Article

FOLLOW THE MONEY: A LARGE-SCALE INVESTIGATION OF MONETIZATION AND OPTIMIZATION ON YOUTUBE

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Abstract

While YouTube has become a dominant actor in the global media system, the relationship between platform, advertisers, and content creators has seen a series of conflicts around the question of monetization. Our paper draws on a critical media industries perspective to investigate the relationship between YouTube’s evolving platform strategies on the one side and content creators’ tactical adaptations on the other. This concerns the search for alternative revenue streams as well as content and referencing optimization seeking to grow audiences and algorithmic visibility. Drawing on an exhaustive sample (n=153.770) of “elite” channels (more than 100.000 subscribers) and their full video history (n=138.340.337), we parse links in video descriptions to investigate the appearance and spread of crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, but also of affiliate links, merchandise stores, or e-commerce websites like Etsy. We analyze the evolution of video length and posting frequency in response to platform policy as well as visibility tactics such as metadata and category optimization, keyword stuffing, or title phrasing. Taken together, these elements provide a broad picture of “industrialization” on YouTube, that is, of the ways creators seek to develop their channels into media businesses. While this contribution cannot replace more qualitative, in-depth research into particular channels or channel groups, we hope to provide a representative picture of YouTube’s elite channels and their quest for visibility and success from their beginnings up to early 2020.

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... Note that the -axis scales differ and that error bars represent 95% CIs. We repeat the analyses done in this figure dividing channels in quintiles and vigintiles (i.e., groups of 5 and of 20), and obtained largely the same results. ...
... This is especially true for the creators, whose participation is essential to the platform [11]. Previous works studying the evolution of YouTube's ad-based revenue-share program [20,33,62] have pointed out that creators may optimize their content to receive more income [20] and that industry players may try to profit from the monetized content through multi-channel network [62]. Alternative monetization strategies may change the YouTube ecosystem in a similar way. ...
... This is especially true for the creators, whose participation is essential to the platform [11]. Previous works studying the evolution of YouTube's ad-based revenue-share program [20,33,62] have pointed out that creators may optimize their content to receive more income [20] and that industry players may try to profit from the monetized content through multi-channel network [62]. Alternative monetization strategies may change the YouTube ecosystem in a similar way. ...
Article
Full-text available
One of the key emerging roles of the YouTube platform is providing creators the ability to generate revenue from their content and interactions. Alongside tools provided directly by the platform, such as revenue-sharing from advertising, creators co-opt the platform to use a variety of off-platform monetization opportunities. In this work, we focus on studying and characterizing these alternative monetization strategies. Leveraging a large longitudinal YouTube dataset of popular creators, we develop a taxonomy of alternative monetization strategies and a simple methodology to detect their usage automatically. We then proceed to characterize the adoption of these strategies. First, we find that the use of external monetization is expansive and increasingly prevalent, used in 18% of all videos, with 61% of channels using one such strategy at least once. Second, we show that the adoption of these strategies varies substantially among channels of different kinds and popularity, and that channels that establish these alternative revenue streams often become more productive on the platform. Lastly, we investigate how potentially problematic channels -- those that produce Alt-lite, Alt-right, and Manosphere content -- leverage alternative monetization strategies, finding that they employ a more diverse set of such strategies significantly more often than a carefully chosen comparison set of channels. This finding complicates YouTube's role as a gatekeeper, since the practice of excluding policy-violating content from its native on-platform monetization may not be effective. Overall, this work provides an important step toward broadening the understanding of the monetary incentives behind content creation on YouTube.
... This is especially true for the creators, whose participation is essential to the platform [10]. Previous works studying the evolution of YouTube's ad-based revenue-share program [19,30,62] have pointed out that creators may optimize their content to receive more income [19] and that industry players may try to profit from the monetized content through multi-channel network [62]. Alternative monetization strategies may change the YouTube ecosystem in a similar way. ...
... This is especially true for the creators, whose participation is essential to the platform [10]. Previous works studying the evolution of YouTube's ad-based revenue-share program [19,30,62] have pointed out that creators may optimize their content to receive more income [19] and that industry players may try to profit from the monetized content through multi-channel network [62]. Alternative monetization strategies may change the YouTube ecosystem in a similar way. ...
Preprint
Full-text available
One of the key emerging roles of the YouTube platform is providing creators the ability to generate revenue from their content and interactions. Alongside tools provided directly by the platform, such as revenue-sharing from advertising, creators co-opt the platform to use a variety of off-platform monetization opportunities. In this work, we focus on studying and characterizing these alternative monetization strategies. Leveraging a large longitudinal YouTube dataset of popular creators, we develop a taxonomy of alternative monetization strategies and a simple methodology to automatically detect their usage. We then proceed to characterize the adoption of these strategies. First, we find that the use of external monetization is expansive and increasingly prevalent, used in 18% of all videos, with 61% of channels using one such strategy at least once. Second, we show that the adoption of these strategies varies substantially among channels of different kinds and popularity, and that channels that establish these alternative revenue streams often become more productive on the platform. Lastly, we investigate how potentially problematic channels -- those that produce Alt-lite, Alt-right, and Manosphere content -- leverage alternative monetization strategies, finding that they employ a more diverse set of such strategies significantly more often than a carefully chosen comparison set of channels. This finding complicates YouTube's role as a gatekeeper, since the practice of excluding policy-violating content from its native on-platform monetization may not be effective. Overall, this work provides an important step towards broadening the understanding of the monetary incentives behind content creation on YouTube.
... In the early days, the motive of sharing content on the platform was focused on drawing attention and appreciation from the audience, however, it is now geared toward fame and revenue generation. Consequently, YouTube has also focused on more monetization features apart from video ads and revamped how content creators develop and share media (Coromina et al., 2020). ...
Chapter
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This chapter provides a much-needed roadmap for social media researchers in answering important questions surrounding user activity on YouTube. It is clear from the methods described above that YouTube research involves a range of tools and techniques that have a learning curve. However, the sheer amount of activity on the most popular video-sharing platform in the world makes its study worthwhile. The two case studies have provided insights into some of the approaches that can be adapted and further improved on to not only study text but also identify communities and important online actors. YouTube research is interdisciplinary, and a single method may not prove sufficient in answering the research questions posed. A more pragmatic approach to studying YouTube would be to employ a combination of research methods. In a similar vein, we argue in favor of a cross-disciplinary approach. It is often noted that informatics and computer science researchers are undertaking important work in their own domains that is analytics-oriented, yet it lacks the social science perspective and theoretical enrichment. Similarly, social science, business, and humanities researchers employ various research techniques to understand YouTube interactions, however, they often lack the necessary programming skills, especially in the field of deep learning and AI. This calls for academic and research collaborations across fields to ensure a more diverse set of research methods, tools, and techniques to understand the increasingly complex nature of emerging issues such as information virality and misinformation.
Article
Through guidelines, terms of service and algorithmic curation, digital platforms such as YouTube encourage creators to produce content that fits with the commercial goals of the platform. Scholars have argued that this pressure to conform might lead to uniformity, or isomorphism, in the ways organizations manage their presence on platforms. This article contributes to the debate on isomorphism by taking a bottom-up approach and ask to which extent creators on YouTube pursue similar, or different, strategies for uploading and monetizing content. Through quantitative and qualitative analyses of a sample of YouTube channels, we show how content creators adapt to, negotiate with, and defy institutional pressures. In the end, we find greater support for diversification, that is, polymorphism, than concentration in the ways organizations manage their presence on the platform. This has implications for how we understand platform power and integrate institutional theories in communication research.
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