I’m not entirely sure what it is at the moment, but the topic of digital sharecropping has kept coming up repeatedly over the last week or two. Maybe there’s a bit of observational bias at play where I’m talking about it, it’s front of mind and I’m seeing it more often.
I was browsing around today and saw someone mention that Philip DeFranco, a popular YouTube personality, has decided that he’s going to be focusing more of his attention on his private membership community.
Normally, I would say, “Good for Philip, that’s a smart move” but I thought the way he talked about it and the reaction of the people who brought it to my attention made it worth talking about.
When you decide to be a digital sharecropper, you’re setting up your business on someone else’s property. In an internet context, you’re generally not “renting” the property from the property owner, you’re using it for free in exchange for developing their platform by way of traffic and content.
The monetisation strategies around these things are often profit shares from the sale of some of your content or by ad revenue generated against the eyeballs that your content generates.
In the case of YouTube, if your channel is big enough, they allow you “monetize” your content by having ads play against it in exchange for a share of the ad money.
The other model is something like Udemy where you post your video courses on their platform, they own the customers and they give you a set percentage of the revenue when someone buys.
In almost every one of these kinds of situations, the sharecropper almost never owns the customer relationship and is often times actively discouraged from cultivating that relationship directly. For example, Udemy strictly forbids you from collecting email addresses of your students on their platform or promoting things from outside Udemy via announcements.
These relationships allow you to make some money, but you’re doing it largely on the terms and at the leisure of the landowner.
Ok, so what does all this have to do with Philip DeFranco?
Let me start by saying that of all of the YouTube “personalities” he’s the only one that I actually like, I find him pretty clever, kind of funny and reasonably switched on from a business perspective.
His video today though was all about how YouTube is “restricting” his views and effectively throttling how many of “his subscribers” are seeing his videos. He is also having more videos rated not eligible for monetization and they aren’t appearing in premium places where casual visitors to YouTube will see them.
Philip was saying that his videos are getting a couple hundred thousand views less in the first couple days because YouTube isn’t displaying them as prominently. His complaint is that he doesn’t understand the way the algorithms are working and that it’s like they are progressively being trained to restrict his videos.
I get why Philip is disappointed, he’s worked hard, created good content that people seem to like and now he is seeing some variability in his result.
There are a few problems with his argument that will help illustrate why being a digital sharecropper is a bad idea.
The first problem is that DeFranco is spending a reasonable period of time in his videos promoting his sponsors that he’s getting paid by directly – yeah, he’s promoting sponsors that YouTube isn’t getting a taste of.
The other issue is that he’s also promoting his own membership where he publishes exclusive video content. So yet again, he’s trying to monetize YouTube viewers outside of YouTube without giving them a taste. This one is even worse because now he’s creating content that isn’t even on their platform! He’s literally pulling viewers AWAY from YouTub – that’s bad mojo.
The funny part about this is that he seems to think he’s entitled to viewership. Those people might be “subscribers” to his channel, but they are YouTube users first and foremost. Nobody “deserves” to be featured prominently on YouTube’s homepage like Philip was implying.
There’s another thing at play here – over the last year, where have all of the YouTube’s PR nightmares come from? It has been these YouTube “personalities” – PewDiePie and Logan Paul specifically, where advertisers have been pulling ads.
In fact, something that isn’t being talked about a lot is that many of the “personalities” are drawing criticism and complaints from casual viewers. Many of these “YouTube Celebs” target younger audiences and parents are increasingly complaining that the content is inappropriate for younger viewers.
Maybe YouTube has decided that these big channels of “YouTube Celebrities” are more trouble than they are worth. They might have decided that they are going to start throttling back on channels that are openly running direct sponsorship or with people who are trying to syphon off their audience away from YouTube.
Who knows? But it’s incredibly naive to think that YouTube isn’t going to find a way to minimize that risk and punish the people doing it.
Irrespectively, something is going on with Philip DeFranco’s channel. This is a guy with over SIX MILLION subscribers – if YouTube can throttle him, you can be sure they’re not going to blink twice choking out your audience.
The only way around this is to make sure you’re not exclusively building your business on someone else’s platform.
Note how I said, “exclusively”. You can absolutely grow a business a business on someone else’s platform, but your primary focus has to be growing YOUR business, developing YOUR platform and building YOUR audience.
I applaud Philip DeFranco for what he’s doing with his “elite” platform, but I think it’s either disingenuous or outright silly to complain that YouTube might be responding to him trying to syphon their audience away from them.
When you are a digital sharecropper, you’re there at the whim of the landowner and ultimately, you’re working to enhance the value of their estate. At any given moment, they might choose to do something different with their land or alter the terms of your rent and you have no recourse.
Your only option is to use the bounty of the harvest you’re getting from working their land to buy your own little plot that you can buy and put the effort in to developing it into your primary source of income.