‘2013 YouTube Study’ Author on His Most Surprising Findings and the Future of YouTube [INTERVIEW]

Columbia College is no stranger to YouTube — as early as 2008 they had YouTube personalities like Michael Buckley (“What the Buck?!”) and Natalie Tran (Communitychannel) visiting and talking to their students. Students of the college’s television department even did a web series called “Sexperts” back in 2009 that featured several popular YouTubers.

Recently, the Chicago-based college came out with a paper entitled “2013 YouTube Study.” According to the author, the paper aims to answer questions like “How long should my videos be?” and “How often should I post?” and even “What kind of content gets the most views?” It does this by analysing the practices of the most popular creators on the site. For any current or aspiring YouTube creator the paper is well worth a look.

The paper’s author is Wojciech Lorenc, an assistant professor at Columbia College’s Television Department. Though the magic of Skype, I was able to catch up with him and ask him a few questions.

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How did this study start?

Wojciech Lorenc: When I teach this stuff I get asked all the time “How long should my videos be? How often should I post?” and it is difficult to answer these questions because every show is different and the discovery mechanisms for each show might make different approaches advisable.

So it was difficult to answer these questions, and at the same time many people (including students) had very strong opinions. “Never longer than 2 minutes, 30 seconds!” somebody would yell out. And I had to say,  “Well, wait a second. There are plenty of successful shows that are longer than that.”

So basically as I was teaching this stuff I relied on anecdotal evidence and the YouTube Playbook, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have some numbers about the most successful shows on YouTube?”

So I took it upon myself to create a class that was basically a research class. For 15 weeks my students were watching YouTube videos and making notes about length, frequency of posting, Twitter and Facebook use, SEO, etc.

It’s fantastic to see some real data about this. It amazes me that it took this long to get a real study on this kind of scale. What response has the paper received?

The response has been amazing. I have seen industry leaders, including high profile YouTube employees, tweet about it, which is great and so rewarding to the students. It has been kind of overwhelming. A friend of mine looked at all the people who tweeted about it and told me that the news of the study went out to over 500,000 Twitter followers. We are so excited.

Is there anything you feel the study lacks? Are their any plans for a “YouTube Study 2014”?

Yes and yes! We’re hoping to continue in 2014 and address changing trends. In other words, we want to see how these numbers change next year. And that will be much more interesting, in my opinion. Let’s take video length for example. Will longer videos become more popular? Who knows?

Some of our students made comments about the lack of serialized content . Some said that the serialized content will be more popular in the future. Other students say that YouTube is just not a serialized-friendly platform. Seeing how these numbers change over time will be very exciting.

The weakness of the study right now is that it is a snapshot in time with no reference to changing trends. I hope that next year’s study will address that issue and be even more useful to aspiring creators.

Definitely. Would you ever think about expanding it beyond the top 250?

I’d love to. I worked with only eight students, and they already had a lot of work. If I get more students next year we might look at more channels. That reminds me of another weakness of the study: it only focuses on most popular content. There is a ton of great content on YouTube that is much more niche-oriented and doesn’t make it to the top 240 but is equally important. I’d love to spend more time studying those channels at some point.

The study had a great many fascinating findings. Did you have one that really surprised you?

The one that surprised me the most was just how different of an approach different genres take. Looking at the video length again, the media for gaming videos was almost 10 minutes while comedies were only 3 minutes and 25 seconds. This underscores that it is important to be careful in reading this study.If you are a YouTuber don’t just look at the study and make every one of your videos 4 minutes and 19 seconds long — that is not the point.

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