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11 - YouTube

YouTube makes me so happy. It’s here that I believe I can possibly help change a life faster than anywhere else. Since 2009, millions of people have quit their jobs and started making a living on this platform. It’s the whole reason Crush It! and this book and the books in between and everything else in my professional world came to be.

Ironically, YouTube is also where I made one of the biggest mistakes in my career. I was a breakout star on YouTube in 2006, but by the time I started writing Crush It!, I had decided that Viddler, its competitor, had a tagging system and management team that made it a superior platform for me and my content, which was unusually long by 2007 standards. In addition, I’ll admit I was swayed by a short-term economic decision: the company gave me substantial equity in the business.* I was certain that my advocacy and ability to put the platform in context for everyone would ensure its rise to prominence, but I was wrong. But you know what? It didn’t matter, because in the end, whether I was talking Viddler, YouTube, or Google Video, my advice on how to crush it in video would have been 100 percent the same.

I suspect YouTube has created more wealth and more opportunities in the Crush It! model than any other platform to date. It’s certainly the most important platform for building a personal brand, though Instagram is closing the gap quickly. It could take the place of television. Increasing numbers of people are streaming YouTube onto their TV screens, and during prime-time hours on an average day in the United States, more eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-olds visit YouTube than any TV network, even on mobile alone.1 That’s tough news. I know that not everybody who’s reading this book is cut out for video, which is why I’m so thankful that other alternatives exist to beautifully showcase the written word, still images, and audio. However, let’s be real. With perhaps the notable exception of J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and a handful of other writers, in general over the last thirty years, video stars have financially outperformed stars in every other medium.

YouTube 101

Please, even if you don’t think you’re video material, give the platform a try. So many people don’t think of themselves as cameraworthy, but vlogging and documenting doesn’t demand that you be glamorous or beautiful or really superficially special at all. Have you looked at what’s out there? Aside from the beauty bloggers, the bodybuilders, and the rising pop idols—in other words, aside from everyone in an industry where your looks really matter—everyone on YouTube looks pretty damned ordinary. There are vloggers with disfiguring tumors, vloggers with disabilities, vloggers of all ages and shapes. Vlogging is a terrific way to document instead of create, which means that literally anyone can do it. You don’t need to be accomplished (at least not in the way 99 percent of you reading this define accomplishment) to break out on this platform because, remember, when you’re documenting and not creating, you’re allowed to learn as you go. You don’t have to be an expert (yet). You don’t have to be successful (yet). The only thing you really do have to do is make the road to getting there interesting.

Now, interesting is subjective. You know what I find super interesting to watch? Videos about hitting up garage sales. And I’m not the only one. As I write, a quick search on YouTube shows videos devoted to the topic of garage saling receiving as many as 50,000, 99,000, and 137,000 views. Don’t ever decide for yourself that videos about you or the things you like to do won’t be compelling to anyone else. Let the market decide. Trust me, it’ll be honest with you.

Vlogging is a great equalizer, and YouTube is the vlogging mother ship. It’s the platform where the person no one thought would amount to anything can make it. It’s a tool for finding your best angle, and I don’t mean camera angle. If you have a lot of interests, if you aren’t sure where your greatest skills lie, if you wonder whether you have the kind of charisma and appeal that draws audiences to YouTube personalities, or if you simply can’t decide whether you’d rather be the number-one American authority on pajamas or the go-to guru for kombucha, pick up your phone and start documenting your day. Put the results up daily as a YouTube vlog. See which posts get the most attention and double down on whatever it is that’s making those posts stick. But you have to put something out to know if you’ve got the goods. I didn’t mull over whether I should start Wine Library or debate whether I was good enough to deserve a YouTube audience. The second I thought filming a wine review show was a good idea, I had an employee go to Best Buy to buy the camera, filmed the first episode, and posted it. That first episode looks and sounds totally different from the ones I created even four months later because I figured out that I could be me. I’d held back, not because I was worried about the opinion of the world at large, but because I was afraid if I really let loose, I’d jeopardize all the hard-won relationships the wine store had with longtime customers who bought $10,000 of wine from me every month.

