I watch at least one video on YouTube practically every day, and there are a few channels that I regularly stay up-to-date with. There are some great, well-produced videos, mini-documentaries, and short films on almost any topic you can think of – including a growing number of Star Trek channels, which is great to see! But we’re off-topic already. YouTube itself runs adverts on most channels and many of the videos on its platform, and that’s one aspect of the question I’m going to ask today. But there’s another, and it’s one that primarily affects channels when they reach a certain size: paid sponsorships.
I’ve talked before about paid reviews on YouTube, which is a slimy practice that needs to be abolished. But this article isn’t about what specifically is being advertised or even the way in which YouTube channels handle what products and services they choose to associate with. Rather it’s a simple question: what is the right ratio of advert to video? Or to put it another way: how much of the runtime of a video can and should comprise sponsorships and other advertising?
This question was prompted by a video I watched recently – and no, I’m not telling you which one as that would be unfair. This article is not intended to single out any one individual YouTube channel for criticism; it’s a common enough problem across the platform. The video I watched clocked in at just over seven minutes long, which is about average for the channel in question, and because I’m a huge nerd as you well know, it was about trains.
The channel in question runs ads, and as such I was forced to sit through a pre-roll advert before the video played. Luckily this only lasted a few seconds, and while it is somewhat outside the channel’s control, the fact that YouTube shows ads is another layer in answering my question as we’ll see in a moment. After the pre-roll ad, the video began. But of the seven-minute video, the first minute-and-a-half was entirely dedicated to the aforementioned paid sponsorship – this time for a VPN service. 90 seconds may not seem awfully long, and in the grand scheme of things it isn’t – but in a video this short, 90 seconds is already more than 20% of the total runtime.
And that wasn’t all. After the main portion of the video had concluded, I was surprised to see the timer was sitting only at the 6:15 mark. The remaining 45 seconds of the video were dedicated to the YouTuber plugging their Patreon account (where fans can pay monthly to support the channel) as well as another reminder to sign up for the crummy VPN service that was sponsoring the video. That means that, of the seven minutes of total video time, two-and-a-quarter minutes were taken up with advertising. That’s practically one-third of the total runtime of the video, without even accounting for the pre-roll ad. To me that’s just too much.
In a way we’re spoilt by the internet offering so much ad-free content. Netflix, Paramount+, Amazon Prime Video, and other streaming services generally don’t run any ads at all, and compared to broadcast television, which takes frequent and long ad breaks, online content is pretty consumer-friendly. But that doesn’t mean we should give content creators a free pass or let things slide when they go too far.
Even in the United States, where the rules around advertising on television are lax compared to the UK, no television channel is dedicating one-third of its time to ad breaks. When I lived in the United States in the mid-2000s, prime time television shows would show around 15 minutes of ads per hour – which is, if you’re quick with the maths, one-quarter of their time.
Older, more established YouTube channels tend to have a better handle on this problem, having worked out the right balance between making money and what their audience is willing to put up with. Thus it tends to be newer YouTubers, or channels which have only recently become popular, that fall prey to excessive advertising and overly-long sponsorship slots, at least in my limited experience with the platform.
I don’t want to begrudge anyone making money, especially in the current economic climate. But there are good and bad ways to go about doing so, and there are good and bad ways to handle advertising and sponsorships. I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that a video which is one-third advert is too much, and this can become costly for YouTubers. They can lose subscribers, receive dislikes, receive negative comments and feedback, etc. It’s not uncommon to see comments calling out a YouTube video for dedicating too much time to advertising, and negative comments can be hurtful and even offputting.
Some videos can make the actual topic feel secondary, as if the video and indeed the whole channel only exist for the purpose of advertising. The content underneath the ads is what viewers come to YouTube for, and when that feels unbalanced it becomes very offputting. Whatever trust may exist between a YouTube channel and its audience becomes strained. This isn’t just the case when a YouTube channel is advertising a product or service close to the subject of the video, either.
Striking the right balance and getting the right advert-to-video ratio is important for any amateur on YouTube who hopes to make money on the platform. It’s worth any aspiring YouTuber taking a look at established channels to see how they handle things rather than launching headfirst into a sponsorship agreement without thinking it through. In the case we looked at, the two-and-a-quarter minutes of advertising would have felt far less egregious on a video that was twenty minutes long, so as I alluded to it’s not the raw length of time spent on advertising that’s the issue. Instead it’s making sure to get the right balance between time spent on advertising and time spent on the actual video. How much time in seconds or minutes to spend on advertising will depend on the channel and the length of video that the YouTuber intends to produce.
As a good rule of thumb, I would suggest no YouTube video should try to pack more than 10% of its total runtime with advertising, and I would include in that plugging Patreon, PayPal donations, YouTube channel memberships, and the like. YouTube has recently become more aggressive with its own advertising, and it’s not uncommon to see two pre-roll ads now, as well as ads that run in the middle of a video, so YouTubers should try to take that into account when adding in their own ads.
It’s not always easy to make money on YouTube, and I’m sure that sponsorships are a very tempting prospect for an up-and-coming channel. But YouTubers in that position need to be very careful that they aren’t putting off their audience and potentially seeing those subscriber numbers and total watch hours drop as a result of being too aggressive. Usually this problem corrects itself; if a YouTube channel goes too hard and too fast on the paid sponsorships, they wise up either because they lose viewers or because of the backlash it generates. But it’s something to be aware of for anyone starting a YouTube channel and intending to pursue it as a money-making endeavour.
So what’s the tl;dr? In my opinion it’s about 10% or less. 90% or more of proper video content, 10% or less of adverts and self-promotion. Shorter videos in particular need to be careful with this, as it’s on shorter videos where I’ve found that the balance has not been correctly struck more often than not.
Sorry for the rant, but this is something that was really bugging me today for some reason!