Here’s why this is a big deal: this content creator clocks in with 400 million views per month and over 30 million subscribers on YouTube. For reference, those views are equivalent to about four Super Bowls, and the subscriber base is akin to Xbox’s installed base. For PewDiePie, turning off his comments on YouTube would be as if Kim Kardashian did something on Twitter -- only about 20% bigger.
(Author note: I feel compelled, continually, to explain the scale of the native digital creators that I write about in terms of smaller but more well-known events. This is due to a media bias that I wish someone would tackle. Back to our programming).
There was a piece about his decision in VideoInk recently, focused on the critical role that comments play in building subscriber bases on YouTube. Which, of course, is not very different from building subscribers to anything -- social or analogue. The role of engagement is well acknowledged, if not agreeably measured. But I’d prefer to frame this as a reminder for brands that are expanding their use of content and social.
While PewDiePie hasn’t started losing subscribers, he has fewer video views and his channel growth, while still positive, has slowed. But to date, he remains undeterred. What he’s saying, basically, is that he prefers to engage more meaningfully with fewer people. Which is also a way of saying that he’d prefer deeper yet more manageable relationships, instead of unmanageable relationships at scale. We can tie that concept into how brands think about using video and engaging with their audience – and how we advise them to do so.
It’s neither good nor bad to be focused on scale. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. But the differentiator on social video platforms is engagement -- after all, these are two-way communication tools. Otherwise, you may as well do TV, OOH, print a book -- or anything that can reach an audience with a one-way communication.
Brands often spend time trying to accrue fans. But real fans are a subset of buyers. And engagement is a subset of scale. PewDiePie, by shifting the conversation to slightly more difficult but perhaps more intimate channels, is recognizing the need to pay more careful attention to the most important subset of his overall audience -- a reminder that scale is not always the endgame.
This is why YouTube, Vine, and Instagram content creators won’t modify their content approach for brands. This doesn’t mean that they won’t accept brand money, but they are keenly aware that their following is built on an unspoken contract, governed by delivery against fan expectations. Usually, those expectations are narrow, and the creators won’t deviate from the norm.
BuzzFeed (a partner with my company) often talks about its success with a list made for left-handed people. It was geared towards a small percentage of the general population, but the content was truly engaging for that set of people. This aspect of smaller, more engaged audiences is also at the root of the MCN (multichannel network) model, in which many smallish audiences are woven together to create a media network, allowing content creators to stay focused on their audience.
I’m not advocating that brands suddenly stop their comments and attempt to move the conversation to other channels. But it’s worth exploring how chasing scale in the wrong areas can hinder success with a more relevant, caring, and engaged set of consumers.