If you look at the first episode, I’m almost unrecognizable. Not because I’m over a decade younger and fifteen pounds heavier, but because my personality is so subdued. I say very wine-experty things like, “When I smell this, it reminds me of a classic Clinet or a VCC” and “I’m not going to push the Pétrus . . .” Then in episode 11, you can see on the wall behind me a framed black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier battling it out in the 1971 Fight of the Century. That may have been the first piece of the real me, the boxing-loving me, that made its way into the show.

In episode 40, I start talking about joy and passion and cut to a clip from the televised 2006 NFL draft, where I was caught on camera screaming my head off with excitement with my friends and my brother, A. J., in response to the announcement that the Jets had selected D’Brickashaw Ferguson, an offensive tackle from the University of Virginia, over quarterback Matt Leinart. I was starting to reveal other sides of me, because, as I said at the end of the episode, “You’ve got to be passionate about other things besides wine.” It’s right around this time that I started to realize that the world was changing so much that this channel could potentially get much bigger than I’d ever anticipated, and it might be worth risking a few short-term wine losses in exchange for the long-term value of allowing myself to be me.

By episode 57, I give a virtual finger to the establishment. Episode 58 gets even more real with the title, “I’m Not Pissed,” and reveals that I turned down two network opportunities, one in a travel genre, one in a food-and-wine genre, because I didn’t believe that TV was the future. Now remember, this is supposed to be a wine show! My energy is rising, my voice is going faster, and I’m being more direct. And then my confidence really kicks in with comments like, “We’re the best marketers in the wine business. We don’t need a blog to sell wine.” I start dropping colorful phrases like “bull crap” and “Taste the goddamn wine!” like bright pomegranate seeds into my monologues. By episode 61, when I start asking for people to keep e-mailing me because my mail was confirming that I was hitting a nerve and getting people excited and interested, my opening is less Masterpiece Theatre, more WWE.

As you can see, the delivery, quality, and content of Wine Library TV changed over time. I gave the show time to evolve. I gave myself time to get comfortable and relax into the format. I gave myself time to get to know my audience and listen to what it was saying. It has been pointed out to me that my first video was ten times better than some people’s hundredth in terms of quality and content. Maybe, but again, quality is subjective; some people are successful despite being complete idiots because the public loves to watch them be idiots. For sure I’m coherent and you can tell I know my shit. That was definitely a good start, but remember, there is no way I could have known that I’d be good on video at the time. If I had sat on my idea of starting a wine show and worried and second-guessed myself, I could have probably found a hundred reasons not to do it. Thank God I didn’t stop to do any of that but went with my gut. YouTube isn’t going to make you charismatic and interesting, but it will expose you if you are. It can’t do that, however, if you don’t put yourself out there. Give yourself a year to adjust and try different approaches and see what kind of response you get. Listen to your audience. Ultimately, it all boils down to this: don’t let perfection be your enemy. Do not be another dreamer who puts up ten episodes, gets trolled or ignored, gets discouraged, and takes the channel down. For God’s sake, give yourself a fair chance to succeed.

Every single thing that has ever happened on television can happen on YouTube. You can break out as a pop star. You can be a filmmaker. You can become Billy Mays, the infomercial pitchman. You want to become a morning TV star? Start a morning TV show on YouTube. You want to be the next Dr. Drew? Start a Q&A show. You want to be the next Rachael Ray, Oprah, Tavis Smiley, or Chris Hardwick? Then start cooking, mentoring, interviewing, or talking pop culture on YouTube. Tomorrow.

Yes, it will be harder today than it would have been had you started doing this in 2011, when there were a lot of people watching but not as many creating, but if you are really talented, smart, funny, or creative, you will win. It might take you a few more months or even years than it would have in 2011, but it will happen.

Taking the “document, don’t create” approach means you are conceivably going to pour a shitload of boring content into the miasma of boring content already living on YouTube.

That’s OK.

You know why?

Because if in the end the rest of the world agrees that your content is boring, you’ll know that you’re not cut out for this, and you can move on to something else.

