Tuesday, March 3, 2015

On monetizing videos and the plague of ads

Advertisements are, and always have been, highly irritating. They get in the way of content with their insistent demands that you spend all your hard-earned cash on things that you actually didn’t need until you saw the ads. They shout and scream at you, insinuate that you are a lousy human being if you don’t buy particular products, and generally make life miserable.

Unfortunately, to some of us, they are also what make life possible.

Ads are a constant source of complaint on YouTube: why is Google shoving ads in our faces when Google has billions? On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable question, but in fact it’s based on a couple of false assumptions: that it’s Google doing it, and Google that’s getting the revenue.

First of all, although YouTube is owned by Google, YouTube is run separately. It’s hard to see the boundaries — they’re fuzzy at best — but (from I’ve been led to believe) uniquely among the various Google products, YouTube is expected to run its own affairs and pay its own way. It’s not even based in the same building: Google has its Googleplex in Mountain View, California, while YouTube is about forty miles north-west of there, in San Bruno. How YouTube does pay its own way is unknown: it’s been calculated that Google must be helping YouTube out with its bandwidth costs, because there’s no other way to explain how YouTube even continues to exist.

Second, not only does Google not get YouTube’s advertising revenue, but YouTube only takes a portion of it. The rest goes to the content owner, whether that’s the uploader or, if the ads have been put on due to a Content ID match, the copyright owner of the material used. I’m not allowed to tell you what portion YouTube takes (and it varies from case to case anyhow), but it is public knowledge that the content owner gets most of the revenue.

It’s true that a lot of people abuse the system, uploading videos they have no right to upload (music videos, clips from TV shows, entire episodes, even complete movies) and then illegally monetize them: that’s illegal for obvious reasons. But speaking as one who doesn’t do that, let me explain why my videos are monetized and why I am not best pleased when people use AdBlock just because they don’t like seeing ads.

I work fairly hard on my videos. I don’t have a staff or any kind of professional set-up, so my videos aren’t months in the making. Even so, it takes quite a bit of effort, and even a simple vlog-type video takes the best part of a day to make. I once illustrated this in a series of posts on my Google+ page (here, here, here, here, here and here), but to expand on that and explain what really goes on:
  1. Research. I don’t claim to get everything 100% right, but I try to get it as right as I can. I don’t have a research department, but at least these days I have the internet. I try not to rely on Wikipedia (because it’s a reference, not a source), but sometimes I have little time and just have to trust that what’s in Wikipedia is an accurate representation of what is known about a particular subject.
  2. Writing the script. People often ask how I manage to condense so much information into such a short space of time. That comes from taking special care to craft a good script from the information I have gathered, reworking it and condensing it, focusing on what connects to what, discarding anything irrelevant to the matter in hand. I aim to get it all onto one side of A4 paper, which represents approximately four minutes of vlogging. I have to present facts in a logical order, try to strike a balance to get enough detail but not too much, and add a little something to make it at least a bit entertaining. My English needs to be readily understood not just by British and American viewers (so I have to make sure I avoid too many anglicisms and americanisms), but by native German speakers as well. For the benefit of those Germans who don't understand English, I will have to write German subtitles, so I also have to continually ask myself: “Will this still make sense when translated into German?” Finally, because I can’t easily memorize, in the time I have, a whole page of text, I divide it up into chunks which I can then film at different zoom levels (usually three) so I can cut between them in the edit.
  3. Setting up. I have to set up the lights and the camera, set white balance, exposure, microphone gain and focus, and get that pesky microphone clipped to my clothing.
  4. Rehearsal and filming. Because I have divided my script into chunks, I can do the rehearsal and filming at the same time. First the wide shots, each one in turn: rehearse and film. I usually do several takes of each so I can choose the best one. Once that’s done, stop the camera, zoom in and reposition (I have to get out of my chair and walk over to the camera to do this), then do all the mid shots. Finally, all the close shots. Incidentally, I can’t always film when it’s convenient: at certain times of day, the sun shines in through the window behind me, making filming virtually impossible unless it happens to be overcast.
  5. Editing. For a straightforward vlog, this is actually the easiest part. For anything slightly more ambitious... it’s less easy. Once the editing process is finished, I have to render the video: the process takes half an hour or more (depending on lots of factors), and if when I play it back  spot an error, I have to make edits and render all over again. And rendering takes up a lot of CPU power, so during that time my computer isn’t much use for anything else. Time for lunch.
  6. Making the thumbnail. I am not a Photoshop genius. I can just about make a passable thumbnail. If I could afford to pay somebody to do it for me, I would.
  7. Uploading and subtitles. These two things go together. As the video is uploading, I write the English subtitles. Why English subtitles? Because some of my viewers are hearing-impaired. Why not use YouTube’s automated captions? Because they suck. By the time I’m finished with the subtitles, the video has usually finished uploading and processing. I can then upload the subtitles immediately and check that they are working correctly and are as accurate as I can reasonably get them. This also allows me to check that the video has uploaded properly without glitches. If all works well, I can then prepare German subtitles and upload those. Finally, I can put in the annotations (which I use sparingly).
The thing is, that’s a lot of work: and I’m making relatively simple videos. Other content creators have an awful lot more work to do, but I don’t have the staff or the time for that.

And here’s the thing: this is about an entire day I have spent not doing actual, paid work. I’m self-employed: time is money in a very literal sense. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, simple as that. As it happens, my wife has a good job so it’s not absolutely critical unless the company she works for goes bust, but I don’t want to have to beg her to pay my health insurance for me. Strange as it may seem to some people, but doing all this for free is simply not an option.

But to bring you all these videos in the first place, I have overheads. Obviously, there’s the equipment. My camera has a few years left in it, so that’s something I don’t have to worry about just yet. But one of the spare batteries just died, so that’s going to have to be replaced — and the cost of batteries is eye-watering, even the “cheap” ones made not by the company that made the camera. My computer and software are also still good for a little while yet. Last year I invested in audio equipment, a few hundred euros to make my videos sound a tiny bit better. This year, I’m planning to get proper lighting gear. Some videos incur additional costs: travel costs mostly, but I’ve even had to purchase filming permits, and my Berlin video involved a few nights in a hotel. This is why, when people ask me to film Bremen, or Dresden, or Cologne, or whatever far-flung city they want to see on my channel, I can’t ever promise to do so. I simply don’t have the time, and I’m not making the money.

How much money do I make? Well, there’s no simple answer to that, but (and I am allowed to tell you this), for the month of January, I got €136, which is roughly $150. Enough to stop me feeling guilty about making videos. Not enough to live on.

“Why not use Patreon?” is a question I have been asked. I once considered it, but not enough of my subscribers expressed an interest. It may be an idea worth revisiting, but for it to work I would have to think up some perks, like exclusive content, which means working even harder in order to badger my viewers into pledging actual cash instead of simply refraining from using AdBlock. I can’t see how I would be able to fit it in right now. Creating a completely new paid channel isn’t going to work for a similar reason, as well as the fact that I actually want my videos to be available to everyone. Fan Funding looks promising, but currently isn’t available in Germany.

In an ideal world, I could rely on donations, merchandising and perhaps even some kind of sponsorship so I could give up my real job, concentrate on making really high quality videos and still make enough to live on. This isn’t an ideal world, though, and I have to monetize my videos or stop making videos; it’s that simple.


  1. Thank you Andrew for this explanation. I don't find the ad's to be annoying and I'm glad that you are able to make some money from your work. It is very well done and very informative. Best wishes and I hope you have a good spring. We're just starting to get better weather here in MA. Our winter has been horrible this year. Never saw so much Schnee.

    Scott Currier
    Haverhill, MA

  2. I'm not saying this to hurt you but because I see this cry of, "my hard work is unrewarded because of adblock," almost everywhere these days when youtube comes up in discussion:

    If people use adblock, it's because they are not willing to tolerate ads in exchange for your content. It simply isn't that valuable to them, no matter how hard it was for you to produce. Complaining that people won't help you make a living has literally never helped anyone make a living. Except bums with signs, I guess.

    Either find another way of monetization (patreon or whatever) or accept that what you do is a time-consuming hobby that people don't WANT to pay your for.

    Sorry, thems the breaks.

    1. Sorry, but this argument doesn't make sense.

      If somebody's videos aren't "valuable" to you, don't watch them, simple as that. In our society, you don't get to consume something but then refuse to pay on the grounds that it wasn't high quality. And people don't use ad blockers because some YouTube videos are not very good; they use ad blockers because they don't want to see ads. As for using Paetreon, I addressed that in this article.

      And no, this isn't a bum with a sign. This is somebody making something, and then selling it. I can't stop you using ad blockers, but I can point out that using ad blockers has a chilling effect.

  3. Your videos are great, even for those non native english speakers like me.
    I guess it's easy to get used to ad blockers for that nice & clean screen, without considering those consequences you described in the above.
    Just switched off ABP.
    Thanks for the reminder !

    Best wishes from Berlin... :)