up from just 29 percent in the beginning of 2016.
YouTube’s push for more money is leading its creators in a pivot from the industry’s established norms. The result has been a reinvention of what a YouTube video looks like—a shift that may well be the future of video entertainment. But there’s risk in letting notoriously fickle advertising money control your creative strategy. While these hour-long videos are here today, by next week they could be banished to the wastelands of un-monetizable content.
As videos balloon in length, YouTube genres are shifting dramatically. Makeup tutorials are seldom less than 12 minutes, and the popular “storytime” video genre is bursting with creators who spin yarns that last 45 minutes or more. Making short, shareable videos designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible has given way to something, not only longer, but more niche. It’s easy to chart that shift in long-running creators, like Jenna Marbles. Circa 2012, she was posting two-and-a-half-minute skits like “What Girls Do in the Bathroom in the Morning.” Now, these specific and bizarre glimpses into her life have expanded to 16-and-a-half minute videos on topics like “ Making My Dog a Bed Out Of Soap ”—and 10 million people will watch.
The simplest explanation for these swelling run times is straightforward business. As a new study from the Pew Research Center demonstrates, YouTube has been quietly shifting its recommendation system to reward lengthy videos. YouTube’s algorithm is famously opaque . So to reverse-engineer it, Pew researchers took more than 170,000 “random walks” through YouTube over a period of six weeks, letting the site’s recommendations be their guide. They ended up watching over 300,000 unique videos, but just two patterns emerged in the recommended video’s statistics: First, the recommendation algorithm drove viewers toward more and more popular creators. But the researchers also noticed that YouTube’s recommendations consistently increased in length: At first, they were nine and a half minutes, then 12, then 15.
In January, YouTube shifted its metrics to rewards channels based on “watch hours”: It now requires creators to have 1,000 subscribers and at least 4,000 watch-hours per year to receive ad revenue. (Before creators needed just 10,000 views over the lifetime of their channel.) “YouTube has never wanted to be the place of the 30-second video, even though many people still assume one to five minutes is the norm,” says Scott Fisher, CEO and founder of Select Management Group, which counts YouTube superstars like Gigi Gorgeous and LaurDIY among its clients. In reality, Fisher says, YouTube has a simple incentive for transforming the platform into a place that hosts long-form content: longer videos means more ads per video.
“YouTube has never wanted to be the place of the 30-second video, even though many people still assume one to five minutes is the norm."
Engorging run time is YouTube’s (and and Instagram ’s) answer to their persistent monetization problem. It’s difficult to make viewers sit through ads on short-form content—a 15-second ad on a 60-second video is enough to make anyone reach for an ad blocker—but running lots of ads is the only way to make hosting (or creating) the videos worthwhile. Upping a video’s length side-steps that problem. It is now entirely standard to have pre-, post-, and multiple mid-roll ads in long-form videos, which puts more dollars in YouTube’s (and its creators’) pockets and is only as annoying as commercial breaks on television.
But that strategy shake-up requires YouTubers—already at the mercy of the internet’s ever-changing yens—to upend their format, their aesthetic, and the norms of their industry. And while that has been daunting, many are gamely going along with YouTube’s plans. “If you make beauty videos, does that mean posting a half-hour video for a tutorial that otherwise would have been five minutes?” Fisher says. “The answer is yes. And it works.”
Ultra-successful beauty gurus like NikkieTutorials routinely post 20-minute videos that feel more like slumber party chats than straightforward how-tos. (Three years ago, Nikkie’s video run times topped out around 8 minutes.) YouTube’s long-form maestro, Shane Dawson, has reaped enormous reward with a multipart series of 45-minute (or longer) episodes deep-diving into the lives other YouTubers. It’s not just the celebrities that have found long-form working for them, either: Now YouTube is a place for peaceful, 45-minute tours through gardens and half-hour lessons in leather shoe restoration and hour-long histories of just about anything you might be curious about.
That strategy shakeup requires YouTubers—already at the mercy of the internet’s ever-changing yens—to upend their format, their aesthetic, and the norms of their industry
Those blocks of time should seem familiar, because they mirror the conventions of television. Landing a TV show used to be the endgame for many YouTube creators (and for some, it still is), but others are effectively turning their YouTube channels into TV shows instead. One of the platform’s latest features, Premieres , gives YouTubers the ability to create landing pages to promote upcoming videos prior to their release and build episodic excitement. Some marketers have taken to calling this strategy the “ sofa mentality ,” the idea that YouTube is now, much like must-see TV, a habitual practice for viewers, something many people (especially young people) curl up with every evening.
YouTube is banking on this strategy to take the platform from an online social network to a bona fide entertainment network. They’re hoping (so far, correctly) that creators will hop aboard and learn to make that happen. That strategy, though, is risky. YouTube is insulating against failure with features like Memberships , which is basically in-house Patreon, and ecommerce tools that help creators to sell merchandise directly from their channels. It’s too early to tell whether this strategy will stick, or if it’s due to be added to the pyre of failed monetization schemes. If the ad revenue stops coming, creators will scramble to reinvent themselves anew once again.
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