Leveling Up – Building an Audience Is Kind of Like Playing a Video Game

We launched Hilah Cooking about a year and a half ago and we’re still going strong. In fact, we’re going stronger than ever. I thought this seemed like as good a time as any to update everybody on our progress and share a few more audience building tips that we’ve learned along the way.

When I wrote the first post in this series – we had about 400 YouTube subscribers, 1,000 Facebook fans and were happy anytime an episode hit 100 views in the first 24 hours. As I write this almost a year later, we are about to hit 4,000 subscribers, we have over 2,300 Facebook fans and reliably exceed 1,000 views in the first 24 hours. Our website traffic has tripled and subscriptions to our email newsletter have exploded.

These numbers might not blow your mind – but I am extremely proud of them. We started this show from ground zero – with little more than a second-hand camera, an ancient iMac and a used shower curtain. We also had no idea what we were doing. So I’m not only proud of what we have accomplished on a production level, but I’m proud of the audience that has grown around the project. These are not empty numbers generated by Spam or paid traffic. We have a very loyal, highly engaged audience that actively watches the show, responds to what we do, tries out the recipes and even sends us the photos to prove it.

I almost hate to refer to our viewers as an audience – because it’s really a community now. Using “audience” feels like a group of people who watch, rather than a group of people that are actively contributing. But I digress. It’s this community that gives us the energy to keep going when things get really, really sucky from time to time.

Now – here are a few more things we’ve learned since the last installment.

Be Prepared To Spend Some Time “Leveling Up”

The early days of launching any kind of web project – whether it’s a series, a website or even a simple blog – can be pretty frustrating. The numbers are small and sometimes it feels like you’ll never have a good audience for your work.

This early phase reminds me of a videogame where you have to spend a bunch of time wandering around, fighting goblins and gathering gold so that your character gets powerful enough to do the fun stuff. You may be doing awesome work, but you’re not seeing the reward because the foundation just isn’t there yet.

If you don’t spend your time on the non-sexy stuff, you’ll be shooting your work out into a vacuum. The list of non-sexy stuff will vary depending on what your project it, but it includes things like: responding to comments, answering questions, search engine optimization, contributing to other sites & projects in your niche, promoting your project on forums, contributing to conversations on Twitter, etc.

Some of this stuff is fun, but it can become time-consuming and tedious when you are doing it day-in and day-out. However, this is the stuff that makes you a real person to your audience and builds a real sense of connection.

It gets easier.

Just like with a video game, once you have a certain foundation built, it gets easier.

On level 2, each one of your successes brings a greater reward. As soon as we came back from our summer hiatus, we immediately started getting featured in bigger publications and on bigger websites. We even were featured a tiny article in Nylon Magazine. We also won several big including Blog of The Year at the Austin Blogger Awards. None of this would have been possible in the first few months of the project. But all of these things happened during the first year.

Before people will take a risk on you, you need to have a proven track record. The only way to establish that reputation is to start grinding away. Make it as good as possible, but DON’T STOP.

Consistency Is Key

I can’t underestimate the value of releasing your content on a consistent schedule. Pick a consistent schedule that you can stick to and NEVER MISS. Other than our summer hiatus, we have only missed a single week and that was due to a broken camera combined with a major shit storm of personal chaos.

We definitely had a good excuse, BUT… people noticed.

Now that we know there are actually people out there who expect to see an episode on Monday night or Tuesday morning, we have even more determination to never miss a week.

Official Confirmation: At a YouTube Partners event during SXSW the issue of consistency was discussed as it relates to the YouTube and Google algorithms. The YouTube representative confirmed that consistency is important and does impact how your content is ranked in the search engines. To paraphrase, she said that “if you have 10 videos ready to go, it’s better to release them on a weekly basis rather than daily or all at once.”

Test Your Release Windows

I had always heard that Tuesdays were the best days to release new content. So that’s what we did in the beginning. But I’m the kind of person that likes to test everything. So while still sticking to our original schedule, we’ve also released episodes on other days of the week, mornings, afternoons, evening, etc.

Now we release a new episode to the video sites on Monday night. We publish it on the website on Tuesday morning and then promote it via the social networks throughout the day on Tuesday. This is what seems to be working best for us right now, but I am always experimenting.

If you use YouTube as one of your primary distribution channels, definitely experiment with releasing new videos during “prime time.” There is a huge potential audience of people who are watching YouTube videos instead of watching television and this is the perfect time to attract those people. Also, if your videos ramp up in views quickly, you are more likely to get featured by YouTube.

You Should Start A Mailing List Now

This definitely falls into the non-sexy category, but if you’re going to be in this thing for the long haul, you should start an e-mail list right away. Despite all the pundits who say that e-mail is totally over, it’s not. This is one of the most direct and effective ways to reach your audience.

For a bunch of boring legal reasons, you should sign up for a service that will handle all the delivery stuff. This ensures that you don’t get in trouble for spamming. Here are two options.

  • Aweber – I use this and everybody says it is the best and has the best delivery rate. However, it costs a little money. If you can afford it, start with Aweber, because if you ever decide to change services they will be required to re-opt in. And you will lose a huge chunk of your list.
  • Mailchimp – This is what we use for all the Hilah Cooking stuff because when we started out we didn’t have enough money for Aweber. Mailchimp is free for your first 2,000 subscribers. That’s pretty huge if you are totally limited on cash. Also, Mailchimp is a pleasure to use (and I really love that little monkey.)

So since money is no obstacle, just lean into it and get a mailing list up and running.

Dirty Secret: We were extremely excited to win 3 awards at the Austin Blogger Awards including Best Blog of the Year. We didn’t have a big audience at the time, but we DID have a big group of people that regularly read our newsletter. So we asked them to vote. Blam!

Go Meta

I completely neglected this at the beginning, but over time gradually started to see improved traffic for videos if I spent time on the meta data. Once again: not. sexy.

These things are really important, particularly on YouTube: Title, Description, Tags.

Over time, I gradually increased the amount of content I was adding to these fields and search traffic did increase, but I didn’t know if the two things were even related. At the SXSW YouTube Partner event, it was officially confirmed. YouTube wants lots of data. The YouTube rep gave this video as an excellent example of a video with proper meta data.

So take some time and adequately fill out these fields. It’s definitely worth the extra work when it comes to long-tail views.

Dirty YouTube Secret: If you are targeting a keyword, make sure your video file includes the keyword before you upload it. For example, if you are targeting people looking for a “Fish Taco Recipe,” title your video “fish-taco-recipe.mov” or whatever file format you’re using.

Numbers Lie

Although I am writing a lot about audience size and increasing numbers here, it’s also important to remembers that numbers are not a completely accurate gauge for how successful your project is. It’s super-easy (and cheap) to artificially inflate video views and traffic numbers. If you are an independent producer, don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to the big players in your field.

If your audience is growing, you will feel it. If you are cultivating a real community, you will know it deep down.

To summarize without all the tech stuff…

  • Keep producing content.
  • Always strive to improve the quality.
  • Consistently release it on a regular basis.
  • Listen and communicate with the people who love your stuff.
  • Spend time and energy cultivating a real community around your work.
  • Don’t stop.

More to come.

Please leave a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or I have made any egregious errors in this post. I would also love to hear tips and tricks that you have learned.

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