carwow’s Chief Content Officer Mat Watson gives a run-down of what makes a successful YouTube channel.
Why start a YouTube channel?
For the love of cars! We launched back in 2016 and now have over 8 million subscribers on our main channel to keep happy; it’s a commitment that keeps me working into the evening and during holidays, but I absolutely love it.
Beyond that, there were two key reasons we started the channel; first – for people doing online research on a new car, we wanted to give them something fun to watch that still gave them all the knowledge they needed to help them choose their best car.
Second is that YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world. So it’s marketing for us as well. We host regular surveys for users of our site, and 25% said they first heard about carwow via YouTube, proving that the marketing value is extremely high.
How it all began for carwow
Believe it or not, the very first video we ever published was a review of the facelifted Kia Sportage. We were thrilled when it received 4,000 views within the first 24 hours – we thought that was pretty impressive! Fast forward to today, and some of our recent videos have been hitting those same view numbers in just one minute! It’s been an incredible journey, and I’m grateful to our viewers who have been with us every step of the way.
We identified a gap in the market early on, and we were determined to fill it. We wanted to create a space where people could come to watch fun and informative car reviews, and I think we’ve achieved that.
Today, our YouTube channel plays a key role for people when they’re looking to buy a car. Watching our videos has replaced the need for multiple test drives and hours of research for many consumers, and that’s something we’re really proud of.
To pay or not to pay
Some silly people (wrongly!) assume we buy views, but that’s just not sustainable. Though, I can understand why people might think that; after all, we’ve had some videos that have gone absolutely viral. But the truth is, of course we don’t buy views, and we never have.
In fact, buying views can actually be counterproductive. The problem is, when you buy views, you’re not necessarily getting people who are genuinely interested in your content. And that can have a negative impact on your overall performance.
You see, the YouTube algorithm is pretty smart. When you upload a video, it samples it by putting it out to a small portion of your audience. If that audience engages with the video, then the algorithm assumes it’s good content and starts promoting it more widely. But if that audience isn’t interested, then the algorithm assumes the content isn’t great and won’t give it the same level of promotion.
That’s why the only sustainable way to grow your channel is to build your following organically. And that’s exactly what we’ve done at carwow. We create content that we’re passionate about, and we share it with our amazing fans. The only way to build a successful channel is through hard work and dedication.
Mastering the algorithm
People ask me questions about “THE algorithm’’ like it’s a big hairy beast that learns on its own and evolves every hour! Spoiler – it’s not.
My theory is; the algorithm is all about money. If your content can make more money for YouTube than someone else’s similar content, then YouTube will promote yours.
And, how do you make more money for YouTube? Well, it’s all about creating content that people actually want to watch. If you feature experts in your videos who know more about a certain topic than someone in another video, for example, YouTube will push your content over theirs.
But here’s the thing: being an expert isn’t just about having knowledge. It’s also about being able to communicate that knowledge effectively through video. So if you can create high-quality, engaging videos that showcase your expertise, then you’re well on your way to success on YouTube.
To script or not to script
Believe it or not, I actually don’t use a script! No teleprompters, no cue cards, nothing. Instead, I work with a list of bullet point facts that our brilliant content team helps me to research.
I know some people might find that a bit surprising, but for me, it’s all about creating a video that feels natural and engaging. I find it much easier to film a video where I don’t know what’s going to happen or what the end result will be. That way, I don’t feel wedded to a story arc, and I can just let things unfold organically.
Of course, that approach does require a lot of preparation and research. But with a great team behind me, I always feel confident that we can deliver.
What about ads?
Originally, we didn’t have ads as we wanted the channel’s primary focus to be on helping people.
But as time went on, we began to realise that we needed to have ads on our videos. After all, that’s how YouTube makes its money. We had to make sure that we’re playing by the rules and I’m pretty sure that having ads on your videos actually helps with promotion.
It makes sense; if YouTube is making money from your content, they’re going to want to promote it more. So that’s why we decided to start having ads on our videos. Rest assured though, our primary focus will always be on helping our viewers find the perfect car.
Don’t worry about fancy camera angles
This comes down to knowing your audience. The majority of viewers watch YouTube videos on their phones, and they’re not turning it landscape – they’re watching in portrait. So, if you start worrying about capturing TV-quality shots, you’ll waste a load of time and effort.
In my experience, channels that try to replicate TV shows like Top Gear don’t perform as well on YouTube. I think that’s because viewers like to see ‘normal’ content; it helps build trust. They want to feel like they’re watching something that’s authentic and relatable, not something that’s overproduced and artificial.
So, if you’re just starting out on YouTube, my advice is this: don’t worry too much about getting everything perfect. Focus on making content that’s informative, engaging, and authentic. And remember, your audience is watching on their phones, so keep that in mind when you’re shooting your videos.
How to manage content
I’ve drag-raced nearly every possible permutation and combination of cars known to mankind already. So, you can imagine the amount of work that goes into brainstorming new content. But, it’s worth it because we know how much our viewers love watching our races.
In fact, we upload a new drag race video every weekend, as part of our ‘halo shoot’ content. These videos are meant to be fun and entertaining, and we hope they attract more people to our channel.
