Field Notes from Top Influencers on YouTube Success

While investigating the power of YouTube as an educational-learning platform, I decided to conduct some content analysis on interviews from the “Video Influencers” YouTube site in 2018. I thought you might find the results interesting and possibly useful. The most striking aspect was the consistency of responses on what are the key points to success on YouTube. This is striking given the diversity of Influencers interviewed.

All the Influencers agreed on the following points:

  • There is a very Calvinist-Puritan work ethic=rewards model here.  You must work hard, put your time in, do your due diligence and pay your dues.  Effort is rewarded and only effort counts.
  • Being successful on YouTube is deeply experiential and personal.  You must base your work on what motivates and drives you.  This is what keeps you working while learning, but also comes across with your followers.  Posting your experiences only works with authenticity.
  • Success is due to a combination of effort and time put in along with being true to your passion.  Internal honesty is required for success because this comes across in your videos.  Serendipity and luck are also critical, though most of the Influencers downplay this aspect, as it contradicts part of the work=success mantra.  Top Influencers like the premise that putting the time, effort and authenticity in will result in success or at least self-satisfaction, going back to the theme of working on your passions [which of course means satisfaction without viewer recognition].
  • All these very successful Influencers strongly believe that everyone has something unique that is worth sharing and of interest to others.  The reality that YouTube is basically limitless in scope and anyone can post is the basis of this belief.  Passion and effort is validated and reflected in deep emotional content.
  • Despite the need to learn and train, the key to success is emotional and not training, knowledge or learning.  Those only enhance the emotional energy behind the drive to generate content.
  • Passion Rules.  Success is based on experiential and personalized content.  Theoretically there should be room for “anyone” who has the passion and drive.
  • Passion drives and motivates skills, so training and learning are passion-specific rather than form of content or topic.  So you only need to learn the skills that are linked to your passion.
  • The Audience/Viewers “can feel/sense” Passion and this is what they respond to.
  • Content must be driven and filtered by the creators passion, so content is based on emotional assessment not intellectual analysis.
  • With this logic knowledge is in the background and has no abstract relevance, it only acts as a complement to Passion.  This is why themes like “you will eventually need this” or ”Lifelong Learning” are not relevant to this audience unless its linked to your Passion.  Knowledge acquisition is based on unique personalized set of criteria, rather than norms such as courses, certification or degrees.
  • This is a direct reinforcement for the American value of a self-oriented world view.  This justifies the presentation of self-centered presentation as success is a reflection of self-defined goals [passions] and self-satisfaction.  Frequent quotes included how YouTube allows you to “follow your dreams” and “discover yourself”.  And of course all of this then becomes validated by viewers and monetized through YouTube, Patreon and others. 

Here are some specific insights pulled from these following interviews. It’s always worth noting the size of their subscription base following when listening to their comments, as it has much to say about how we consume the internet and the digital in the 2020s:

[From “How to Build Your YouTube Subscribers from Scratch” 6/23/15, Video Influencers channel; 450k views]

Key Point: great content and great videos must be HD [High Def] as a minimum.  Your content must be entertaining, informative, educational or give value—it must be something that people want to watch and benefit from.  Usually good content will pick up momentum and catch speed because it’s good.  You have to get used to being in front of the camera—practice makes perfect.

Second Point: Getting noticed, becoming visible.  You do this by ranking other peoples videos.  This defines your niche and gets you noticed.  You have to find and define a very specific search-engine niche.  For example “funny cat video” won’t work; “funny Siamese cat videos” may work.  This allows you to get “found” by viewers and subscribers via the specifics of their search criteria.  The goal is to get your videos “ranked”—that they show up in top X when searched.

Third Point: If you want to have fans, you have to be a fan.  You have to watch other people’s videos that have similar content and engage with them.  You have to make genuine comments.  Do this persistently, so that the YTube content creators notice you, and so do their viewers.  The more you comment, the higher you will rank on the YTuber’s comment list and gain visibility.  This has to be genuine and you can’t link to your own channel.  You have to prove genuine interest first rather than just self-promotion.  You have to connect with their audience to build up interest which may morph into following your content.

Fourth Point: Use other social media platforms to pull interest into your YTube videos.  But again this requires authenticity rather than obvious self-promotion.

Fifth Point: You always have to add value, not annoy people.  Being a YouTube success is a massive hustle and you must consistently add value.  You must give advice, react and respond to suggestions and offer to help your viewers and fellow content creators—you must hustle.

[From “Its Judys Life Interview on Daily Vlogging, Teamwork and Authenticity” 2/16/16 Video Influencers channel; 101k views; combined Facebook/YouTube following of over 1 billion views; 3.8m subscribers.]

You have to start on something that you are passionate about.  Focus on that one thing so you’re kind of known as that person.  If there’s a group of people that are interested in another thing, then create another channel. Stick with one first, especially if you’re starting off.

Be true to yourself, because once you get established, that’s when sponsorship, money become available—and that’s when you can lose yourself.  And I believe that your audience will see it, and having that trust and loyalty from your audience is real important, so say no to the deal.

