Many of you long-time fans of WWMM have been asking why I haven’t been posting as many videos on YouTube as I used to. The short answer is that I’ve been busy making videos…lots and lots of videos for my next online course, The Weekend Workshop. In fact, I’ve been completely transforming my shop and I can’t wait to give you a shop tour soon.
And just so you know, I’ll be back with much more frequent content soon.
First, I want to talk about the YouTuber life cycle curve. Derrik over at Veritassium posted a great video back in May describing this phenomenon.
Basically, nearly all YouTube channels will rise to a peak of popularity, then decline. There are a few exceptions, but this is universally true for almost all creators. You can look at the channel history of any channel that’s been around awhile and see how the numbers follow this curve.
If this were TV, most older channels, including mine would have been canceled long ago. People lose interest and move on. And with fewer people watching a creator’s videos, YouTube has no interest in recommending them. Remember, YouTube is only interested in watch time. If you are a creator who can make a bare minimum of quality content, quantity is far more important.
My Channel’s Peak
The peak of a channel’s popularity seems to occur between 4 and 7 years. I started YouTube in 2008 and for me, the peak was in 2015 and 16. I was churning out not just videos, but project videos on a weekly basis all year long.
Naturally, this is unsustainable for independent creators. There are so many creators on YouTube and so much competition today…especially in the woodworking/maker arena that creator burnout is inevitable. Of course, YouTube couldn’t care less about burnout, its algorithm will simply move on to the next creator who is starting to crank out content on a regular basis. The quality of content is largely irrelevant.
This can be extremely disheartening for creators. Especially when our skills as presenters, filmmakers, editors and specifically woodworkers continues to improve. Just as content creators really start to hit their stride and their quality improves, the YouTuber life cycle curve is already heading downward, There is a point of diminishing returns.
Then comes the overall demise of how-to content on YouTube. At one point, YouTube was very interested in educational shows…I even attended a meeting at YouTube once to discuss the future of educational channels. It looked very bright. But the reality is that it is impossible to make a living creating instructional videos on this platform alone. The numbers just aren’t there.
What works better is a lean-back experience. These are the vast majority of woodworking and maker channels…the watch me build something you probably won’t channels. This is the maker version of the let’s play video. The let’s-build video. Minimal camera shots with high-speed footage giving viewers an overview of what the builder made. Sometimes with voice-overs recorded after the project is completed.
I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to minimize this style in any way. I watch them too and they’re a lot of fun. My project videos followed a similar pattern…they all contain educational elements, a tip here and there, but the primary goal isn’t to teach in any kind of concise, meaningful manner. Most people are satisfied to simply watch other people do things. Most people who enjoy watching football, will never play themselves.
YouTube adsense doesn’t pay much…not really enough to earn a living wage, at least where I live, so enter…the Sponsorship system.
I did my first sponsored spot in 2013. It was an Audible ad. Back then, audible was like Square space, Skillshare, or <ahem> Nord VPN…everybody was doing them. Over time, more and more sponsors came in making offers anyone would be crazy to pass up. I always tried to make my ad spots fun…something people would enjoy watching. It was good money, I had a lot of creative freedom and they were actually fun to make.
The Sponsor Dilemma
Eventually, advertisers started demanding more and more control over their message presentation, requiring a list of bullet points be met with every ad, specific language, as well as demanding a minimum number of views per video, which dictates the type of video you make. They needed to approve every 60-second spot and expect edits. I was spending an inordinate amount of time working on the ads instead of building things out of wood. Not only that, but they started to require a mention at the very beginning of each video, too. This left a lot less room for creativity, which is why almost every sponsored spot you see on YouTube today sounds nearly identical. Keep in mind that these are permanent ads…once the video is posted the ads can’t be removed, aside from re-editing the video and re-uploading. This is something some creators are now doing and I’ve been considering.
Today, sponsored spots in videos are ubiquitous. Some guys plug multiple products in the course of a single video, which is a surefire way to destroy any community you have. It’s good short term income, but sponsorships begin to erode YouTube channels. Look at the reality: what do you do when you start to smell an ad? You skip over it. I’ve gotten pretty good at the 10-second forward double-tap. Most viewers understand that sponsored ads are important to keep creators in the business, but they are also an inconvenience that we skip.
And when I began looking into my analytics, this became clear. When viewers skip large chunks of a video, the overall viewer engagement or audience retention rate goes down. YouTube sees this as a sign that people aren’t very interested in your content and begins recommending your videos less and less. And right now viewer retention is the most important metric the algorithm sees.
Even though the strategy for advertisers is to blanket the platform with as many creators as possible to get their messages across, I have a suspicion the sponsorship bubble will eventually burst for all but the biggest channels as YouTube comes to resemble tv more.
An unfortunate bi-product of the sponsorship model is that creators begin to tailor video content to fit the product…I’ve done this myself. Every time a maker gets a free TV or motorized lift, you can expect yet another TV stand. Or we begin to crank out videos just for the sake of getting something posted to appease an advertiser. We shift our focus from making content that appeals to viewers or even ourselves, to third party interests.
