How to make YouTube work for you

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YouTube’s Creator Playbook provides best practices, optimization tips, and strategies to build an audience on YouTube

how to build an audience on YouTube

If you’ve ever posted a music video or any content on YouTube and wondered how to get more people to view it, there are recommended ways to build an audience on YouTube over time. YouTube publishes a series of “Playbooks” that incorporate a mix of strategies, actions, and ways to measure the results of your efforts that any working musician can take advantage of, assuming you are willing to dedicate time to learning the ins and outs of audience building on the platform.

Many musicians make the mistake of simply thinking that YouTube provides a free distribution channel for content and little else. In fact, once you dive into learning the proven techniques that have helped bands such as M83 (115k subscribers/45m views), Pomplamoose (381k subscribers/91m views) and Ellie Goulding (1.2m subscribers/357m views) to dramatically boost their fan base and build an audience on YouTube, you’ll begin to understand how to develop an overriding video strategy and leverage the power of YouTube to help kick your career up a level or two.

Getting started

The best place to start learning is the YouTube “Creator Playbook” (CP), currently at Version 4, updated regularly with new ideas from YouTube’s community of users. (Note the link in the lower right corner of the page to download the book as a PDF). This 86-page document spells out just how successful YouTube creators conceive, produce, publish, and promote their content – and you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand it.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the CP explains how various YouTube creators have built their audiences and provides insights to their strategies and techniques, giving examples that illustrate how others have solved particular problems on the platform. Its authors advise that, “The CP is not a collection of rules or guaranteed ‘tricks’ to get more views. Instead, it presents best practices, optimization tips, and suggested strategies” to boost engagement and build an audience on YouTube.

The biggest benefits of using the CP include the range of strategies covered and gaining a thorough understanding of how videos get discovered on the platform. Once you come to understand how audience members find new content, it’s up to you how you will start to take advantage of the new toolkit at your disposal. Ultimately, the only “rule” the CP hammers home is that the greatest optimization strategy is to make great sharable content, as that is really what creates a buzz.

Using icons

The CP authors have provided some handy visual elements that accompany each best practice they cover. These include the “Time/Cost” icon, which can vary from five minutes for some tactics to a full day or more for others. That’s handy to understand before you commit to pursuing a strategy. The other icon I found very helpful was the “Impact Rating,” which uses a scale of one to five stars.

The CP icons let you know what the time vs. impact is likely to be from each strategy
The CP icons let you know what the time vs. impact is likely to be from each strategy.

Interestingly, some of the suggested best practices that have the greatest Impact Rating require only a modest time investment. For instance, adding “Calls to Action” (CTA), when planned before you create your videos, can have a big impact and take only five minutes or less to make a big difference in audience-building results. Such CTAs can be as simple as a direct mention while you are talking to the camera, clickable text annotations that can be overlaid on your videos, in-video graphics, or an end card that directs viewers to subscribe or take some other action.

In the CP, each YouTube best practice is broken into three sections: an overview, the details, and then some examples to give you an idea of how others have implemented the idea. Most best practice sections include clickable links right from the playbook, taking you to a YouTube creator video that shows exactly what the finished product looks and sounds like. One of the biggest takeaways I learned was that it’s crucial to view each video as having four stages where you can take actions to help make it more successful. At each of the four stages – pre-production, production, publishing, and post-publishing – keeping in mind the various ideas and practices presented in the CP will give you the maximum opportunities to build your viewers.

For example, having a pre-determined set of words you use to tag and describe videos you post to your channel will help with both consistency and getting better results from search and suggested video results. These words are known as metadata and include the titles, tags, and descriptions for each video. If there’s one place to start enhancing your existing content on your YouTube music channel, this is it, as the Impact rating is five out of five stars. Once you understand how YouTube uses metadata to index content for users, you’ll only need to spend a few minutes at the time you publish each new video to ensure it can be easily found.

Tags used for one of the Harry Potter vs. Voldemort rap videos featured on a YouTube channel.
Tags used for one of the Harry Potter vs. Voldemort rap videos featured on a YouTube channel.

Here’s a screen grab from the CP showing the tags used for a Harry Potter vs. Voldemort rap video that illustrates the types of tags, AKA keywords, used to ensure the video can be found searching for any of the terms. Take a moment and type in any two or more of them and see how easy it is to find this user’s video channel.

Another important strategy covered in the CP is the necessity of establishing a regular schedule for releasing new content, and emphasizing that new content doesn’t have to be a newly produced music video every week. Alternately, you can post a vlog (a video blog), bloopers, making-of videos, recaps, top 10 lists, countdowns, trailers, or comment videos among the types of content you can create. Rather than focusing all your energy on Facebook or Twitter, establishing a planned schedule for releasing new content on your YouTube music channel can help retain audience interest and build your viewership.

