How I Got a Million Views on Youtube (and What I Learned Along the Way)

Black Widow Spider

Click here to go to the Youtube video

I thought I’d get away from my usual time-lapse tutorials to post something I hope anyone interested in online video will appreciate. One of my non-time-lapse Youtube videos just hit a million views. I learned a few lessons along the way that have already increased my total view counts. At least a couple of the lessons should apply to your videos as well.

Youtube estimates ten hours of video are uploaded to its servers every minute. They also say the average video gets fifty views. How can a sixteen second video stand out from the deluge of mediocrity? It needs a good subject, a good photo, and a little help.

How it Began

In the summer of 2009, I found a really big black widow spider living just outside my front door. They’re native to central California where I was living, but this black widow was by far the biggest I’d ever seen. Instead of simply smashing it, I decided I wanted to take a few photos and maybe even make a video. The short video came out well, so I put it on Youtube in case anyone else thought it was as interesting as I did. The video sat there for about two years gathering a few thousand views but not really taking off until August of 2011. Here’s what happened:

Make a Good Video

The video I made was good. Not great, but good. More importantly, it was better than most black widow videos available. You can clearly see the red hourglass shape on her abdomen and her skin almost glistens.

It’s possible a better quality video will displace mine but quality alone doesn’t win on Youtube. I think some of the appeal is that the video was shot by some guy dumb enough to catch a black widow in a jar at his home. Professional videos remove some of the danger and act to distance the viewer from the situation. Some film makers have picked up on this and used the faux-documentary horror genre with great results in movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield. Higher quality doesn’t always mean more popular.

Wow! Aww! Eww! – The Importance of Emotion

If I show someone the photo of the black widow and they say, “eww,” I know they’ll ask to see the video. This seems counter-intuitive but I know from experience it works.

Very few things make adults say, “wow,” but I believe trying to elicit that response should be one of the main goals of video makers. For the purposes of popularity, people also respond to gross and cute things; I’m not sure which one is more popular. The viral video of the baby panda sneezing was very popular, but movie studios bank on gross things to consistently bring people to the theaters. “Slither” would probably draw a more reliable audience than a movie named “Cuddly.”

It’s All About the Thumbnail

If you take one thing from this article, make sure it’s picking the right thumbnail to represent your video. I don’t think nearly as many people would watch my video if that perfect red hourglass wasn’t visible in the thumbnail. Youtube automatically selects a frame from your video to act as the photo people see when they search or when it appears on a list at the side of another video. This used to be taken from predictable spots but they’ve since changed to make it more random. The only thing you can do, short of a couple questionable techniques, is to make sure your video is high quality throughout or apply to Youtube’s partners program. If you’re unhappy with the default thumbnail, you can select one of two other thumbnails taken from your video by clicking “Edit info” and selecting “Video Thumbnail.”

I’m not positive how Youtube picks which videos to feature in the sidebar but I’d imagine a video that gets a high percentage of clicks will appear more often.  In essence, you’re competing with several other thumbnails for a user’s attention.  If you’re the second most interesting thumbnail, the user might never return to give your video a chance, even if it’s the best.

Picking the Right Title

I chose “Huge Black Widow Spider,” because I wanted to tell people why they should watch it (it’s huge) and what it is (a black widow). Then I added the word “spider” so it would appear in broader searches. Choosing a good title should be familiar to anyone who knows about search engine optimization, or SEO. There are thousands of articles on how to write good titles, so I’ll just talk about this one.

Would you rather see a “pretty big spider,” a “rather large spider,” or a “huge spider”? Use extremes whenever possible but keep it honest. I would love to call this video “World’s Largest Spider,” but that isn’t true. False claims may draw more views, but people will leave your video as soon as they figure out it’s a scam. Youtube doesn’t seem to favor videos with lots of “thumbs up” votes right now, but a change in their algorithm could easily shoot a misleading video to the bottom of the results in the future.

The other reason a misleading title can work against you is ads won’t appear for several seconds if you decide to monetize your video. The ads on my spider video don’t pop up for ten seconds, so a bad video with millions of views still won’t earn money.

Comments – Keep ‘Em Coming

I think I originally included a sentence or two under the video telling where I found the spider but not much else. As the video gained in popularity, people started leaving comments asking what I did with the spider. I responded to some of these questions, and still do, but I eventually included a line beneath the video about how I released the spider afterward. Without meaning to, I created controversy and split viewers into two camps–most chided me for not destroying it, but some thanked me. Despite how they felt, it encouraged viewers to take a few seconds and respond. If the viewer was respectful and asked another question, I took the time to respond. This often brought them back to the video and got others to join in the conversation.

The Tipping Point

If you’re searching for the best of anything online, you probably use a small number of websites that aggregate the best of the best and present it in an easy to browse format. These sites have more influence than most individuals in promoting something new and interesting. In my case, the maven who spread my video ran an Arabic language channel on Youtube. One of the advantages of a video without words is that it transcends languages and gets more play in non-English-speaking countries. I might try to push this with future videos by trying to hand deliver them to those with large circles of influence in whatever category was appropriate for the video.

I’ve seen this phenomenon happen in the time-lapse videos I watch. For example, after the last lunar eclipse, I searched and found a few excellent videos. Some, however, had fifty views while others had fifty thousand views within the first day. The only difference is that the popular videos were featured on a couple of high traffic sites, which led other sites to feature the video. At some point, the video reached a tipping point where it shot up exponentially. If you have a good video, try bringing it to the attention of someone with influence who can promote it to others. It takes some work and practice to approach strangers like this and get what you want.

Linking

Another good way to bring views is to hitch yourself to someone else’s wagon by linking your video as a response. You’ll have to be picky because you can only do this once for each video. I’d suggest finding a video similar to yours but not obviously better. You want people to be hungry for your content when they see it. Find a video that has a large number of views, a healthy percentage of “likes,” and a bunch of comments. Because your video will appear under the host video, you’ll need to make sure people care enough to scroll down. After you post your video as a response, the other video’s owner must accept or reject it. Don’t get discouraged if the first few people say “no.”

Monetization

At around 30K views, Youtube sent me an email asking if I’d like to put ads on this video. It was really easy and fun to see the money slowly trickle in.

We all know advertisements can be annoying, so I’d suggest waiting until you get several thousand hits before even considering ads. If a video is good enough or becomes popular, people will be more willing to accept ads. You can submit your profile for Youtube’s partners program or simply wait until they contact you. Google is good at making money and won’t let a video sit idle if they think it might be headed for a bunch of hits. Read this New York Times article for more information on how people make money on Youtube.

Conclusion

I didn’t set out to make a million hit video, but I’m giving serious thought on how to make another. If you have a video you think could make it big, share a link in the comments. Are there other “rules” I haven’t thought of?

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