How ‘Yoga with Adriene’ Grew to 5M Subscribers on YouTube: TubeTalk 173 Chris Sharpe

'Yoga with Adriene' has not only generated over 5M subscribers on YouTube, it has become a phenomenally successful off-platform business too. Find out how on this week's episode of TubeTalk.

If you want to really succeed on YouTube, and I mean really succeed, you need two elements: clear focus and amazing research. On today's episode of TubeTalk, we're going to show you how to do both.

Today I'm very excited to be speaking with Chris Sharpe. He is the co-creator and CEO of a channel called Yoga With Adrienne. This channel has over five million subscribers, so Chris clearly understands his focus, and knows how to get his videos seen by the right audience, and he's going to share all that information with us, including a 30-day challenge!. In this podcast you will learn:

  • How to build a YouTube channel around your passion
  • Why a keyword driven strategy is the key to early success
  • How to do keyword research for your YouTube content
  • How email notifications can be your best friend for building a community
  • How to diversify your revenue streams

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How ‘Yoga with Adriene’ Generated 5M YouTube Subscribers: Full Transcript

Liron Segev: Chris, thank you for being here.

Chris Sharpe: Thanks for having me. I've been listening to this podcast for what seems like years, so it's an honor to be on.

Liron: Can't be more excited to get you on here. Chris, give us like a two-second overview, Chris in a tweet, so people can kind of get an idea of where you fit in and a bit of your background, and then we'll kind of delve into what you have to share with us.

Chris: Sure. My background is as an independent filmmaker, director and cinematographer. When I realized that I couldn't make a living doing that, I started dipping my toes in YouTube and that really took off, and my life has been pretty much YouTube only ever since, with Yoga With Adrienne being my main project. Liron: How long ago was this? How long ago did you start this journey?

Chris: I started the journey in 2010 with my first channel, which was Hilah Cooking, a cooking channel, back before the cooking niche was so glutted. We did a cooking channel and did really well with that. Once that channel became a success, I wanted to see if I could replicate what we'd done with that channel, and I reached out to another one of my friends, who was Adrienne Mishler, and asked if she would be interested in hosting a yoga channel. We started that channel in 2012, and so here we are, about to hit over five million subscribers.

Liron: Wow. That is some serious journey. Tell me about that conversation that you had with Adrienne. How did that go? You said, "Hey, I've got this thing called a camera, there's this thing called YouTube, you have a yoga mat. I think we could do something"?

Chris: Well, she knew. She was following Hilah Cooking because we were all friends from the theater community, theater and film community there in Austin, and I'd worked with Adrienne on a film project and I wanted to work with her again. She knew what we were doing with Hilah Cooking, so I just reached out and said, "Hey, I want to do another channel to see if I can replicate this, maybe even do it faster, as far as the growth goes. Would you be ... " and she was a yoga teacher. I'm like, "Would you be interested in teaching yoga on camera, and we'll build this channel around it and we'll keep it in sync and congruent with your values and your personality and your style, and we'll see what happens," and she was interested. It took us about a year from that point to actually get the cameras rolling, just figuring out what it was going to be called and what all we were going to do with it. Then once we started, we just went for it.

Liron: Okay. It sounds like a year is a long time. I mean, when you tell people these days that it takes a while to build a brand and a while to build a channel, they kind of think a while is 48 to 72 hours. You're talking about you spent a year in the planning, a year just to get your channel focused, to know who your audience is going to be.

Chris: Yeah. Well, that year was ... you know, it wasn't like a dedicated year spent. We would meet up every few months and talk about it, and some of it was our schedules aligning and just everything else, because Hilah Cooking was really going strong at that time and Adrienne is a working actor also, so she had projects going on. Some of it was, you know, it was like we were both thinking about it the whole time and we would occasionally have meetings, and then we just got to a point where, "Okay, we've got this, let's go."

Liron: Right, so now you have the go, you have the green light, you start.

Chris: We did this with Hilah Cooking too, but my background, after I couldn't make the independent filmmaker thing work out financially for myself, I was basically unemployable and had no decent job history. I didn't know what to do. I just knew that I couldn't make the money that I needed, and this was around 2008, right as the recession was hitting, and there weren't very many jobs. I just kind of hunkered down and figured out I was going to learn how to do this internet stuff, and I started learning about search engine optimization and that type of thing, which led to I really went deep into search engine optimization, and was able to get a job because of that. Once I had the job, then I started the YouTube stuff.

