Going sponsor-free
Hey everyone,

As mentioned at the end of the most recent video, one thing I'd like to do with the channel moving forward is to go sponsor-free, which is to say stop doing those little promos at the end of a video.

One the one hand, it feels silly to write up too much of an explanation for this.  Your support on Patreon is enough to keep the channel going, and I think the videos will be cleaner and of higher quality if from start to end their just about the math.  Simple as that.

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But admittedly, there is some more nuance, and I do want an excuse to write out more thoughts since it's impossible to produce content on the internet without thinking a fair bit about the nature of advertising, so here seems as good a place as any.

To start, it's interesting to look at the history of ads on YouTube.  At first there was nothing, and people were creating either out of their own passion, because it brought some indirect benefit to another organization, or because of a vague sense that it would be valuable in the long-term.  When the skippable pre-roll ads were introduced, many were initially wary that running those would be "selling out", but eventually viewers and creators grew accustomed to the idea that YouTube, like TV, would involve ads produced by a third party interspersed between, but clearly distinct from, the content.  Also, it quickly became clear that when it's possible to make a living on YouTube, the breadth and quality of content really goes up.

But as time went on, the returns on these ads, (known in the business as CPM, dollars earned per thousand views), slowly started to decline, probably because viewers grew increasingly more numb to these after the novelty wore off.  In the meantime, there was an increase in "brand deals", where a company might pay a creator to have their product show up in the video.  This typically either takes the form of simple product placement, or of a post-roll message of the creator.  Think educational YouTuber sponsored by Audible.

Again, creators had some initial trepidation about this being a form of selling out, but eventually people by and large got used to it.  Personally, I think these can be a very good thing, as long as it's a well-aligned brand.  If it allows creators to allocate more time and resources towards their content, the experience for everyone is better, so long as the relevant sponsorship doesn't compromise the integrity of that content.

Increasingly, though, it's starting to feel like some of these ads are seeping into the core content itself.  One particular pet peeve of mine is when creators do some smooth transition, where the start of a sentence feels like it's meant to be a conclusive statement about the content, but somewhere halfway thought it's turned into an ad introduction.  Perhaps this is in response to the fact that the novelty of integrated post-roll ads has worn off for viewers, and advertisers are seeking other ways to catch viewers' attention.  To make a tortured analogy, we're all fine if Roger Federer is paid just to wear a Nike T-shirt while he plays, or to even see him show up in a TV commercial, but something would feel a bit off if during his Wimbledon victory speech he turned to the camera and started explaining what high quality sportswear Nike produces.

When I made the shift to start doing this channel full-time, I defaulted to doing post-roll ads largely because it seemed to be the status quo, and in early survival-mode with a comparatively small audience I wanted to be sure to hedge my bets along different strategies.  I like to think I've always taken care to keep these well-aligned and non-intrusive.  This involves saying no to a lot, and I've also tried to get more creative about finding well-aligned brand associations, like in the times I've done recruiting messages.

My thought was also that having clear unit economics on videos to supplement Patreon earnings would make it more possible to grow out a team to produce more frequent content.  As mentioned in my last post, though, my values have shifted a bit away from striving for more content, per se, and instead towards trying to build a deeper relationship with the audience.

But of course, even if I want the main videos to feel like they're under one voice, there is no shortage of things I could see doing with more resources.  Somewhere at the top of my list is making more non-video components to supplement the main content.  Interactives, quizzes, classroom activities, etc.  So in deciding to go sponsor-free, it's not as if I don't want more resources, it has to do with costs and opportunity costs I see in keeping it up.

The first of these is that insofar as I want the videos to make people, especially students, self-identify as liking math more, they stand to do that more successfully if the thoughts I leave someone with are centered on the content itself.

Also, given the apparent trajectory of these sponsorships in some other corners of YouTube getting increasingly entangled with the content itself, part of me simply wants to distance myself from that whole world.  Even if I actually quite like the company I'm promoting, if the feeling in some viewer's mind is "why is <insert-company-name> showing up on all the channels I watch?", it inadvertently means the brand of my channel is tied a little bit to a bunch of other peoples' channels, and I may not alway agree with they way they handle their sponsor messages.

But perhaps the best reason I see, and this is the one I mentioned in the video, is to really make sure incentives are always aligned.  Even if advertising revenue is not a sole source of income, it will always add a little vector in the incentive space towards maximizing the number of people reached.  Given that I want more people to like math, higher reach is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be problematic if it meant I ever choose not to make content which I know would have a deep impact, albeit with fewer people.  I like to think I've never made that choice, but who knows, some influences happen at a subconscious level.

Direct, optional support really is the best incentive alignment I can see for content creation.  Even with something like a book, where people have to decide they value it to buy it, that decision is made before actually consuming the content and making the judgment for value.  With a culture like the one Patreon wants to create, money only ever flows in a response to the core content itself.

So thank you, whether you're a supporter or just someone who watches the channel, for making this choice possible.

-Grant