Of course, we still take our mission of educating people seriously. But, we also want to make sure that we’re entertaining our viewers at the same time. And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love watching a good drag race?
Don’t stress about subscribers
You know that old “Don’t forget to subscribe to my channel!” call to action you hear at the start of nearly every YouTube video? Well, in my opinion, it needs to die.
Why? Because, believe it or not, subscribers don’t really matter that much anymore. Sure, as a subscriber, you can go into your subscription feed and find all the latest videos of the channels you subscribe to. But most of the time, people just want to open YouTube and view what’s on their homepage. And that’s where your videos need to be to engage new viewers.
So, instead of focusing on getting more subscribers, focus on creating content that will attract and engage new viewers. That’s the key to growing your channel and building a loyal audience. Don’t get me wrong, subscribers are still important, but they’re no longer the be-all and end-all of YouTube success.
How to create viral-worthy content
YouTube controls where your content shows up, but there are three key things you need to know that can influence that:
Getting the right premise – I think I know what’ll work – I’m right around 60% of the time, and I get it wrong 40% of the time. But, if you get the premise right, it’s going to work.
Update your thumbnails – to maximise your chances of reaching the feed, you need to get your thumbnail and title right. Once, we uploaded a drag race video showing a thumbnail of the four cars from behind and the brands listed below. That video was hugely successful in terms of views. Crucially, you have to update the thumbnails on older videos regularly.
Monitor watch time – that’s the total time people are watching your videos, also known in the business as “audience retention”. Watch time gives us insight into what’s working and what’s not – you can see what viewers enjoy, whether they’re watching entire videos to the end or leaving halfway through, and what they’re clicking on next – and we can learn from that.
Standing out in a crowd
Honesty is key when it comes to attracting viewers. When we’re filming a drag race, for instance, I make sure that all the cars leave the starting line at the same time. That way, viewers get a true sense of how the cars perform, rather than just watching the drivers.
And, be passionate about whatever it is you do. My love of cars stems from childhood, but I’ve always been more into the sensation of driving than being a hardcore car enthusiast and knowing everything about them. I think that comes across when I’m on the race track – I couldn’t help but smile (and scream) when we were breaking the ¼ mile record for a McMurtry Spéirling!
The key to success
Variety is key when it comes to content. At carwow, we strike a balance between delivering informative and serious content for experts and enthusiasts, while keeping things light-hearted and conversational for everyone else.
We want our videos to be accessible to all viewers, whether they’re just casually interested in cars or on the hunt for their next ride. If your content can reach almost everyone, you’re definitely onto something good.
Make it enjoyable – it sounds obvious but if your videos are enjoyable to watch, people are more likely to watch for longer or watch other videos on your channel. Buying a car can be quite a daunting and boring process (shh, don’t tell anyone I said that!), especially for people not interested in cars. We try to make our videos as fun as possible and that’s what sets us apart.
Now, producing quality output at high quantity – that’s where having a great team comes in. From day one, we knew we had to work harder than our competition. We’re all incredibly driven, and we put in long hours – even in not-so-nice weather. But when you love what you do, it doesn’t really feel like work.
Finally, it’s important to work on the platform itself. As we grew, we knew we had to think about our global appeal. We created a Latin American channel that hosts exactly the same content as the UK, but is translated. That channel alone achieves around nine million views a month, and we have the same in Japan, Korea, Brazil and many other countries. Our total global subscriber count is more than 10 million, and we achieved three billion views in January 2023.
There is a little luck involved!
Of course – luck is a massive factor. Back when we launched the channel, it was when the major automotive titles, like EVO, Car, Auto Express and Autocar, took their eye off the ball in terms of producing video content. They didn’t see the returns coming in from ad revenue on YouTube because it wasn’t quite enough, so they weren’t investing in it – maybe they didn’t see the point.
But people wanted to see all the content they could read in a magazine on their phones, and in video format. We hit a point where traditional journalism was declining, new car vloggers were capitalising, and we made a blend of the two.
carwow was in the right place at the right time and with minimal competition in our specialist area, the algorithm picked us up, and we flew.
You can put in a lot of hard work and not be successful, but most of the time and with a bit of luck, hard work pays off.
Running a YouTube channel gives you a lot of dopamine hits – it feels good to see people enjoying something you’ve worked hard to create. Witnessing growing engagement with each video is a great feeling of achievement.
After we published our first video, it took us a year to reach 100,000 subscribers. During the pandemic, we peaked at about 75 million views a month. It was a bit naive to think this wasn’t related to lockdown because, evidentially, it was(!), so you always need to be realistic. Today, carwow hovers between 50 and 60 million views a month. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of that growth.
Tips for giving it a go
The best thing about YouTube? There’s no barrier to entry. All anyone needs is a phone camera and something to talk about. I would also suggest looking at what other people are doing and what’s successful, but don’t copy it; learn from it. Find your niche and experiment with content to see what works – never stop trying different things. In time, you’ll learn to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
And remember, if your content doesn’t work on YouTube, it doesn’t mean it won’t work on another social media channel, such as TikTok – you need to find the platform that works best for you and resonates with your audience the most.