Bottom line: this simply became a game I was no longer interested in playing. So in December of 2018, I completed my final sponsor obligation and haven’t included a sponsor in a video since. Almost immediately, I began to see my view counts, subscription rate and engagement increase. It was pretty dramatic. I won’t say that I’ll never do sponsored spots again, but if I do, it will need to be very lucrative.
My annual income took a huge hit, but it left me free to promote my own products instead of someone else’s, all the while providing honest value to viewers of Woodworking for Mere Mortals.
Project Videos vs. Educational Videos
There was another interesting thing I began to notice a few years ago. Project videos…videos where I actually make something…were the videos that generated the least views. Videos where I discuss woodworking topics perform much better.
As a woodworker, this is very frustrating because making things is what I enjoy doing the most. I’m sure the same is true with maker channels too. There is nothing more deflating than working many long hours to build a project and edit it into a cool video and have hardly anyone watch it.
Too Many Woodworking Channels
One of the problems here is saturation. There are hundreds of woodworking channels and over a thousand maker channels now. It’s a lot of competition for eyeballs and there are only so many variations on a coffee table you can make. I joke about this a lot, but seriously, I think we’ve reached peak river table. For most projects people post on youtube, I can look at the thumbnail picture of the project and know enough about it that I don’t need to bother watching the video. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? My maker subscription feed is basically pinterest.
So, as creators we start to play the thumbnail game adding as many circles, arrows and YouTube scream-face poses as possible. One exclamation point won’t do it…every title needs three.
The other route is to make projects that are outrageous enough that people want to watch. Knives and other weapons seem to be a good choice here lol. More power to those few people who can consistently create this stuff.
Again, these are lean-back experiences. You might pick up a few tips and you might consider them inspirational, but mostly the “look what I can do” videos exist for fun.
So when I looked at the numbers on my project videos, I noticed that although they are my least viewed, they have my most highly engaged viewers. These are people who are motivated, and seriously want to try woodworking. This was a light bulb moment for me…I realized that these are the lives I want to impact. I refined my channel to focus content even tighter for the beginning woodworker. I no longer wanted to showcase my ego projects, but want to provide a genuine service to an underserved community: new woodworkers without the massive dream shops and expensive woodworking tools so common on YouTube.
And that’s when I created my own product, The Weekend Woodworker back in 2017, as a way to offer honest, structured, comprehensive, step-by-step woodworking instruction for beginning woodworkers from a guy with years of experience. Since then I have affected over 10,000 lives…members who didn’t know anything about woodworking are now building all kinds of things. This is the most personally rewarding point in my career.
I love teaching. Finally, I am able to produce the kind of content I love to make: educational products that go beyond videos, with structured training modules, understandable plans, tips and community.
But the best part is that I’ve discovered more about myself and why I enjoy woodworking so much. I’ve embraced life with fewer and fewer tools. I’ve purged over half of my shop and since June, I’ve been having an absolute blast reworking my entire shop into a super-efficient, more minimal system that frees me from thinking that I need more or better tools or I need more space to be happy. For the first time ever, I can actually park a car in this space. Not that I would make a habit of this, but not everyone has the same privilege as me. If I’m going to preach about small space woodworking, I’m going to live it and embrace it. And get this, I’ve been able to make some of the most kick-ass projects ever, with less clutter and fewer distractions. I feel more energetic and excited about woodworking than ever before. For me to produce the high-quality educational content I want to make and put it on YouTube for a very small audience would be a really, really ill-advised business decision.
My relationship with YouTube has evolved, just like creators evolve. One of the most cliched comments all YouTubers get is, “I miss the old you”. What they are really saying is that they don’t understand how people grow and change. I remember hearing Joe Penna, Mystery Guitar Man joking about this back in 2013 or so when he started changing his content and pursuing new professional goals. This year he made a feature film called Arctic, one of my favorite films of the year, that wouldn’t have ever happened is he had stuck to only making his fun music videos on YouTube.
The other cliched comment all YouTubers get…especially woodworkers and makers when they aren’t churning out content is, “I guess you’ve run out of ideas”. Most likely these are from people who have never done anything creative in their lives. Ideas don’t work like that. People aren’t just born with an allotment of ideas and after you’ve used them up, no more ideas! Ideas are fluid and constant…I have more ideas and goals now than ever, even if they don’t end up on YouTube. For me to produce the high-quality educational content I want to make and put it on YouTube for a very small audience would be a really, really ill-advised business decision.
So that’s why I don’t post as much on YouTube. I simply don’t have enough time because I’m making the videos I love making and reaching the people I want to impact the most.
But I still love YouTube…I watch videos all the time. If you want to be successful on YouTube, you have to also be a dedicated, engaged user of the platform and support user-made content.
Once I wrap up The Weekend Workshop, I’ll be able to get back to a much more regular upload schedule but on my terms, hyper-focused on providing value to my viewers rather than chasing an ever-changing algorithm.
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