The first payment I ever received from Google Adsense was so exciting. It felt like free money. From videos I was happily making for fun.
As my channel grew so did the monthly payments and I started to dream of a future where I was paying my rent with YouTube ad money.
But then, a few things happened that made me start to question if this “free money” was actually costing me more than I realised.
Demonetisation & negative thinking
You’ve probably heard this word used a lot in the YouTube community because in recent years having your monetisation disabled has become more and more common. There are many reasons why you monetisation might not be available for a particular video but for me: the main issue was music.
I had a contact at a record label who would send me new tracks to use to promote the music. But often when I’d upload the video, it would get demonetised because I wasn’t the copyright holder of the track. I’d then have to get in touch with Josh, my music man, who would then clear my channel in their system so that the video was no longer flagged for copyright. No big deal, but I always felt disappointed when I’d missed out on the first few days of Adsense revenue.
I didn’t like how easily that little “Ineligible” red dollar-sign symbol could make me feel negatively towards a video I’d been really proud of when I uploaded it. I felt less inclined to share a video on my social media and talk about this great thing I’d made when it wasn’t monetised. I felt like the videos with the little green dollar signs were somehow better, of higher quality, because I was earning money when someone viewed them.
I’d started YouTube as a hobby, and it’s completely normal to begin to want something more from a side project, but I didn’t like how much monetisation was impacting how I felt about the content I was making. Initially my solution for this was to stop using the cool tracks Josh sent me: less good music, less chance of demonetisation! It seemed like the right trade off at the time.
Being associated with the wrong brands
One day as I was rewatching one of my own videos (I’m not the only one who does that, right!?) the preroll ad that played was for a service called 99 Designs.
It made sense why this company was being advertised on my video: I’m a designer, the video was about design, and they’re a design-based service. But I was so disappointed to see it.
99 Designs is a service that promotes spec work, which is where you ask a bunch of creatives to do the work for a project and then you pick which one you like best to pay them. One person gets paid, the rest get nothing (unless you count “exposure” which in this case, I do not). They call it a “design competition” and I believe it is harmful to our industry as a whole to expect designers to work in this way. It means that many designers who are just starting out and trying to earn money using their skills end up producing a ton of content for free. It devalues design, it teaches newbie designers that they’re worth merely a pittance, and it’s not the way the design process should work. I would never encourage my audience to use a service like this, and yet here it was being promoted at the start of my video.
I know that most YouTube viewers understand that the YouTuber themselves doesn’t pick which ads play as a pre-roll on their videos, but there is still a subconscious association that our brains make. And I didn’t like that I couldn’t control which brands were being associated with my content.
I looked in to the possibility of blocking certain advertisers from displaying ads on my videos, but at the time it seemed like I could only block categories (and I didn’t want to block all design-related ads). Besides, even if I had been able to block this company in particular, is that really something I wanted to have to keep an eye on? To keep checking the list of companies advertising on my videos so that I could block the ones I didn’t believe in? How much time did I want to put into this?
Costing my audience their time
By this stage I was already contemplating the value these ads were bringing to me and weighing that up with the negatives, when I came across another perspective that helped me to make up my mind.
I’m a member of the seanwes community and I have a huge amount of respect for its founder Sean McCabe and the content he puts out. None of Sean’s content has ads. Like, ever. His was a podcast I could listen to and know that I was never going to get an ad for that same product I’ve heard about on every other show I listen to.
Having ad-free content is a choice Sean made, and this is what he says about that decision:
“We don’t do ads because we don’t believe in selling your attention. We value your time too much to do that.“
The more I heard Sean talk about this, the more I started to realise that it wasn’t just my time dealing with copyright or my frustration with unsavoury advertisers that Adsense was costing; it was also costing my audience their time.
Sure, the time we’re talking about is the 5 seconds of unrelated content they have to sit through before they can click the “skip ad” button. That’s not a lot, and some might say it’s just the price you pay to watch YouTube. But hopefully, if I do everything right, my audience will be watching a lot of my videos over many years. So that time will add up. What if my viewers never had to experience those few seconds of advertising annoyance before one of my videos? What if I could always allow them to dive right in to the design theory, process or tool they’ve chosen to learn about through my videos without breaking their focus?
Turning down “free” money
I knew what I should be doing about this, but I was finding it hard to flip that monetisation switch off. After all, money is money! And I was making around $400 a month at this stage. Besides, ads aren’t exactly rare on YouTube: people expect them, and it’s pretty standard for a YouTuber to earn money through Adsense. Choosing not to do so was going against the path I’d seen my peers follow.
But I wanted to play the long game. I wanted to do right by my conscience, and do right by my audience.
So, on January 14th 2016 I uploaded my next video as per usual. But this time, I turned that monetisation option off. I told myself I might as well try it, to see how it felt. And nearly four years later, I’m still happy with that decision and have turned my attention towards better ways of making money through my content.
While I no longer have pre-roll ads displaying on my videos, I decided that I’m happy with (and excited about!) working with highly relevant brands on integrated video sponsorships. Though I did get a whole lot pickier about who I’d allow to sponsor my videos. In these scenarios I’m in complete control of which brands are associated with me, and when a video is sponsored my first and foremost priority is making sure the content is valuable for my audience. This means that companies who want a podcast-style ad read or “brand mention” are out, and only companies who want to work on something useful together are in.
That first little taste of Adsense money got me addicted. It felt like an easy way to make a few bucks. I got swept up in it and forgot that my primary goal on YouTube isn’t the money. I’m not uploading videos with the hopes of becoming a full-time YouTuber; I’m uploading to share my life as a designer, to try have a positive impact on the design community, and to help other designers find success in their careers. Turning off pre-roll ads on my videos helps me towards my goal. Working with relevant brands on high-quality sponsored videos also helps towards that goal.
As creators, we have to figure out our own boundaries and what will help us (or hurt us) on our mission. What’s right for some, may not be for others. So to my fellow YouTubers who do allow ads to play on their videos: please know that I’m not judging you. You get that coin! If the Adsense money is meaningful to you and makes a net-positive impact on your life, keep earning it. Keep getting paid for your wonderful creative work. For me, the negatives outweighed the positives and disabling ads is a choice I’m able to make because YouTube is not my job, and doing it full time is not my dream. I fully understand how privileged I am to be in a position where I can do without those few hundred bucks a month (or to earn it though a different means!).
Many members of my lovely audience have told me they wouldn’t mind if I turned ads back on, that they want to make sure I’m getting paid, and that they want to support me by watching an ad knowing I’ll get those sweet Adsense cents for it. To them I say you’re supporting me the perfect amount just by watching the video, by leaving a comment, by caring. Thank you!
I know this may be a controversial topic to discuss, but if you’re a content creator or a content viewer I’d love to hear your opinion on ads. Like I said, no judgement here! So please feel free to share your thoughts with me over on Twitter.