By Irene S. Berkowitz and Hanako Smith
Amid the pandemic, we rely on our screens more than ever. Globally, average daily views of #withme videos on YouTube surged by 600 percent, and uploads with “at home” in the title increased more than 590 percent since March 15. This article will review groundbreaking research on YouTube in Canada conducted before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, its findings are perhaps even more salient now, as Canadians depend on screens to communicate, socialize, and learn.
The 2019 study Watchtime Canada: How YouTube Connects Creators and Consumers was the first report to table original, in-depth data regarding YouTube’s role in Canada’s media ecosystem. The 18-month research, resulting in 130 pages, 50 data charts and 25 full-page graphics, was produced by the Ryerson University Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD)’s Audience Lab and authored by Irene S. Berkowitz Ph.D., Charles F. Davis, Ph.D. and Hanako Smith, Ph.D. candidate. Commissioned by Google, the research relied solely on the latter’s original research and publicly available information ― with no proprietary data whatsoever. The research was anchored by two surveys: one conducted with 1,200 YouTube creators; the other, with 1,500 of the platform’s users. 9,000 qualitative comments were also used.
The study found that YouTube is unique in Canada’s media ecosystem for both creators and consumers. While YouTube costs more than US$6 billion per year to maintain, the platform is free for both creators and consumers, therefore not incurring technological or administrative costs to Canada’s media ecosystem. More than three in four Canadians use YouTube. They appreciate its personal affordances of being free, always on, and its seemingly unlimited array of topics that are easy to search for.
Following are the top ten benefits that YouTube contributes to Canada’s media ecosystem. The overall theme that runs through these benefits is the inescapable observation reflected in the research report’s title: how YouTube connects creators and consumers, and the platform’s structural affordance that results in contributing these unique values to Canada’s media ecosystem.
Learning: a key for creators and consumers
Our most unexpected finding, illustrated below, is that 70 percent of YouTube consumers in Canada report that the platform is the first place they go to learn things. This usage synthesizes with the purposes of creators, who also report that their one of their goals is to inspire and educate audiences, following the understandable priorities that are to build audiences and earn money. YouTube producers receive instant feedback from audiences and adjust their content to reflect the large amount of free data available to them. This data includes likes, comments and the cache of user data in the free YouTube Studio available to every creator.
A nuance to the learning finding underscores the value of the tight connection between creators and consumers. The data shows that, as audiences increase, creators (no matter which genre they start in) increasingly adjust their content to make it useful and /or inspiring to audiences.
Looking back at this study today, YouTube’s recent announcement of its collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada to educate young people about the pandemic is consistent with findings pertaining to learning. The initiative includes a number of Canada’s popular creators, including Nailogical, The Sorry Girls, and Peter McKinnon, who are all profiled in Watchtime Canada.
Global usage of YouTube as a learning platform has surged during the pandemic. Google reports that during the first week of May global YouTube searches for online courses increased by over 70 percent whereas searches for “how to make” (e.g., banana bread, a face mask, etc.) increased more than 20 percent over the previous week. YouTube’s claim of being the “world’s largest classroom” thus seems more accurate than ever before.
Survey responses on the theme of learning
“I find people of all ages explaining topics I need to know about and I can’t find this info anywhere else.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer, on “the diversity available on YouTube that they have not been able to find on other media.”
“YouTube has great historical and educational and general information at our fingertips.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer, on what they value most about YouTube.
“I’m usually looking to learn something ― it doesn’t matter who teaches it if it teaches or helps me to solve a problem.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer, on why they do not actively seek Canadian content on YouTube.
“[Youtube] allows me to watch travel and food vlogs from different countries. It also educates me on diversity ranging from sexual orientation, culture, ethnicities, etc.”
A Canadian YouTube consumer on “the diversity available on YouTube that they have not been able to find on other media.”