For example, if your band is taking a few months off from performing to write and record a new album, start a behind the scenes vlog and update your progress weekly. You can also become a curator and “favorite,” “like,” and “comment” on other channels’ videos, which will show up as new activity on your channel feed. The main takeaway is that simply posting a new music video every few months without a larger strategy isn’t going to get the results that a more steady approach will. So decide what is practical for your time schedule and use the free YouTube scheduled publishing feature to map out your plans for the next two or three months. Ask for help managing your channel from a band mate when needed.

Going viral

One way to have a potentially viral spread of your channel content is to strategize a plan to tie into a larger social trend, important movie release, holiday, or sporting event. That’s why cable TV channels program scary movies around Halloween, patriotic movies around the 4th of July, and holiday-themed movies before Christmas each year. Such programming is referred to in the CP as “tent-pole programming.”

Puppies playing football airs opposite the Super Bowl, a perfect example of tent-pole programming. Note the sponsor banners placed around the playing field, which creates more revenue for the program.
Puppies playing football airs opposite the Super Bowl, a perfect example of tent-pole programming. Note the sponsor banners placed around the playing field, which creates more revenue for the program.

You can choose to roll with the tent-pole events or provide a counter to them, such as Animal Planet’s annual Puppy Bowl, which airs against the Super Bowl and features a loop of adorable puppies or kittens playing with soft toys on an astroturf mini-football field. That’s a perfect example of tent-pole programming that runs counter to the dominant trend. Last year, in part due to the Super Bowl power outage, the Puppy Bowl earned 12.4 million viewers during its 12 hours on the air, becoming the most watched program on cable TV throughout that day.

Bringing it back to music, let’s say you play in a thoughtful indie rock band and you have a couple of good break up songs in your set. Why not create some tent-pole programming that runs counter to the “everywhere is love” trend and record an acoustic version of one of your break up songs to kick off a countdown series starting on February 1 of the Top 10 Break Up Songs? If you record your two originals and integrate them into your top 10 curated feed along with other great break up songs, you may be able to leverage into the zeitgeist that surrounds Valentine’s Day, when consumers spend an estimated $18.6 billion. Not everyone has a special someone and you may hit a mother lode of receptive people, especially if you utilize this CP checklist:

  1. ID tent-pole events for the year relevant to your audience
  2. Develop a programming calendar listing all the videos you plan to make or curate for the event
  3. Create a series of new videos that capitalize on the likely search trends using high quality thumbnails and the right metadata
  4. Repackage old videos in new ways (curate)
  5. Use a playlist to organize your videos or curate other content relevant to the tent-pole event

In the planning phase, you should use the “Explore” tool at to find out how much early and sustained interest there is around an event. You can also update or revise titles and tags of existing videos on your channel to make them relevant to the event. Most importantly, be sure to reach out to blogs early and often with your tent-pole related content. Ask your audience to comment and add their own thoughts about the event, and as channel host, stay present in those conversations. If there is significant post-event interest, be sure to remain active, adding comments and likes to reviews or commentary on the event and linking to blogs or articles that feature event coverage.

Learn the lingo

Most of us know bars and beats, bridges and choruses, capos and XLR cables, but may not know the lingo used learning how to optimize our YouTube channel. Take a few minutes to review the glossary provided at the end of the CP to get some of the terms and definitions used everyday in the online world. Doing so will help to insure that as you become more fluent in that world, you and your colleagues are using the right terminology as you build your audience.

Get specific

YouTube has now also added area-specific mini-playbooks for non-profits, educators, sports, media companies, and yes, musicians! They don’t take the place of the original CP, rather they provide industry-specific ideas that have worked for other YouTube users in those fields. You can find these mini-playbooks on this resource page to help you continue to find new ways to experiment, measure results, and grow your audience.

If you have an example of a particularly successful strategy you’ve used on YouTube to build viewership, feel free to post a link to it with a brief description in the comments section below this article.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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Keith Hatschek bio pic

About Keith Hatschek

Keith Hatschek is an author and educator who spent two decades in the music industry prior to joining University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA where he directed the Music Industry Program. He’s written four books and more than 100 articles on the music industry. His latest book, The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, tells the story of the famous jazz musicians’ five-year struggle to create a jazz musical challenging segregation at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

6 thoughts on “How to make YouTube work for you

  1. Pingback: How to grow your YouTube channel | YouTube for Musicians | Disc Makers
  2. Just an update, the numbers are in from the 2014 Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet and this year’s show got a total of 13.5 MM viewers, up significantly from the previous year according to the LA Times. Don’t overlook tent-pole programming opportunities to promote your music!

  3. Great advise for marketing and growing a fan base using YouTube, but what I cant find much clear information on is optimizing audio content and ensuring quality content translates well on YouTube.
    Nuts and Bolts please!

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