What does it take to grow a YouTube channel? Is a channel more than the sum of its video parts? Or will a strategy that focuses on videos alone increase subscribers?
This post tries to answer those questions. Some solutions are simple—you need a consistent visual presentation on your channel page and across videos.
Others don’t distill into tidy bullet points, like choosing a unique angle for storytelling. For less-prescriptive elements, I’ve provided options and examples to guide decision-making.
If YouTube channel growth has felt unattainable, you’re not alone. Some back-of-the-napkin research revealed that leading SaaS businesses and top members of the Inc. 5000 are also floundering.
Their experiences highlight common struggles and offer performance benchmarks.
Are most companies’ YouTube channels succeeding?
YouTube is not unlike other content marketing efforts. Many components of a good blogging strategy also work for YouTube. But there are distinguishing features:
- Video content is generally more expensive to produce.
- Most content consumption occurs away from a company’s website.
- YouTube was often one of the last content channels added.
Indeed, some of the most successful SaaS companies and members of the Inc. 5000 are achieving very little on YouTube. Some aren’t trying at all—roughly one third of the top 100 companies in the Inc. 5000 don’t even have a YouTube channel.
The chaos of meteoric growth—the type that lands you near the top of the Inc. 5000—may undermine a stable and expansive content marketing strategy. That excuse works less well for members of the Montclare Saas 250, which include a number of established businesses.
In any case, companies that are putting in an effort don’t have much to show for it.
YouTube channel benchmarks: the SaaS 250 and the Inc. 100
If anything, the numbers below are inflated—some YouTube Ads views register as part of the total view count and, presumably, help grow channel subscriptions. And, as noted previously, a number of companies in both groups don’t even have YouTube channels.
Nonetheless, here are the numbers for the median performers in our two datasets.
SaaS 250 YouTube benchmarks
Members of the SaaS 250 publish about 15 videos per year, which net them a total of 133 new subscribers.
|Subscribers||Views per video||Videos per month||Subscribers per video|
|Sample size: 49 YouTube channels from companies in the Montclare SaaS 250.|
Inc. 100 YouTube benchmarks
Members of the Inc. 100 publish about 8 videos per year, which net them a total of 49 new subscribers.
|Subscribers||Views per video||Videos per month||Subscribers per video|
|Sample size: 65 YouTube channels from the top 100 companies in the Inc. 5000.|
By almost any measure, the median performance is failure. In some cases, the failure is from a lack of effort rather than wasted effort. Only 12 of 114 total companies (10.5%) published at least one video per week.
Still, despite that plodding cadence, 62 companies (54.4%) had published at least 50 videos on YouTube, reflecting some degree of investment.
There were three other takeaways from the data.
What does the data tell us about YouTube channel success?
1. YouTube channel success can result from “brute force.”
For the SaaS 250, the strongest correlation (0.87) between subscribers and any other key metric (videos, views, channel age) was with the quantity of videos published.
Omitting a few outliers from the visualization (not the data) highlights the trend:
The second-strongest correlation—and the strongest for the Inc. 100—was between subscribers and video views. In each case, the strongest correlation for one group was the second-strongest correlation for the other.
|Subscribers and videos published||Subscribers and views|
In short, more videos earned more subscribers. More views earned more subscribers. That correlation doesn’t endorse the strategy. Inefficient subscriber acquisition is an unfortunate reality, not a cause for celebration.
The bigger takeaway—as the data showed—is that few companies have found a more efficient way to grow their channels.
2. Successful channels aren’t more efficient.
Have channels with a high number of subscribers cracked the YouTube code? It doesn’t appear so. There was a weak correlation between subscribers and subscribers per video.
|Correlation: subscribers and subscribers per video|
The channels with the highest subscriber totals are nearly as inefficient as poor-performing channels. They get roughly the same number of subscribers for each video they put out.
Similarly, successful channels aren’t earning “better” views than struggling ones. It took the same number of video views for high- and low-performing channels to win a subscriber.
|Correlation: subscribers and views per subscriber|
If high-subscriber channels were publishing more targeted content with compelling calls to action, solid channel branding, etc., you would expect that—just like a great blog—they would earn more conversions.
Experience with YouTube doesn’t seem to help either.
3. Experience with YouTube is of limited value.
While many SaaS companies and members of the Inc. 100 are relatively new businesses, most have been on YouTube for years. The median channel age was 9.48 years for the SaaS 250 and 4.35 years for the Inc. 100.
These companies have had years to develop and refine a YouTube strategy, yet channel age had only a weak correlation with the number of subscribers.
|Correlation: subscribers and channel age|
In many instances, channels were created and neglected not long thereafter. One channel from a SaaS 250 member—one with $1.2 billion in annual revenue that trades on the NASDAQ—had published only four videos in nearly 12 years.
Certainly, it’s possible to grow a great business without a powerful YouTube channel. But failing to reach potential customers on YouTube is a missed opportunity for these companies—and an opening for their competitors.
So what does it take to create a successful YouTube channel?
Growing a YouTube channel: From baseline optimization to brand positioning
A YouTube channel carries expectations:
- Consistent visuals;
- Thoughtfully organized content;
- A well-defined brand.
Without those components, a channel is just a hodge-podge collection of videos. A focus on channel development starts with a fuller picture of the differences between “channel” and “video” optimization.
How do you go from “video optimization” to “channel optimization”?
Optimizing individual videos is of course, essential to channel growth. A keyword-targeted strategy builds initial awareness and subscriptions that, in turn, create an audience for videos with little or no keyword volume.
But the relationship has a chicken-and-egg component. As a study by Justin Briggs found, the number of channel subscribers had the second-highest correlation with YouTube rankings, behind video views.
A strong channel will help earn more views from YouTube searchers, just as more views help build the list of subscribers.
Ultimately, the primary success metric for a YouTube channel is subscribers, not views. Subscribers receive notifications when you post new videos and, statistically, consume more content. Subscriber growth also shows deeper engagement with the brand. (A blog that wins email signups—not just traffic—does the same.)
A focus on subscribers, not just views, is important because not all views are created equal. As Siege Media’s Ross Hudgens found:
Our most-viewed video (“how to find someone’s email address”) performs worse from a subscriber point of view because it’s not actually our audience that’s searching for that most times.
“So,” Hudgens continued, “view count should not be the goal—finding your audience where they live should be the goal.”
Seth Kravitz, CEO of PHLEARN, which has more than 1.7 million subscribers, recommends shying away from similar temptations:
Trying to piggy-back off current trends was never a great source of new subscribers for us. Those audiences tend to stop by for 30 seconds of video, leave, and never come back. Plus, as soon as that trend dies off after a month, the content is now irrelevant.
Most content marketers have encountered this conundrum before. Blog posts that drive the most traffic often do little (if anything) to generate conversions. Posts or videos with the highest number of views likely target the highest volume—and highest in the funnel—search terms.
To reel in the relevant subset of those YouTube viewers, you need a consistent visual presentation and a well-defined brand.
Baseline visuals for a YouTube channel
Consistent visuals are key to persuading users not just to watch a video but to subscribe to a channel. Brian Dean’s YouTube hub walks through each of these basic elements in more detail, but here’s an overview of key components.
Naming a channel. For most businesses, the name of the channel will be the business name (since YouTube is supporting an existing brand rather than starting a new one).
Even if you haven’t started publishing on YouTube, you may want to claim your channel name now. As with domains, more and more get claimed every day.
Creating a channel icon. The channel icon should be at least 800×800 pixels and look good as a square or when cropped into a circle.
It appears in several places on YouTube:
- Watch pages;
- Your channel page;
- Video comments;
- Featured channels;
- Related channels;
- Search results;
- Community tab.
For most companies, the simple answer is to use your company logo. However, those that build a channel based on an individual personality (more below) may prefer to use a headshot.
Creating a channel banner. The banner (officially, “Channel Art”) for your YouTube channel is, effectively, a billboard for your YouTube channel. YouTube recommends size dimensions of 2560×1440 px.
With the billboard idea in mind, Dean notes that your banner should reiterate your value proposition, include social proof (if relevant), and add a “Subscribe” call to action and link. (Many channels also link to social media profiles or their website.)
Channel trailer. The channel trailer is a brief (30–90 second) introduction to your YouTube channel. The trailer should offer an engaging first impression and set expectations for the rest of the content:
YouTube’s guidelines offer four principles for trailers:
- Assume the viewer has never heard of you.
- Keep it short.
- Hook your viewers in the first few seconds.
- Show, don’t tell.
Some companies opt for a “trailerless” introduction that instead highlights one of their strongest (i.e. high-converting) videos, or, as in the case of PopSockets, a new product:
The choice may hinge on the diversity of your audience. If all your videos are relevant for all of your audience (e.g. a channel for cake recipes), a trailerless approach may work.
However, if your channel serves different facets of a larger audience, like HubSpot’s, a more general introduction to your brand can help set the tone for the rest of the channel.
Organizing channel content
On your YouTube channel page, you can choose which sections you want to include and the order in which you want them to appear.
- Popular uploads;
- Recent uploads;
- Liked videos.
- Playlists (all playlists of a channel);
- Single playlists;
- Multiple playlists;
- Liked playlists.
Show and series
- Recent activities;
- Recent posts;
- Channels (others you want to promote).
Moz includes five sections: “The Moz Daily SEO Fix,” “Moz’s Culture,” “Whiteboard Friday,” “Moz Presentations,” and “Popular uploads”:
Each of the above components is essential. Still, none guarantees subscribers. Earning those depends more on your ability to define a consistent, valuable brand on YouTube.
Defining a brand on YouTube
“Outside of the foundational elements,” Briggs told me, “the most essential consideration for channel optimization is the audience—who they are and how they watch.”
A channel is not only defined by the individual videos it publishes but the collective group of people that watch them (and the underlying statistics that describe them). Audiences are defined by demographics, psychographics, co-watch behavior (what other videos and channels they watch), and topical clusters (the subject matter they consume).
A focus on a clearly defined audience can drive visual, thematic, and scheduling consistency:
- What problems does your target audience face?
- How frequently is your expertise relevant to them?
- When is that expertise best communicated via video?
Your YouTube audience may be a subset of your total audience. For CXL, for example, videos on Google Analytics—complete with step-by-step walk-throughs—make more sense than a focus on copywriting.
Despite the temptation to be expansive—more topics covered, more frequent publication—many popular YouTube channels publish infrequently. Dean’s own channel has 216,000 subscribers with just 25 videos.
Even media brands built on YouTube, like Jun’s kitchen, publish infrequently. The channel has 3.6 million subscribers despite publishing less than once a month:
Which metrics show that you’re reaching your audience effectively? Briggs narrows the long list down to one key metric: watch time. He does so with a caveat:
Too many channels focus on the duration and editing aspects of maximizing watch time and not the power of story to carry an audience through.
To improve watch time authentically, according to Briggs, you need to succeed with more powerful if amorphous concepts: “brand resonance, the value of the content, and the story.”
Among the successful YouTube channels surveyed for this post, five approaches helped achieve those values.
Five approaches to define your brand and tell your story
How should you position your brand on YouTube? There is no one right way. For many brands, multiple pathways exist. Some choices are open; others depend on what you sell. Successful channels leaned into one (or more) of these five options:
- Educational authority;
- YouTube-friendly product;
- YouTube-friendly industry;
- The “face of the company”;
- A higher mission.
1. Educational authority. This is how the vast majority of company-run YouTube channels succeed. Successful channels in the marketing space like HubSpot, Moz, Ahrefs, and Dean all take this approach.
It may be the least exciting but also the easiest to execute. In some cases, it simply requires porting over existing blog or whitepaper content to a video format. (As an added bonus, you can repurpose YouTube content back into your blog.)
For SaaS products, it works especially well if solving a viewer’s problem also involves demo-ing your product. This is a regular tactic of Ahrefs:
The line is a fine one. If you get too close to your product, content appears promotional, a death knell for YouTube success. An alternative is to be an unbiased arbiter of related products.
The Slumber Yard YouTube channel, with 20,000 subscribers, has a simple concept: review mattresses. But the channel fills a need for unbiased reviews. It also brings clout from related review channels and a known commodity in founder Jeff Rizzo, whose primary channel has nearly a half-million subscribers.
Explaining their strategy, co-owner Matthew Ross emphasized the importance of a regular publishing schedule to engage subscribers and highlighted the value of giveaways:
We giveaway over $500 in prizes to two random subscribers each month [. . .] Since instituting the promotion, the number of net new subscribers we gain has gone from around 7,000 per month to over 12,000 per month.
The Slumber Yard is a useful example because, as Ross noted:
We just review mattresses. There’s really nothing sexy about it. Still, we’ve been able to grow that channel to 20K subscribers in a short amount of time.
To become an educational authority, ask:
- What is our deepest expertise?
- On which topics can we be authoritative and impartial?
2. YouTube-friendly products. Some products are tailor-made for YouTube. ChefSteps’ Joule, a sous vide stick, is perfect for YouTube.
Their channel showcases high-end cooking techniques, with a focus on recipes that use the sous vide method to narrow viewership to their target audience.
The approach is similar to Beardbrand. Their channel, with more than 1.2 million subscribers, has succeeded with long-format videos (10+ minutes) on ways to trim hair and beards. Styling tips, inevitably, include the use of beard- or hair-care products.
Other companies opt for a less-conventional approach. Blendtec has nearly 900,000 subscribers to their channel, earned through their series of “Will It Blend?” videos.
The zaniness isn’t pure spectacle—the blender’s ability to puree an iPad or crowbar demonstrates its durability, too.
This tactic is similar to the one that’s earned the Hydraulic Press Channel 2.2 million subscribers. The channel became a viral sensation after the creators attempted to fold a piece of paper more than seven times, which rocketed the video to the top of Reddit.
Reddit has worked as a distribution path for other YouTube channels. Jeff Moriarity of Moriarity’s Gem Art used a single viral hit on Reddit to help grow his subscriber base, which now exceeds 39,000:
One thing we did [. . .] was to start promoting some of our videos on Reddit [. . .] One of these videos got picked up by a top person on Reddit, and the video blew up from 1,000 views to over 3,000,000. This also increased our subscribers by about 20%.
To showcase a YouTube-friendly product, ask:
- What are people doing before, during, or after using our product?
- Could a less-conventional approach help us stand out in a crowded market?
3. YouTube-friendly industry. Working in an industry like food or travel offers near-limitless content possibilities on YouTube. It also increases competition. The Tour Guy, with almost 23,000 subscribers, entered the “almost saturated European tourism market” with the need to differentiate.
Their solution was to counter the prevailing “blogger as tour guide” approach. As Eleonora Cordella explained:
We don’t build our storytelling around a personal experience as a blogger would do, but we focus on interesting facts, myths, and off-the-beaten-path locations only real experts know.
The Tour Guy balances expertise and impartiality about locations with clear calls to action for their services. Within their videos, they link to tours they offer and, according to Cordella, “Thanks to this practice, 22.71% of our annual revenue comes from YouTube.”
To succeed in a YouTube-friendly industry, ask:
- Which aspects of our expertise separate us from the “lay” YouTuber?
- Which bits of expertise also sell our product or service?
4. The “face of the company.” Personal branding works well for marketers. (I can name more people who run agencies than the agencies they run.) It’s successful on YouTube as well.
A recurring face and voice can help keep the tone, pacing, and narrative style consistent. It’s why networks pay news anchors millions to read scripts that, in theory, anyone could.
Dean has done this effectively with Backlinko, and Slumber Yard was built on a successful channel featuring Jeff Rizzo (RIZKNOWS).
To pursue a “face of the company” strategy, ask:
- Will a consistent face and voice help humanize our business?
- Does the personality of that person entertain and build trust with our audience?
5. A higher mission. Shoe-seller TOMS has more than 50,000 subscribers from 545 videos. They’ve used the channel to promote their “Stand for Tomorrow” campaign, which donates money to charity for each purchase.
The company’s most popular videos are narratives about their philanthropic work, not explicit product promotions.
To highlight your higher mission, ask:
- Is it difficult to differentiate our product?
- Will a focus on our mission influence purchasing decisions?
You can grow a YouTube channel, Hudgens told me,
through views, definitely, but lots of other elements that tie in, such as your channel video, channel hero, playlists, how you structure playlists (try putting videos first that drive subscribers), suggested videos, etc.
And yet, as he and Briggs noted, it ultimately comes down to how well you identify and serve your audience.
In that respect, YouTube channel growth is no different than any other platform. You need to blend value with entertainment while encouraging subscriptions through calls to action and incentives, like discounts or giveaways.
The good news is that most companies haven’t yet figured this out. If blogging is hyper-crowded and ruthlessly competitive, YouTube is still more accessible. Also like blogging, it won’t stay that way for long.