How This YouTuber Used Language Tutorials to Get More Than 70 Million Views
In 2009, when YouTube was just beginning, Rachel Smith was an American living in Germany and doing her best to learn a new language -- and commiserating with fellow expats and locals who were doing the same.
With the encouragement of a friend who told her she had a knack for explaining a complex language in a straightforward way, she decided to make her first video.
Smith had experience singing in German, French, Italian and Spanish, and she also had a background teaching ESL since the late 1990s. Armed with that knowledge, she decided to make her first video about American English pronunciation and see what kind of response she got.
Nearly a decade later, Smith’s dedication has turned her videos into a thriving business that helps people all over the world learn English. She has made more than 400 videos, which have gotten more than 55 million views. In September 2017, her channel, Rachel's English, reached a major milestone and hit 1 million subscribers.
In addition to her videos, Smith also runs an online subscription-only academy for intermediate to advanced English learners who want to boost their conversation skills.
Smith shared her insights about how to grow your brand in a vertical that might be off the beaten track.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start with YouTube?
I was living in Germany 10 years ago and I was studying foreign language. I was hanging out with other people who were studying German from all over the world, and one friend from Turkey was interested also in American English because Hollywood is such a great exporter of it. I was giving them a couple of tips, and he said you're really good at that. And I just thought, [I could explore this]. I really didn't have a big plan going in. I started posting some basic videos and it grew from there. The idea and the concept very much grew over time.
How much of your time do you spend on a video and what does that entail?
I used to say 10 hours per video. It's a little less now because I hire some people to do part of the video editing, for example. But the main thing really is coming up with the concept. Sometimes I'll get an idea as I'm teaching somebody and I'll think, I've explained this now to five different students. Let's make a meaningful video about it. Or it might be a student who has asked me a question comparing a couple of words that are tricky for them.
A couple of years ago I decided to do a five-part series where a friend of mine and I put together a mock interview for a job and we just discussed what kinds of questions you might get asked. There's American culture in there as well and how we talk about ourselves, how we might answer them, how someone could prepare for an interview.
How do you leverage your YouTube channel and to what extent do you monetize it?
There's a direct monetization with YouTube ads. But in my case my vertical isn't lucrative enough and my views aren't high enough for that to be my sole income. The channel is big enough to support giving somebody adding value and asking them to sign up for something. I have an online school and it's a monthly subscription. That has really done well for me.
I also wrote a book two and a half years ago and it's still selling surprisingly well. It's a digital thing that I self-published but that is how I leveraged the audience. It's not like I hold back from my YouTube channel, because I absolutely don't. Someone who would not have the means to purchase anything from me could still learn basically everything that they would need to know. But then there are people who want more help, more organization, more personal guidance and more training materials. That's where my supplemental stuff comes in.
What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
The [earlier you have an] idea for your brand and who you are trying to talk to, the better. I didn't really do that. Mine started out experimental, and also YouTube was not so well established as a place where you could build a brand at that time. Know who you're talking to and then talk directly to them. People are not interested in seeing a stiff, this-is-how-this-should-be kind of delivery. On YouTube, people want personal.
Be as personal and natural as you possibly can and as creative as you can with what you're showing. If you're teaching, sure you could do it in front of a white background, but what are you talking about? If you're talking about food, could you go into your kitchen? Just try to visually engage because that's also why we watch video. And then be as professional as you can with your equipment. You can shoot great video on an iPhone and Android. So it's not hard if you do a tiny bit of experimentation with lighting to get really professional looking stuff.
What's a misconception many people have about YouTube?
There are two. One is that if you make videos people are going to watch them. A lot of content is out there and is barely watched it all. But the other thing is that very few people grow very quickly. I had an ESL teacher email me saying she was going to start a channel and was hoping to quit her job so that she could be at home with her kids and make videos in the evening. I [told her] that it took me five years on YouTube to be able to quit my job and I'm still working full time.
It was just sort of a misconception of how long it might take to build that groundwork. If you are making full-time income on YouTube, trust me, you are working full time. It's awesome because it's flexible and I would never complain about the amount of work that it takes, but I think people think making videos doesn't take that long. That's not true and that's just a small part of what a content creator does.