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YouTube Strategy Lessons from a Channel with 1.6 Million Subscribers

YouTube Strategy Lessons from a Channel with 1.6 Million Subscribers

YouTube continues to be one of the best places to see organic growth, and the barrier to entry can be an advantage for companies and brands willing to put in the work. Whereas a blog post needs just a computer to type, a video requires an understanding of lighting, audio, storytelling, editing, and community building.

So, if you’re willing to fight through the learning curve and are patient enough to suffer through low viewership, you can generate significant exposure. In this article, I’ll show you how to turn YouTube into a core part of your marketing efforts. 

Beardbrand currently has two different YouTube channels, one with 1.6 million subscribers (Beardbrand) and one with 120k subscribers (Beardbrand Alliance). We launched the larger channel back in 2012 and the smaller channel in 2019. These channels combined are generating hundreds of thousands of views a day, none of which we pay for.

Because it’s so challenging to create engaging content, there’s a big opportunity to create fresh content and carve out your niche. 

YouTube fundamental content types you need to know

The first step of developing a successful YouTube strategy is choosing the right content types for your brand. 

You can break them up into three main types—education, entertainment, and self-promotional. The best performing content will include all three styles in one video. Those that focus on only one type have limited appeal and never see the type of organic growth you should expect.

1. Education

Educational content covers videos like how-to’s, tutorials, documentaries, product reviews, and many more. Some of my favorite examples of channels that think outside the box with this are:

Giant channel examples are Smarter EveryDay, Mark Rober, and MKBHD. The opportunities with an education-based channel are enormous. The ones that are crushing it have figured out the formula of how to blend education with entertainment.

2. Entertainment

Compared to educational videos, I believe pure entertainment videos are more challenging. To succeed in this category, you need to do something that people have never seen before. If you have an individual on your team with a magnetic personality, it may be possible to find success, but those types of people are uncommon.

Entertainment videos cover vlogs, sketch comedy, musicals, reaction videos, trick shots, etc. Some of my favorite examples of these are:

3. Self-promotion

This content relates strictly to the products and services you provide, and have a very limited audience. Typically, people who are going to watch these videos are already customers or at the very bottom of the funnel.

It’s a great way to bring value to your customers, but you’re missing out on the leverage that YouTube provides. If you’re creating videos only for your own content, then it might make sense to host it on Vimeo and drive people to a landing page (or product pages), and not try to build a community.

There are exceptions to all rules. The folks over at Vat19 have generated over 7 million subscribers by highlighting the products they sell, but the products they sell are newsworthy.

Beardbrand’s marketing strategy

We’re a bootstrapped company that started with more time than money. So, from day one, we invested heavily in YouTube, our blog, Tumblr, and Reddit. This wasn’t necessarily strategic; it was simply the only option we had.

As we’ve grown, we’ve generated more cash, which has allowed us to diversify our marketing strategy. We follow the traditional funnel strategy—top, middle, and bottom—when thinking of content to create.

Top-of-the-funnel is where you bring awareness to your brand. Middle-of-funnel tries to build trust. Bottom-of-funnel seeks to inspire action.

Top-of-funnel awareness

For the awareness stage, the goal is to reach a wide range of people. If you try to accomplish this through paid efforts, you’ll find it’s quite pricey, and it’s been unprofitable for us. Fortunately, organic content is a great way to generate awareness profitably. 

Our top-of-funnel strategy is to create content that will engage with the most potential customers. We do this by creating barbershop content that focuses on clients getting haircuts. This appeals to people who like to see transformations, barbers who want to better their craft, and people who want to get cool haircuts.

Barber playlists.

Trust building

The middle of the funnel is where people start to learn about your core values, brand mission, and products. You aren’t able to ramrod this information into all videos, so it’s important that each video has a little bit of your soul ingrained into the content. This is how you start to build trust; otherwise, you’re creating generic content that can be duplicated by anyone.

video

Staying in front of our audience

This part is the hardest. Your content has to evolve to stay relevant and fresh—but in a way that doesn’t alienate subscribers.

To further diversify, consider strategies to drive viewers to join an email newsletter or Facebook community. 

Your organic YouTube strategy

To understand the YouTube Algorithm, you need to understand YouTube’s strategy. Ultimately, they want to keep people on the platform as long as possible—so they can show as many ads as possible. 

