The year before I started working at A Filthy Lot I watched a LOT of YouTube. Like A LOT. After getting laid off from a job I wasn’t really enjoying to begin with, I decided to take some time away from the rat race, since I hadn’t had more than 9 consecutive calendar days off in over 9 years, and apart from cycling, hiking and spending time with my girlfriend, watching YouTube became a big part of how I spent my time.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching tv shows, and movies as much as the next guy, but with the number of subscription streaming services seemingly growing exponentially these days, and with each one requiring its own login, having its own user interface, and with each one costing anywhere from $5-$15 a month to subscribe to, YouTube was just easier, simpler and cheaper.
I’d been a YouTube user since the site’s launch back in 2005, but it was really the few months I spent between jobs where it became my primary source of entertainment. In that time I began to really follow in earnest a number of YouTubers whose content was in line with my interests, and it’s those YouTubers I wanted to talk about here today, sharing why I enjoy them so much, and what I think are some lessons for AFL and other YouTubers that can be distilled from them.
I’m a bit biased here as I love cars, but I genuinely think Donut’s approach to building a brand on YouTube has been brilliant. Launched in 2016, they’ve grown to over 4 million subscribers and over a billion lifetime views. They started out focused on a very specific niche, that being automobile enthusiasts, but then innovated around their formats and presentation style, to appeal to a younger, more aspirational audience. Their core segment / show “Up to Speed” is a perfect example of what a good YouTube show should be, as it’s both highly entertaining and an incredibly cheap segment to produce. It’s just a single host, shot on a simple set, featuring clips from other YouTubers and stock sites. The magic happens in the writing, the host James Pumphrey’s presentation style, and their liberal use of motion graphics and animation to give everything a bit of visual flair.
Donut has also done an incredible job of turning what would otherwise have been throw away lines into catch-phrases, and calling back bits from previous episodes to make their 100+ episodes feel like part of a cohesive series. The brilliance of their catch-phrases is also two-fold, as they’ve turned them into marketable slogans for t-shirts and other merch items. They’re also very clearly very majorly connected to their local automotive community, which has opened up a lot of opportunities for them along the way. Personally, I really believe we need 1 or 2 segments like “Up to speed” in the AFLE programming mix, as I think these kinds of value based productions are hugely important for the growth of a channel.
What we can learn from them:
- Style matters – YouTube is much more of a “Pop” platform (In the “Pop art” sense, meaning bright / colourful) than TV or film, and audiences expect / appreciate visual flourishes like motion graphics and animation.
- Value focused productions mean higher output. Output equals consistency. Consistency equals growth.
- The power of catch-phrases and call-backs – This stuff leads to building a real fan-base. Fans share content and buy stuff. Enough said.
- YouTube likes big personalities – Up to Speed’s host has got a HUGE personality, and a lot of their success can be attributed to their hiring him. He’s fun, loud, and total goofball.
Bon Appetit WAS a standout example of how to build a channel around an esemble cast, but then things fell all the way off the rails a few months ago, after stories began to emerge of workplace discrimination and past questionable behaviour from senior leadership. In may ways the Bon Appetit of today is more a cautionary tale of how not to do diversity, inclusion and equity, than it is a case study on how to build a channel, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on what the Bon Appetit of six months ago was doing so well before things fell apart.
First and foremost, they have this sort of “everyone is cast” approach, where anyone at any time (including producers, editors, etc.) can be pulled into whatever segment they’re shooting, and they’re often shooting multiple segments at a time in a single space, which leads to amazing opportunities for crossovers and really leads to their ensemble cast feeling much more like a family than a bunch of actors who happen to work in the same place. Their success is largely based on two of their cast, Claire and Andy, who’s segments have really blown up over the past few years, but by involving other staff members in these shows, the exposure these other cast members get during their most popular segments has helped build audiences for their less popular segments and really made their shows feel far more engaging overall.