Because of this deep dive into search engine optimization that I'd done, when we started the Hilah Cooking channel, I did some keyword research and I identified ... I made a list, basically, of a hundred keywords that I thought we could go after, and then I shared that with Hilah and she picked the ones that she wanted to do recipes on, and that was like ... because we didn't have an advertising budget, so that was really what got that channel going.

I replicated that for Yoga With Adrienne and did keyword research in yoga and related topics in that niche, and then I shared the list with Adrienne, and we kind of picked what we thought were going to be, first of all, the good ones to go after, but also in the early days, we really wanted to focus on the foundational yoga poses. Our first year was basically getting the foundation, a series called The Foundations of Yoga, which are the core poses that you need to learn and put together into sequences. After we got those done, it was very keyword-driven, such as things like yoga for beginners, beginners' yoga, weight loss yoga, yoga for weight loss, that type of thing. We used the keywords as a base, and then build the content on top of that.

Liron: That's a smart strategy. I mean, YouTube, at the end of the day, is a search engine, so people are going into YouTube, into Google, and they're asking those questions. If you're able to provide the exact solution for what they're looking for, boom. That's going to win. The match is made in heaven and you get all these eyeballs on your side, which is superb.

Chris: Totally. That's our approach, and I like that people ... there seems to be a trend towards rather than calling it search engine optimization, answer engine optimization, and I really like that, because we want all of our videos to be the answer to someone's question. Because I feel like when people are typing something into the search box, for this type of thing, it's like, "How do I do this," or, "I'm looking for yoga for weight loss, I'm looking for yoga for bad wrists or yoga for a sore lower back," so that's what we begin with, the potential viewer in mind before we create the content.

Liron: Okay, perfect. You know it's going to deliver, because somebody has asked that question. How do you go about finding those questions? Do you have a specific technique that you use? How do you do your keyword research?

Chris: Well, my technique is somewhat haphazard. I know people who have very elaborate systems, but I do use vidIQ, primarily, as my keyword research tool for YouTube. I also use Arefs. I'm always keeping a list of ideas, of things that are in the back of my head. Then I'll take my notebook, I'll put all these keywords in and just see kind of what the volume is. A lot of times I find that what I thought the phrase was is not what the people are actually typing in.

Liron: That's key. You say that you go in maybe to search an idea, like best poses for weight loss as an example, and then you see that the search volume for that exact phrase is maybe not as high as you thought, but if you changed it up a little bit, maybe more in line with what people are searching, then that makes all the difference?

Chris: Absolutely. Yeah, so we definitely do that on every video.

Liron: How do you know how to rephrase your question or your search or what people are searching for? Do you just play around with keys and hope for the best?

Chris: Usually what I do ... and even though I consider myself good at this stuff, there's people that take it to a much higher level than I do, so I'll just look. Usually there's some very similar keywords or a keyword phrase right around that one that have higher volume, and then that's an indicator to me that someone is looking for weight loss yoga poses as opposed to best poses for weight loss. If that one's significantly higher, we'll go with that one.

Liron: Now that you have your question, so now that we know that is the exact phrase people are searching for, you know you can easily make content around that. It falls in line with your brand and what your channel's all about. How close did you stick to that when it comes to using that as your title, or using those in the descriptions?

Chris: I will say we stick to it about 75% of the time now. We have the luxury now of having a significant audience, so sometimes it's a little awkward. Now that we're actually serving an audience that we know ... you know, when you start out, you have no idea what your audience is going to be like, so you have to start somewhere. Now we know the things that are going to resonate with our audience, and they're not always things that have a high volume as far as keywords go, as far as search volume goes.

We try to make 75% of our videos keyword-based, on the research, and then the other are really just there to serve to the community. They use the terminology that our community uses, so they pick it up and it resonates really well with them.

Liron: You kind of found your groove in here. Was there anything specific that really kind of triggered them? Was it just learn the poses and then it kind of developed from there, or was there a different approach to getting your channel to be the authority?

Chris: I will say it took us a long ... we talked about how long it takes earlier, but it really took two years of consistently posting every week before we were seeing ... before it started to feel like this was worth it from a numbers standpoint, right? The thing that really triggered it was in January of 2015. We decided we were going to do a 30 Days of Yoga series, so every day in January, there was a new video. The trending thing, keyword-driven, was 30-day yoga challenge, but we didn't like the use of the word "challenge" as it related to yoga, because it seemed competitive and we wanted everyone to feel like they're a part of it, they're doing this together. That would have been the keyword thing to go for, 30-day yoga challenge, but we didn't. We went with 30 Days of Yoga.

