My wife and her friend get loud when they’re talking on the phone together.
They have such a good time with each other that over the course of their conversations the world gets smaller and smaller until they are barely aware of anything outside of a very small bubble. Inside that bubble there is nothing but their friendship and whatever topic they’re laughing about. Their “bubble-space fun” is great enough that they’ve decided they want to try sharing their fun with the world (or at least a few interested friends) through YouTube.
It’s not an unreasonable thing to try. Though it’s hard to find exact numbers, there are, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of YouTube channels out there that have a sizable following. As of today, YouTube’s statistics page mentions that they have over a million content creators monetizing on their videos with thousands of channels making six figures a year.
But even if getting rich isn’t your aim, what makes a YouTube channel worth watching? How do you make videos that appeal to people?
I am a shift worker, and every two months I rotate between three shifts. Only one of those shifts has reasonable hours, so on my days off while on the other two shifts I often find myself looking to YouTube to help pass the time (I am not much of a night owl). I currently subscribe to 84 channels, though many of those belong to people I know personally who rarely upload anything.
This blog post is not meant to be the end-all, definitive lesson on how to attain success on YouTube. However, I do want to share what keeps me coming back for more from some of my favorite channels, and a few things I’ve learned over the years about this sort of thing.
Disclaimer: if I were really good at this stuff I’d be making a living doing it. The following consists of a lot of conjecture and heartfelt opinions intermingled with some useful facts that I know. And I’m not claiming to be sharing the secret to viral videos or anything – I’m sharing what I know about content production and audience retention. Also, to get the full benefit from this “lesson” you’re going to have to sit through some videos, and a few of them are rather lengthy and not all of them are kid friendly.
Let’s get started.
Conventional wisdom in the entertainment industry seems to be based around the misapplication of a basic (and true) principle of human communication: know your audience. Rather than just knowing their audience, they are trying to know their audience. Like, in bed. They want to give the audience what the audience wants because that’s what makes the audience grow and shell out money. Appeal to the widest possible audience and you’ve got yourself a profitable YouTube channel in no time.
But what about you? Will you be happy? And what of your audience? Will your audience come back for more because they’re interested in what you’ll post next time, or are you just generating views because your videos show a thumbnail that got someone to click on it out of interest (boobs)?
I believe that all entertainers should do what they love for their own reasons. Going further than that (here comes your first video assignment, and it’s almost twenty minutes long), Simon Sinek teaches leaders how to inspire people to action by centering everything you do around a primary idea that answers the question, “why?” You will need his advice when planning your content and video “format” (what and how you do what you do).
- Watch this video: Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action (18:35)
“Why” is a great place to start. And if you do it right, your “why” is something that is based mostly around feelings. But you’ve got to try to describe it in words.
Now, YouTube is an interesting place. There are a lot of problems with the “audience” on YouTube. The next video I want you to watch covers these issues through a satirical and tongue-in-cheek presentation pretending to be excellent advice on how to run your YouTube channel.
- Watch this video: Welcome to Youtube! (8:33)
The real trick is in clearly defining why you’re starting your channel and figuring out what kinds of people are going to be watching it. Then you figure out whatever you can about that audience and tailor the presentation to them (not your content).
A great example of this is a guy called PewDiePie. He records himself being an idiot playing video games. As of right now, this guy has over thirteen million subscribers (I am not one of them). YouTube channels that focus on gaming are really big right now. A lot of people want to watch people play video games. But what makes PewDiePie number one?
Another channel I watch from time to time is The Game Theorist. He records videos in which he speculates on gaming related issues, carefully researching the topic and assembling an informed theory to explain what might be going on. He has a great video in which he basically proves that Sonic is not very fast. Very fun videos, but not consistently fun enough to get my subscription.
The Game Theorist did a really great video about why PewDiePie is so popular, and in it he outlines a lot of things that any new content publisher should know.
- Watch this video: Game Theory: How PewDiePie Conquered YouTube (12:03)
OK, one more long-ish video that you have to watch all the way through, then we’ll get into individual channels.
This next video is by a guy who I honestly did not expect to subscribe to. I remember the first time I saw one of his videos. I thought, “this guy is ugly, strange, and I do not feel like I connect with him.” That, however, was before I started getting into woodworking. When my wife and I started building a major piece of furniture I began looking for woodworking YouTube videos that were helpful for a novice like me.
That’s when this ugly guy’s channel came back up. After watching a few of his videos I subscribed. Then I found out that he had another channel in which he talks about the videos in his main channel. This intrigued me, so I checked out that second channel. Again, I subscribed.
Then I stumbled upon the following video in his auxiliary channel in which he talks about the video equipment he uses to make videos. But that’s not why I’m having you watch it. I’m having you watch it because the guy is awesome at little tips that make videos better for viewers. His video is kind of long, but it is full of outstanding advice for new channel owners.
- Watch this video: The equipment I use to shoot videos for YouTube (11:35)
If you’ve watched all of the videos I’ve prescribed so far, you’ve just watched 50 minutes and 46 seconds of video. Maybe you did it all in one sitting, maybe you broke it up into manageable segments over the course of a day or more. It’s possible that not all of those videos kept your attention for the entire length, but I’m betting that most of them did (if not all of them). Why did you watch those videos? Not just “because I’m trying to learn how to make good videos.” Really ask yourself, “what kept me watching even though those videos were so long?” If you need to, pick one and go back and watch it again, trying to figure out how the presenter kept your attention.
Now, let’s run through a few of my subscriptions and talk about what I love about them.
When I link to a channel, I recommend you familiarize yourself with their top video (or a few of their top videos). To do this, click on the channel link I provide, then look for the “Videos” tab (next to the little house icon, below the channel name). When the Videos tab first loads their uploads are shown in reverse chronological order (newest videos first). Click on the drop down button that says “Date added (newest – oldest)” and select “Most popular” to view their videos from most to least popular. Then watch at least a few of their top few videos to see what they are like.
The great thing about viewing the most popular video on a channel is that you can see the video that resonated the most with their intended audience. It’s usually the video that initially earned them a strong following of subscribers (but not always).
Alright. I’m not going through these in any particular order (well, except alphabetical order because that’s how I’m viewing the list of my subscriptions).
The first channel I’ll introduce you to feels more like a television show, and perhaps that’s why I’m subscribed. As far as I know, these videos do not air on cable. They are just a YouTube thing, but they have exceptional production value and a pretty nice budget behind them, which leads me to believe that they are professionally produced by a crew that also does television shows.
They do a variety of things on the channel, but the videos I like most are part of a series called “Man at Arms” where a professional blacksmith creates video game character weapons. That particular feature got my subscription, but since then I have enjoyed a few of their other videos as well, videos that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t subscribed. That’s the power of gaining subscribers.
- Check out this channel: AWE me
This next channel isn’t something that I would have initially thought I’d ever subscribe to (DON’T JUDGE ME). I initially happened upon the channel when I was watching a lot of videos of different accents (I like accents, OK?). The video that got me interested was part of a larger playlist that someone else had put together to showcase accents from around the world. To this day, the video of hers that I saw is still her most popular video (and it’s over two years old).
When watching her video I found that I didn’t just like her accent, I thought she had a lot of fun things to say. So I checked out her more recent videos and found that she was video blogging (vlogging) about a lot of topics in an interesting way (and by interesting I mean that she’s being her own silly self without worrying too much about her audience, though she does ask for suggestions from time to time).
To me, her channel is a great example of what one normal person (and sometimes she has her friends on with her) can do to hold an audience, even without great equipment or professional training. With just over 8,000 subscribers she’s not the biggest channel that I’m covering, but she’s got her audience and she does a good job keeping their attention (though I don’t watch her videos all the way through when they stray too far from my interests — for example sometimes she goes to parties and films it).
- Check out this channel: Scottish Vlogger! (AKA BeautyCreep)
Here’s an odd one for you. I subscribed to this guy on a whim when I found a video he posted of a nickel ball that he heated with a blow torch until it was red hot before dropping it in some water. I think Randall Munroe linked to it on his What If blog when referring to the cavitation effect (that’s probably not what it’s called) that occurs when super hot things contact water. Anyhow, the video owner got a sudden surge in traffic for the red hot nickel ball in water video and began doing more videos like it (using the RHNB acronym rather than writing out red hot nickel ball all the time). Now he’s got 45 thousand subscribers that just want to see what he’ll drop his red hot nickel ball onto next. It’s a simple premise, but one that has obviously gained him quite a strong following.
- Check out this channel: carsandwater
Sometimes the best channels are focused on just one interest. In this next channel’s case, it’s slingshots. In fact, he calls himself “the slingshot channel.” While some of his “slingshot” videos kind of stretch the concept of slingshot (see what I did there?), his razor focus on a single subject secures him a steady viewership that shares his passion. All in all he’s just shy of 300,000 subscribers at the moment, and he really loves making his videos.
I recommend you check out a few of his videos for sure. He is a fun, lovable guy and after watching a couple of his videos you’ll never forget the way he says, “That’s all for today. I hope you liked it. Thanks, and bye bye.” Super great guy.
