How We Grew the vidIQ YouTube Channel to 450K Subscribers: TubeTalk 194: Rob Wilson

Ever wanted to know the winning strategies behind vidIQ's YouTube channel? In this week's episode of TubeTalk we talk to Rob Wilson, star of all your favorite vidIQ videos.

It takes a lot of talent to take a YouTube channel and grow it to over 450,000 subscribers. In this week’s episode of TubeTalk, we chat with Rob Wilson, who has done just that with for vidIQ on YouTube, with a combination of educational content for the creator community, plus videos that have gone viral around trending topics.

Rob is going to share with us the strategies he’s developed by managing our YouTube channel, and from creating original content for vidIQ, so you’ll pick up plenty of tips, and tricks that you can apply to your own channel. In this episode you will learn:

  • Why creating great custom thumbnails on YouTube is vital
  • Why there is as much to do after you publish a video than before
  • Why doubling-down on your best content is a winning strategy
  • Sometimes you need to learn the rules to break them to be successful
  • How to make your video content more valuable to your target audience than other creators

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How We Grew the vidIQ YouTube Channel to 450K Subscribers: Full Transcript

Liron Segev: Rob, welcome to TubeTalk. How long have you been with vidIQ?

Rob Wilson: Thank you very much for having me on Liron. It's an absolute pleasure to be here. I started making videos on the vidIQ channel in April 2016, and I've been the Director of Video Content since October 2017. So, full-time, around two and a half years.

Liron Segev: So, going full time on YouTube, essentially. This is what it boils down to.

Rob Wilson: Yeah. I used to have my own channel, a tech channel, and I was juggling two things at the same time. But when the boss here at vidIQ was impressed with the work I was doing freelance for vidIQ, they offered me the opportunity to turn my passion into a career, and I didn't say no, couldn't say no, really. And ever since, it's been the dream job and journey into YouTube.

Liron Segev: And for those who want to know more, here’s Rob’s YouTube story in animation form:

Liron Segev: Rob, speaking of being good, which you’ve proved you are in getting viral videos, getting the right topics, being able to do the right research, with your own channel and now with vidIQ, you must have a bunch of tips and tricks you want to share with us. So, let's hit it. What's tip number one?

Rob Wilson: So, the first one I think is something that a lot of video creators do when they first start out on YouTube. They don't pay enough attention to the video itself after it’s been uploaded.

A lot of people, myself included, put in a lot of time, effort, resources, and mental energy into the creation of the video, but you have to get a potential viewer to click on that video. And that's only successfully done via the description and thumbnail. The way people are going to stop scrolling through search results is the thumbnail. You want a thumbnail that makes a person stop scrolling, and then the title entices them to actually click on the thumbnail.

At vidIQ, I continued what I was doing with my old channel, which was to have a template and then maybe change an icon on a bit of text. So, I might spend maybe a minimum of five, 10 minutes on a thumbnail. And back in 2018, we had a click-through rate of somewhere in a region of like 2.5, 3%, so we knew we could do better. And through the course of 2018, moving into 2019, it was Jeremy Vest, who's the Director of Marketing at vidIQ, who started to mentor me a little bit in improving our thumbnails. There's a lot of general practices such as making your thumbnails consistent, having a simple format, so fewer elements are actually better. You don't want a busy, chaotic thumbnail.

And perhaps the most important thing I learned through creating YouTube custom thumbnails is that most of us create thumbnails on a nice big, beautiful, 32-inch widescreen or whatever, but there's only one person who will ever see that thumbnail of that size and that is you, the creator. What you have to realize is that people see these thumbnails at five or 10% of their ideal size, and so you have to factor that in. That means that the thumbnail has to tell a story, a fraction of its size, and so you have fewer elements and only a few primary colors in there.

When we started to implement those changes over the course of six to 12 months, we saw our click-through rate increase from 2.5% to 5-6%. It’s still not where it should be but we had a benchmark of a percentage and we wanted to improve on that. And through doing that, we didn't just improve our view counts by 2, 3, 4%, we were also increasing our view count by a massive amount, and that led to YouTube distributing our content to more users going forward.

So, I think for the majority of video creators, whatever length of time you're spending on thumbnails, double it, potentially triple it. The thumbnail itself is the shop window for the channel so you need to make the shop front more enticing for your potential customer.

Liron Segev: Yeah. And it's important what you said, it's the thumbnail has got the mission of just one thing: stopping someone from scrolling.

Rob Wilson: I'd say so, yeah.

Liron Segev: The more attractive your thumbnail is and the more eye-catching it is, the easier it's going to be to get somebody's attention. They simply scroll over, they look at your title, and together, as a unit, they pretty much sell themselves. The viewer thinks "Oh, wow, I need to click on this. I want to see what's going on." And that seems to be quite a big change on the vidIQ channel, particularly if you look at the old videos compared to the new ones, it made a world of a difference. Is there something that we should be paying much, much more attention to, would you say?

