Influencer marketing is estimated to be worth over $1bn a year. But behind the scenes, the stars of the internet are battling to ensure their content is seen.
Following a brand safety exposé YouTube – the home of many content creators – made changes to the algorithms that determine what content can be monetized, essentially blocking ads being served on any videos, titles or thumbnails that feature graphic or sensitive imagery.
Later changes included a new threshold for monetization, with YouTube decreeing that channels must have at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time within the past 12 months to earn revenue, and a transition from a chronological list of videos to a feed of content based on viewing behavior.
Beckii Flint is a social influencer who found fame with her YouTube videos on Japanese pop-culture. She now has over 126,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, but has acutely felt the effects of constant algorithm changes.
“It’s a strange, subtle thing,” she says. “Why am I suddenly losing subscribers faster than I gain them? This has never happened to me before. My content hasn’t changed.
“Has the world had a hive-mind decision to suddenly shun me? Why are my views going down? Was this video just terrible? Am I making the worst content of my life?”
In the past, before the algorithm changes, she says she was “happy and triumphant” about every video she made, confident that it was the best content she’d made so far. “I couldn’t wait to refresh the page and see the numbers, comments and feedback come in.”
Now, she struggles to look at it twice after it’s been uploaded: “It’s too upsetting. It’s affecting my passion and drive to create, and I know I’m not the only one. My creator community is echoing the same feeling.”
The effects are being felt by influencers across the media spectrum, from those with subscribers in the tens of millions like Philip DeFranco or Felix ‘PewDiePie’ Kjellberg through to emerging creators now struggling to earn anything against their content.
But while instances of influencers going public with complaints about drastic losses are increasingly common, the reality is that, despite being important to the platform, they simply aren’t making YouTube owner Google significant revenue. And keeping advertisers happy, rather than YouTubers, is simply more important.
“It has to be on the tech giant’s terms rather than the influencers’, given the hot water we’ve seen YouTube get into recently,” says Will Pyne, the chief creative officer at social video company Brave Bison.
With nowhere else to go, the vast majority of dissatisfied YouTubers have been forced to bend to whatever changes Google enforces. In the past few months however, competition for video talent has been heating up. Facebook’s Watch section is now open to videos from any page, including creators, and is letting some monetize through pre- and mid-roll ads.
But it’s Instagram newly released IGTV, where users can post videos up to an hour in duration, that has emerged as the biggest contender.
Reports have emerged of YouTube trying to keep top talent from fleeing to IGTV by cutting six-figure retainers, giving way to a lingering sense that its reign as the platform of choice for video creators may be coming to an end if Instagram can make its offering appealing enough.
“YouTube has been my bread and butter, but I’ve been engaging more with Instagram,” says Flint. “I’m not sure about IGTV though. I don’t know many influencers in the community that have been creating content exclusively for it yet.
“Facebook is too limited and Twitter isn’t the place for video content to do well. Instagram is the only place I’m looking at seriously.”
Hear more from Beckii and other influencers about the future of the influencer business model in The Drum’s Video issue.