South African YouTube wildlife channel hits 1 billion views
Latest Sightings, the pioneering wildlife community started by a schoolboy, this week became the first South African YouTube channel to reach a billion views.
Nadav Ossendryver. Picture: Supplied
When he was just 15, Nadav Ossendryver’s passion for wildlife convinced him there was a need for a dedicated online community.
Eight years later, managing that community has become not only a full-time business, but also the single most popular YouTube channel run from South Africa.
This week it reached a billion views, a landmark that only the world’s elite YouTubers can claim. It has 1.44 million subscribers, also placing Ossendryver among the global leaders on the platform.
Yet, for the first few years, he was happy to have just a few hundred followers.
“When I first started, I really only focused on the Kruger National Park,” he said in an interview this week.
“Right now, we are starting to establish communities in various reserves. But at the time, I didn’t think anyone else was as obsessed with Kruger as me, let alone obsessed enough to follow other complete strangers’ sightings.
“So the last thing I expected was to get an audience of over one million people. In the first year, we only gained around 100 subscribers. The next year was very similar. So it was very much about perseverance and the fact that I loved what I was doing.
“However, as soon as I went to the park and used the sightings from the community, I had a feeling that this idea could really grow.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest motivation for starting Latest Sightings was his own need for such a service.
“I really wanted to see more animals. I was sick and tired of stopping people to ask them what they have seen and wanted a more real-time way of doing that.
“My motivation for starting on YouTube was that we were getting lots of amazing sightings. The best place to share photos was Instagram, so we shared the best of the best there. The best place to share videos was YouTube, so we started our YouTube channel.”
Ossendryver is not the first South African to post wildlife videos on YouTube, nor the first to discover the power of serving an online community via the platform. What, then, is the secret of his success?
“I think that I have two great assets,” he says. “Firstly, I am the biggest user of my own app and I am part of my community.
“I think that the fact that I use the sightings service, which ultimately is the driver of the YouTube channel, helps me know what would make the community happier, and thus make meaningful changes that drive growth.
“Secondly, I have the drive to find easier ways of doing things when they seem impossible. I see so many people stick to the status quo and not think out the box.
“For example, I didn’t have money initially to start an app or pay for advertising. So I just used YouTube to learn how to develop the first app, and I then used social media to reach the right audience, all for free. I’m not scared to experiment, where I find that a lot of people are scared to do so.”
Among his friends, Ossendryver is notorious for working through the night to solve a specific problem or challenge that prevents him from adding new functions or features to his app.
A bundle of energy, he is usually eager to share the discoveries he makes in the process. In that way, he has also found himself at the centre of an informal community of digital adventurers always looking for new paths through the online jungle.
Building the Latest Sightings community has not been a smooth ride all the way, but he says there are far more highlights than low points.
“The biggest highlight has been that excitement of receiving an incredible sighting, and knowing that no one else in the world has seen this yet.
“The second big highlight is showing other South Africans that an SA-based channel can reach the world stage, and that YouTube isn’t only an American or British person’s place.
“Another great highlight is the fact that people can take me, a 23-year-old, seriously when I speak about YouTube and general social media strategy.”
Ossendryver is under no illusions that YouTube is the only game in town.
“I think Twitch and Tiktok and even Facebook video can be quite big threats to YouTube. YouTube is ultimately a platform that creators use to start their businesses. But breaking out on YouTube has become extremely hard, as almost every single creator in the world is trying to do that.
“You are competing with others, plus their algorithm. Not only that, advertising cost per thousand views has dropped significantly over the past few years, which is driving lots of people away.
“Facebook, on the other hand, is a whole new world. Pages with only a few thousand followers can generate millions of Facebook video views, which sometimes aren’t as ‘genuine’ as one YouTube view, but the cost per thousand is substantial, and one million views on Facebook can also generate around 1,000-10,000 new page likes, whereas a million views for us on YouTube will only gain a few hundred new subscribers.”
The big new name in video sharing is the fast-rising Chinese app Tiktok. Ossendryver is paying attention.
“TikTok is a new platform for us, so I haven’t had so much experience. But I am noticing that TikTok is driving new users. We have only around 300 followers on TikTok, but they are pushing our content, to get thousands of views sometimes.
“This is a big motivator and will help TikTok grow. They just need to work on their monetisation strategy.”
At a billion views, Ossendryver seems to have cracked that code. The Latest Sightings operation now includes travel bookings and merchandise. The most unlikely development would be if Ossendryver sat back to savour his success.
“What’s next for us is definitely still working on expanding our community to more parks. This will be the biggest driver of great content.”
How to build an online community
Latest Sightings founder Nadav Ossendryver is happy to share his strategic thinking with anyone who listens. His advice for someone starting out on YouTube is clear:
“Don’t look at subscriber or view count in the first year. I only grew to around 100 subscribers in the first year. If I had taken that as a sign that no one liked the content, I would have stopped! But growing an audience and a community takes time.
“Make videos about subjects that you can’t live life without. I love the game reserve. When I am in the city, I am always dying to head back to the park to look for great wildlife sightings. That’s why I find it easy to work around that subject on social media.
“My biggest suggestion is that people starting out their channel should find that ‘game reserve feeling’ of their life, because then they will naturally create content that is interesting to like-minded people.”
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee