What YouTube Subscriber Numbers Actually Mean

I recently made a video called Why I Keep Going Even Though My Channel is Small. I’ve run into a few people who objected to the description because I have almost 3,000 subscribers. There’s a sense in which this is true, and I actually address that in the video. The video was answering a question that someone asked me about why people with small channels like mine keep going. I started with describing the proper perspective and moved on to the point is to give to others knowledge and understanding that I’ve been given and there’s a division of labor here: it’s my job to make the videos and tell people about them as best I can, and God’s job to figure out who should actually see them and arrange the world such that they do. However many or few people that is God knows, not me.

That said, the number of subscribers to a channel like mine that’s been around for years can be misleading. You might think that this is the number of people who want to watch my videos, but it’s actually the number of people who, at some point over the last several years, thought for at least a moment that they would like to see more videos like the one that they just saw. Thus if you look at the view counts for my recent several months of videos, you can see what I mean:

The view numbers tend to range from 100 to 300 views. In round numbers, that’s around 4%-10% of the number of subscribers. But this is not telling the full story, because the view numbers are of people who watched the video at all, not of people who watched the whole thing. Here’s the audience retention graph for the video on why I keep going even though my channel is small:

I can get specific numbers by highlighting the graph with my mouse, which is why there are no y-ticks. Giving approximate numbers, only 75% of the audience is still there by about 15 seconds in. The audience is down to 50% about about 1:35 in. After that the audience leaves more slowly and 22% watch to the end. So of the 2969 subscribers my channel had at the time of this writing, only 1.8% actually watched the video in its entirety. But wait, there’s more!

Viewership of a video is not entirely from subscribers. Here’s the numbers on where traffic came from:

“YouTube recommendations” is a bit ambiguous, since YouTube often recommends videos from channels one is subscribed to, but that’s not going to be all of the recommendations. So we know that at least 37% of views came from subscribers, but adding it together it looks like maybe 70% did. So that 1.8% of subscribers who watched the video may be more like 1.3%.

Here, by the way, is a list of the videos that my video was recommended after, that people actually clicked through for (or autoplayed from):

Of those, 3 are my own videos, though one of those has no view time on the video it referred to (I’m not sure why the ones with 0 impressions are on this list). Frankly, I don’t think this list tells one anything, but it does, at least, give a sense of how little control one has as there’s nothing actionable here. I don’t know whether YouTube is more likely to recommend videos from channels one subscribes to, but just looking at the recommendations it gives me, it doesn’t seem big on that. (On the other hand, channels that one found from recommendations are more likely to have other videos show up in recommendations, I think because many of its videos seem recommendable for roughly the same reasons. Which, if true, makes subscriptions that much less important.)

There’s also the weird problem that subscribing to a channel doesn’t actually get you notified about all of the videos from the channel, which is contrary to what most people expect. Instead, one has to “ring the bell” i.e. click the bell icon next to the subscribe button and set the notification preferences to “all”. This goes some of the way to explaining why so (relatively) few subscribers actually watch a channel’s videos.

Please bear in mind that none of this is meant as a complaint. As I said in my video, it would be worth it to make a video for 1 person if I couldn’t just talk to him in person and it’s God’s job to figure out how successful I should be. That my videos reach dozens of people who watch to the end and often a hundred or more who watch halfway is a bonus. My only purpose to this post is to illustrate how misleading the numbers YouTube presents to the public can be if you don’t understand them. Like most things in life, the reality is not as impressive as the surface glitz, but reality is what it is and, taken properly, being realistic should not be discouraging. In a sense, that’s what the video about why I keep going with a small channel is all about.

If you haven’t seen it and are interested:

One thought on “What YouTube Subscriber Numbers Actually Mean

  1. Here’s my tuppence (from somebody in a much smaller boat):

    There are two levels you want to achieve as a non fiction writer:
    1. the level at which somebody reads it, and get’s something good/true from it
    2. feedback – the point at which you get enough people so that you get a comment every so often

    After that, I’m not sure it matters, though that may just be because that’s over my horizon!

    Liked by 1 person

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