When I started working for a YouTube channel two years ago, I was definitely a “noob” to the YouTube world. I felt like there was this whole other world of filmmaking outside of the traditional route of “success” that’s taught in 99% of film schools across the country. Meaning, if you want to direct a feature film, you have to direct (and preferably also write) a short film; and if that short film is great, and if it gets into the right festival circuit, and if it connects you to the right people, A will lead to B will lead to C, and the short film will magically open the doors to a feature. And this strategy still works, that’s why it’s a viable, and highly respectable path to follow.
What I’ve been introduced to by working in the YouTube world, is a community of filmmakers, actors, singers, musicians, comedians, chefs, bakers, personal trainers, and beauty experts who didn’t wait for someone to give them an opportunity – they took a risk, and created those opportunities for themselves. What they’ve accomplished as a group is that they’ve collectively leveled the playing field of the entertainment industry. Even if you’re currently creating work at a high level, such a spec pilot script, or a one-woman show, but you’re sitting around waiting for a gatekeeper to say yes to you, sadly that day may never come.
Who are the “gatekeepers”? They’re managers, agents, casting directors, producers, television networks, record executives, directors – basically anyone who can (and will say) “No” to you, and your projects. This industry is full of rejection, and you have to get used to getting past the “No’s” in order to succeed; but on the other hand, if you say “Yes” to yourself, and “greenlight” your own projects, creating those opportunities yourself, do the other “No’s” really matter that much? Of course, the kicker of it is once you say “Yes” to your yourself, more and more of the “gatekeepers” start saying “Yes” too.
So enough with my hippie “say yes to yourself” rant. Before jumping into my own personal list of YouTube tips, I wanted to recommend two resources that I’ve found invaluable on the subject of growing your YouTube channel. The first one is directly from YouTube itself, and it’s their official “Creator’s Playbook”. It’s YouTube’s in-depth guide detailing common YouTube practices such as Annotations, Cross-Promotions, Branding, etc. YouTube updates the guide fairly frequently, always including their latest features, so it’s a great way to stay up to date with YouTube’s ever-changing platform. Some of their newest features are already listed in this latest edition of the Playbook, including the new “One Channel” layout, further integration with GooglePlus, and a new “InVideo Programming” option that allows users to overlay a spotlighted video, and/or a logo or profile picture on-top of all your videos so that your branding is visible throughout all of your content.
The second resource is a post from Rocket Jump’s official blog that was written by Freddie Wong called “The Secrets of YouTube Success (2012 Edition)”. The most integral concept I took away from the article is that there are no secrets to YouTube success. The only secret is to keep consistently working hard by making more and more videos, and not getting discouraged by any initial results. Which brings me to my first YouTube Tip, since it’s listed both on the Creator’s Playbook as well as Freddie’s article, and basically every YouTube how-to article ever written.
Yup. Consistency. This is also the biggest tip for social media growth of any kind, whether it’s on your YouTube channel, blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook page, etc. If you aren’t consistently posting videos, or tweets, or blog posts, why would anyone be interested in following you to see what’s next? Consistency does not mean constantly. It doesn’t mean posting 30 pictures in a row on Instagram, or four sub-par videos a week on YouTube because you want to grow your channel as fast as possible – it means finding the right length of time it takes you to make a solid video (not a perfect video, not a great video, but a solid video), and make a production schedule that works with that length of time.
The once a week format works well for most channels. However, if your videos are visual-effects heavy, or simply require more editing and a higher production value, like music video channels, or channels that make content that have more of a “short film feel” vs. a “video feel”, then once every two weeks is totally acceptable. At the same token, if your channel focuses more on vlogging, or expert tutorials that you can easily film yourself, the once a week format might not be enough content to compete with the established vloggers that already have an audience. In that case, a two or three times a week format might be better for you, as long as you can do it consistently.
Once you’ve decided on your programming format, it’s time to figure out a production schedule that best suites you. I’d recommend to always have a few videos “in the bag”. These are videos you’ve already shot ahead of time, so that when crazy awesome life stuff happens, you don’t fall behind on your release dates. The best thing about having videos “in the bag” is that when something topical comes along, like a viral video or a news story, you can always jump on that fast, make a video, and still have the other videos ready to go after you’re done releasing the topical one.
If your format is vlogging twice a week, for example, you could use a production schedule of filming two weeks worth of videos every other Sunday, and then take the time to edit them, and polish them before releasing each video. If your format is releasing a video every week, you could pre-pro, film, and edit on a weekly basis, or you could do a three to four week production cycle where you spend a week writing and in pre-pro, one week (or weekend) filming, and then a final week or two for editing.
Branding is not only important for YouTube, it’s essential for spreading your brand outside to other social media as well. A common tip is to have your YouTube username be the same handle as your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and so on, and to always use the same profile picture, and cover art for all of your social media needs. This simply reinforces your name, and your image. It’s the Marketing Rule of Seven – the average consumer needs to see your ad campaign seven times before taking an action. Let’s translate this into YouTube, and say it takes seven times for a viewer to see a thumbnail of one of your videos before actually clicking on it, or it takes seven videos for a user to subscribe to your channel, or it takes seven times for a user to see your profile picture before you’re recognizable to them. This requires maintenance as well. When you change your profile picture, you change them across all of your social media outlets, and when you share a video, you brand your video thumbnails in a similar way that your audience knows it’s one of “your” videos.