We did a video every day the month of January, and we also did a daily email that went along with it. We got people to sign up for our email list and then we would mail every day, driving traffic to that video. On the landing pages, we had ways for people to share that with their friends. We were like, "This will be much more fun with friends, so tag your friends and share this." That is the thing that really was the tipping point for the channel, because we got people involved. We really fed the community through that, and that's what I really attribute as the thing that was kind of the tipping point for a lot of growth.

Liron: Up until that point, before you had your 30-day challenge, could you remember offhand what your subscriber count was at that stage?

Chris: It was probably around 200,000.

Liron: Okay, so really a fair size. You've got the mass community, they like your content, they keep coming back. Obviously the 30 days have appeal to a much, much, much larger audience who has just got to commit to that. You speak a lot about the landing page and being able to tag your friends or share it with your friends. Was your strategy to drive people not straight to a YouTube but to a landing page, and then kind of get them to the YouTube channel?

Chris: Correct, yeah. You know, we've experimented with driving people to our website versus driving them straight to YouTube, and we like driving them straight to YouTube so they stay in that ecosystem. We did build an external landing page, and we made a video. We made a video announcement in YouTube and drove them to a landing page that was just like a simple Wordpress page with an opt-in, very, very simple.

Liron: Like, "Give us your email address and we'll keep you posted"?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. They would enter their email address, and then once that was done, it would take them to a thank-you page that said, "Awesome, you're in. Here's what you can expect, here's what's going to happen, and invite your friends," and then we included some social sharing buttons below that. Then of course we promoted that page across our social platforms as well.

Liron: You drove them not to your YouTube page. You first drove them to a landing page, got them excited, and then everything else from that point was all about the YouTube channel as a whole, right?

Chris: Correct, yeah. We actually didn't do any advertising or remarketing either, so it was all based on like a vlog-type video on YouTube. It kind of started on YouTube. The audience saw it there, then we bounced them to a landing page. From then, once they've signed up and shared with their friends or whatever, all the other communications will be driving them straight to the YouTube channel.

Liron: What a pleasure that is, is being able to control your own notifications. Now you have your customers or potential customers, or at least interested people, you've got their email address. You're giving them value. You can decide when to drive people to your site or to your YouTube channel, as opposed to just hoping that the YouTube notification actually works this time.

Chris: Definitely, yeah. Email has been a key component. Our goal with the 30 Days of Yoga series was can we just like boost this channel somehow, increase the subscribers and the watch time, but also can we grow our mailing list, because we do a weekly email that promotes that week's videos still, and we have about half a million people on our email list, so that helps us. That gives us an advantage every week, with we show up in people's inboxes with a nice letter, putting the video in some sort of context, rather than just popping up in YouTube.

Liron: Yeah. Regardless of how many systems we've come through, no matter how many new social platforms there are with different apps that have popped up on the screen, there's one constant, and that's email. It's the one thing we check every single time, and it's the one thing you need to sign up to all these darn systems anyway.

Chris: Yeah. You can knock it, but it is what it is, and it works great for us, so yeah. You know, I love YouTube. If YouTube would have been around when I was a kid, I would have been like all over it, and I love it. You know, everyone gets frustrated with it from time to time, but I think it's just such an amazing thing that it even exists. With that being said, I'm conscious that they can change their algorithm.

I've never set the business up to depend on AdSense revenue, because I feel like that could go away at a whim, so we've built other revenue streams. You know, I love YouTube as a distribution platform, but we've always tried to not depend on them doing the hard work for us. I'm just glad that they get our videos to an audience at this point.

Liron: That is a perfect, perfect way to do it. It's a pleasure to be able to have a system. You don't have to invest into hardware, you don't have to invest into tech support, you don't have to invest into infrastructure. You're literally using somebody else's all technology for your benefit. The fact that they happen to throw you a couple of bucks because of AdSense should be a pleasure. It should be a welcome gift. It's not a right, which is why so many people are just going about this the wrong way round. "I demand my AdSense to be activated at 4,000 hours." Okay, cool. What are you going to do with your entire $2.48? This is not much anyway, but they're giving it to you as their way of saying, "Thank you for uploading your content." They're there to make money. They have their revenue models.

Talk to us about the revenue models that you do as well, because you're saying AdSense is a gravy, it's a pleasure, thank you very much, but it's not how you set up your business. Your business has got other revenue streams. Are you able to talk through some of those?

