What Should Matter More on YouTube: Subscribers or Views?

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 (s GOOG) 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.

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