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What You Need to Do to Build a Loyal YouTube Audience

My teen daughter has not watched television since elementary school. She gets her news and entertainment from YouTube.

While younger generations account for a lot of views, YouTube is ubiquitous across the generations, attracting 1.9 billion users each month. Every day, people watch over a billion hours of video.

While viewers have an unlimited supply of videos to watch, it’s a different story for marketers. With so much content available, how can creators gain a fair share of users’ attention?

Tim Schmoyer, CEO of Video Creators, offered some insight in his recent Content Marketing World presentation, How to Develop a Loyal YouTube Audience. Unless otherwise noted, images and insights come from his talk.

Think SEO with a twist

The goal of YouTube – like all content marketing initiatives – is to serve the right video to the right person at the right time, Tim says.

Google’s search engine similarly tries to serve the right content at the right time, but there’s an important distinction. Google serves up content like a concierge who seeks to answer a question and get the visitors on their way. YouTube, on the other hand, is like the hotel. It wants visitors to relax, unwind, and stay awhile.

Google views a successful search as one where the visitor doesn’t need to return to the search page. YouTube’s success comes from visitors extending their watch time – when the first video is done, the visitor views the next one and the next, and so on.

.@YouTube views success as visitors extending their viewing time, says @TimSchmoyer. #SEO Share on X

To help keep people watching, YouTube’s algorithm considers starts, watch (time), and sessions.


Starts are the videos that bring people to YouTube – the video that started a visitor’s session.

If a visitor starts at the YouTube home page, YouTube displays videos it thinks the visitor would like. Visitors who are logged into their YouTube account will see recommendations based on viewing history.

When I visited the YouTube home page, it showed recommendations for videos, topics, and channels closely aligned to the topics I watched in the past.

According to Tim, videos that appear on the home page have been successful at starting new sessions for users.


Watch refers to viewing time. YouTube seeks to recommend videos that have been watched for a longer time. For example, if two videos are both six minutes, but one has an average viewing time of two minutes and the other has been viewed an average five minutes, YouTube will show the latter as a recommended option.


Session refers to the videos that contribute to the longest viewing times. According to Tim, “YouTube’s goal is to promote content that gets people back to YouTube, content people actually watch, and then keeps them watching another video and then another video.”

.@YouTube's goal is to promote #content that gets people back to YouTube, says @TimSchmoyer. Share on X

Focus on quality, not metadata

Metadata (e.g., title, description, tags) on YouTube plays only a small role in the discoverability of videos, Tim says. “Google got really smart a long time ago. They’re like, ‘Just because it has the keyword in the title, the tags, the description, doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best video to serve.”

Metadata plays only a small role in #YouTube #SEO, says @TimSchmoyer. Share on X

Metadata’s impact is greatest when a video is first published. Because YouTube doesn’t know much about the content at this point, it pays attention to the metadata provided. As little as a few days later, however, YouTube can evaluate viewer signals – views, “likes,” watch time, etc. Those signals become more meaningful than creator-provided metadata.

“Your viewers actually determine how well your videos will rank,” Tim says. “So our goal is to make it as easy as possible for our viewers to give the signals to Google that they need to want to promote that video and surface it in front of everyone that they can.”

While you should fill in the metadata fields, spend more time optimizing your video for humans. Focus on the quality of your video. Quality will get people to watch your videos and check out other videos on your channel.

Tim dispels more video SEO myths in this video:

Build a community

Your YouTube channel gained 100 subscribers this month. Congratulations! What Tim might tell you, however, is that subscribers are not necessarily loyal fans. Subscribers may not visit regularly or pay attention when your next video goes live.

Tim urges creators to think less about managing a channel and more about growing a community. With a community, loyalty is measured by return visits and fan engagement and less by subscriber count.

Think less about managing a channel and more about growing a community, says @TimSchmoyer. Share on X

The strongest communities, both online and offline, says Tim, revolve around shared beliefs, not common interests.

Let’s use an analogy.

You launch a YouTube channel about food. The videos show people making dishes and popular items served by local restaurants. They attract viewers interested in food. They become moderately loyal to your channel.

What if you created a channel about the slow food movement? It would appeal to a smaller but more passionate audience that is interested in countering the fast food movement by preparing locally sourced foods using a more intentional approach to preserve culture and heritage.

