The Secrets of YouTube Success – 2012 Edition

Everyone can be a YouTube Partner (Finally!)

In April this year, YouTube opened up the Partner Program to everyone (from a certain list of countries).

There was a LOT of bellyaching about this. People saw the fact that they were accepted into the Partner Program in the first place as validation for the quality of their content. They believed that this “prestige” of being a YouTube Partner was somehow diluted because the Partner program could now be joined by anybody who had a video that reached a certain level of algorithmically determined success.

Frankly, those feelings are ridiculous. You should be worrying about your own content and making it to the best of your ability. The fact that other people can now make money off their work has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on what you do with your work. Because at the end of the day, the Partnership Program is completely about enabling creators to make money off of what they do. There’s no magical seal of quality – there are YouTube Partners who make absolutely horrible content, and non-Partners (most of them are on Vimeo ha ha) who make fantastic content.

What this means if you aren’t a partner is that there’s no longer a human gatekeeper. You simply need to make content that reaches a certain level of algorithmically determined popularity, and that’s all it takes. I have no hard numbers as to what that is, but the goal would be for it to receive views from diverse places – from blog hits, from direct links, from people sending it to each other, off Facebook, etc.

A consistent audience requires consistent content.

For this, I always look at an older Internet example of a group of people self-employed and working from home in a creative endeavor – webcomics. And if you’ve ever gotten into webcomics, you know that you can divide them up into two categories:

  1. Webcomics that consistently update
  2. Webcomics that don’t consistently update.

And if you look at the cream of the crop, the most financially successful webcomics, the Penny Arcades and xkcds, you find one thing – they all fall under the first category. And comics under the second category have a high probability of pissing you off, and you won’t be so inclined to visit them regularly.

And likewise, the top YouTube channels by-and-large all keep some kind of consistent schedule. Look at it this way – you pay for the loyalty of your viewers by keeping a consistent stream of content headed their way.

Imagine a potential new viewer – they see a video of yours, like it, and maybe start poking around your channel. If there’s only one video, I guarantee you they won’t subscribe because what’s the point? But if they see there’s consistency – the chance of further entertainment in the future, the chances of them subscribing just went up.

Take a look at any mega-viral video and see how many subscribers that account has. David After Dentist’s account has, at the time of this writing, over 100 million views, but only 42,000 subscribers. In fact, in the last year they’ve only gained 2,000 subscribers. David After Dentist went mega viral, but it didn’t grab a consistent audience.

In the first version of this article, I compared them to the YouTube account BFvsGF, which had slightly more subscribers and ten times fewer views. Guess what happened in a year? They kept consistent with their content and now they are almost at 100 million total upload views, and they have ten times the subscribers that David After Dentist’s account did.

This is a great case study – keep up with your content, and you can outperform any megaviral hit. You cannot expect someone to become a consistent member of your audience, let alone remember you, if you are not giving them consistent content in return.

Set a schedule, and stick to that schedule, no matter what. If you run out of time and put out a mediocre video, make up for it next video. The beauty is by forcing yourself to maintain a schedule, you’ll force yourself to come up with something.

Before you start going, while the pressure is off, why not bank some videos? Shoot stuff that’s ready to and hang on to it. That way, if you have an off week or if you get sick, you at least have a backup video you can throw up there.

Focus on content, not on viewers.

How do I get views? How do I get good ratings? What do people want to see? The answer to all these questions is good content.

“Good” is entirely subjective, I might add. Look at Fred’s success – he didn’t get that successful from people hating those videos. At one point, the majority his audience loved them and were passing them around. But his audience was young and fickle, and if there’s one thing I know about being 11 years old, it’s that when I was 13, I hated everything I liked at 11.

The biggest mistake I see in a lot of channels is putting all their effort into grabbing viewers. They’ll spam other videos, they’ll send mass messages, and pay for shady promotion schemes in the hopes of gaining an audience that way. I’ve seen a lot of comments asking for people to “Please check out my channel!”

Think about this: when’s the last time someone handed you a flyer on the street? Did you throw it away? Would you have thrown it away if it was your friend handing it to you?

Total strangers advertising themselves isn’t enough. There needs to be more of a reason to make the effort to watch something. The easiest way to do this is have content that’s so good, people’s friends are sending it to them.

And if you trick somebody into watching one of your videos, what are the odds they’ll ever come back? What are the chances they’ll actually pass that video along to a friend? If your content isn’t appealing, a viewer won’t even finish your video before they close the window.

In short, don’t take a viewer-centric approach, i.e. “How do I get people to watch my video?” This doesn’t work.

In this last year, we had the rise and fall of the “Reply Girl” channels. They took a completely viewer-centric approach – their answer to the question of “How do I get people to watch my video?” was “Use thumbnails with my breasts displayed prominently.” Today, their viewership is non-existant (probably because they also relied on exploiting a related video algorithm). Their success was fleeting.

You must take a content-centric approach – “How do I make a video that people want to watch?”

This means facing a potentially uncomfortable fact – while you and your parents and friends might think your video is a work of unbridled genius, the public at large might think it sucks (remember, we’re talking about YouTube success, and any amount of success requires an audience to support your content).

And worse – people are anonymous on the Internet, which means they can be mean. If they think something sucks, they won’t hesitate to tell you in no uncertain terms. This can be discomforting to a lot of people. Once, I charted the statistical frequency of keywords in the first 10,000 comments of the Guitar Hero video. Fully 60% of all comments featured a racial or sexual epithet (and, my favorite statistic, the most “g’s” somebody put in the word “fag” was something like 28).

It’s very easy to get discouraged quickly, but as a creative person, you should be ecstatic when somebody insults you and your work. Why? Because YouTube comments are the only place you will ever get an honest opinion. Your family will always love you. Your friends will be supportive. Even people who hate you will be tied by the pressure of social decency to not unleash on you. Some stranger on the Internet, hidden behind a username, has no stake in you whatsoever, so their opinions are truly their own and unclouded.

Granted, you can safely filter out a great deal of this vitriol – there are people that believe the earth is 6000 years old, so you can conclude there’s opinions out there you can safely ignore.

But if you see criticism, don’t shut it out, and don’t let it discourage you either. Take it for what it is – a random stranger spent ten seconds insulting you. That insult is worth exactly ten seconds of your time. Be open minded and see if there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere.

After all, you’re still improving, and these people are giving you a piece of their mind. Take the criticism in stride, and continually work to improve.

But what to do? And how long to make it?

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