For years, the Evening Standard’s YouTube channel had been languishing, unloved. A repository for brand videos, content from owned events, and a smattering of original video, the channel had attracted around 2,000 subscribers since launching in 2011 — but growth had stalled.
In November 2019, we decided to experiment once more with the channel to see if we could gain more significant traction. After some early tests, we developed a new strategy for the channel. I set the team an ambitious target to reach 100,000 subscribers by October 2020.
It’s now September, and the channel has reached a remarkable 96,000 subscribers — on track to hit our target ahead of schedule. Our view count is up a ludicrous 5000%, and the channel is now a healthy additional revenue stream for the company.
Here are some of the actions we took and key learnings we picked up along the way.
Pivot to news
I’ve observed in multiple legacy publishing organisations a misapprehension that YouTube is where people go for viral videos, lifestyle-related information, and how-to content. That exists and is sometimes successful, but with two billion active monthly users consuming around five billion videos per day, there is a diverse global audience with a wide range of needs to satisfy. Significant among them is a need to be kept informed with current, accurate, and trustworthy news content.
The Evening Standard is primarily known and loved in London as a trustworthy source of news. Our video team publishes around 60 individual breaking news clips per day, including edited explainers and features. Yet, in 2019, the majority of our output on YouTube was lifestyle, fashion, and beauty content.
Our first experiment was to start uploading selected news clips from our daily output and to track their progress. Immediately we observed a significant uplift in both views and subscribers, so we knew we were on the right track.
Know thy algorithm
Any YouTuber will tell you the very, very best way to skyrocket your views is for your video to appear in the YouTube browse features — ideally, on the home page itself — so users are presented with your video while scrolling through the feed. To get there, content creators are reliant on YouTube’s famous algorithm to determine which videos rise to the surface.
The platform is notoriously opaque about the finer workings of its algorithm, but it does give some general pointers about how the system works in its publicly available literature. Using this information as a starting point, a little trial and error revealed some important learnings for us. Chief among them is the importance of strong SEO. Using keyword-rich titles cross-referenced using Google Trends and accompanied by optimised descriptions and search-specific tags created a measurable impact on our video discovery.
YouTube says its algorithm rewards “relevance, engagement, and quality.” We found that once a video was performing well in search then started to attract positive engagement in the form of comments and likes (or even dislikes) — and was driving high view-through — it started appearing in the browse features. At that point, the view count would shoot up.
Focus on subscribers
Early on, we decided we had to focus on a single KPI to measure our success. We wanted to build a sustainable, returning audience with a positive association to the Evening Standard brand — so we made the subscriber count our most important metric. As any regular YouTube user knows well, subscribers to your channel are more likely to be served your video in their homepage feed. If they have turned on the notifications for your channel, they will be informed when you upload a new video.
This meant using every means possible to create opportunities for users to subscribe. Calls to action at the top of the description, a custom “subscribe” brand watermark, and branded end cards all played their part in making every video a shop window for our wider subscription offering.
Now, as we approach 100,000 subscribers, we have observed that when a new video goes live, the initial burst of views often comes from subscriber notifications — a gratifying indicator that our audience are engaging with our channel.
Smartly build playlists
Our initial approach to playlists was to build by vertical (News, Sport, Travel, etc.), but this strategy was rapidly usurped when we discovered the power of grouping videos around an ongoing story or theme.
We first realised the importance of this while covering the UK general election in December 2019. We published breaking news content throughout the night, grouped them into a General Election playlist, and noticed a significant number of viewers were watching more than one video in the list. This also had a knock-on effect: Our views across subsequent UK political video content increased following the general election, in part due to the authority we’d established during our coverage of the election.
Other successful story-based playlists have included our coverage of the assassination of General Soleimani in January and the ensuing Iran/US diplomatic crisis, the Australian wildfires, the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and of course our coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Don’t forget audio
Finally, we’ve found YouTube to be a powerful additional route to audience for our podcasts. We publish a daily news show, The Leader, and a Webby-nominated returning tech series, Women Tech Charge. Both of these publish as audio files with a video graphic and deliver a significant additional audience.
The listening behaviour is different to that of an audio-only platform, but the audience is definitely engaged, as evidenced by the number of likes and comments on the content.
The Evening Standard YouTube channel will pass 100,000 subscribers in September 2020. It’s a significant psychological milestone and unlocks a number of useful benefits from YouTube itself.
Importantly, though, it becomes a useful number for our colleagues on the commercial team to take to market. Ad revenues, while still modest, have become interesting enough to make YouTube a part of the business plan for Evening Standard video going forward, and a six-figure subscriber base is large enough to consider making more original, YouTube-specific content.
Building a loyal, returning audience on YouTube has been a rewarding journey and, for Evening Standard video, well worth the effort.
Banner image courtesy of Pixabay.