Have you ever watched a viral YouTube video and thought, “I could totally do this”? Well, so did Sean Horlor and Steve Adams, a filmmaking duo with the YouTube channel Shift, but they didn’t just have the thought. They acted on it…and documented their progress of achieving YouTube notoriety in a six-part video series, “YouTube Star.”
The question Horlor and Adams sought to answer in the documentary was twofold: Is there a formula to becoming a popular YouTuber, and can anyone really do it? Before getting to whether they answered the question, let’s take a look at how the Canadian filmmaking duo set out to do it.
First, Horlor and Adams focused on the content. They wanted to be able to rule out the idea that a successful YouTuber’s content alone is responsible for that YouTuber’s success — an interesting idea, and one that would help prove their “formula” theory. Horlor and Adams went about this by doing something any seasoned YouTuber would probably laugh at for its naivety. They tried “as many different styles of videos as we could,” says Horlor, from comedy sketches to vlogs to travel videos. “We just wanted to cover as many bases as possible, which didn’t really work.”
It didn’t work because YouTube channels generally gain traction for having a cohesive personality. Whether it’s an individual making the channel or a whole group of creators, viewers still want to know that they can expect a certain voice and a certain style of videos from the channel — that’s what will ultimately make them return. You have to know what a channel’s content will be like in order to know you like that channel’s content.
Thus, Horlor and Adams learned one of the most important lessons any seasoned YouTuber knows (and which many told them) — be yourself. “No matter what you’re making, you need it to reflect you, and that’s what people are going to be really interested in, you actually being in your videos and sharing your life with [your audience],” Horlor explains, calling this “100% the best advice we got” from experienced YouTube creators.
Horlor and Adams incorporated that advice, but it was only half the battle. Another surprise they faced was that getting people to see your aspiring viral video isn’t nearly the same as posting it. “The perception that YouTubers just post a video and suddenly everyone finds it, and you have 20 million hits just from putting your video on your YouTube page, that’s not really true. That’s one of the things we wanted to prove…posting and creating content is one part of the story, and then actually trying to connect it with an audience is sort of the other part that not a lot of people know about,” Horlor says.
That other part entails a lot of time spent on social media. After posting a video, Horlor and Adams found that they had to spend a full day on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their YouTube video’s comments section responding to literally all the feedback they got, in addition to reaching out to media outlets and asking, essentially, for them to share their work.
“What works is definitely write every single person back,” says Horlor, who realized that commentary is a precious resource. He realized that the amount of actual activity generated by content pales in comparison to the number of eyes that see the content. In other words, though many of Horlor’s friends and family saw their videos posted to Facebook, they were unlikely to like or share them. “So when you do actually get that one person commenting on your YouTube video, write them back!” Horlor advises.
They also learned to ask for help in spreading their latest YouTube videos. Horlor and Adams reached out to Mashable, Buzzfeed, and other similar online publications that are good at creating and spreading the word about popular content. Sometimes, the media companies actually responded…especially when the duo had foolproof video ideas like putting their dog on a Roomba.
Ultimately, as the filmmaking team already explained, the dog on a Roomba type content couldn’t be the only videos they had going for them. They had to showcase their own personalities and passions, and they ended up doing so through the documentary about them trying to become “YouTube stars” itself. “If we’re going to put things on our YouTube channel, we should just do what everyone recommended,” Horlor describes thinking. “We should be part of a documentary storytelling process that is about our subjects, but it should also incorporate part of our…process.”
In the end of their six-part documentary, Horlor says the duo did manage to answer their initial question. “I think there is a formula to YouTube success,” Horlor decided. “Don’t just post videos expecting people to find it. It’s actually really important to build a strategy of what you want to create and how you want to be shown as a creator and fill it out from there, then figure out how you’re going to get people to watch it.” You have to understand that beyond just creating something, you need to create something that people will watch — not just because it’s high quality, but because it’s more or less been shoved in front of viewers’ faces.
That’s what does work. What about YouTube fame deal breakers? As Horlor describes it, it seems like hubris might be the big one. Of course, you have to believe in yourself as a creator and “be really confident up to a point,” he says. However, if you’re above engaging (like it’s your job) with your lowly viewers, then you’re not going to succeed. People aren’t going to watch your video just because you post it and all you touch is gold — you have to work for your fans on YouTube.