Or it might be because you’ll get an e-mail from one of the six people who watched episode 94 of your 200 yarn episodes, who happens to be the CEO of your favorite yarn company, telling you he’d love to work together one day if you’re interested. You decide you’re never going to become a PBS star, call him up, and work out a deal where you create educational videos for the company website. They’re a big company, so they get four hundred thousand views per episode, allowing you to build your brand through them. They’re also big enough to pay you very well to do something you love.

It might be because you discover that, even though the general public didn’t get caught up in your craft-beer vlog, you had more fun doing that than you’ve ever had in your career as a software developer. So you approach Yuengling about making educational training videos for their staff, and they bring you on board for a high five-figure salary. The pay isn’t that different from what you earned before, but you go to bed happy every Sunday, excited to get back to work the next day.

Did you become a millionaire? No. But only a tiny percent of the people who try this will. That’s irrelevant. The point is to dream big and then make the practical adjustments necessary once you see where your potential lies. However, you will never, ever know the extent of that potential until you try. I guarantee it’s greater than you think it is.

For a couple of years now, the tech-savvy early adopters have been watching YouTube on their television sets. Very soon, everyone is going to be doing it, and the next generation will not see any difference between the two. YouTube will be television; television will be YouTube. YouTube is a monster. Yet Facebook is making plans to add more features that will make it look a lot like YouTube. With YouTube in possession of a decade of equity as the established video platform, Facebook is going to have to work its ass off to compete. As you’re about to see, it’s gonna be a hell of a fight.

Imagine This

Let’s say your name is Sam. You’re a fifty-two-year-old insurance salesperson in Alabama. Your twins just headed off to college, leaving you alone with your partner and the two dogs who have been a part of the family since the children were tiny. As excited as you are to start this new chapter in your life, you know it’s going to be hard adjusting to a home where there are no longer any kids around to make messes, cause drama, and add sparks and unpredictability to an otherwise staid and calm life. You’ve been working for the same insurance company for twenty-two years. You think retirement is probably only about ten to fifteen years away. You’ve saved steadily and invested wisely, you have little debt, and the house is mostly paid off. Life is fine.

Just fine.

Then your best friend sends you a video called “6 Mins for the Next 60 Years of Your Life.” (Google it.)

You realize that you have potentially thirty to forty more years ahead of you, and you want them to be more than just fine. You want them to be great. And with the kids finding their independence, you now have about twice the number of hours you once did to make them that way.

You start thinking about all the fun hobbies and interests you let drop as life became busier and your responsibilities increased. You always loved to dance. Your mom forced you into ballroom dance classes when you were a child, and to your surprise you not only really enjoyed the rhythms and moves of salsa, merengue, and swing, but you were damn good at them. The skill served you well on the dating scene—it’s how you met your spouse. But you both let the hobby drop as you settled into married life. It’s also been six years since you set foot in a gym; by now your knees would probably buckle after two rock steps.

But maybe they wouldn’t? And if they did, maybe instead of pathetic, that could be . . . funny? Maybe it would be something you and your partner could laugh about together?

You make a pitch to your partner: let’s get in shape and start dancing again. And to keep us accountable, let’s film the whole process. Your partner sees how excited you are about this, gingerly pinches the roll of fat that has settled around their waist, and agrees.

You discover that yes, your YMCA membership card does still work even though you haven’t set foot in the place for six years. That first day on the treadmill goes pretty well, and you’re feeling so optimistic, you hit the weights, too. It makes for a triumphant first three-minute video. Unfortunately, your muscles revolt against the unusual physical activity by seizing up on you so badly that you’re laid out flat on your back for the next two days. You film your next two videos from your bed, filling in your two fans with information about yourself, your feelings about dance, and why you’re embarking on this project. Those two fans are your kids, by the way. Whatever.

You change your eating habits, you commit to the gym, and you start attending dance lessons twice a week. Every day, you film a vlog post, sharing what you’re liking, what you’re not, your diet tips, what you learned in class, and anything else you think might be of interest to your viewers. After a month, you have four subscribers. You’re pretty sure the two new ones are your kids’ roommates. Whatever.

For six months, you and your spouse continue on this journey of self-improvement, and the results are amazing. Between the two of you, you’ve lost twelve pounds, and the shared experience of learning new things together has rekindled a spark that had faded in your marriage. You’re having tons of fun, and it shows in your videos. You don’t know who all those subscribers are now, but while talking to those who comment, you’ve figured out that at least a handful are older relatives of the students sharing your kids’ dorms.

