Five lessons from building a successful YouTube channel

Here’s how I turned an obscure passion into a business on YouTube

How to build a successful YouTube channel
Illustration courtesy of iStock

In the mid-’90s, I borrowed my aunt’s VHS copy of the movie Titanic. I was probably a bit too young to watch it, but at some point during that two-tape odyssey, I became obsessed with the Titanic and ocean liners in general. I was always a history buff, and I was fascinated by the role these giant, fast, and luxurious liners played in shaping the world we know today. 

Fast-forward to December 2020. It was a pretty bleak winter for most of us. At the time, I had a job building YouTube strategies for enterprise clients. With my newfound pandemic free time, I revisited a childhood passion: ocean liner history. I found several ocean liner videos of mediocre quality on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of views and thought, What if I took my video production and content strategy skills and married them with my love of ocean liners? 

In January 2021, I launched Big Old Boats, a YouTube channel dedicated to the history of ocean travel. I plan, research, write, narrate, and edit in-depth documentaries on famous ocean liners, focusing on storytelling, compelling visuals, and moody music. My work quickly found an audience. By April of that year, I was accepted into the YouTube Partner Program, and as of today, I have over 28,000 subscribers, a merchandise store, brand deals, and a steady supplement to my income.

Creating a successful YouTube channel is akin to running a small business. It takes an immense amount of creativity, planning, work, and perseverance. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. But if you’re searching for a potentially lucrative and creative outlet, or looking to join the growing number of individuals in the creator economy, starting a YouTube channel can be a rewarding way to lean into a passion and build a business. 

Here are five lessons I learned while building my YouTube channel that can help you create, and potentially monetize, your own.

1. Find your niche

You’ve probably seen this stat before: Over 500 hours of video get uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s a staggering amount of content, and it’s YouTube’s algorithm that takes on the monumental task of sorting out what’s worth watching and what isn’t. YouTube’s goal is to keep people on the platform as long as possible. It does this by making connections between videos. If you create general content for a general audience, you have two problems: People don’t have a reason to watch your video, and the algorithm has nothing to link to your videos. 

Instead, building your channel around a specific interest is a better strategy. The topic should ideally be something you’re passionate about and something that you can realistically imagine making videos about for several years. Research other channels in your space and closely watch what they do. It is possible to go too niche, so make sure there’s a well-established audience for the content you want to create. That will ensure an audience will be there for your future videos.

2. Know your audience

Creating videos for a specific audience will help you develop a more devoted following than if your videos are geared toward the general public. With so much content in the world, a viewer can find exactly what they want to watch when they want to watch it. It’s more likely that they will watch a video about the making of their favorite song rather than select a video of a random person talking about their day.

Get to know who’s watching your videos and find out what else they watch. You can do this by reading the comments on other videos. Use platforms like TubeBuddy to research keywords and audience behavior. That will show you valuable YouTube SEO insights that can inform your strategy.

My audience knows their stuff. They’re generally 25 to 35 years old, mostly male, and educated. They click on thumbnails of black-and-white photos over color photos. Many have backgrounds in either the US or Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine. Because of this, it’s critical that I get it right when I talk about ships. They will know if something’s wrong and call me out—and then they will watch something else.

3. Offer value

When planning your content and making your videos, always keep this question in mind: Why would anyone watch this? It might sound obvious, but many new creators mess this up. You need to offer value to your audience. Whether you teach them something, inspire them, make them laugh, or simply entertain them, you have to give them a reason to watch.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Your video should either be the first video on a topic, the best one on that topic, or offer a unique angle on that topic. Just because something was done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it better. Push yourself to make the best content possible in your space by upping your production values and going deeper with your subject matter.

4. You’re a small business owner

If you’re serious about growing, content creation will not be your only responsibility as a YouTuber. To effectively grow your channel and generate an income, you’ll have to approach YouTube the way you would any small business.

That means potentially establishing a legal framework for your business by creating an LLC or a sole proprietorship. You don’t need to do this right away (in fact, don’t do this until you’re generating solid income), but at some point, it’ll be important, especially if you’re working with brands.  

It’s also a good idea to find a place where you can record videos, edit them, and manage your business. You can use WeWork All Access and WeWork On Demand to access workspaces and meeting rooms all over the world. The beautiful spaces can help unlock your creativity and could potentially create a great backdrop for your videos. Being in a WeWork absolutely helps boost my creativity. 

5. Not everything will go according to plan

I don’t know if I’ll ever fully learn this lesson myself, but even for the platform’s most successful creators, there will be ups and downs—and you won’t be able to predict them. You will work incredibly hard on the best video you’ve ever made and no one will watch it. One of your old videos that you thought was terrible will suddenly start generating thousands of views out of nowhere. It’s impossible to reliably predict success. 

You’ll have to roll with it and push through. A video didn’t perform the way you wanted? Make another one. A video goes viral? Save some of the money and put the rest into more videos. Adjust your strategy, listen to your audience, and make great videos. The rest will come in time. 

YouTube, like any other social media platform, is a tough platform to get right, and it’s real work once you start getting traction. I spend most of my free time making videos. But if you manage to break through, you’ll get the opportunity to share your voice and creativity with thousands, maybe even millions. It’s a great feeling. 

Bradley Little is a writer and content creator based in New York City.

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