Employment and revenue for creative entrepreneurs
YouTube has facilitated the rise of a new group of 160,000 Canadian creative entrepreneurs, including 40,000 who have achieved sufficient audience traction (a minimum of 1,000 subscribers) to be eligible to monetize their channels. They are producers in every sense of the word: creative, business and creating employment for themselves and others. In Canada, YouTube’s ecosystem currently maintains nearly 28,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs. This is a very conservative estimate (according to methodology described in detail in the report) that does not include the people employed by the 120,000 channels that are not monetized.
YouTube’s revenue model consists of splitting advertising revenue with creators: 45 percent goes to YouTube and 55 percent to creators. The study found that a wide variety of revenue streams is most common and that it enables creators with different types of content to earn sustainable incomes from brand deals, appearances, media crossovers, etc.
But importantly, YouTube has no data or any information about off-platform earnings. Our revenue calculation includes all sources of revenue, such as brand deals, sponsorships, appearances, other media and more — not just direct monetization of advertising content.
Of the eligible creators, 70 percent reported that they do earn revenue from their YouTube channel. 61 percent of these “eligible and earning” channels, earn less than $10,000 in gross revenue. However, it is worth noting that 15 percent of eligible creators earn $50,000 or more with their channel, 12 percent earn $75,000 or more, and 9 percent earn $100,000 or more. Keep in mind, however, that these amounts are gross revenue and include all production and operational costs.
Diversity and representation like nowhere else
YouTube creators are diverse across age, geography, primary language spoken, gender, ethnicity, and physical ability — an outcome achieved without quotas or incentives. Moreover, Canadian YouTube consumers value the diversity they see on YouTube, including in terms of genres, perspectives, voices, languages, geographies, genders, and ethnicities that are not as visible on other media. Canadian YouTube consumers also discussed “topical diversity” as something they see on YouTube rather than on traditional media outlets.
Survey responses on the theme of diversity
“I can describe the diversity as the fact that there are many different types of videos, and it allows people to express themselves very much. This allows for a lot of diversity, which makes it unique to YouTube.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer.
“People of every walk of life, every lifestyle, every culture, opinions of young and old,
varied languages, of every creed and so much more.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer on the diversity they see on YouTube that they do not see in other mainstream media.
“[The] ability to discover new things that I have never heard of before: artists, dances, innovations, trends. [With] TV you are restricted to the channels you subscribe to, [whereas] YouTube is limitless.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer.
“Diversity has many forms for me ― be it gender, cultural, racial, religious, socio-economic, intellectual, physical, etc. ― I have had no issues finding diversity on YouTube.”
– A Canadian YouTube consumer.
The tools to build competencies
YouTube offers an array of free online services to strengthen the skills of creators in two areas: channel management and marketing (Creator Academy), and audience analytics (YouTube Studio). Canadian creative entrepreneurs value these services and use them to build their audience over time, as shown below. The likelihood of having a larger audience increases the longer a Canadian producer is on YouTube, which ultimately increases their chances of becoming eligible for monetization.
A tight feedback loop between creators and audiences
YouTube’s platform is structured on a value chain (from R&D to manufacturing content to ROI) that intensifies linkages between creators and consumers. The platform prefers content that is informally produced and uploaded often, because that is how direct and instant linkages are facilitated between creator and consumers.
As creators engage with audiences via numerous types of feedback, they respond by creating more content to attract more audiences, which translates into increased revenue. To us, this suggests the power of Canadian creativity to attract audiences in unprotected, open, and global competition.
YouTube is a free, instant global export instrument. This benefit is highly valued by Canadian creators, who lead the entire platform in terms of exports: 90 percent of views of Canadian channels hail from outside of Canada. Here’s a typical comment: “I love to inspire the world with my Canadian creativity.”
A further result is that Canadian YouTube producers have created channels that are global hits in every YouTube genre. Canadian YouTube audiences also value YouTube as a global platform: 65 percent report that YouTube is the best place to watch the same video as anyone else in the world.