Another important note about YouTube, YouTube is inherently personality-driven. Vloggers and actors automatically “brand” their videos the way Hollywood has been branding their movies since the silent-movie era – the actor’s face, and their recognizability. The recognizability of an actor is the main selling point that Hollywood still uses to this day to sell it’s movies – by movie posters, talk show interviews, and even the glamorization of the actor’s life, all in order to get you to watch “the new Tom Cruise movie”. Let’s face it, there’s only a select group of people that want to go to watch “the new Jim Jarmusch movie”, and 85% of them live on the east side of Los Angeles, or the east side of the Williamsburg Bridge.
The majority of America goes to the movie theater for either the spectacle (as in the case of Avatar, for instance), or because “so and so” is in it. This is why so many filmmakers in the YouTube community tend to act in their videos, even if they aren’t necessarily “actors”, or they build a consistent group of actors that are always in their videos, and brand it as the world that these people live in. Vloggers inherently have this type of branding built-in, thus you can see how easily their YouTube popularity spreads across other social media, like Twitter, and Instagram followers, because their fans are so invested in the full spectrum of their lives.
Filmmaking isn’t a solo activity; it’s a collaborative art form. Even if your writing, directing, filming, editing everything consistently all by yourself, there’s going to be a moment where you either (a) burn out, or (b) need an outsider’s perspective to tell you you’re on the right path with what you’re doing. Someone to consider adding early on to your team is an executive producer, or a producer – someone who can watch your videos before they come out, and give you their honest, informative opinion on what tweaks need to be made to make your videos the best they can be. Submit your videos to them a few days before you plan to upload it, so that you have enough time to making editing changes, or possible reshoots if needed.
Editing is such an important step, it’s the execution of the video where everything comes together, and you cannot rush this step. You need to ensure that the content meets, or exceeds, the original idea. Comedy especially is all about the timing, thus it’s all about the editing. A few seconds here, and some color correcting there can make a big impact in terms of the overall quality of your video. An outsider’s perspective, especially if you’ve written, directed, and shot everything yourself, is crucial in the editing phase, because at this point, you are probably very “inside” of your project, and can’t notice things somebody from the “outside” can.
Another area where a producer can help you with is development. Even if your content is non-scripted, it’s still a series of ideas with a beginning, middle, and end that needs to be shaped, and polished. If your content is scripted, then sending your pitches, sketch ideas, and scripts to get a qualified professional opinion is definitely a valuable asset for any developmental YouTube channel. A hands-on producer can also help with finding locations, making schedules and budgets for larger shoots, hiring or recruiting a crew, finding equipment, gathering props and costumes, everything that’s needed to make your vision a reality. It’s that old Hollywood quote, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage”, and a producer’s job is to assist you in getting it right both on the page, and on the stage.
If you are not shooting the videos yourself, then you will definitely need to bring on a cinematographer to help you bring your vision to life. There are lots of filmmaking partnerships in YouTube, which basically solves the problem: “If I’m in the video who will film it for me?” They either take turns acting in the videos, or one person primarily acts while the other one primarily shoots. Eventually, as your shoots get more elaborate, you might want to shoot with a 2nd, or even a 3rd camera. It’s extremely important to start building a roster of cinematographers you trust, and love to work with. Cinematographers are busy people, so you definitely need to have a few on-board you can count on at a moment’s notice.
Cinematographers also expect to get paid, and they deserve it. They work extremely hard, holding cameras for long hours, and most of the time for these projects, they are doing the job of an entire department worth of people – pulling focus, operating the camera, adjusting all the lights. If you cannot afford to pay for their services up-front, I would suggest finding someone who is open to bartering on an equal hour per hour basis. Perhaps the cinematographer can shoot for you, and in return, you can do editing for them, or visual effects work. Find a talent or skill that would be equally as beneficial to them. Some other crew members you can hire or barter with for bigger shoots include an on-set audio mixer, a set decorator or prop master, a costumer, a make-up artist (and if you’re into horror or sci-fi, someone who can do special effects make-up), an editor to cut down on your editing time, and of course, a production assistant to help you with all the shenanigans that are bound to happen on-set.
5. The Content
The consistency that’s required for launching a YouTube channel is a very large commitment. YouTube is a much more saturated playing field than ever before, and it’s going to take some time to stand out from the crowd. The only thing that’s going to keep you going for the long haul is to always be making content that you’re passionate about, instead of what you think an audience will want, or will respond to. That passion is what will keep you making videos 3 months from now, 6 months from now, etc.
Take some time, and think about what you really want to do, and what kind of videos you really want to make. What do you want to say? What is the focus of the channel? What do you want to accomplish with it? Think about all the things you’re passionate about, and let that be the inspiration for the style of the channel. Are you really passionate about writing, and directing horror movies? Then make a horror short every two weeks with your friends. Sometimes the answer might surprise you. You may think you’re passionate about beauty, but you’re really passionate about vegan baking, and want to start filming some of the recipes you’ve been creating. Let your own excitement level lead you to the content that you want to do.
When you cater to what you think someone will want to watch, instead of listening to what you actually want to do, you’re ignoring your own inner compass. Make the videos that excite you the most, and that challenge you most, and be willing to let that grow and change over time. As a viewer, I can always tell when a video is being phoned in, because making videos, or art of any kind is energy transference. If you’re excited and enthusiastic about your project, it will show in the final result. If you’re nervous, or not having fun, or doing what you think others want you to do, that will show up too. And no one wants to watch that. Don’t let those YouTube comments fool you, your audience is actually smarter than you think, and they can tell the difference too. So make the commitment, and believe in your projects 100%, because if you don’t believe in them, no one else will.