How to make a video succeed on YouTube

is director of the media training company First Take

BBC News is putting more and more content onto YouTube. But what makes some videos popular on the site while others are ignored? Pete Walter has created web series on history, wine and music. He’s had YouTube successes but admits he's also had videos that struggled. We asked him to use his experience, together with what he learnt from search engine optimisation training and the YouTube Creator Academy course, to offer his tips for maximising your audience on YouTube.

YouTube’s audience of more than a billion unique visitors a month makes it a fantastic place for your content to be discovered.

Although it’s a video-based platform, there are opportunities for all styles of journalism to succeed. Radio/audio works well, coupled with an appropriate still image. Even written pieces can be uploaded as scrolling text or with a video of the journalist reading their own article aloud.

But that enormous audience creates an enormous amount of competition for their attention. According to YouTube’s figures, a hundred hours of footage is uploaded to the site every minute, which equates to thousands of individual videos.

So how can you increase the chances of your video being watched? Like any web search, it helps a great deal if your video appears at, or near, the top of a search for a particular term.

So here are a few tips to achieve that:

Watch time

The first piece of advice is annoyingly obviously: it must be a video that people like watching.

The number-one factor that YouTube values when deciding in what order to rank videos is something it calls “watch time” - which is the average duration for which that video is viewed.

Watch time is more important than the number of views a video has had. So if video ‘A’ has a thousand views but only gets watched for a few seconds on average, it will get beaten in the rankings by video ‘B’ which may only have 100 views but is watched for a minute on average. So make every effort to ensure your watch time is as long as possible.

There’s no golden rule for making compelling videos, but in general short videos of one to three minutes are best, as people tend to still view online video as a digital ‘snack’ rather than a main media meal. With so many videos screaming for attention, a snappy video that only has to get the viewer to hang on for another minute until it ends is more likely to work than a 15-minute in-depth effort that might have someone getting bored after 30 seconds.

Used in the places where you think your audience’s attention might be waning, in-video annotations (small bits of text that pop up on the screen) can be a way of squeezing a bit more watch time out of your videos.

If you get your watch time up, you should see your videos ranking well. But there are other factors that can help get your videos seen by a bigger audience.

Title

The title of your video is critical. These days you need to research the phrase you want use as your YouTube video title and select the one that’s going to get the most views.

The way a lot of people do this is by heading to Google’s keyword planner (there’s a tutorial on how to use it) and typing in their chosen title to see how many times a month people search for it on Google. For example, typing ‘Ed Miliband Conference Speech’ into the keyword planner shows that eight times as many people search for ‘Ed Miliband Speech’ than ‘Ed Miliband Conference Speech’. So I might consider using the shorter phrase when uploading a video analysing the Labour leader’s most recent conference speech. The more people that are searching for what you’re producing, the better your chances of getting it seen.

You next need to check whether there are existing YouTube videos with the same title as you propose for your video. If so, watch the competition and decide if your video is going to be better or offer something different from what’s already there. If not, think about using another title (or making a video on a different topic).

Whatever you do, make sure your chosen title is relevant to the video’s subject matter. If lots of people click on a video expecting one thing and they get something completely different, the watch time (and consequent ranking) for that video won’t be very good: viewers will quickly close the video and move on to something more like what they are looking for.

Likes

There’s a little thumbs-up and thumbs-down icon below every YouTube video. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if you get a lot of thumbs-ups, and not many thumbs-down, YouTube will decide that your video is worth watching and place it higher in the rankings.

You can encourage people to click the thumbs-up symbol by asking them using in-video annotations, or by including a request in your video’s script. Don’t be shy: most successful YouTubers are constantly asking their audience to ‘like’ or share their videos on social media. So take a leaf out of their book.

Thumbnail

Just as a good picture makes you want to read an article in a newspaper, a great thumbnail (the small still image that previews every YouTube video) is important for attracting people to click on your video.

It’s possible to upload a custom image for every video, and it’s becoming increasingly common for content creators to add text to that image to tell the viewer more about the video via the thumbnail.

More often than not, the text is simply the title of the video superimposed over an image from the video. This serves to reinforce in the viewer’s mind what the subject of the video will be.

Video file name

When you’re competing against other videos with the same name for a place at the top of the rankings, a lesser-known tip that might give you the edge is to upload your original video file to YouTube with the same name as the title you’ll give the video. For instance, searching for ‘David Cameron conference speech’ reveals quite a few videos with similar titles. But uploading a video file titled ‘davidcameronconferencespeech.mp4’ is an extra hint to YouTube that your video is particularly relevant to that search enquiry, and will help you get to number one in the rankings.

Share your video online

Finally, it’s important to get your video seen by at least a handful of people in order that YouTube can get enough data to work out whether it is worth promoting it. So get the video out to your social networks and email lists with an encouraging message asking people to watch it.

Pete Walter is the director of First Take, a media training and production company. He recently produced Deal with the Media with Sir Trevor McDonald, an online media training course.

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