You need to believe in the product 100%… don’t be pressured, just do you, and that will lead you to success in your heart.

You have to think first about your audience.  Knowing what your audience wants, just putting yourself in the viewer’s eyes, what they want to see, what is it that I’m passionate about… It’s like my own thing, my own daily diary-I love doing it, and I guess it’s great other people love watching it.

Start simple.  The trick is that you constantly have to be working, you must do it on a consistent basis.

Just be the creator, think of your own ideals and stay in tune with your audience.

[“Casey Neistat on Creating Good Content, Integrity, and the Beme App” in Video Influencers channel, 8/4/15, 98k views; 12m subscribers]

Key to YouTube is that there is nothing between me and the audience.  No matter how big the audience, what you want to communicate is true to you.

The key to vlogging well is that it’s not how you tell it, its what you tell.  It’s what your saying, that is the only thing that anyone will ever respond to.

Shift all your focus to what is it that you want to communicate, what drives you, and that is what your focus is…

If you try to consider or cater to your audience too much you’ll invariably end up making something that’s mush…I try to make something I think is really cool, and if people like it, great, if they don’t, I don’t care as long as I like it.

[“How To Grow Your YouTube Channel-Desi Perkins Interview” in Video Influencers 8/3/15; 84k views; 3.3m subscribers]

I used Instagram to drive the YouTube channel, kept promoting the YouTube channel on Instagram, and that’s how it picked up quickly at first.  And then consistency, I consistently uploaded videos, make sure you upload videos all the time, and people know there will be a new one this week.

It’s a lot of hard work, lots of editing and work.

Now Snapchat allows her to let people know who I really am.  With Snapchat, it’s so personal, raw, it’s real, it’s 100% me—it doesn’t always have to do with beauty but I’m using Snapchat as to really help grow my YouTube  channel.  Because YouTube is all about relating to people, friendships, and that’s why it’s so amazing.  You don’t relate to an add on TV, you don’t even care what they’re doing, but when you feel a friendship with somebody you want to support them, you want to follow what they do.  So with Snapchat it’s like I’m building a stronger friendship with people, and it’s just blown up.

You have to have the drive and the passion to learn and want to research.  My advice would just be first of all, don’t worry about numbers.  Don’t worry about the numbers, you should be doing it because that’s your passion.  You want to be asking ‘how do I make my videos better, you want to be asking like what can I do to improve my last video

Being yourself can change everything.  The realness of you just shines through and people love that.  It’s easier said than done, but be yourself and just worry about doing what you love, not about numbers, and it will happen for you.

[“How to Start a Travel YouTube Channel and Make Money While Traveling-Erik Conover Interview” in Video Influencers 10/11/16; 121k views; has 200m views, 1.4m subscribers]

It has to be something that you love.  You’re going to put in a lot of work.  Whatever you’re doing, there’s going to be work involved.  But I think what really distinguishes the type of content that influencers put out that is travel based, is that it’s so personal.  Find that specific topic, one that you love and that you know people will search for.

Work social media links when you post the video and also titling is a very big thing—you have to tick the YTube search engine.  Start the research with Google search and YTube search and see what shows up, figure our key title terms. 

I think honestly that the content is always what matters, but you have to package it so people can find it.  Using YTube as your friend for helping you out in titling and use that to make the optimization for the titling.

[“Pursuing Your Passion With YouTube-Laura Vitale and Joe Vitale Interview”, Video Influencers 4/28/15; 41k views; has 480m views, 3.5m subscribers]

What sets YouTube or digital apart from the traditional media is the ability to have a closed-loop with the response.  On a traditional TV show you never hear about content, but on YouTube we learned audience comments are key.  My audience on YTube does influence a lot of the changes, in growth, in terms—it’s important to me for them to know that I listen, that I read their comments, read their tweets—things that I’ve improved upon have been because of my audience… Now they know that I take their suggestions to heart and that creates that real bonding between myself and them—it’s part of that feeling of community, they feel like we’re in this together. 

My YouTube audience is more than OK with letting me know if I’m doing something wrong, and I’m OK with that… That to me is my most valuable asset, is being able to be authentic and having the audience see that.

The most important ingredient in this whole situation is authenticity, but also you have to be dedicated to it, you have to be consistent.  You have to be consistent, you have to be authentic in what you do

Pick a topic you’re really interested in.  Everybody’s an expert at something—that should be your passion, that’s what you should be using and making videos for. 

[“How to Become a Travel Vlogger and Make Money Traveling on YouTube-Nadine Sykora Interview”, Video Influencers 5/5/16; 90k views; has 40m views, 380k subscribers]

In the beginning it was just pure creative videos.  Now it’s far more brand oriented, more marketing oriented, it’s a business.  You have to think of it more as a business, along with the creative.  The creative is really important, but the biggest thing is business.

Find a passion.  Find something you are going to love. 

You have to keep up with frequency.  At a minimum you have to post a video once a week, or you’re irrelevant, instantly.

Don’t worry about the views, don’t worry about the subscribers at first, just focus on the content, focus on finding something you’re excited about creating.  Once you have that then you can bring in all the business aspects of it.

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