How To Start a Successful YouTube Channel: A Step-by-Step Guide
Dreaming of living abroad and funding your expat lifestyle by starting a successful YouTube channel? That’s exactly what we have done!
With over 300 videos, 90K subscribers, and 12 million views on our YouTube channel, we now earn a six-figure income that supports our life in Ecuador and our travel to other countries.
In this comprehensive, step-by-step guide, we’ll share our journey and strategies for starting and growing a successful YouTube channel. Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Choose a niche
If you plan to move abroad, a channel about your journey and the destination you choose is an ideal niche. For every popular expat destination, there are thousands (maybe millions) of people who want to know more about that place and your experience traveling, moving and living there.
When we were thinking about moving abroad, the first thing we did was watch every YouTube video we could find about all the destinations we were considering. All those YouTubers helped us on our journey, and now we’re happy to pay it forward by helping future expats.
Our channel is mostly about living abroad and how to achieve a higher quality of life for a lower cost of living. Our videos cover lifestyle, travel, and city/country comparisons to help you decide where you want to live.
Pros & cons videos about different places to live, work, retire, and travel have been particularly popular.
Going forward, we’re also going to talk more about working online so you can learn how to fund your life abroad (for those of you who aren’t retired yet). The only way we’re able to live the quality of life we have in Ecuador as pre-retired people is by working online.
Choose a niche that fits your lifestyle and interests so you stay motivated to create new content each week.
Step 2: Create engaging content
Producing high-quality videos is crucial for attracting and retaining viewers. Experiment with various formats, such as vlogs (video logs), tips, interviews, and reviews, to discover what resonates with your audience. Remember, your content should be appealing and informative.
Is the vlog format dead?
According to some experts, vlogging is dead. Or, at least the old style of vlogging like we used to do.
Our first videos were in a vlog format and featured our daily lives. We walked around Cuenca, Ecuador and filmed our adventures in run-n-gun format. However, those were not very popular and they were difficult to do well.
We spent so much time trying to remember transition shots and redoing bad takes that it took a lot of the fun out of the process. Sometimes we got so stressed out trying to film under time constraints that it ruined the experience.
Eventually, we decided that format was just too difficult for us.
Edutainment is where it’s at!
Now, we call our video format “edutainment,” which just means we create educational videos that are also entertaining.
We film B-roll (location shots) when we’re out and about or traveling. Then we film the A-roll (narration shots) in our studio after we’ve had time to digest the experience and better plan and prepare for what we want to say.
This pivot in format makes the filming process of sharing information (the education part) a lot more fun for us, which shines through in our playful banter on video (the entertaining part).
Our channel took off when we shifted from vlogs to edutainment. Even though we still get requests to share daily life vlogs, the majority of our audience prefers our new format.
A few words about equipment…
We get a lot of questions about the equipment we use to film our videos. The simple answer is: It doesn’t matter.
For the first 18 months of our channel, we used a fancy, expensive DSLR camera that was recommended by the YouTube gurus at the time.
It was big, bulky, heavy and a battery lasted less than an hour so I had to carry spares and portable chargers. The onboard microphone was subpar so I had to use an external mic, adding to the bulk of the camera.
Plus, my DSLR only had one lens. It was a generic kit lens that was ok for selfie mode, but not great at anything else, especially zoom shots.
Finally, the quality of the footage was only average without a lot of color correction in editing.
That camera was a pain!
After I bought a new iPhone, I decided to test it out by filming an entire video with it. And it was awesome!
My iPhone is lightweight, fits in my pocket and the battery lasts long enough to film an entire video! The onboard microphones (there are multiple) work great, even in windy conditions, so I don’t need an external mic.
I eventually bought a DJI Osmo Mobile 6 Smartphone Gimbal to help me keep the camera steady during pan shots and while walking. And we bought a lightbox and an LED backlight here in Ecuador for our home studio.
If you’re just getting started with YouTube, equipment doesn’t really matter. A lot of people think they need fancy equipment and procrastinate until they can afford an expensive camera. Don’t make that mistake.