Chris: Absolutely. Our core, in addition to the YouTube channel, we have a subscription video-on-demand service, which is basically like a membership site but it works on apps, and it works on your Apple TV and your Roku and all that stuff. We also produce weekly content that's exclusively for that. It contains our entire library plus the standalone courses. We used to do standalone courses and would sell those transactionally, and we still do to a certain extent, but really our focus is on our membership platform, so that's like our primary revenue driver.

Then as I mentioned, we also sell standalone courses that are like, for an example, here's a Power Yoga course that's about 10 videos, and it's all about Power Yoga. It's mixing yoga with some high-intensity interval training, and it's much more heavily produced and has this awesome music and everything like that. The idea is for it to be consumed and used as its own thing. It's not the type of content that would work for us on YouTube, so people can buy that individually or get it as part of their subscription.

Then we also have, through Shopify, we do merchandise. We've got like a bunch of t-shirts, a necklace, bags, different things like that, and then we'll do live events, which initially were a money loser because we had to figure out how live events worked. Now, thanks to some experience, that's become a revenue generator as well. Every other year, we'll do a tour. This year we're just doing a couple of big events, so the live events are another revenue stream too.

Liron: Speaking of live, do you use any live streaming in your arsenal of tools?

Chris: We've live streamed once, and it really just comes down to the fact that we do so much traveling, whether it's for shooting or live events or different things like that. It's become difficult to do live streaming in the way that we really want to implement it, but it's definitely there and something that we have a good plan for, once our real-world schedule allows for it.

Liron: Right, okay. World domination is going to come in the term of live streaming? Okay. That makes sense.

Chris: We could give it more as bringing the world together even more. We're not trying to dominate.

Liron: I like that approach. It's not a challenge, it's inclusive. I get you.

Chris: Totally. Totally. I will take a little detour and say when we started this channel, we intentionally designed it for people that would probably never go to a live yoga class, whether that's because of cost or whether that's because of body image issues or schedule or whatever. There was a whole segment of people out there that never felt comfortable going to a yoga class, so we wanted to reach those people and give them these tools, so they could put together a home yoga practice without having to go to a yoga class. Now a lot of those people have gone through our videos and come to our live events, and now they do go to yoga classes in real life. We definitely kind of went after a market that I felt wasn't being served.

Liron: I love that, because there's so many people who are simply afraid, embarrassed, whatever the anxiety issue is, but it's an issue and we have to acknowledge it. This way, if I can know what the positions are called and kind of do them to a certain degree before I walk in, I'm going to be much more comfortable walking into a class at a certain point.

Chris: Totally. That's who our core audience was, starting out, and that's still who we look at as our people we're going out there to reach. We do some more advanced stuff so that we can take them on this journey, but yeah, I think that's what sets us apart from a lot of the other yoga channels out there.

Liron: It seems like focus was a big focus for you, so the more targeted and pinpoint accuracy that you had in your search, in your SEO, in your content, well, therefore it drove a very specific niche audience which is clearly big enough around the world to get an entire business going out of this.

Chris: Uh-huh. Yeah. You nailed it.

Liron: At which point did you kind of decide that it's time to do some paid-for classes, paid-for merchandise, paid-for courses, over the free stuff that people are getting online?

Chris: Well, we started that in the second year, because our YouTube channel was making no money. I mean, we had less than ... it was really looking like it wasn't going to take off after we'd done it for about a year, as strange as that seems now, looking back. It really seemed like it wasn't going to take off, and I felt bad. Neither one of us was in a great financial place at the time, so my idea was let's do a course that we sell and just see what happens. If it makes money, then we'll take that as a sign that we're moving in the right direction.

In 2014, we put out a course. We put together a course called Reboot, that was four videos with a calendar and a little e-book that went with it, that wasn't available on the YouTube channel. I think it made like $10,000 or something like that, which at the time we absolutely couldn't believe. That was more than we'd made for doing this thing for over a year, so that was kind of an indicator. Then also, we set up a private Facebook group to go along with that, and that was kind of the beginning of cultivating this community.

Then that community became ... it was just such a great experience, interacting with the people in that group that were doing these videos every day together. They were like, "Okay, we're going to do more of these courses, and we're going to continue to cultivate this community and make it bigger and better and healthier." As we did more courses, I didn't even know how to deliver a digital course at that time. It wasn't quite as easy back then, even though is wasn't that long ago.

The opportunities started coming up to do a subscription service, so we thought, "Okay, let's just bundle all our stuff together and put it together like a Netflix-style thing for yoga." Then as that began to grow, we really liked it. We liked what was happening there, and so last year we started doing new, exclusive content for that every week.

Liron: Wow. Okay. I mean, it's understanding the audience, understanding what they want from you, why they're there in the first place. Listening to them, providing them more, to a point where they're willing to give you money. In fact, they want to give you money. They want to support you. They're part of this now. Let me ask you this, Chris. What has got you super excited now as far as the platform is concerned, YouTube, the business is concerned? What's the big thing?

Chris: I'm really personally excited about YouTube TV and how YouTube starts working into that, just to see. It's interesting you bring up the community thing, because I watch almost all of the YouTube videos that I watch via my Apple TV, so I don't see the community components, but I think that they actually really nailed what they did with YouTube TV, and I'm interested to see how the YouTube component of that can start becoming a bigger part of YouTube TV rather than the network.

Chris: That has me really excited. I think the potential there is huge, and I think that Google and YouTube are particularly positioned to continue to make that great. That's the latest thing that I've been excited about, just seeing how YouTube competes in this new landscape that's coming up once we have all these streaming video-on-demand channels. That's what's got me kind of excited.

Liron: Of course, technology is becoming less and less of a barrier. Internet connectivity is becoming more proliferant everywhere around the world. Not everybody has 4G and 5G, obviously, but it's definitely kind of coming. Do you have a specific mobile strategy for those countries? South Africa and Africa, is very much mobile-first. India as well, maybe mobile-only in fact. Do you have a different approach to mobile versus desktop?

Chris: Not currently, but we are currently working with some partners on getting more efficiently into those countries that you mentioned, including a few others. We're just in the very early days. We're interested in localizing our videos for non-English-speaking countries, so we're working through that process right now. That's about as much as I can firmly say right now.

Liron: I fully get it. The point is you're thinking bigger than today. You've clearly got your eyes on short, medium and long-term goals.

Chris: Yeah. Actually, the way that we've structured this business, we look at YouTube more as a marketing channel. It's great, it's our top marketing channel, and it's also like a great ... it's not like strip marketing, because we're reaching the people that we want to reach with our message, but if YouTube went away, from a financial perspective we would still be okay, because we've built all the other things around it.

Liron: Obviously you're making revenue from AdSense, but the point you're making is, "We're okay, we have clearance"?

Chris: Just based on my experience, for me, if I could turn off ads and be confident that my ranking would still be the same, we would consider doing that, actually, to make the experience better for people. Based on my tests, when I turn ads off, it doesn't ... I lose my rankings, so the ads are even there for kind of a ... and I'm not trying to play down the money side of it. Liron: Of course.

Chris: We just really look at it as like this is where people are going to find us, so I'm going to do whatever I can on YouTube so that people can find our stuff.

Liron: It's a holistic approach. It's a business. Did you go into this with a business in mind, or did you go into this with, "Let's make some channels, maybe we'll make some money eventually"?

Chris: Actually, we just wanted to quit our day jobs and get back to making movies on the side. We thought these would just be ... we didn't think that either one of the channels would get as big or as time-consuming as they have become. The interesting thing with Yoga With Adrienne is that I've seen with my own eyes what a positive impact it's had on the world. My idea first of all was like, "Let's make this small channel. We'll quit our day jobs and make movies in our spare time, right?" Then it was a matter of like, "Okay, I need to make this thing sustainable as a business."

Chris: Then once I realized that it was sustainable as a business, and seemed to be solid and just big enough, and just efficient enough to really run on its own ... you know, now it runs like a machine almost ... that was when I was able to focus on, okay, really the important thing to me is I do believe that what we're doing is incredibly important and having a massively positive impact on people, probably more so than anything else I'll ever do. Now, our decisions are driven by how do we impact more people with what we're doing.

Liron: You've got to love it. It's such a great story, where you were doing what you wanted, and you were as a matter of fact enough to make a right turn when you needed. You zigged where you needed to, you zagged where you needed to, just to get it to a certain point where you could kind of take a step back and go, "Wow, this is actually a thing. It's scalable. We have a distribution platform. People love it. We're going to give them more of it, and by the way, make a living doing it." There is no better way to live, I suppose.

Chris: I agree. I'm very happy. I feel very blessed, or lucky, or whatever term you choose to use.

Liron: I hear you. Before we wrap up, just kind of a question I had for you, especially the space that you're in and the conversation we've had. If you could put one thing on a big billboard in Times Square or a tweet that everybody would see, or a Facebook post that everybody would see, the entire world will see it, what message will it say?

Chris: It would say, "Do"

Liron: Love it. Marketing is marketing, right? Spoken like a true businessperson.

Huge thanks to Chris for joining us on the show. You can contact him via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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