Around the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 I realized I had made a grave mistake—my view of YouTube was far too small for someone whose job it was to lead content strategy efforts.
At that time, I still saw YouTube as a place to find funny videos, how-to tutorials, and other random one-off videos that may be viewed once in a while. I wasn’t paying attention to the massive community and culture being forged by YouTube and its creators. I was very late to the game when I finally started paying attention to YouTube culture in late 2016.
So, I did what I always do in a situation like this: I immersed myself in YouTube content for a solid six months. I subscribed to about a dozen of the most popular YouTubers—I had never subscribed to anyone on YouTube before—and I started studying them. My goal was simple: what is the lowest common denominator of strategy and success among these top YouTube creators? What do sports YouTubers, makeup YouTubers, gaming YouTubers, and comedy YouTubers all have in common? What do they all do despite their wildly different fanbases and content?
I learned a lot by sniffing out the unspoken, underlying strategy of the top YouTubers, and I was able to apply some of that strategy when my work finally started to include YouTube content creation a couple of years later. Now, almost five years later, YouTube is probably my most-used social media platform from a time-spent standpoint. I watch a handful of YouTubers weekly, some of which are among the first I studied long ago.
As I have led a bit of YouTube strategy in the recent past, and as I continue to casually study YouTube strategy as a now-regular consumer of YouTube content, here are five aspects of YouTube content strategy I see some novice YouTubers and organizations ignore to their detriment:
1) YouTube is a search engine, which means text really matters.
When it comes to thinking about a YouTube strategy, video is obviously the primary concern. YouTube is a video content platform, no doubt about it. It is our modern television, with more channels and free content uploaded every hour than you could consume in a lifetime. It is genuinely a wonder to me that anyone still pays for cable television when so much high-quality, free content is available on YouTube.
Naturally, video quality and all of the other accoutrements of video content strategy are important when plotting a path for YouTube success.
But YouTube is a search engine as much as it is a video content platform.
YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world behind Google, its sister company under the parent company Alphabet.
Search engines, by nature, search text.
This means that arguably the most important work you do when you’re uploading a YouTube video is filling out all of the available text boxes that accompany the video. This practice itself merits another post from me another day because there is a lot to it and it is quite important.
The description, tags, title, and all other relevant text fields that YouTube makes available to you when you upload a video must be filled out. This text content that accompanies your video is how people will discover your video.
If someone Googles “how to re-string an acoustic guitar” and you have such a video, Google knows to deliver the searcher your video because of the text you have added to the description, title, tags, and other such fields. It doesn’t know or care if your video is the highest video quality or has the best lighting. It is reading the text and delivering it mostly based on that.
Like I said, this point merits its own post that I can write in a couple of weeks—I’m adding it to my content calendar now—but I cannot overstate the importance of optimizing the text that accompanies your video content.
2) YouTube is a social media platform, which means engagement really matters.
YouTube really is the most versatile internet platform around. It’s a search engine. It’s a collection of millions of TV channels. It’s a social media platform. In fact, it’s the most popular social media platform in the world.
This is what I didn’t really understand about YouTube back in 2016. I saw YouTube as a massive video hosting platform for all kinds of videos from home remodeling how-to videos to movie review videos to sketch comedy skits. What I apparently wasn’t paying attention to was the real socialization and community that was taking place on the platform.
If you’re trying to lead a YouTube strategy for your organization, you have to treat YouTube as a social media platform, not just a video repository. Engaging with viewers is incredibly important for successful YouTube strategy. Reply to comments. Address your audience in videos. YouTube can very easily be seen as a stage from which the video’s performers do not engage with viewers, but it doesn’t have to be that way—and it shouldn’t!
3) Creating content for YouTube is much more demanding than creating other kinds of content for other kinds of media.
Among virtually all of the authors and organizations I’ve consulted on digital content strategy over the years, YouTube is the platform with the highest rate of burnout. This probably isn’t surprising to you, but I think it’s still worth mentioning here.
Creating content for YouTube is one of the most demanding digital content endeavors on which you or your organization can embark. Video content takes a lot of time and can be incredibly expensive, depending on what you’re creating and how you go about creating it. Add on top of the grueling, expensive process of video content creation the need for audience engagement and the importance of a robust text strategy to accompany your videos, and it’s not really any wonder why the most effective YouTubers in the world usually have a team of people helping them build out their content.
If you haven’t yet started creating content on YouTube, count the cost (literally and metaphorically) before you start. It takes a lot of work and often a good bit of money, especially compared to something like writing a newsletter or recording a podcast. All of this is to say: a YouTube content strategy is super valuable. It just comes down to a matter of whether you can stomach the investment and exhibit the patience it takes to see the fruit of your labor.
4) YouTube best practices are incredibly influential in content success.
What I learned when I was studying the top YouTubers in the world for the first time back in 2016 is that virtually all of them were following a handful of what were considered the “best practices” of that time period. Here are some of the best practices I observed then, many, if not all, of which are still considered best practice today:
Have a well-designed, engaging thumbnail that invokes feelings of shock/interest.
Post as often as you possibly can consistently, the more often you can post the better.
Create as many 10+ minute videos as possible to increase watch-time and maximize advertising revenue.
Organize videos into playlists to improve user experience and increase likelihood that the viewer continues watching and doesn’t bounce off the site from your content.
Fill every conceivable text box with as much content as is allowed to appease search engines.
Begin and/or end all videos with the same intro/outro to create a sense of routine and community among your viewers.
Post around roughly the same time of day/week to create routine.
Encourage viewers to like/subscribe/turn on notifications in order to see videos ASAP.
Those are just a handful of best practices that I can remember off of the top of my head. They still stand today! These best practices should be seen as rules of engagement for YouTube success, not merely suggestions. They have a disproportionate effect on how much exposure your content will have on the platform. They matter a lot.
5) YouTube content is best when paired with a community-building effort on another site.
Developing community on YouTube itself is good and important, as I mentioned in point number two. YouTube is a social media platform on which community can be created and developed. But, as your community grows, it is best to have another avenue for your viewers to build community with one another outside of the comment section of your videos. This is often done in subreddits on Reddit, Facebook groups, Discord servers, or other such communicative social media platforms and features. A Facebook page is fine, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. A Facebook group actually allows for your fans to engage with one another.
When you build community with your viewers, or even simply create a space for them to engage with one another, you build some interpersonal momentum that allows your fans to better connect with like minds and with you, the creator.
Don’t Just Post Videos
A single newsletter could be written about each one of the five points above, and eventually one will be written on point number one, about the importance of text in YouTube strategy. But I would boil all of my YouTube advice down to this: don’t just post videos.
If you just post videos with random titles and no strategy, you’re wasting your time and money. This is, of course, assuming you want to have a healthy, growing YouTube strategy. If you’re just looking for YouTube to be a repository for your video content, that’s fine. No big deal. Ignore all of this advice. But if you want YouTube to be a place that people discover you, your organization, or just your content, you need to serve yourself by not just uploading videos and hoping people see them.
Be intentional about YouTube strategy. There’s a lot to overlook.