YouTube is a user-generated content machine, constantly applying algorithms to find and display the best videos for each member of its audience. But creators who optimize for silicon intelligence rather than the carbon-based kind are missing the point.
“You should be optimizing for humans, not machines,” said Yury Polnar, global lead for creator growth on the Creative Insights team at YouTube, in a VidCon 2015 presentation called “The Three Things You Need to Do to Grow Your Audience on YouTube.” If your content connects with people, Polnar said, YouTube’s algorithms will reward it.
Polnar outlined three central goals that every brand or creator who publishes on YouTube should try to achieve.
It all starts with making sure viewers can find your content, which Polnar said is a result of crafting searchable titles, creating compelling thumbnails, and providing rich descriptions of each video. He offered some statistics from YouTube research to back that up.
More than 90 percent of top performing videos have custom thumbnails, Polnar said. Also, 60 percent had some title element repeated as text in the thumbnail and featured a face prominently, and 70 percent had various images layered on each other
YouTube’s algorithms don’t analyze the thumbnails. “You need to get actual viewers to click and watch the content,” Polnar said. “Those are the signals that help propel videos through all the indexing on the platform and future search placements.”
The thumbnails should also reflect accurately the content of the video, and titles should be more descriptive than colloquial. As an example, Polnar pointed to a video about brain science that performed 165 percent better when it had a more descriptive title—“What Can You Do Without a Brain” as opposed to “It’s a Real No-Brainer”—and a thumbnail with a photo of a brain rather than a headshot of the talent.
Keep ‘Em Watching
YouTube’s search and discovery systems reward videos that generate high watch times, which are measured in two ways: single video watch time and session watch time.
To score high on single video watch time, it’s important to make sure viewers watch each video for as long as possible. As for session watch time, any video that causes viewers to abandon their viewing session will be demoted in YouTube’s search and discovery rankings. So it’s important to create engaging content that gets people to watch from start to finish, and that encourages people to watch several videos in a row.
Creators are getting better at this, Polnar said, with overall watch time on YouTube up 60 percent year-over-year, and mobile watch time up more than 100 percent.
Polnar used John Green’s Crash Course as an example of a channel that creates a fantastic viewing experience with strong playlists like “U.S. History” in which each lesson builds on top of the previous one, encouraging viewers to go from one video to the next. In general, playlists are responsible for 30 percent more views than any other referral source, Polnar said.
YouTube creators can see how they’re doing by looking at the audience retention report for their content, which shows at any given moment of a video what percentage of the audience is viewing, engaging (sharing or rewinding to watch part of it again), or leaving
Once viewers have found and watched your videos, you want to make sure they keep coming back. Viewers respond favorably to a consistent programming schedule, which Polnar said is the single most effective strategy to get viewers to watch. You can use the channel trailer, channel banner, and end cards in individual videos to share your schedule, and, of course, subscribers will be notified when you upload a new video.
As proof, Polnar shared results from a “popular TV talk show” that he couldn’t identify. For two years, the show uploaded OTT content a day after episodes aired on TV, but the show’s YouTube channel went dark during the TV offseason. This caused viewers to disengage and community growth to slow down. YouTube went to show’s producers and encouraged them to upload supplementary content during the offseason. When they started doing that, they saw a 5X increase in subscriber growth, which allowed them to have a built-in audience and community when the show came back on the air.
In YouTube Analytics, you can watch the subscriber report to find out how many subscribers you’re gaining and losing, and where new subscribers are coming from.
As you optimize your brand channel to achieve these three, goals, ask yourself one question: “Is this strategy creating a great user experience for humans, or designed to appeal to machines?” As Polnar said, “If you focus on humans, our machines will reward you.”
You can find out more on the YouTube Creator Academy, which has over 60 lessons on how to be a more successful creator.