You eventually find the courage to sign up at the newcomer level in a local dance competition, and while you don’t place at the top, you don’t feel that you’ve embarrassed yourself, either. Episode 489 shows you driving six hours to attend a statewide competition, where you take home the Beginner bronze. Ensuing videos document your journey to Championship competitions, as well as the transformation of your marriage from ho-hum to hot stuff.

Things continue to get better. Over the course of two years of training and vlogging, you pick up the attention of thousands of people who are inspired by your commitment to later-in-life fitness and a beautiful art form normally associated with the young and svelte. You and your spouse are anything but, but people love watching you anyway. Your fans help you pick out costumes, make workout suggestions, and trade dance stories, but you find they’re just as eager to talk about strategies they’ve used to reinvigorate their personal relationships as they are about your hobby. As your audience has grown, you’ve gotten to meet some of your fans, and you’re stunned at how pleased they are to meet you in person, how they want to pose for pictures with you as if you’re some kind of television star. Your following gets big enough that you think it’s worth reaching out to other YouTube dance channels and asking if they’d be interested in submitting some content to your page or doing an interview. Dance schools, dance teachers, fan pages for So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, and dance-gear brands, dance conferences, and competitions start reaching out to ask if they can post their brands or make appearances on your show. You start getting sponsorship offers from workout-gear companies, theaters, and sports drinks. By day, you sell insurance. In the predawn hours and late at night, you engage and biz-dev while your partner edits video. On the weekends, you dance. Together, you’re having the time of your lives.

It’s been six years since you started this project, Sam. You’re now fifty-eight years old, and your income has nearly doubled now that it’s subsidized by brands associated with dance, healthy lifestyles, and personal development. You think you’ll be able to retire from your insurance job in a year or two, after you’ve earned enough to pay off the kids’ school debt. You have no intention of ever retiring from your vlog, though, even though it takes a lot of work to keep up the momentum. Nothing about this transformation has been easy, but it’s been incredible fun.

I made this story up, but it’s not fantasy. You can do it, or your parents can. Hell, your grandparents can. It’s a scenario that could be replicated in real life. In fact, it’s already been done.

YouTube Best Practices

If you want to increase the amount of time people spend watching every video you post on your channel as a whole, make sure you can answer the questions below.

Video Optimization

TITLES: How much thought have you put into your video title? Does the title accurately reflect the video’s content? Is the majority of the title viewable on mobile? Is the title short and concise, emotionally driven, and/or keyword optimized?

DESCRIPTIONS: Are the top two lines of the description keyword optimized? Are there links to other similar videos or playlists in the description? Is there a subscribe link? Are there links to your other social-media accounts? Are all of the links clickable and trackable?

TAGS: Are there at least ten tags in the description? Are both one-word and phrase tags included? Do the tags accurately reflect the video’s content? Are the tags valuable, that is, do they have high search volumes but low competition? You can find this out by using tools like VidIQ, Google Adwords Keyword Planner, and Keywordtool.io.

THUMBNAILS: Does the thumbnail accurately reflect the video’s content? If there is text on the thumbnail, is it easy to read on all devices? If there is text, does it complement the title?

YOUTUBE CARDS: To extend watch time on your channel, are you including YouTube cards within your video to drive traffic to other relevant videos you’ve posted?

Channel Optimization

BANNER: Does the banner accurately reflect the channel’s content and genre? Does the graphic transfer well to all devices?

ABOUT SECTION/CHANNEL DESCRIPTION: Are the top two lines keyword optimized? Is the first paragraph an overview of the channel? Have you included the upload schedule? Are all of the social-media links clickable? (They don’t have to be trackable.)

PLAYLISTS: Does the channel have custom playlists? Do the playlists have keyword-optimized descriptions? Are the playlists featured on the landing page of the channel?

CHANNEL TRAILER: Is a channel trailer displayed on the landing page? Does the channel trailer accurately reflect the channel’s content and genre? Is the channel trailer telling the best story in the shortest amount of time?

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