Just use your mobile phone and get started today.
Step 3: Promote your channel
We were TERRIFIED when we pressed publish on our first video!
Here are a few what-ifs that went through our minds:
- What if no one likes it?
- What if people hate it?
- What if we get a bunch of troll comments?
- What if everyone tells us what we said is wrong?
- What if no one watches it?
Of all these doubts, the only one that came to fruition was: No one watched it!
All of our other fears were a pointless waste of time because when you publish your first video, YouTube won’t recommend it to anyone so the only views will come from the family and friends who follow you on your other social media accounts.
Promote Your Videos to Friends and Family
Share your videos on social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. to increase visibility.
Off-platform promotion is critical during the first couple of months of your channel until YouTube recommendations start kicking in.
Start a Blog
If we had it to do over again, I would start a blog on WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium to grow an audience before starting a YouTube channel.
We have two lost years that I wish were documented, from the time we decided to move abroad until we published our first video.
Plus, the audience we would have built during that time would have been a nice boost for our YouTube channel after we launched it.
You can also collaborate with other content creators to reach new audiences. We’ve done a few video collabs with other YouTubers but didn’t get much benefit from them.
The trick is finding other channels with a similar-sized audience and a similar niche. Channels that are a lot larger aren’t interested in doing a collab with a small channel because they take a lot of time to create and that time is better spent on other tasks that will have a larger impact.
The other challenge with collabs is that if you are in a similar niche, there’s a good chance you have a similar audience that already knows about both channels. Again, collabs are a lot of work so your time might be better spent creating more engaging content.
We did a collab with Sara and Luca from Leave Everything And Wander. We only had 2,500 subscribers at the time and they had 25,000. They were in Cuenca on their van life tour of the Americas and asked us to meet up for a quick impromptu collab so it was pretty easy to create.
After we each posted our videos featuring each other, we gained about 125 new subscribers and they gained about 250. Even though they had 10 times more subscribers, they somehow benefited more from the collab than we did.
We also did collabs with two other channels that stopped posting and are now dead. That’s another risk of doing a collab with a small channel: they might not stick with it and then you have a video on your channel about another channel that doesn’t exist anymore.
Even after 300+ videos, we still promote every video we publish on our other social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Patreon. This helps drive views early in the publish cycle, which increases recommendations.
Step 4: Optimize your videos for YouTube recommendations
Most of our views and subscriber growth have come from YouTube recommendations, not search.
Clickable May Work Better than Searchable
The size of the audience for people thinking about moving to Ecuador is surprisingly small.
Some people do the research, decide not to move to Ecuador, and then stop watching our videos. Others eventually move to Ecuador and then stop watching our videos because they live here and don’t need us anymore.
The vast majority of our viewers watch our videos because they enjoy the educational and entertaining content we share.
I shared a YouTube poll a while back to help us determine how many of our subscribers are planning a move to Ecuador. Only 30% of the voters said they are thinking about moving to Ecuador. The other 70% just like watching our videos.
If we optimized our videos for search, we would have missed out on 70% of our audience who weren’t searching for our content.
Instead, we try to choose interesting topics that have a broad audience appeal. Then we create titles and thumbnails that are clickable (not clickbait – more on that below) so that a broader audience is inspired to click and watch.
It’s Ok to Copy Concepts
We often study successful channels in our niche and create videos on similar topics. The topic for our second most viewed video came directly from a top-performing video on The Nomadic Movement.
Their video was titled, “THE REAL REASONS WE LEFT THE USA and moved to Panama.” I titled our video, “THE REAL REASONS WE LEFT THE USA (and why we can’t move back).” I even created a similar thumbnail concept.
When I borrowed (stole?) the idea for that topic, their video had over 100K views, which was WAY more views than any video we had ever created. Their video now has 175K views as I write this. Our video has over 460K views and it’s 2 months younger.
They also had over 100K subscribers at the time. We only had 8,000. This video put us on the YouTube map, and the entire concept was copied from a more successful channel.