The channel would have fewer subscribers but a stronger bond tying the community together, one forged on a shared belief.

Create a niche #YouTube channel to build a strong community, not to get the most subscribers. @TimSchmoyer Share on X

To really build a community, Tim says, requires something extra. “People really need to know your story in order to start caring. The second thing they need to know is your creed or your belief or your why. Not just who you are but why do you do this.”

The concept of the “creed” comes from the book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future. According to the book’s Amazon page, author Patrick Hanlon “explains how the most powerful brands create a community of believers around the brand, revealing the seven components that will help every company and marketer capture the public.”

On Tim’s Content Marketing World speaker page, you can find his creed, which is: “to train other creators to master the YouTube platform and use it as a place to spread messages that change lives.”

When you visit Tim’s channel, you go to learn valuable YouTube tips and because of a shared belief that YouTube can be used to change lives. It can make a difference in the world that goes beyond making money for creators.

According to Tim, “People need to know why this matters to you, and that, again, gets people to create a more human, emotional connection with you.” Along these lines, your creed can extend beyond your YouTube channel to your entire content marketing and even your brand promise.

Use icons and rituals

Icons are not channel art or logos. They’re the things your YouTube community connects with that represent your brand. Tim, for example, wears a cap in all his videos. That cap serves as an icon. If Tim didn’t have his cap in a video, he would appear out of context and regular viewers might not recognize him.

For some creators, their face can be an icon – something that people grow to recognize and associate with the content. Andre Meadows has a channel called Black Nerd Comedy and shoots from his home on a distinctive set. Whenever Tim watches one of Andre’s videos, he thinks, “Oh, I’m back at home with Andre.”

Rituals are repeated interactions or customs that people grow to love and expect from your brand. Tim recommends you make them an integral part of your videos.

Make rituals an integral part of your #videos, says @TimSchmoyer. Share on X

Using Tim’s definition of rituals, I came up with some examples:

  1. Sports commentary show Pardon the Interruption on ESPN
  2. Serial podcast from This American Life
  3. Performance competitions (e.g., The Voice, American Idol)
  4. Game shows (e.g., Jeopardy, where Daily Double and Final Jeopardy are well-known rituals)

Each of these examples uses a consistent format that viewers appreciate and has developed well-known customs that the audience expects. An iconic aspect of Pardon the Interruption is the visual on the right side of the screen that displays the time remaining on the segment and upcoming topics.

Icons and rituals help bind the community and keep them coming back. There’s such a strong bond that if you mistakenly leave out an icon or ritual, your audience will notice — and they’ll probably complain!

Know what’s working (and what isn’t)

YouTube’s audience retention report is a neat analytics dashboard, showing viewing duration, top videos, and audience retention for each video (e.g., a graph that shows precisely when users stop watching).

Tim urges creators to watch the last 20 audience retention graphs to spot triggers that cause people to stop watching the video. One of his clients discovered saying the word “module” would cause viewers to leave. When he stopped saying that word, he saw higher retention and viewing time.

Watch last 20 audience retention graphs to spot triggers that cause people to stop watching. @TimSchmoyer Share on X

Some creators are so in tune with their audience retention graphs that they know how many seconds they can talk before cutting to a different angle, how music impacts viewing patterns, and how often they need to say a sacred word or have another ritual.

Sacred words express your beliefs in a way unique to your creed. “These are the things that people use to identify themselves as an insider or an outsider,” he says.

View this video from Tim on how to boost audience retention, which features insights from several creators:

What’s your loyalty level?

One in four people on the planet watch videos on YouTube. Each day, people watch more than one billion hours of video. If you’re a YouTube creator, the opportunity is enormous, but only if you take the right approach:

  • Understand what YouTube wants.
  • Know how YouTube’s algorithm works.
  • Build loyalty via a community of shared beliefs.
  • Use icons and rituals.
  • Use analytics to guide the creation of future videos.

Back to my teen daughter. She’s loyal to a handful of YouTube creators and can spend hours on the platform. She’s loyal because these creators keep her entertained and amused. They also produce new videos on a consistent basis.

If I look deeper, however, I think many of Tim’s principles apply to her loyalty. In addition to the entertainment value, she has shared beliefs with the creators and appreciates their icons and rituals.

Here’s an excerpt from Tim’s talk:

How about you? Are you loyal to creators on YouTube? What’s the basis for your loyalty? I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute