A Bigger is Better Shaving Mirror

What YouTubers can learn from Buskers

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After largely dismissing and avoiding YouTube for years, I have begun watching it more often lately. Perhaps I was late to the party, but I think there are finally some good “content providers” that aren’t a complete waste of time.

But I’m still annoyed at how many of them devote excessive time to begging for “likes and subscribes” in every video they produce. Not only is it viewer unfriendly, it’s demeaning and wrongheaded. And, frankly, the hamhandedness with which it’s usually done is worse than a protracted PBS pledge drive.

Because of this phenomenon, most YouTube videos are proof of The Wadsworth Constant: “the first 30% of any video can be skipped because it contains no worthwhile or interesting information.”

The people making the videos believe they’re begging for their own benefit, but the master being served is Google. Sure, by increasing your “likes,” your video might get suggested to more viewers. And if enough of those people decide to subscribe, your video might become eligible for playing ads, but those are literally the crumbs from Google’s table. Make no mistake, you are a serf feeding the King while being allowed to keep a few of the crops for yourself. (I feel the same way about the user recruitment schemes used by Trip Advisor and Yelp.)

But setting that aside, the main issue I have is that video creators are making their pitch at the wrong moment — that is, right up front. How do I know if I “like,” or want to see more, when I haven’t yet watched it? It’s as silly as the NYT website that immediately pops up a subscription offer before I’ve had time to read the first paragraph of an article. The right time to hook me is when I’ve completed watching, and presumably enjoyed, the content.

Street performing, a fine tradition with hundreds of years of experience, has solved the puzzle of when to ask an audience for money. YouTubers should learn from the busking tradition and ask for clicks when attention — and presumably appreciation — has peaked. (YouTubing is essentially digital street performing, right?)

Now sure, not everyone is going to watch all the way to the end (particularly if it’s 30+ minutes long, another sore point for me), but if someone bails out early, are they likely to want more in the future? Letting viewers go who are walking out early is not likely to be hurting your subscription numbers.

I don’t know if YouTube provides statistics to publishers that would help find the best moment for the plea. Do people leave your video in the middle by clicking a suggestion in the sidebar? Are they closing the window? Does the browser lose focus while they watch, implying they are no longer paying attention? All of those measures could be used to pitch “subscribe” to the people who will be your best audience.

There are some YouTubers who get it right. JP Coovert, for example, makes his pitch towards the end of his videos, after he’s provided valuable information. It’s the perfect time to ask for reciprocity. Mary Spender also consistently includes compelling and well-timed pitches. (Not surprisingly, given that she’s also a busker.)

YouTubers, follow their lead, please.

(Photo by Tania Alieksanenko)

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