Rob Wilson: So, at the beginning of vidIQ there were a lot of fundamental things that weren't quite right with the thumbnails. A good way to look at this is to try and look at a foreign language channel and see if you can work out what's going on or what the video's about by just looking at the thumbnails. You'll tend to find that the most successful thumbnails very rarely rely on text, and then the thumbnail comes almost like a universal language. It doesn't require me to spell out exactly what's going on.

We actually have a Spanish vidIQ channel, and the Spanish channel manager uses our thumbnails. They may change a bit of text here and there, but generally speaking, because of how the elements are already in place, they don't have to do too much. I think that's a good indication of how a thumbnail, as you say, needs to stop the person from scrolling through whatever they looking at.

Liron Segev: Yeah. And a big tip here is also not to repeat your entire title in your thumbnails. It's just no point in doing that. It's such a small real estate, use those elements to really grab attention, and get somebody to read your title.

Rob Wilson: I think a good example of that might be, let's say the title of the video is, "How to Save Money Whilst Studying at College." Instead of putting that entire title in the thumbnail, just have a figure that says, "Plus $500." Add a big headline statement like, "This is how much you could save," and then a title just extrapolating about saying, "You could save $500 while you're at college."

Liron Segev: Okay. So, now we understand thumbnails. You've prioritized that, you've made that your mission to really understand the science of thumbnails and really dive into that. Does that give you those viral videos? Some of your videos have got a million-plus views if I remember correctly?

Rob Wilson: So, how I've discovered success is, whenever the YouTube analytics are telling me something of interest, that the video is getting way more views than the average video on the channel, it's something that you can't really ignore.

Let's say you're a business owner, and you suddenly see that one line of products is selling really well, do you just wait for that product to sell out and not order anymore? No, you're clearly going to order more of that product. It's a similar line of thought for a video creator in that, if YouTube really likes a certain piece of content from you, you should make more of that content.

Just to give people a bit of context here, whether you like this story or not, back in 2018, 2019, PewDiePie vs T-Series was the biggest YouTube story for around about six months. And we did a bit of testing with it, to begin with. But once we discovered that one or two videos had been getting like 50 to a 100 thousand views versus maybe educational content on vidIQ, which may get 5 to 10,000 views, we said to ourself, "Okay, we know what our core is at vidIQ, and we're not going to change from that. I'm not going to deviate from educating video creators on the YouTube journey. But what I'm also going to do to increase the exposure of our channel is continue to make more of this PewDiePie vs T-Series content."

And what I realized was that in terms of the elements you should be sending to YouTube, those being the title, the description, the tags, to a lesser extent, you can more or less keep those elements almost identical and have a little bit of a change. So, it might be ‘PewDiePie vs T-Series: It's Getting Close’, might be one title, and then the next title might be ‘PewDiePie vs T-Series: The End is Near.’ A lot of elements are the same so YouTube knows exactly what the content is, so it's going to serve it to an audience that already has watched the content before.

Back in my tech days, when I realized that, for whatever reason, YouTube decided that I was the foremost authoritative educator on how to record your iPhone screen, most of the titles would start with ‘How to Record Your iOS Screen’ or ‘How to Record Your iPhone Screen’, and then go into the specifics like new app available or fixing audio issues. But it was always hitting those same SEO keywords for YouTube to understand the content.

I must emphasize viral means something different to every creator. It might be that you average 5,200 views on your videos and then you have one which gets 20,000 views. Well, for you, that is your viral moment. You don't have to wait for a video that gets a million views. It's all relative to the size of your channel.

Whenever YouTube is telling you through analytics that you're doing something right, you want to grab onto that bone and shake it as hard as you can. You want to try drilling to that topic as specifically as you possibly can

Liron Segev: And ride it out. If YouTube is loving you for that content, and that content is being distributed not just to your audience, but to new audiences, and they love your content, well YouTube is telling you, "Look, make more of this." But if your next video is weird, it's back to your old content, you've now paused this entire train that you were on because now YouTube says, "Well, what do I do with this new content?"

Rob Wilson: And you know as well as I do that there's so much resistance to this logic of doing the same thing over and over again. I don't want to be pigeonholed as just being that person who does that thing. And you've just got to change your mindset into, "Hang on, I'm known as a person who does this thing, and everybody on YouTube is being shown my content because I know how to do this thing." And I'm more than happy to continue making content on something that's working for my audience because I'm thinking about "How is YouTube going to grow my channel?" But I'm also thinking about, "How is my audience going to react to this content?"

I didn't imagine that I would be a person making ‘How to Record Your iPhone Screen’ videos on YouTube, but when you start getting hundreds of thousands of views, versus what you were getting before, it's like, "Okay, yeah, I love making videos. I'm going to take my creative passion into this topic. It's still about tech. It's very specific, I know. When I build up an audience, I will take those viewers on a journey to where I want to take them." But I think, to begin with, you do have to be a bit of a slave to the SEO and keywords that are working for your channel.

Liron Segev: Yeah, and until you find your own feet. And you can always pivot at a certain point. I love the example that you gave. It's like being a shop owner and a certain line of products is selling really well. It's the same thing here where you're going to say, "Well, I know it's selling really well, so let's go back to what we were doing last week." You would never do that. You would jump in on whatever's selling well and create followup and maybe an additional product. It's selling, people are loving it. Let's give the people what they want. So, this makes absolute sense.

And the whole big pigeonhole thing, I never understood it. I speak about this often on the TubeTalk podcast, where you basically say you don't want to be known as the best in the world for that topic. It's crazy. It's absolute madness to me. It's crazy how people are shying away from doing what succeeds. But one of the things that I've really loved about your YouTube channel strategy is being able to see the trend early on and jumping in on that. Does that help a channel grow just by being first, or do you see a different approach where it's more of what people are going to be searching for?

Rob Wilson: I think this fundamentally falls back to the question of quantity versus quality, and I have an attitude of quality to a certain extent, that doesn't impede my speed of delivery. I've almost changed that concept on its head there.

I have built up a talent for getting content to a market or to YouTube viewers before anyone else by recognizing that there is a story to be had there and then turning it into a video. Now, it might not end up being the best video on YouTube for that particular story, but it will be there before most creators.

Take MKBHD as an example. When the latest iPhone is released, he won’t necessarily do a live stream of Apple announcing it because that's just not his style. It's not the way he works as a creator. He will create the highest quality content, which you would literally cannot get anywhere else. The way he delivers video content is unsurpassed, which is why he's such a successful tech YouTuber.

There are many different roads to take, and I think you just have to understand what works best for your workflow methods and be the best at doing that in a certain way. As a quick example, when YouTube released a new feature called hashtags, we made a video, and it came out in the first 24 hours. And I think today it's got maybe a quarter of a million views, and it's, I think, pretty much the only video that anybody watches because it's at the top of the search rankings.

Now, for something that's so specific and niche, being first is so crucial, but I will accept the argument that doesn't work for everybody. But I think certainly in the search intensive area of YouTube, being first can give you a competitive edge even when you're a smaller channel.

Liron Segev: We all know YouTube is the world's second-largest search engine, so it's all about what are people looking for? YouTube wants to deliver that content to them. So, being aware of what's going on around you is pretty darn important. Do you look at those things like trending hashtags? I'm curious like how you would research a topic before deciding whether it's worthwhile going after. What is your process for doing that?

Rob Wilson: My answer is probably going to dumbfound a lot of people. And I don't know if I answer this because it's just through the amount of experience I've had with making videos. But it seems to be that when I see a certain comment or I see a certain news story or just whatever's going on in YouTube, within five to 10 seconds, I already have in my head the genesis of what the video is going to be, and then I go about making the video. And I know this will probably sound like it's completely backwards to a lot of people.

And this is why I often stress that every video creator's journey is different, but it's not necessarily right or wrong. Once I've made the video, I will then start the process of saying, "Okay, let's have a look at how other people have titled their videos or used metadata." And then, I will construct my content similar to theirs. And it's just the way I've always worked. You could well argue that maybe you need to do the other way around and do the research, but my argument would be, if I spend an extra day researching then my video is going to be the 712th rather than the fourth or the fifth video out there.

So, yeah, I think that's the best way to answer that particular question. I wish I could share that certain gift that I have to be able to have an idea and turn it into a video so quickly. I mean, obviously, then it takes a long time to actually make that video, but I always seem to be able to know whether I'm going to go after a video without too much thought. I mean, I say this to a lot of people, "Stop thinking and start doing when it comes to YouTube." And I'm a very, very practical person. I like to get things done and learn that way.

Liron Segev: All right. So, there isn't one way of achieving a goal. Do you find the people are maybe just doing too much at some stages or maybe trying to apply absolutely everything? Should people be listening to absolutely everything or take things with a pinch of salt?

Rob Wilson: By all means, learn as much as you can from people who've been through the experience of growing their channel, but nothing beats your own personal experience on the platform.

I guess the best way to put this into a specific example is that we all say that Watch Time is the most important metric on YouTube and that the more Watch Time you get, the more YouTube will share content, and even YouTube says that. But I have certain videos, tutorials telling people how to use very basic things in the YouTube studio, where I've purposely front-loaded all of the information in the first minute of a video, and then as it goes into a bit more detail after that main bit. Because my philosophy is when I want to know how to delete a YouTube video, I don't want to want to go through two or three minutes of preamble. I just want you to show me how to do it. And I assume that's what my audience wants, as well.