The second big thing they’ve done really well is to connect their content to culture. Their most successful segment by a wide margin is their “Gourmet Makes” segment (which is a personal favorite as well) where chef Claire attempts to make gourmet versions of popular snack foods. By connecting the segment to things everyone knows, it not only helps generate exposure via YouTube’s search and algorithm, but also makes the content accessible to a far broader audience. That’s not to say we should be chasing trends, or trying to jump on whatever bandwagon is popular at the moment, but we should absolutely be looking to create content that connects to cultural touchstones, as doing so gives the content much broader appeal and a better chance of getting found via search or being shared.
What we can learn from them:
- The power of the ensemble / crossover – BA has a space, they shoot a bunch of different shows with a bunch of different people in that space, but by making it so that anyone who’s in that space can get pulled into any show, it makes the BA crew feel like a family, and gives exposure to their less popular performers.
- Connect content to culture – Audiences like familiarity, and are more likely to watch something they feel a connection to and content is much more likely to get found it connects to something topical.
- Keep experimenting til you get it right – BA tried a LOT of different types of shows before they hit on their two most successful formats, both of which didn’t premier until their 4th year on YouTube. If something doesn’t work, try something else. Lowering the cost of productions as much as possible really helps here though as you’re able to try more things the less expensive those things are.
First We Feast
First We Feast, with their marquee show “Hot Ones,” is an interesting channel as it was developed by the hip hop magazine Complex, but has seen its popularity far surpass that of its parent company in recent years. The access to major celebrities Complex gave First We Feast is obviously not something we can easily replicate, but there’s still some insight I think we can learn from here. The biggest take away from First We Feast for me is that even tired formats like interviews can be innovated around, and that the YouTube audience really loves “challenge” format shows. Complex could easily have created another traditional “interview” style show and book a bunch of hip hop stars, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as “Hot Ones” has been, as people are tired of the same old formats, and YouTube offers an amazing opportunity to not only reach a large audience, but also radically rethink show formats and presentation styles. Hot Ones, with its unique spin on the interview format, where guests have to eat a progressively spicier series of wings, feels so much more like “YouTube” show and offers its audience something they haven’t seen before; celebrities sweating profusely and being pushed way, way outside their comfort zones. Plus, the challenge format meant that guests could walk away with “Bragging rights” over how well they handled the spicy wings, which in turn led to other celebrities wanting to one up their friends and colleagues, leading to bigger and bigger names being booked for the show. Something else that bears mentioning is the fact that despite consistently getting millions of views per episode, Hot Ones is also a remarkably cheap show to produce. Its shot on a black back drop with the host and a guest sat at a table, with 2, maybe three cameras tops. There’s some light VFX and animation to elevate the format, but even still it’s a far cheaper and less complicated show to shoot than even some of our less complex sketches for example.
The other big bit of brilliance on display from First We Feast, is the fact that its evident that their intention from the beginning was always to use the show as a platform to launch a line of products. Hot Ones now has their own full line of hot sauces and even a hot sauce subscription service and from every indication I can see they’ve been very successful with this line of business. I’ve said many, many times in the past that we need to be thinking about products that we could potentially develop that are in line with our values and brand, as that’s real the real revenue potential of YouTube channel is unlocked.
What we can learn from them:
- Innovate on the classics – Hot Ones took a old standard, the interview, and made it fresh, new and appealing. There’s a lot of opportunity in taking something people are familiar with, and updating it for the 21st century with a new twist.
- Develop content with potential products in mind – We should absolutely be thinking about the potential products that could come out of shows as a part of how we determine where to invest our resources. Shows that have stronger potential product tie-ins, have stronger future revenue potential, and are therefore more valuable to us long term.
- High impact doesn’t mean high cost – Hot Ones is a very simple, bare bones production that relies on the magic of its format and less on complicated shots, or travelling to locations, ect. Thinking about how we can maximize impact while minimizing cost is going to be critical for us in the future, and we need to be looking to develop more shows like Hot Ones that can be shot on a shoestring and pumped out week after week.