Many creators over the years have complained about how their channels have fallen or stopped growing because of algorithmic changes, but the reality is that you’re in control with how you adapt to those changes.

It’s easy to become consumed with the in’s and out’s of the algorithm, but, as a general rule, I won’t look into what’s going on with the algorithm unless we start to see red flags (e.g., lower views) in our data.

I lean on these YouTube channels for info on the YouTube algorithm:

As of November 2020, the two most important things are:

  1. If viewers click on your video when they see the thumbnail and title, how long do they watch the video?
  2. Do they watch more videos after watching your video?
Roberto Blake YouTube.

The strategy, then, is to create content that:

  1. Your subscribers want to click on and watch.
  2. Will appeal to people similar to your subscribers.

The more content you create, the more data you acquire and changes you can make. If possible, create up to three videos a week and, at worst, create one video a month. If you can’t create a video a month, then you will inevitably fail on YouTube, and your resources are better spent elsewhere. The fewer videos you create, the higher quality each of those videos must be. 

Key metrics (90% of your focus)

The wonderful thing about YouTube is that they have specific metrics to help you hit the above strategy. The downside is that they have data on pretty much everything, much of which is distracting. The two major metrics you need to look at are:

  1. Click-through Rate (CTR), which tells you how engaging your thumbnail and title is.
  2. Average View Duration (AVD), which tells you about the quality of your content.

Every audience and content strategy has different metrics. It’d be great to say that a 10% CTR and 6 minute AVD will make you a million-subscriber channel, but you might just have a super engaged niche market without large growth potential.

Your best comparison is to your previous data—and finding ways to improve it.

Click-through rate (CTR)

To improve your CTR, you need to tell a story with your thumbnail and title and create a sense of curiosity.

We do a lot of haircut transformations and have learned that if we show the final cut in the thumbnail, we’ll get less engagement. Viewers already know what the haircut will look like, so they don’t have an incentive to watch the video. So we’ve found that a back-of-the-head shot about halfway through the cut performs better than other styles. 

Once you find a formula that works, there is no shame in sticking to it. For example, look at these thumbnails from DOPEorNOPE. Ever since one is Mattias’s face to the right in an interesting expression, with the products held close to the camera on the left.

DOPEorNOPE YouTube.

The other vital thing to understand is the difference between a thumbnail with a hook and one that’s clickbait.

Clickbait is fraudulent. It has images and indicators that are designed to mislead and trick the viewers. They’re photoshopped images that don’t actually happen in the video. An effective hook is something that gets people to click on your video because they’re curious, not the result of false or misleading promises. 

Some things we’ve learned:

  • If you have a face in the thumbnail, make it as large as possible with an appropriate expression.
  • Text generally takes away valuable real estate from images. Use it sparingly.
  • Make sure that thumbnail content is in the video.
  • All audiences are different, so find channels that appeal to a similar audience and create thumbnails in that style.

Average View Duration

Increasing the average view duration is the hardest part. The intro needs to help viewers understand what they’re going to get out of the video, then the content needs to keep them engaged to not skip to the end, and the conclusion needs to satiate their curiosity.

In most cases, new creators are making videos that are too short. Don’t be afraid to create content anywhere between eight  minutes and 30 minutes. At the eight minute mark, YouTube allows for creators to put extra ads in the content so they’ve got an incentive to show those longer videos and generate more ad revenue.

We’ve found that if a video has a six minute AVD and a high CTR, there’s a good shot of it outperforming most videos. Most of our videos are in the three—four minute range.

Vanity metrics

One of the problems I think most entrepreneurs and online marketers run into is getting wrapped up in vanity metrics. They’re looking for quick wins that will elevate their content. The biggest ones I see are focusing on keywords for search optimization, tags, and descriptions.

Now, there is opportunity in search optimization, however it pales in comparison to the recommendation engine from YouTube. The recommendations from YouTube are based on your CTR and AVD, so it’s a big reason to prioritize the title with a hook and related thumbnail design.

Below, you can see the traffic sources of our large channel and small channel. The larger channel gets approximately 20% of its traffic from search, and the smaller channel is only getting 5.7%.

For viral growth, you want most of your traffic coming from “Browse features,” which consist of YouTube’s home screen, subscriptions, and other browsing features. The “Suggested videos” is when your videos are recommended next to (or after) a video being watched.

YouTube traffic.

