Lights, Camera, Crickets (A YouTube Crash Course)

This year marks my 1oth (TENTH!) year working in social video. Ten years in this industry means that I: A) have been here since the beginning, basically and B) am a damn dinosaur. Over the past decade, I’ve helped tons of people get started in social video, particularly on YouTube, and I find myself answering the same questions very often, so I thought I would offer up some basic tips for launching a YouTube channel. It’s hard to find a concise, basic guide out there. It’s cold out there. Stop crying. Wrap yourself in this, boo.

Disclaimer: Social isn’t easy. Video isn’t easy. There are no legitimate experts and anyone who tells you he can accurately predict what will or won’t perform organically in social video is a damn liar (I believe Mark Twain said that). There is no magic bullet for growth (besides paying cold hard cash for it), and the internet is always in flux (beautifully) but here are some key tips gleaned from years of experience. They work sometimes.

A good deal of this information, in longer form, can also be accessed via YouTube’s very helpful Creator Academy, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Disclaimer II: The Disclaimening: This manual is in no way approved by or affiliated with YouTube. They might even deny a good deal of the points made herein…a lot of these are inferences…and it’s YouTube, so everything may change tomorrow. You’ve been warned.

In lieu of a viral miracle or a million dollar campaign, the primary key to finding audience on YouTube is consistency. Although YouTube is still the wild west with regards to programming and viewing habits, people do tune in regularly for content they like. YouTube has made content discovery far more difficult in recent years, so your growth will likely rely on slowly building a core via shares/likes/peer recommendations and will likely take quite a while. Conventional wisdom says to post at least one on-theme or serial video weekly, preferably on the same day. Even if your audience doesn’t view your Wednesday video on a Wednesday, they like to know it’s there…you can think of this as a hybrid of programming and messaging. They want to know that their friend who always messages them on Wednesday is going to message them…on Wednesday. Posting different types of videos on different regular days is also advisable. And don’t get discouraged if adoption feels slow, most channels don’t begin to prove their viability until they’ve published about 50 videos (and that could be a year of publishing). Once your channel tips, all of that older/overlooked content you posted before you were famous will form a rabbit hole for new fans to learn more about you. Think of it as building your back catalog.

It’s advisable to post at least one video weekly, but a higher frequency (of decent content) is optimal. For a brand new channel, the bulk of views will come from browse features and direct links, so you want your videos to show up in feeds with some regularity. YouTube will allow you to post up to 3 videos per day before throttling your appearance in browse, and will give you better placement if you post daily for 2 weeks or more. So even if you’re making high production videos once a week, think about posting a BTS or a vlog or hangout (something low effort) during the interim.

This also bleeds into content strategy. When creating a content calendar for your channel, try to think of a video concept that you could comfortably spin off at least 50 times with short turnaround/low barrier to entry.

Don’t worry too much if you are a novice in terms of video production. The top performing content on YouTube is typically not the slickest or most professional, and social audiences like to grow with you. The audience values personality over production and there is a common holding that many of the best YouTubers tread a very fine aspirational/attainable line by making “good enough” content. Social video is social (most viewers are publishers as well), and your audience wants to relate and respond in kind. You should always avoid long, TV style titles, as you will see an immediate audience dropoff. And you probably shouldn’t open with a title, even if it’s short. It’s better to open with a teaser or intro, then run a very short title and get right into the subject….OR just drop in lower thirds and keep momentum. Momentum is key. Unless you’re known for short art films, keep it poppy and fast paced. And keep it crappy. At least a little crappy.

Production doesn’t have to be great, but clear, acceptably loud audio is very important. People ditch bad audio fast. Some people listen to videos playing in hidden tabs while doing other things, so keep in mind that audio may be 100% of your message and it may need to tell the whole story.

Audio may also be 0% of your message, as some people watch videos muted. So make sure you are visually telling the story one way or another. If your video has words, it is advisable to take advantage of YouTube’s CC service. Not only will this make your videos readable when silenced, it will also help discoverability.

Make sure your videos are at least 30 seconds long. This is the minimum duration to monetize. For the most part, successful videos tend to be short. 2–4 minute, actionable/engaging videos tend to do well for new channels, and after you’ve published a few, you can start to dig into your analytics to optimize video length based on your audience’s watch time. If you see a sharp drop anywhere, you will know to either cut it short, or tweak your content. Remember: a minute of unwatched video probably translates to an hour of wasted work. If you see 100% watch time, even if feedback is negative (haters=fans) then you can go longer. As your audience gets more invested in your content, you can start to post much longer clips. There are exceptions: viewers will watch live gaming for hours, a legit TED Talk will hold an audience for 40 minutes, and vloggers who cater to hormonal 13 year olds get limitless thirst retention…but you likely aren’t in that vertical. If you are, pour up that water, baby, you already won. There is nothing I can teach you that matters.