So, those videos have relatively low audience retention. It might be 30, 40% and the view duration might be like 50 seconds, which sounds completely counterintuitive to what the general advice is. However, because it's a very search-driven topic and the videos seem to do really well, even though they're not watched for very long, they get to the top of the search rankings, so that's an example of where I would specifically not do a longer video because I'm understanding that the video itself is a particular niche.

And we can extend this to all sorts of things, like for certain people, thumbnails, it might be really handy to have text on the thumbnails rather than not much text because, again, when people are searching for content, them scrolling down and they may stop on a particular thumbnail that just spells out exactly what the video is going to be about. Whereas, if storytelling elements are in a thumbnail, you need a bit more intrigued in a bit more of a potential hook.

So, I think knowing the rules is brilliant, and you should continue to learn through whatever sources you want, whether it's through vidIQ or other growth experts. But just appreciate that sometimes you have to break those rules in order to succeed because you may need to disrupt what's currently going on in your topic, or you may discover that something works specifically for you, and that's fine, but you have to recognize that.

Again, going back to making more of a content that works well for your channel, that's where you're recognizing where your strengths are. I think that's what a lot of video creators tend to lose a little bit as they're trying to learn how the platform works for them.

Liron Segev: I know in my tech space, the people around me were making the exact same type of thumbnail, always you making the YouTuber face, holding some sort of a device, and that was the thumbnail. I decided to go and do something different. It’s still me in the video, still making that weird YouTube face, but with lots of color. Instead of going down the black and white route, I went green and pinks and reds to try and experiment because I want to be different. I want somebody to stop what they're doing, as we said earlier, stop what they're doing, grab their attention.

So, whilst we always teach a certain way of doing things, you do have to look at your own analytics, you have to look at your own channels, and then be able to say, "Okay, that bit works for me. I understand how that bit works, but I'm going to not use that because, for my channel, those aren't the right needs." In my analytics what should I be looking for as signs of success?

Rob Wilson: Obviously, click-through rate, which we've kind of alluded to with thumbnails. What I would also look at, as well, is what I call the resting heartbeat or the cadence of your channel. And that's when you analyze how your channel is performing on an average day, so when you've not released a video.

Let's say it gets a thousand views per day, and then after you've made some videos, they'll probably spike on those particular days when you release a video and then it'll start to tail off again. When you start to discover that certain videos are bringing up the entirety of the channel, and this might be like a hero video, a lot of educational channels find this, that they have one video that's pulling the entire channel and that one will turn into evergreen content. And you suddenly go from a thousand views a day to maybe 2000 views a day.

That's when you start to realize that your channel is growing through just daily content. I mean, it's not the subscribers that are important. Though, of course, subscribers are important for many different reasons. They are important in terms of value to different video creators. I think they're far more important to channels such as Casey Neistat, Mr. Beast, and Janell, who are very much storytellers. They're putting their lives in front of an audience a lot of the time.

But I think for vidIQ, or other ones who are very search-driven, you'll find that it's a lot more difficult to get those subscribers to begin with. And there are, of course, exceptions to the rule like the top of the tech industry, MKBHD and Unbox Therapy, where not only do the viewers find the content that they want to watch, but they also find the personality that they want to associate themselves with. And those are the real superstars of YouTube.

I think video creators tend to be good at one or the other to begin with. They're either really good on camera and really personable and likable or they're really good at bringing concepts and themes and explanations to content. And I think I'm certainly the latter, and I would love to be able to get to the former as well and be much better in front of a camera going longterm. But I know you're about to say you're already really good on camera. Yeah, I appreciate that.

Liron Segev: Well, you took the word out of my mouth. I got nothing more. How many videos have you done in total?

Rob Wilson: I think I'm up to about 1600 to 1800 videos now, 500 on vidIQ and then a thousand plus on the other channel.

Liron Segev: And the reason I bring that up, and I like to ask you this in public, which is what this is, is just to show that even with so many videos, there's still an element of, "I still need to get better. I still need to learn. I still want to improve a little bit with every video. So, I'm better at my editing. Great. Now, am I better at my thumbnails? Am I better being on camera? Am I better delivering a concept?" And even with so many videos under your belt, you’re still constantly, constantly trying to improve. And a lot of the big creators that we speak to, they're saying the same thing, that they're constantly trying to get better and better and better.

What's one message you would give to every single video creator out there?

Rob Wilson: So, time, in my point of view, is the most important currency on YouTube because everything is already free. So, you can't persuade people to watch your content because it's cheaper than others. Your content has to be more valuable than anyone else's in the time that the viewer is willing to spend with you. So, try to think about how much value you can provide to your audience in a time that they have available because it is so precious.

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