Showcasing Canadian content to the world
88 percent of Canadian YouTube users report that they do not actively seek Canadian content on YouTube, with no significant differences across age or primary language spoken. However, Canadian YouTube creators do report that Canada is their biggest audience, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom. France is also a valuable audience.
A majority (65 percent) of Canadian YouTube consumers believe that no government or other organization should determine what they can watch on YouTube.
Complementarity to legacy media
The study found that YouTube is not the first place Canadian YouTube users go for music, entertainment (including long-form narrative, sports, and comedy), or news and information, therefore suggesting that YouTube is complementary to legacy media.
The connections between YouTube and legacy media flow two ways. We found many examples of success on YouTube leading to success on legacy media platforms, and also many examples of legacy media creators migrating to YouTube for its benefits, as reflected in the well-known names in the grey box.
Uniqueness ― neither legacy nor social media
In conclusion, there’s nothing like YouTube in Canada’s media ecosystem. It’s a unique hybrid neither legacy nor social media. More than half of Canadian YouTube audiences access the platform without a Google account. That aligns with the data point that the platform’s interactive features are far less valued than personal affordances.
Irene S. Berkowitz, Ph.D. is an Audience Lab Policy Fellow at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD). Hanako Smith is a Ph.D. Candidate in the joint York-Ryerson University’s Communication and Culture program.
Even more than the numbers, we found the impact of YouTube to be rooted in the remarkable energy and global popularity of Canadian YouTube producers on the platform. Here are just a few of the Canadian creators with billions and millions of views:
Billions of views
Canadian YouTube superstars include Justin Bieber (20 billion views, discovered on YouTube), Shawn Mendes (8 billion views, learned guitar on YouTube), Lilly Singh (3.2 billion views, now hosts a late-night NBC talk show), The Weeknd (9.3 billion views), Drake (6.8 billion views), and many others. But many Canadian creators who are not household names have also garnered billions of views:
– YouTube’s top gaming channel is VanossGaming (12 billion views), by 27-year-old Evan Fong of Richmond Hill, ON. He earned $17 million in 2017.
– Markham, ON’s Lewis Hilsenteger’s Unbox Therapy (3.3 billion views) is a top technology channel.
– AsapSCIENCE by Guelph’s Gregory Brown and Mitchell Moffit (1.3 billion views) is a top learning destination.
– Vice News (2.5 billion views), the pan-media news service now U.S.-owned, was founded by Montreal entrepreneurs Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes.
– Genre crossovers include comedy-food channel from Montreal, Epic Meal Time (1 billion views), comedy-beauty channel from Ottawa, Simply Nailogical (1.5 billion views), Ryerson alum and creator LaurDIY’s eponymous channel (1.2 billion views), and many others.
Millions of views
– The Canadian hit parade continues with GigiGorgeous (492 million views) by transgender entertainer, writer, and filmmaker Gigi Gorgeous, also ranks among the top channels in Canada.
– The Hacksmith (613 million views) inspires kids to learn STEM.
– FaZe Pamaj (610 million views) stars Austin Pamajewon of the Shawanaga First Nation.
– Blind beauty vlogger Molly Burke (130 million views) was profiled in the February 2019 issue of Teen Vogue.
– Aysha Harun (23 million views) bills herself as a “Canadian gal redefining what it means to be beautiful.”
– Who can forget indie band Walk Off the Earth (818 million views), whose cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know” alone topped 175 million views?
– Amanda Muse (10.3 million views) evolved from mommy vlogger to transmedia lifestyle brand featured on Time.com.
– The Icing Artist (847 million) leaped from 30,000 to a million subscribers when creator Laurie Shannon used YouTube’s free subtitling feature to reach global audiences who wanted to learn how to decorate cakes.
– There are also TheSorryGirls (226 million views), Peter McKinnon (282 million views), Home RenoVision DIY (80 million views), and ElleOfTheMills (159 million views), a Filipino-Canadian creator from Ottawa who won the 2018 “Breakout YouTuber” Shorty Award. And the list goes on…