16 min read
Ali Abdaal never set out to build a huge audience on YouTube.
In fact, when Ali uploaded his first vlog in mid-2017, he simply wanted to document his final year at Cambridge—and maybe have some fun along the way.
“I sort of had in the back of my mind that one day, maybe if it goes really well and I get really lucky, then it could be big, but I had absolutely no idea that it would get this huge.” – Ali Abdaal
His audience, though, had other plans. By March of 2018, he had attracted 5,000 subscribers—mostly other doctoral students following his highly-niche videos about studying and medicine.
After a year spent learning the ropes of video editing, Ali graduated into a full-time job as a doctor—and at the same time, began branching out into more general video topics.
His subscriber count exploded.
Now, three years later, Ali's YouTube channel boasts over 930,000 subscribers, and Ali is now taking a break from medicine to travel the world and kind of explore other interests.
Ali's immense subscriber growth comes down to a careful (if sometimes accidental) balance of deeply understanding his target audience, creating engaging content that they love, and promoting that content across both YouTube and a range of different platforms.
I reached out to Ali hoping to get some advice for helping new creators get more subscribers on YouTube. He was kind enough to share insights he's gleaned from growing his own channel across three main areas: audience, content, and promotion.
Let's dive in!
Attracting an audience of viewers who not only watch your videos, but actively seek out new content you share is the single most important element for budding YouTubers.
Getting more subscribers is important because it gives you a greater chance of getting your videos in front of more of those viewers—the ones who will spread the word about your channel and help you grow.
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Ali shared some great tips to help new YouTubers define, find and attract the right people:
“If you're a new YouTuber just starting out, almost no one is going to watch a video about 10 productivity tips,” Ali explains. Wide-ranging topics like productivity might be popular—but not many people are searching YouTube for generic productivity tips, and you'll end up competing with thousands of other YouTubers for your audience's attention.
“Until the audience feels like your content is valuable, they won't follow your personal stuff.” – Ali Abdaal
Especially when you're just starting to grow your channel, Ali recommends targeting a very niche audience, sticking to just a few main topics of interest to that audience. Ali was already marketing his online course business 6med targeted at medical students, so he began making videos that included tips on studying and memorization for the audience of medical students he was hoping to attract.
While these videos certainly weren't of interest to everyone, he quickly attracted a small base of subscribers who were interested in the content he shared. “That's the formula that works—start off really niche until you get a following of people who actually care.”
Once you start attracting a solid subscriber base, you can experiment with different topics and formats, just as Ali has done with his videos on technology and productivity.
Pro tip: Run each new video idea through some basic YouTube SEO keyword research and optimization to maximize your chances of getting seen!
The YouTube algorithm rewards videos with high engagement by listing them higher in search results. The more likes, comments, and shares your videos receive, the more likely your audience will see them.
Getting your audience involved with your channel helps them feel like an integral part of the show. Feeling included boosts the chances they'll engage with your videos, pushing your content up the rankings—and attracting even more subscribers.
The best YouTubers know that publishing a new video means the hard work is only just beginning. Engage with your audience in the comments—answer people's questions, or ask a few questions of your own to prompt a discussion. You can also ask your audience what kinds of content they want to see in your videos, then use their responses as inspiration for new video topics.
Another great way to engage with your audience is to share Q&A-style videos, a tactic Ali has used multiple times to grow his audience. Whenever Ali hits a new subscriber milestone, he'll post a lengthy video where he answers audience questions about himself, his work, and his channel.
It's a great way to grow your channel and make your subscribers feel like they're part of the action.
Now you have a clear idea of who you're trying to reach with your videos, you need to create content that grabs their attention and gets them excited about subscribing.
Without entertaining, engaging, and informative videos, getting more YouTube subscribers will feel like a constant uphill battle. Find the right blend of topics, editing, and story, though, and you'll find yourself attracting an audience in no time.
Coming up with ideas, sharing videos on a regular schedule, and maintaining a consistent brand across your channel sounds like a lot of work—but Ali shared a few easy suggestions for keeping your content in check.
“In the early days of the channel, I was kind of worried about what was going to happen when I ran out of things to talk about,” Ali recalls. Fortunately, he was able to create a few systems to ensure writer's block (YouTuber's block?) never became a problem.
“Anytime I come up with an idea,” Ali explains, “usually, for example, while I'm driving or while I'm in the shower, I will do my very best to write it down as soon as I can. I have this video ideas database in Notion—we've got a hundred and something ideas in there at the moment.”
Whether you're creating YouTube videos, blog posts, or any other type of content, make a habit of writing down your ideas as soon as they hit you. Your ideas list can be in a digital tool like Ali, or a physical notebook—just make sure it's something that travels everywhere with you, so you can jot down new ideas immediately. Even just a couple of short bullet points can be enough to jog your memory when you return later to plan your videos.
When the time comes to plan your next round of content, flip open your list, and you'll never run out of content ideas again.
Pro tip: When coming up with new video ideas, think about how you could expand those ideas even further “When I'm coming up with a new video topic,” Ali explains, “I don't just think ‘OK, this would make for a good video,' I think ‘What sort of video series can we make out of this concept?'”
