The topic of view counts can be an incredibly controversial one in the web video world: They can be bought and sold, spun and manipulated. So maybe it’s worth asking this question: Is there a better metric for determining online success, such as YouTube subscribers?

youtube subscribe

The topic of view counts can be an incredibly controversial one in the web video world; some people hold them up as the only valid metric of quality, while others reject their influence. Views can be bought and sold, spun and manipulated, so maybe it’s worth asking this question: Is there a better metric for determining online success?

YouTube announced yesterday that the Subscribe button, which feeds all new updates from the channel of your choice into a personalized feed, has now been clicked over one billion times. In addition, every week, over a billion subscription updates are sent to users, something YouTube is making easier with a new widget for blogs and websites that allows users to subscribe to specific blogs without visiting YouTube at all.

Subscription numbers often take second place to view counts, but this announcement had me wondering if the subscribers metric on YouTube shouldn’t start having more value — both within the community, as well as to advertisers and dealmakers. After all, while those creating potentially viral content are gambling from video to video, a large number of subscribers represents a stable user base: one that has shown active interest and engage with the show or creators.

From a scripted content perspective, The Guild producer Kim Evey said via email:

Building followers is the key to sustained engagement, so as a creator your subscriber number is definitely something you want to cultivate. People have to feel like they are plugged in to a community where they are interacting with other fans as well as the content creators themselves.

With scripted content, this becomes extremely important because there isn’t that built-in call and response feature that vloggers have. Your subscribers are your loyalists — the ones who are going to build excitement amongst themselves and extend that to new audiences.

Celebrating subscriptions over views, though, isn’t yet a perfect system. One problem is — according to viral video maestros the Fine Bros. — many users boost their subscription numbers by networking through the Other Channels system, which can automatically sign up someone subscribing to just one channel to several others, as seen below:

“Though the ratio of ‘you can expect a view for every subscriber a person has’ still works for a majority of the channels on YouTube, you now have some people with 300,000 subscribers but only get 15,000 views on their videos due to being networked well with top channels,” they said via email.

“But yes, more than anything else,” they added, “YouTube subscribers should be one of the most important measures of success online, but you need to still research the steady view count to get a handle on just how popular that user may or may not be due to ‘other channels’ or lack of steady content.”

And Ben Relles, Barely Political/Barely Digital founder and executive producer, said, “I think subscribers are a really important part of building an audience, but total viewership numbers are still more important. A lot of our biggest shows grow primarily through blogs embedding them and people sharing them with friends.

“Our show The Key of Awesome has been viewed over 250 million times this year, and less than 20 [percent] of that came from subscribers. The rest came from viewer discovery like search, ‘viral’ sharing, and blogs embedding our videos.”

He also mentioned his support for the term viral (which many, including our 5 Questions With… respondents, have rejected recently). “I’ve been thinking lately ‘viral’ gets beat up way too much by people talking about online video,” he said. “I still think it’s the best way to build an audience. They discover a show through a video that’s ‘viral,’ and then if they like it they subscribe and stick around.”

At this stage, there’s no guarantee that a large subscriber base equals a large number of views, or vice versa, especially considering when they might have subscribed. The most valuable subscription metrics to look at may be statistics on who’s had major recent gains in followers, such as those tracked by this Vidstats chart, as newer followers are more likely to be actively engaged with the content.

That’s the key: active engagement, on a regular basis. View counts may indicate popularity, but an active subscription base indicates consistency. Which, in the long term, might become the more powerful number.

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required):

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. One thing you also have to consider with Subscriptions is that a fair chunk of those people subscribed to a channel are from accounts that have been inactive for long periods of time.

    1. Liz Shannon Miller Tim Friday, October 29, 2010

      Agreed, Tim. That’s why the measurement of who’s adding new subscribers is relatively important.

  2. Glad to be part of the article Liz.

    We know everyone has different goals online, but no matter what that goal is, you should be building an audience that comes back to watch whatever you produce. YouTube has stood out as that place that video subscription and building an audience works for the big and small. This is something we all should be striving for, and a proof of a show or content not being good enough is if no one is watching and/or subscribing. Would love to start seeing people go in depth of why they possibly don’t want to use YouTube as it’s like saying you don’t want to use the internet at this point. Even if you don’t like YouTube for various reasons, you should exploit it for what it is now, and then once something else comes along you like better, then drive all your fans that you never would’ve gotten at all over to that new place.

    What is so exciting about the internet is how transparent it is, and why brands and studios are or should be excited to be in the space. Unlike TV where we all rely upon Nielsen boxes to tell us who is watching, we now have deeper and deeper metrics being implemented to be able to see very specifically how many people watch, how many people share, how old they are, how long they watched, etc. The truth behind every viewer for not only brands, but for your own personal business and artistry is there for the taking. As long as we’re all open and transparent, the more of a viable business it can become. In general when discussing views vs. subscribers, you can debate all you want, but if we had metrics for what types of “views” videos are getting, and people weren’t so fraudulent with where they are getting their views from with Ad Networks/Autoplay, the view would always be king.

    Articles like this are a huge step in the right direction. The more transparency we have across the board from successful creators on YouTube to the branded shows buying every single view through an ad network, the better. Kudos Liz for continuing to shed light on these topics. Look forward to more.

    Benny & Rafi Fine

  3. Thanks for linking the site! :D

    One thing… on the box networking… “which can automatically sign up someone subscribing to just one channel to several others”. I don’t think it is automatic. Pretty sure they have to click the next “subscribe” button to be subbed to all those extra channels.

    However, not everyone is Internet savvy or take the time to read… some, I am sure, some just skim the page and click the additional subscribe button without realizing what they are doing until it is done already. Just my theory. ;)

    Thanks again for the link!


  4. Take it from a YouTuber with nearly 200,000 subs… it’s views.

  5. Javier Perez-Karam Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Great article!

    I have to agree that is about consistency.

    Some products should be measured by views and other by subscriptions, and others by a combination of both! If you have 15000 subs but your video is seen by 200K every time you post, in this case views matter more. Now if you have many subscribers and not even the 10% of the views, then you most be not be doing something your subscribers where expecting.

    Now, I think it’s important to bring up that some people with many subscribers, might not be taking advantage of having the subscribers and are not engaging with the community! Keeping a channel running should be about marketing it all the time! You have to not just post, but also turn every post into an important event, be it for subscribers, for viewers, or to get new subs/viewers.

    Thank you fro the piece Liz.

  6. Subscribers can be gamed just as easily as views. What would really be a valuable metric would be making public exactly where a channel’s views and subscribers are coming from.

    The problem is, there’s a lot of money being made (on the creator side and the advertiser side) on numbers that are BS and not a lot of people with incentive to out the people gaming the system.

  7. In terms of Internet audience, view count would remain relatively more important than any other measurement. Over one billion viewers search to find text, audio-visual content they need. Webpage ad-space is NOT sold on the basis of subscribers. The ad-space is sold on the basis of keyword search related views. BBC TV UK, for example, has over 22 million tax-paid “subscribers” but gets less than a third of them to stay tuned to its content 24/7 x365 days. So, in mass media broadcasting industry, viewership count is more important than subscribers. This makes media content creators to think about their wider target audience first…

Comments have been disabled for this post