The Riches Are in the Niches
The Work of My Life: November 2021 Report
“It really is unbelievable. I don’t know why people watch it.” – Steve Wallis
Steve Wallis is a furnace repairman who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. While we’ve never met him, we do feel like we know him a little. He seems charming, likeable, and easy-going – the kind of person you would be happy to have as a neighbor or share a few drinks with at the pub. He also has an excellent sense of humor, delivered in near-perfect deadpan.
Wallis has parlayed these qualities into one of the most popular channels on YouTube. At the time of this writing, his channel – which was called Camping with Steve when we first discovered him but is now simply called Steve Wallis – sports 745,000 subscribers and has garnered over 107 million lifetime views. His weekly videos are about 20-30 minutes in length and are routinely watched by several hundred thousand people. His most popular video, Tent Inside Tent Winter Camping, has an incredible 7.6 million views, while our personal favorite (and his second-most watched video) U-Haul Camping in -35 Degrees, has 5.3 million views. These are truly phenomenal numbers.
As these titles reveal, Wallis makes camping videos. It may surprise you that camping videos are a thing on YouTube, but it is a remarkably popular niche. Wallis has carved out his own unique genre within that niche – urban stealth camping. He spent years living out of his RV, sleeping through the night in parking lots and on remote roads, hiding from security guards and local police as he did so. Once he decided to start filming his adventures and publishing them on YouTube, he became an internet celebrity. It is strangely enjoyable to watch Wallis pretend like it matters if he gets caught sleeping in the woods behind hardware store.
The opening quote for this piece was taken from an interview Wallis gave to a radio station in February of 2020. He might not know why people watch, but we do, because we know why we watch. Wallis is authentic, likable, funny, and consistent. You know what you get when YouTube notifies you that Wallis has published a new video. In Marty Neumeier’s excellent book, The Brand Gap – How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design, he begins by reminding readers what brand isn’t. Brand isn’t a logo, a corporate identity system, or a product. He then gives readers the correct answer:
“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s a GUT FEELING because we are all emotional, intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. It’s a PERSON’S gut feeling, because in the end brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public… When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand.”
Neumeier goes on to say that your brand is what they say it is, not what you say it is. The gut feeling we get every Thursday when Wallis publishes his latest adventure usually induces a slight smirk. Many corporations would trade millions for such a brand. Congratulations to Wallis for developing it, and we hope his years of hard work pay off handsomely for him, not just YouTube.
We are interested in people like Wallis because he is a successful content creator, and we are continuously researching and learning all we can about the rapid decentralization of entertainment and education into such niches. The gig economy for brains is exploding and has only accelerated under the world’s response to Covid-19.
Brand is one of five pillars of any business, the others being production, technology, demand creation, and channel. An effective way to improve business performance is to do a deep dive on each of these five pillars, identify strengths and weaknesses, and then look for ways to get better. We will write about each of these concepts more fully in the future, but for today, we’ll extend our analysis of Wallis’ business from brand into a second pillar: channel.
In the context of the five pillars, channel is defined as the way a business interacts and transacts with its customers. If you have a great product but you can’t get in front of the people who have the power to buy, your business will struggle. For Wallis, his channel is the platform on which he publishes, namely YouTube, and YouTube is both an incredibly valuable channel partner for content creators and an expensive one – both monetarily and creatively.
Like Substack, YouTube shares revenue with creators, but it does so in a completely different way. YouTube is owned by Google and runs an ad-based model. The more views your videos get, the more ads YouTube can run on them, and the more money the creator receives. YouTube keeps an incredible 45% of the ad money generated, leaving only 55% for the creator. Contrast this with Substack, which provides a fantastic creator interface and all the back office needed to run a subscription-based business but charges only 10%. Knock off a few percentage points for the payment processor, and a creator on Substack can easily keep 85% of the revenue they generate.
YouTube’s aggressive take has certainly paid off for Google, which reported more than $7.2 billion of advertising revenue it was able to extract from the platform in just the past quarter, which represents 43% growth over the same quarter in the prior year. This figure is just YouTube’s cut, which gives you some indications of the total value content creators are producing.
To be fair, YouTube has sought to facilitate other revenue streams for its creators, like Super Chat, Super Stickers, and memberships, but it is predominately an ad-based business, and that comes with one critical drawback: the risk of censorship and demonetization. When a content creator relies on ads, they are fully susceptible to the risk of cancellation, and sometimes for reasons they don’t even understand. Our friend George Gammon had one of his YouTube channels temporarily removed with no explanation. Luckily for him, he had also built up a formidable social media presence on Twitter, and he was able to leverage that audience to have his YouTube channel restored. Many creators are not so lucky.
Which brings up to another consideration – platform diversification. George Gammon’s main channel has more than 336,000 subscribers, but his Twitter account also registers a healthy 108,000 followers. Looking at Wallis’ various social media properties, his Instagram account appears to be his second largest, but it only has ~2.6% the number of followers that his main YouTube channel has subscribers. While his content is currently not considered controversial in any way, he nonetheless carries a significant personal risk of cancellation with minimal recourse. And make no mistake about it, this is truly a business for Wallis in the ways that count, including how much personal time, energy, and money he has poured into this endeavor. YouTube gets to decide his fate, period.
Longtime readers of Doomberg know that we have openly shared our progress and strategy in these monthly The Work of My Life pieces. Our intent in doing so is to invite our readers to be part of this crazy journey with us, and to potentially help other aspiring content creators by sharing the insights we learn as we discover them. While writing this November edition, it occurred to us that less than half of our current email subscribers have been with us for more than two months! Crazy, indeed! Here are our numbers through November 30:
Articles published: 69
Total views: 1,166,737 (+35%)
Email subscribers: 15,824 (+35%)
Twitter followers: 20,170 (+31%)
We are thrilled and humbled by the month-over-month growth we’ve been able to achieve in November, but we also realize that as the base gets ever bigger, continuing to grow at these rates will become even more challenging. Reflecting on this data, we are especially grateful for the platform diversification we’ve been able to achieve, having crossed 20,000 followers on Twitter while still growing our email list at a healthy rate here on Substack. If you only follow us on one platform, please consider signing up for the other as well. Substack has treated us incredibly well, and we intend to stick with them as our channel partner for as long as they continue to do so, but in this business, it is prudent to diversify.
One final and simple request – if you enjoy the articles we publish, please consider doing us the huge favor of simply clicking the “like” button when you are done reading. When new readers arrive at a Substack homepage and are considering whether to subscribe, one of the strongest indicators of quality they look for is the average number of likes each article generates. Our last six pieces have averaged more than 35,000 views and approximately 60 likes. If we could double or triple the likes, we know even more views and subscribers will follow. Pressing the heart at the end of every piece costs you nothing and means the world to us.
Our brand ambition for Doomberg is that readers view us as funny without being silly, provocative without being polarizing, and informative without being self-indulgent. We want our readers to feel like they learned at least one new thing with each piece. If we invoke these gut feelings in you when the next Doomberg email hits your inbox, then we have succeeded in creating a winning brand. Brand is what you tell us it is, not what we say it is.
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