Why do you think our copied topic video did so much better than the original? Is the “(and why we can’t move back)” in the title more clickable than “and moved to Panama?” Let me know what you think in the comments.
Our “reverse culture shock” video is currently our most-watched video with over half a million views. Guess what? We stole that idea, too! But we’re not the only ones. It’s a popular video concept and lots of other YouTubers make the exact same video. And they all get viewed!
You don’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel. Look at bigger, more successful channels in your niche and copy the concepts from their best videos, but make them your own.
Engagement Increases Recommendations
Engagement typically refers to actions that users take on your videos, like clicking the like or dislike buttons, sharing, subscribing, or posting a comment. However, view duration, audience retention, and session duration are also forms of engagement.
Your goal should be to maximize all forms of engagement on your videos, which means you need to increase video quality to boost average view duration and return viewership, as well as inspire likes, subscribes, shares, and comments.
Remember to encourage your viewers to subscribe and engage with your videos, especially after a high-value part of your video, such as when you say something important or funny.
At the end of your video, use an End Screen Element to showcase a specific video and pitch it to the viewer to watch next. This will not only increase the views on your channel, but also increases viewer session duration, which increases recommendations.
Step 5: Monetize your channel with multiple income streams
Our first income stream was Patreon, which is a membership platform that allows your viewers to support your content creation in exchange for some exclusive benefits.
Patreon and other member platforms like Buy Me A Coffee have their own set of challenges and nuances, so I’ll write a different article about them later.
Over time, we enabled YouTube ads, and we added video sponsors, eCourse sales, and affiliate income to our revenue streams.
Here is the revenue percentage breakdown for each of our income streams (as of April 2023):
- 45% – eCourse Sales
- 20% – Patreon
- 20% – YouTube Ad Revenue
- 10% – Brand Sponsors
- 5% – Affiliates
If we started a new channel today, we would prioritize affiliates, which is what we’re doing now. Some creators earn more than half of their income from affiliates. The key is choosing high-dollar items to recommend, or services with a recurring affiliate commission.
Other potential income sources include merchandise sales, coaching, and consulting services.
Step 6: Learn from your mistakes
You’re going to make a lot of mistakes as you learn how to record, edit, and publish videos on YouTube. The creators who succeed learn and adapt quickly from those mistakes.
Less Is More, Quality Is Better
Sticking to our initial posting schedule of three videos per week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) was challenging. Reducing it to one video per week allowed us to better manage our time and create higher-quality content.
Video Editing Is a Necessary Evil
I despise video editing. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but it’s necessary.
Learning how to edit videos quickly without sacrificing quality was a significant hurdle. We started our YouTube channel with Camtasia Studio, but I found it very limiting.
Later, I switched to Adobe Premiere Pro, which is a much more robust editing package, but it has several of its own issues. The monthly license is also expensive.
If I had it to do over again, I would test out several other editing packages to see if any are better and/or cheaper. However, now that I’m used to Premiere, I don’t want to invest the time to learn a new system.
Clickbait vs. Legitbait
There’s a fine line between Legitbait and Clickbait, and creating clickable titles and thumbnails without resorting to clickbait is a challenge we still face.
Each time you post a video, it must compete with thousands of other videos for clicks. That means your title and thumbnail need to stand out and inspire people to click, but the video needs to deliver on the promise.
Clickbait is a term used to indicate that a title and thumbnail are clickable, but the video is either not relevant or not good enough to keep the viewer watching.
This leads to a high click-through-rate (CTR), but a low average view duration (AVD). The YouTube algorithm is fast at figuring this out and will stop recommending your video if it has a high CTR and a low AVD.
Legitbait is a term used to indicate that a title and thumbnail are clickable, but also deliver a high-quality video that is relevant and keeps the viewer watching. This leads to a high or above-average CTR and a typical or higher than usual AVD. When this happens, the algorithm will recommend your video to even more people and that’s when it goes viral.
We constantly tweak and improve our titles and thumbnails to make them more clickable. I usually create 3 to 5 title/thumbnail concepts for each video and sometimes it takes more than 10 to find something that clicks (pardon the pun) with our audience.
Our reverse culture shock video took 11 title/thumbnail versions over the course of 9 days before the CTR reached a point that the algorithm started recommending it. On day 8, the video had 23,000 views or roughly 3,000 views per day. On day 9, it had 33,000 views (that’s 10,000 views in a single day!). I knew this video should go viral so I kept tweaking the title and thumbnail until it did.
Create Content Your Audience Wants to Watch
To achieve success, we focused on producing videos our audience wanted to watch, rather than videos we wanted to create.
This is a common mistake we see on a lot of small YouTube channels that never learn from this mistake. They let their egos or personal preferences dictate the content they create, rather than looking at the analytics to see what their audience wants to watch.
You can’t force your audience to watch something just because you think they should. Instead, create the content they are eager to watch.
If you’re not willing to do that, then your channel growth will be limited, as well as your income potential. If that’s ok with you, then by all means, continue creating content for yourself rather than your audience.
Viewer Requests May Not Get Views
You’ll often hear that you should create content based on viewer feedback. The gurus will recommend using polls to gauge topic interest or asking viewers to request topics for future videos in the comments.
This seems like good advice, but we’ve found that a loud minority of viewers request videos about topics that only a small percentage of our audience watches. That means we’ve put time, energy, and money into creating videos, based on solid viewer feedback, that didn’t get viewed.
Instead, it’s far better to base topic choices on previous videos that performed well on your channel, and on other channels. Base your content decisions on the analytics, not topic requests.
Step 7: Use YouTube Analytics to improve video views
Understanding your YouTube Analytics is key to growing your channel. Monitor CTR, views, and audience retention to identify areas for improvement. Use these insights to create more engaging content, optimize your video titles and thumbnails, and attract more viewers.
You may notice that I omitted subscribers as a valuable analytic. That’s because you’ll monitor it daily anyway, even though it’s a vanity metric and doesn’t offer much in terms of valuable insight.
The most important metrics are CTR, views, and audience retention. Your goal is to create titles and thumbnails that lead to a high CTR and views, while also creating videos that lead to high audience retention, mainly average percentage viewed (APV).
With that said, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about APV unless it’s REALLY bad and YouTube gives you a clickbait warning message. We try to create videos that get at least a 50% APV, but most of our top-performing videos have an average percentage viewed of less than 35%.
Step 8: Plan and maintain a consistent posting schedule
Some channels post daily or multiple times a week, while others find success with a weekly, biweekly, or monthly schedule.
The key is to find a balance between consistency and quality. Posting too often can lead to burnout and a drop in content quality while posting too infrequently can cause your channel to lose momentum.
We now post a video once per week on average. Sometimes we post videos for 3 weeks and host a live stream the 4th week just to give ourselves a break. We also use the gap to get ahead on our recordings or work on other streams of income for the business.
We plan our video posting schedule 4 to 8 weeks out using a shared Google calendar. This allows us to make recording plans and keep track of our upcoming videos.
Sometimes we make adjustments to our schedule to insert videos about trending topics from the news or on other YouTube channels. Having a plan is important, but so is being flexible to current events.
Posting consistently is crucial to the success of your channel because if you miss too many cycles, your audience will tune out and the YouTube algorithm will punish your recommendations.
We watched a channel that posted multiple videos per week and then decided to take 3 months off. Two years after they started posting again, their views still have not recovered from that hiatus. We’ve never taken more than 2 weeks off.
Step 9: Learn from successful channels
Study channels that have already achieved success in your niche. Analyze their content, presentation style, and engagement strategies. Apply their best practices to your own channel to accelerate your growth.
We monitor about a dozen channels in our niche to see what videos perform well for them and which ones do not. We also use Socialblade.com to track views and subscribers on other channels, especially when our views are down.
In February and March of 2023, our views dropped significantly. At first, we were freaking out and wondering what we had done wrong. Then we checked the views on other channels in our niche and noticed they were all down about the same percentage as ours.
