The Problem with Sub4Sub Culture

Let’s talk about the time I was forced to define the problem with sub4sub culture. I was sitting at the kitchen table with Jessica, working on our promotional plan for Get Two Fit. She asked, “How do you get subscribers on YouTube, anyways? Like, do you talk to people and drop a link, or…?”

I had trouble answering her because I still can’t grasp how I’ve gotten the number of subscribers that I do have. Who knows why they click the subscribe button? I just know that they do sometimes, and other times they don’t. On really bad days, they get pissed off about something that I’ve said and unsubscribe, never to be heard from again (like yesterday’s video).

I explained my general process: engage with people, hope you rank for search terms (this happens more naturally when you’ve got an actual topic, like fitness, to focus on), ask them to subscribe and make subscribing easy.

“What do you mean by engage though? Like how do you engage?”

I thought back to when I first started – and exactly how many videos I’ve commented on during my time on YouTube.

“Well,” I started. “You kind of… just… watch other peoples’ videos and leave a comment. And talk to them on Twitter. But you don’t do the whole like, ‘oh if you subscribe to my channel I’ll subscribe to yours, too,’ thing because it’s bad and annoying and yeah.”

“Why is it bad?” she asked.

Good question. I had to write a post about it.

So what is sub4sub culture?

97% of you already know what sub4sub culture is, but I want to clarify for anybody who doesn’t:

The sub4sub community is a group of creators across different social media platforms who engage in a highly-reciprocal style of growth. So you subscribe to them, and they subscribe back. You follow them on Instagram, they follow you. Follow them on Twitter, they follow back.*

You can see it in various forms, too. On YouTube, sub4sub is king, or #like4like and #follow4follow on Instagram.

You do this until you get to, say, 1,000 subscribers – a big and important enough following to start attracting more. It’s a quick and easy way to build the level of social proof you need.

This isn’t such a bad thing in theory. Your audience grows, you get followers, you look more important and authoritative. Sunshine and rainbows.

The problem with sub4sub culture: the most popular method of growing small YouTube channels quickly and gaining a following (that's ultimately under-engaged, under-appreciative, and generally not even in your niche).

So what’s the problem with sub4sub culture?

It’s great…

Except that nobody watches your content, because they’re subscribed to 500 different people. You can’t watch too your favorite creators, since your subscription box is full.

So you decide to watch every video and comment, hoping they’ll notice you. In theory, they should watch your video, too, and leave a comment as well. And maybe even a thumbs up. Everyone’s happy again. Great.

You watch 80% of everybody’s videos (because watch time and audience retention are important and you don’t want to be the cause of somebody’s metrics dropping), and then go to check your comment inbox. Oh, look:

Hey bro nice vid just subbed sub back pls 

cool vid 🙂 

This was great your so funny I liked the hair flip you did at the beginning

Your audience retention is at 7%. Why? Not because your content sucks (although it also may be because your content sucks), but because they’re only watching the video for as long as it takes them to comment. YouTube filters half of them as spam and your engagement rate drops.

The problem with sub4sub culture is that you’re penalized by YouTube. Only spammers are watching you, you’re not getting shares, and you don’t know what you’re doing anyways. Yet you’re dumping 6 hours a day supporting your so-called friends.

After all, us small YouTubers have to support each other.

* I actually consider Twitter to be the exception to the sub4sub rule. If someone follows you on Twitter, they’re not an obvious spam account, they’re not posting offensive stuff, and you’re not so consumed with social media that you just simply don’t have the time to even look at your notifications, just follow back. Seriously. 

Another problem with sub4sub culture

Let’s talk about the problem with sub4sub culture from a non-technical perspective. Let’s talk about mentality.

You’ll notice a general theme in comments sections: a complete and total lack of substance. But you joined the world of content creation because you had something to say – something to contribute to the world, right? You have something valuable and you need a platform – social media – to spread it.

But you have to engage to get to that point and build a dialogue with the world. That’s the problem with sub4sub culture. It kills that motivation, that drive, and that ability. It is strictly a superficial numbers game.

I’m not here to get the numbers – just to contribute.

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