- Check out this channel: JoergSprave
A while back Google released a product that didn’t make a lot of sense. The Internet was complaining about its price, its unusual technical specifications, and all sorts of other things about it. Then I stumbled upon this guy explaining the features of this product and it totally made sense. This kid is sharp, great at explaining things in a way that is relevant to the average technology user, and really gets into the tech industry to relay the best news to his viewers. And it pays off. He’s got over 500,000 subscribers and through his YouTube income is able to pay for all the neat toys and gadgets he could possibly want. Plus, it seems that some product manufacturers send him their latest gadgets to try out and review on his channel.
In addition to having fantastically well planned content and presentation, he excels at production. His videos are clear and vibrant, and they have outstanding audio quality. When my father moved from newspaper publishing to running a couple dozen news websites for a corporation he had to learn to do web video. In his research he found that the main difference between obviously amateur videos and apparently professional videos was the sound quality. Good sound quality can put your channel in an entirely different category when it comes to perceived quality, and if anyone knows that Marques Brownlee does.
- Check out this channel: Marques Brownlee
Here’s one of those video game channels. This guy is just plain silly. I found his channel when a coworker showed me a video from a different channel and one of this guy’s videos was a related video. I thought his video was way funnier than the one my coworker shared with me. So I subscribed. His videos are almost all short (2 to 5 minutes) and well edited to contain all of the funniest bits and enough back story to know why they’re funny. Do not show these videos to young children.
- Check out this channel: SeaNanners
This next guy came out of nowhere. As someone who once frequented but now occasionally peruses reddit, I have learned to appreciate the power of certain social media platforms (especially reddit). One day this guy’s first video got posted to reddit when he only had about five videos up (to date he still only has 14 videos posted). The video was an explanation of the book Crime and Punishment and the reddit post title indicated that watching this video would grant me some insight into the book that I previously lacked.
The video delivered on that promise and then some. The production quality leads me to wonder if there isn’t a professional studio behind these videos, but I don’t care if they’re just going to try to sell me something in the end. I subscribed because I want to know as much about literature as this character is going to teach me. These are fantastic videos because they provide a service and do it in a way that is more than just entertaining, it is original. Original ideas (or just ideas that seem original) go a long way so long as they are presented well and given the right exposure.
- Check out this channel: Thug Notes
Back when Lindsey Stirling was on America’s Got Talent and her YouTube channel teamed up with some big shot videographer, I discovered another violin-playing girl with a YouTube channel and I decided that I like her style better. And I’m glad I did, because soon Lindsey’s work began to feel heartless. I think more recently she may be rediscovering her old self, but for a while she lost her way when she lost sight of her “why.”
Anyhow, this other violin player has remained humble, innovative, and relevant to my interests for a couple of years now, and she just released her first original song. She may not have as many fans as Lindsey (only 220,000 subscribers vs. Lindsey’s 3 million), but she is just as talented (if not more) at playing the violin. Just looking at the comments on their videos and channels you can get an idea of how her 220,000 subscribers are just as valuable as Lindsey’s 3 million to someone who is not doing what they do for their audience, but for their self.
- Check out this channel: ViolinTay
OK, just one more. This girl is a member of a game-playing, video-making team called The Yogscast. They actually have a Wikipedia page (yes, they’re that big of a deal and you had no idea they existed). They got their start playing World of Warcraft in a guild called “Ye Olde Goone Squad” (from whence they derive their current name, YOGScast) and eventually gained popularity with their Let’s Play video series about Minecraft.
I don’t really care for most of the Yogscast stuff (though some of it can be pretty fun), but I found Hannah’s channel when I was looking up videos of the recent game The Last of Us. I had heard that the story was good, so I wanted to watch someone play through it. Hannah’s first game play video of the game caught my attention when she cried at the end of the opening sequence. I enjoy her accent, her commentary, and what she adds to the game experience just by being herself. Her videos are pretty long (about 20 minutes on average) but I highly recommend you watch one or two of them. She’s great at holding her audience. She does all of her own video editing, and manages to edit out “boring” parts without making you miss any of the important content of the game.
- Check out this channel: YOGSCAST Hannah
Alright. That is a good general sampling of channels I subscribe to and why I subscribe. There are quite a few more, of course, but I think these ones are each unique enough that you should be able to figure out what you want to do by watching them do what they love.
I apologize for how freakishly long this is and how clumsy my writing is. I wrote it all out and lost the steam to go back and do a thorough editing.