Best practices for creating titles would be something that includes keywords and still has the hook. A bland, keyword-stuffed title won’t do as well as a title with a hook.

For the description, you’re in luck. YouTube has built comprehensive tools to scrape video content. You can see how close it gets to your content in regards to transcription. So, tags and descriptions might help with the first hour or two of views, but, beyond that, YouTube knows what your content is about. Trying to “game” the system is a waste of time. 

Optimizations (10% of your focus)

So, most of your attention needs to be on optimizing your thumbnail, title, and content.

The next most important optimization is thinking about how you can get viewers to spend more time on YouTube. A lot of marketers want to drive users off YouTube through a hard CTA. These techniques are counterproductive to growing organically on YouTube and don’t align with YouTube’s core strategy.

Occasionally, you’ll need to promote a product off YouTube. We’ve found that pinning a comment with the link is far better than including it in the description.

Playlists and cards

There are a few ways to increase time spent watching your videos. Playlists are a great tool to take advantage of this.

Beard grooming playlists.

On days you’re not creating and uploading videos, take time to build playlists and organize content. As you build a robust playlist inventory, you’ll want to link videos from within those playlists. We organize our playlists by barber, hair style, beard style, transformation, and a few other categories.

You can have the same video in multiple playlists, and you can include video content from other creators if you need to build out deeper playlists.

To promote other videos and playlists, use YouTube’s “cards” feature. Cards are call-outs that happen on the video and at the end of the video. You won’t get super high click-throughs, but it’s better than nothing.

Community engagement

Speaking of comments, you’ll want to interact with viewers who comment on your videos. When you do this, it gives them a reason to come back to the video as well as the incentive to comment on future videos.

When your channel is very small, this is probably one of the best investments of your time. Often, the comments give you valuable feedback on how to improve your videos.

Advertising

In most cases, you’ll want to turn on advertisements for your videos. If you have concerns about competitors buying ads on your videos, you can block their websites through AdSense.

By monetizing through ads, you’re giving YouTube another reason to recommend your videos—they can make money on them. 

Meta work

Above, I said that tags, keywords, and descriptions aren’t top priority, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in them. Fortunately, YouTube allows you to have a default template for your description, so you can add links to your company, social media properties, and other relevant information.

Don’t use more than 10 tags, and really focus on the most relevant one. In addition, you can transcribe your videos and have detailed descriptions. While helpful, these efforts aren’t likely to have a significant impact on the success of your videos. Don’t overthink it. 

New opportunities

YouTube’s platform is continuously evolving, and new features are added (and taken away) all the time. Most of YouTube’s traffic is on mobile, and they’ve been highlighting their Stories feature, as well as shorter videos under a minute.

In our early testing, we’ve seen pretty significant views on these short videos; however, we aren’t getting a lot of comments and engagement. If you’re in a saturated market, there may be opportunity to focus on these shorter videos as a differentiator for your channel.

Your paid YouTube strategy

As with organic, there’s a ton of opportunity and scale if you find success with your creative, but it does take a lot of time and effort to get there. 

Master organic YouTube first. Once you do that, you’ll better understand the in’s and out’s of the platform and be able to use the same techniques that increase AVD with your ads. This is vital for success.

One secret to success on YouTube is that you can generate ad views without paying for them. The first five seconds of a video will play, and if a viewer decides to skip the rest, you’re not responsible for that ad.

If too many people do it, however, your cost per ad will be higher. If you have a great performing ad, you’ll get a lot more impressions within those first five seconds to boost growth.

How YouTube Ads fit into our marketing strategy

As a bootstrapped company, profitability is one of the highest priorities for our paid marketing. This presents an issue because a lot of your performance on YouTube happens after a person watches a video. Expect to see lower CTRs than other mediums. (I’ll dig into other metrics below.)

We look at our paid strategy similar to our organic one. We break it up by top of funnel, middle of funnel, and bottom of funnel. We also have an additional “testing” category to try new audiences or creative.

Your biggest challenge with YouTube paid marketing is how to create an advertisement that people want to watch more than the video they clicked on. 

Another key component of our strategy is to exclude current customers (for 180 days) so we can focus purely on customer acquisition, not remarketing. While there are opportunities there, we use our email list and organic social media channels as our remarketing channels.

We focus exclusively on pre- and mid-roll advertisements (the ads you need to hit “skip” to get past). We don’t do any banner advertising, driving people to subscribe, or search marketing.

YouTube account structure

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with YouTube marketing is to use your existing Google Ads account to manage your ads. Create a separate account so that you have a better grasp on attribution. 

Campaigns.

In addition to creating a new Ads account, create a separate YouTube channel to serve your ads. Our channel, Beardbrand Products, is where we upload our advertisements, and we make public our successful ads in the event people want to share them.

We do this because we don’t want to hinder the growth of our organic channel by Google seeing the resources we’ll put into paid. I know Google claims they won’t dock your organic channel’s performance, but I’m skeptical. 

The different funnels

The paid funnels are focused based on where the audience is when they’re exposed to Beardbrand. So, at the top of the funnel, we’re doing broad customer targeting (e.g., just men), or a large custom affinity (e.g., sports, coffee, etc.)

In the middle of funnel, we leverage custom intent audiences to get more specific with our targeting—people interested in grooming, DTC brands, or with product-relevant keyword searches. The awesome thing about having a large organic channel is that we can also target viewers of those videos.

The bottom of the funnel is for people who visited the Beardbrand website, whom we retarget.

Key metrics and performance indicators

Your most important metrics vary depending on the conversion rates on your website, price of your products, and margins. These are the metrics we strive to hit (with exceptions, of course). 

The first thing we do is set our pixel to a 30-day conversion window. On Facebook, we do a 7-day window, but because this is more “brand building” (and there’s less direct tracking), we’ve found that a 30-day window is acceptable—if you exclude customers. 

From there, our primary metrics in Google Ads are View Rate, Cost Per View (CPV), and Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). Our target View Rate is 30%, with the exception of a high-converting ad. Our target for CPV is $0.02 or less. For our ROAS, we factor in all conversions and look to get at least 2X our spend.

Typically, we’ll know within a day whether our $20 investment in ads will hit our 30% View Rate goal and be successful. There’s no point letting ads continue to spend in the hopes they’ll improve. The first couple hundred views are sufficient indicators to ad performance.

One last metric we look at is brand search on Google Trends. Dr. Squatch is a brand that has had incredible success with YouTube paid marketing. They’ve generated over 100 million views for their ads, which—if you do the math—means that they’ve spent seven figures on ads in a short period of time. 

Dr. Squatch Google Trends.


Look at their brand name growth in Google Trends as an example of the power of YouTube. This technique is a lag metric, and another reason you want a longer window into the success of your channel.

Content is the key

So what does it take to make sure your advertisements are profitable? It comes down to two areas of focus:

  1. The first five seconds of the video have to be the most engaging content you can imagine. Go back to the hook. How can you convince the viewer to stick around and watch your ad—over the video they want to see?
  2. Get the viewer to watch at least 30 seconds of the video. This will help your metrics and drive down the CPV of your ads.

Just like organic YouTube, you need engaging content for your ads. Remember, engaging doesn’t mean “highly produced,” but it does mean interesting, unique, and like nothing else on the Internet. 

Our best-performing ads tell a story and keep people hooked to the end. You can see examples of our content on our Beardbrand Products YouTube channel. The reason we’re able to get millions of paid views is because the views perform so well that the CPV will be below $0.01. These videos are also top-of-funnel videos with the intent to build awareness.

Dr. Squatch has found success because their videos are top- and bottom-of-funnel content in one video. Where we need to expose our audience to two or three ads, they can do it in one.

Many firms offer creative help, but we’ve found that producing videos in house is far better. We’re able to create more versions, test quickly, and keep costs down. But this could only happen because we invested in our organic YouTube channel and have core competency in video production.

Conclusion

It’s incredibly difficult to find success on YouTube. But if you have the vision and commitment to learn and improve, you’ll see the impact on your business.

YouTube has been a big part of our strategy. We do a post-purchase survey, and about 40% of our DTC customers first heard about us through our organic YouTube channel. This drives multi-million dollars of revenue for us. When you factor in the ad revenue we generate from our YouTube channel, the cost of production is effectively $0. 

So, to put it bluntly: We’re being paid to generate revenue for their business. That, my friends, is the power of YouTube.

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YouTube Strategy Lessons from a Channel with 1.6 Million Subscribers

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Hi, I'm Peep Laja—founder of CXL. I'm a former champion of optimization and experimentation turned business builder.

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