Video is kinetic, but the thumbnail is still the primary reason that people click on a video. Choose or design your thumbnails to be as intriguing as possible. Create a sense of action and make sure that images are intelligible, bright and read well on devices ranging from very small handheld mobile screens to 34 inch displays at 10 feet. When in doubt, use a human face. Studies have shown that thumbnails with a human face get high response. Eye contact is good, and close shots work well for social, because they feel more intimate…and intimacy, at times is the core product. All of this being said, make sure your thumbnails are indicative of content. YouTube has undertaken serious efforts to crack down on misleading thumbnails, and they also produce a high bounce rate, which can kill your monetization efforts. Creator academy has some good thumbnail resources, but this Tubefilter guide is the most fantastic:

Titles are important! Make sure you put effort into your video titles and that they are sharable and engaging. Ask yourself if you would click on your title if it came up in one of your social feeds. If the answer is yes, you have a winner! At the same time, make sure your titles, like your thumbnails, are relevant. A misleading title can kill your channel’s reputation.

Some things to consider when crafting a title:

A) What’s rising in Google Trends? B) Anything good in the YouTube Search or Tag Suggestions? (let auto-complete work for you) C) Can you incorporate Social/News trends? D) What type of language does your audience like/use? E) Can you think of any (cough… tasteful) engagement bait? and F) Is your title (or the operative words therein) short enough to fit the field on most devices?

Tag heavily, but tag responsibly. Think of tags that are relevant to your video and be thorough, as some (small) percentage of your organic views will come from search. Use the suggested tags if they apply. Tag influencers even if they are the subject of your video but don’t appear. If there are trending topics that apply, add them, even if you consider your video an evergreen piece of content. Like thumbnails and titles, however, make sure your tags are indicative of your content. Related: the same can be said for crediting channels. Credit thoroughly, but honestly. If Todrick Hall was not your choreographer, don’t tag Todrick Hall. But girl, if he was!!!

Use annotations and cards wherever applicable. They may seem like a hassle to create, but the YouTube audience likes and expects them. Annotations are great not only for click-through but also as conversation starters and comment tinder. Cards are great because they work on mobile. Also, make some post-roll! End cards are a great way to engage your viewers without distracting them during programming. Clickable (especially video) post-rolls are a powerful tool for redirecting viewers to your next priority.

Take some time to think about your channel design and channel trailer. These are the first pieces of information that new audience members get with regards to your content/brand. Make sure your trailer clearly, concisely informs your audience while still engaging and entertaining them. Short and sweet should be your mantra.

Make sure that your Channel design is on-brand and easy to navigate. Make sure your avatar fits your brand and conveys what you want people to feel when you interact with them in comments, etc. Make sure a subscribe button is clearly accessible and take some time to organize your videos into intuitive playlists. Turn on Browse layout so that you can control what visitors see. You should keep popular uploads near the top of your channel, because those are the videos that are most likely to show up in Suggested videos and make you more discoverable.

As those popular videos start to circulate on YouTube, you should make sure that they have a clickable watermark and that your featured content plays after each of them (this can be done in the Branding section of your Video Manager). In the same way that your video posts should be consistent, your channel design and in-content branding should all match.

Make sure your content is all original and that you own 100% of it. You can’t monetize any third party content on YouTube. This includes audio, and most Copyright strikes occur due to use of popular music. Avoid other people’s video clips and popular music in the production of your video and you should be fine. Related: YouTube is way more lenient than broadcast with regards to product placements.

The hardest thing to explain to people who casually engage with video online is that social video is not exactly broadcast. If you post a random video that goes viral or you’re a record label or celebrity buying views, your views may come from billions of sources, but if you’re a regular publisher, a lot of your views and the bulk of your engagement will, eventually, be coming from a small, dedicated core. Although not as reciprocal as other social platforms, YouTube is still a community of creators. You should be the most active commenter in your comment section. You should get to know your super fans (even the ones with negative sentiment, as they are often the most invested). Foster conversations, sub and like reciprocally, start collabs and encourage video replies. And if you see engagement slip…don’t be afraid to bait your troll traps. These. Are. Your friends. You’ll. Never be alone again.

I believe it was the great 21st Century philosopher, Katt Williams, who said: “Ladies if you got 14 women hating on you you gotta figure out how to get to 16 before the summer get here” Real talk.

You should be very social off of YouTube as well. If you have followings in other places, leverage them. Add your YouTube sub confirmation to your social/email signatures. If you can, match up your avatars and UN across social so people can more easily search for your channel. If most of your conversations happen on Snapchat, tease your content there. Short clips of your videos or promos shared to your Twitter/FB/IG can be very helpful, but keep in mind that the algorithms on those networks favor native video, so you may have to cut some 15 and 30 second clips that link out to your YouTube video, this is particularly true with FB, which throttles YouTube videos almost entirely. They are pretty much at war.

I think that’s about enough information to get anyone started. Of course, all of this best practices stuff is just sizzle…and it’s not even very fragrant sizzle. The steak is your video content and, at its core, your personality and message. I can maybe help you with that too…

If you want to see some other quickstarts for social video, video production, community, etc, shoot me an email!



Built the grid so I could spend more time off of it.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store