Knowing we were not the only channel experiencing a sharp decline made us feel better (misery loves company?) and helped us make more rational topic decisions.
Step 10: Engage with your audience
Respond to comments, answer questions, and ask your audience for feedback about the videos you’re creating. Engaging with your audience creates loyalty and community so they keep coming back to watch more of your videos.
Avoid getting defensive or disrespectful when engaging with your audience. Remember, not all feedback will be positive, but it’s crucial to remain professional and open-minded. Easier said than done, I know.
It’s okay to block users who are disrespectful or abusive. Building a loyal community requires maintaining a healthy environment for interaction and fostering a sense of connection with your viewers.
During our first several years of YouTubing, we tried to respond to every single comment. As our views and engagement increased, it became more difficult to respond to everyone. Plus, we started building a business around our YouTube channel so we have less time available to respond to comments.
Try to respond to every comment until your channel reaches a point where it takes more than 30 minutes a day to respond to everyone. At that point, you may decide to respond for the first hour or two after you post a new video, and then spot check the comments after that.
Step 11: Stay up-to-date with YouTube trends and updates
Keep yourself informed about YouTube’s latest trends, features, and best practices.
Stay up-to-date with YouTube’s Creator Academy, Creator Insider channel, and other resources to make the most of the platform and stay ahead of the competition.
Step 12: Experiment with new content ideas
Don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment with your content. Test different video formats, topics, and styles to see what resonates with your audience.
We’ve changed video formats several times over the years. Some worked and others didn’t. We adapted and moved on.
The topics we choose are a constant experiment to see what gets views. We do our best to choose topics based on what has worked well before, but sometimes even those fall flat and we pivot again.
By continually refining your content, you’ll keep your channel fresh and engaging.
Step 13: Invest in your channel’s growth and network with other creators
As your channel grows, consider investing in better equipment (especially lighting), software, and even hiring professionals like video editors and graphic designers.
We have a video editor now who works part-time for us. She also does a lot of other business and content tasks.
We also used VidChops for a while and we still recommend them for top 10 list-style videos. They didn’t do a great job on our vlogs, so we stopped using them before we changed to our current format.
Attending YouTube conferences and networking events can also be invaluable for forging connections with other creators, learning from their experiences, and staying updated on industry trends.
This is the biggest mistake we made during our early days on YouTube: We didn’t network with other content creators. I wrote an entire article about this mistake over on Medium: How Operating In a Vacuum Cost Us Thousands of Dollars per Month.
Step 14: Stay persistent and patient, like Mr. Beast
Growing a successful YouTube channel takes time and dedication. Be prepared for setbacks and challenges, and stay persistent in your efforts.
Remember that success won’t happen overnight. For example, Mr. Beast posted videos for several years before gaining significant attention and now he has millions of subscribers.
We posted 3 videos per week for 4 months before we got our first 100 subscribers. It took us 8 months to reach 1,000 subscribers. We made a lot of dumb mistakes that handicapped our growth, but we stuck with it and now we have a successful YouTube channel that generates 6 figures a year in income.
Most successful YouTubers just stuck with it longer than everyone else. Persistence and perseverance may be more important than talent.
Step 15: Achieve balance in your personal life
Taking time for personal growth and self-care is essential for maintaining a fresh perspective.
We read in the mornings, take long walks every day to discuss plans and ideas, and prioritize healthy eating and exercise.
We also try to take a vacation and turn off our devices for a week at least once per year.
It’s important to step back from the business to recharge and stay motivated so you think of new ideas and don’t burn out.
Building a successful YouTube channel to support your expat lifestyle isn’t easy, but with dedication, persistence, and the right strategies, you can certainly do it. If we can, so can you.
By following our step-by-step guide, you’ll be well on your way to creating a channel that supports your freedom lifestyle and allows you to share your unique experiences with the world.
Grab the Move Abroad Checklist!
PLUS, you'll get a bunch of other free perks we think you'll enjoy!