What I’m listening to as I type: Mojave
There’s a lot of guff and puff being written about YouTubers at the moment.
If you took in much of the stuff in the media this year you’d think top Youtubers arrive fully-formed, like baby seahorses, with their million subscribers and six-figure earnings. But, to borrow from JPG, the formula for YouTube success is rise early, work hard, strike oil.
Actually, the “rise early” bit might need to be swapped for “stay up late working”, but the work hard bit and the striking oil bit applies. YouTubers’ “oil” being find to the right niche, meme, trend or format and then have the talent, passion and personality to sell it.
Most of the top independent YouTubers have been slogging away at it for four plus years: Smosh eight years; SB.TV seven years; TomSka six years; Rooster Teeth five years; Dude Perfect four years. PewDiePie, currently top of the lot, is a relative Tube baby with his three-year-old channel. These guys have had time to build an audience and to get better at entertaining it.
When Steve Roberts set up his YouTube channel STRskillschool in 2010, he was running football coaching classes six days a week to earn a living. He thought he could use YouTube to post clips of the techniques he taught his students so they could carry on practising between lessons, but he struck oil when he realised there was a bigger audience out there for his videos:
“I was looking at YouTube and saw most of the [football] stuff was pretty poor, so my idea changed to ‘how can I reach the world with this?
“I thought: I’m just the average guy, I know what everyone wants. But then I thought, if I know what the masses want, how can I utilise that?
“There were no language barriers because I didn’t talk in the videos. So I started making videos once a week or more.
“That was 2010, World Cup year, and the site starting growing really fast. I stumbled across the right format and trends.”
One of his early successes was a video of him showing how to take a free kick like Ronaldo.
“The Ronaldo free kick was quite a trending topic at the time and still is now – four years later the video is still doing well.”
Four years later, Steve is doing well too. His channel is nudging the half-million subscribers mark and he is “living comfortably for sure” from running it fulltime.
His channel is the biggest independent UK sports channel on YouTube. In November 2011, he was the only UK winner in the YouTube Next Trainer programme (collecting £5k worth of production equipment); in April 2012, YouTube nominated Steve as one of their rising stars and, in August that year he was picked to produce his channel from the Olympics.
YouTube have been “really supportive” of him – when I interviewed Steve, he’d just got back from a YouTube-arranged sports event linking vloggers and sponsors and a few days later he announced a big tie-in with Vauxhall, the sponsors of the England football team.
“I’m pretty fortunate in getting a lot of offers from brands but I have to be selective. It has to be right – I have to cater for my audience. I could make all the money but if my audience think I’m a sellout then I’ll lose subscribers.
“Sports brands make sense but it has to be a natural, organic thing. It could be something to do with food and drink, or the brand might have a player they’re sponsoring and that might be an opportunity for me to work with that player.”
Working with ‘name’ players is something he wants to do in the future:
“It’s time to bring the skills videos to the next level by including the footballer: how to learn to play like Neymar with Neymar, or Zidane with Zidane – that would be my ultimate aim.”
Also on the cards is to buy in some help. Like most YouTubers, his channel is just him – his ideas, his camerawork, his editing, his deal-making. Him replying to comments, tweeting, blogging, promoting…
“If you’re the [on screen] talent you have to have a passion for the subject and you have to be knowledgeable about it, Fundamentally you’ve got to love what you’re doing.”
Loving what you’re doing is what keeps the best YouTubers working during the early years. Steve remembers coaching during the day and staying up each night answering comments and working on his channel.
“When I first started it was really hard. My children were very young and I was working late at night answering comments. I chose to answer every comment, and now it’s got a little bit more difficult to do that but you’ve got to be engaging, and you’ve got to use social media.”
“I thought my YouTube career was over. Even at that early stage it was growing so fast and I was shattered when I was injured, I thought: ‘it’s all over’. But the subscribers kept me going, and the support I got from them.”
For Steve, passion and expertise drive the best YouTube channels and, for him, one other thing: visual awareness.
“I’ve always been a visual teacher and learner – I was good as a coach at showing information and good as a kid in quickly picking up skills I saw. I found that works on YouTube.”
What also works on YouTube is picking the right subjects for videos and giving them the right title – not just in SEO terms but to get viewers to watch.
So, his “Insane” skills videos get double the views of his technique training videos, and his training videos with player names – Neymar, Ronaldo, Beckham, do 20/30 times better than the ones without names. More of his videos now feature other footballers, rather than just him.
“I always knew that if I could utilise other skills I could improve the channel.
“Before, when I filmed some of the [football] freestylers it was in the YouTube studio, but when I filmed Andrew [Henderson], I said ‘I can’t do this in the studio’ so we just walked around London and I would say: ‘can you do something here?’ and ‘can you do something here?’ and his talent was so good it worked.
“If someone told me to pre-plan a video I don’t think I could do it, but if I turn up at a location I can tell you exactly where to shoot something and come up with ideas when I’m there.
“Then I had to find the right song to pull it all together.”
The song – and the freestyler videos, were inspired by another YouTuber: devinsupertramp. Steve’s other YouTube heroes Dude Perfect (“the biggest channel for me”) joined him at the Olympics YouTube fest.
It’s that understanding of how to engage his audience that works for Steve: “If I’m getting bored watching a video, I know that viewers will be so I just cut out all that extra stuff.”
In this, his second World Cup year with YouTube, he’s expecting a big bump in views and subscribers:
“The next target is half-a-million subscribers – then the key one is one million and I hope I can hit that this year.”
Nike and Adidas are “being supportive” and he’s hoping the World Cup will also help him take that next step in bringing international players to his YouTube channel. Will he be going to Rio too? “Oh, I’d love to go to Rio!”