Back when Ali first began growing his YouTube channel, he shared a blog post about the Parable of the Pottery Class. In the post, he tells the story of the pottery teacher who split his class in two groups—one group was asked to make a new pot every day for 30 days, and the second group had to work on one single pot throughout the 30 days.
Surprisingly, the highest-quality posts came from the group who focused on quantity over quality—and it's a lesson Ali has applied to his YouTube channel since the beginning.
He knew when starting his channel that his first 100 videos would not be excellent, so he aimed to get those first 100 videos out of the way as soon as possible, honing his storytelling and video editing skills along the way.
Ali's plan worked wonders. His first video that really took off was a video sharing tips on how to study for exams—it was also one of the first videos he published after breaking the 100-video milestone. “When I released the video about how to study for exams, I thought that that has the potential to maybe go big because it's an interesting topic and I knew a lot about it and I knew I could make a good video about it. But I didn't want that to be my first video or my tenth video, I wanted it to be like my 101st video.”
“I've found that by focusing on quantity, it developed the habit of video editing and it improved my video editing skills over time, and the quality naturally came out of that.” – Ali Abdaal
Pro tip: Be patient. Improving your skills and growing your subscribers takes time—even for successful YouTubers like Ali.
“The whole process of building up the channel, I think it took about nine months from starting the channel to releasing that video. The channel started in June, 2017 and I released that video in April, 2018.”
Try to create a consistent publishing schedule you can maintain—for example, one new video each week—and stick to it.
Getting your videos to stand out amongst more than 31 million YouTube channels isn't easy. Subscribers should instantly recognize videos from your channel—without even needing to see who uploaded them.
Now I'm not suggesting you add high-quality special effects, intro music, or other highlights to your videos. With a few simple tips, though, you can start creating videos that are instantly recognizable—and help grow your subscriber base.
First, ensure all your videos are filmed in a similar style and format. Consistency builds trust, so maintaining a similar feel across all your videos will quickly boost your subscribers. For example, many of Ali's videos are filmed at his desk, talking directly to the camera:
“What I like about YouTube is that it seems to value authenticity. Up until I started, I never really realized you could just sit down and talk to a camera.” – Ali Abdaal
Next, make your videos easy to digest. Break lengthy videos into segments, and use timestamps in your video content and descriptions to help viewers navigate to different sections of the video. Ali adds animated timestamp overlays to many of his videos, using the same style in each video to maintain consistency.
Those small changes keep your videos consistent, helping to build trust with new viewers and keeping subscribers coming back for more.
Pro tip: Set a custom thumbnail for each of your videos, and match your thumbnails to your video style. Ali uses screencaps from his videos (often with a descriptive text overlay) so viewers instantly know which videos in their feed are from his channel.
Knowing your audience and creating captivating videos will get you most of the way towards growing your YouTube channel—but you'll still need to spend time promoting your videos and getting them in front of potential subscribers.
Yes, YouTube's algorithm will shoulder some of the burden for you by surfacing your videos in search results. But since channels often don't rank as highly as their more established counterparts, you need to take an active role in encouraging viewers to watch more of your content—and hopefully subscribe.
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Since starting his channel, Ali has picked up a few useful tips on promoting YouTube videos without becoming impatient.
If you've watched any number of YouTube videos, you'll doubtlessly come across someone enthusiastically asking you to subscribe at the end of their videos. According to Ali, though, this tactic isn't necessary.
“For the first two years,” Ali told me, “I used to end my videos by saying ‘If you liked the video, give it a thumbs-up or subscribe.' After I started learning more about the YouTube algorithm, I learned there's actually very little point in asking people to subscribe to your channel because it's not like the olden days of YouTube where people need to be told how to think.”
The YouTube algorithm tends to snowball videos with good engagement and high watch time. That means you don't need to ask people to subscribe, or include a stock outro—instead, Ali recommends pushing viewers towards other videos and playlists on your channel to maximize watch time.
“All you want to be doing at the end of your video is walking people to another playlist of videos that they can then watch on their own. You want to end the video before they realize it's ended by saying, ‘So that was what we learned about this, if you want to learn more click on the video over here, where I talk more about that.'” – Ali Abdaal
Increasing watch time will naturally push your videos up in search rankings, exposing your channel to more potential subscribers.
Pro tip: Don't rely on YouTube's feed as your only source of subscribers. Ali cross-promotes his channel outside of YouTube through his blog, Instagram feed, and his email newsletter—he also regularly collaborates with other YouTubers on videos and podcast episodes to expand his audience even further.
Particularly for new YouTubers, it's difficult to avoid comparing your channel and subscriber count to more successful peers. Unfortunately, though, comparison is the enemy of success—it can leave you feeling demoralized and disappointed when you've barely begun.
“If you're just starting out and you're looking at someone with a million subscribers, then the path between you and them is just so astronomically huge that you don't see any worlds in which it can be met. Like if I played tennis against Roger Federer, you know, there's such a huge gulf in our ability, I'm not going to have the motivation to improve.” – Ali Abdaal
You don't need a huge subscriber count to be successful. Even Ali grew his audience one member at a time when he first started sharing videos.
Instead, Ali suggests sticking to goals you can control—for example, the number of new videos you're creating each week. Avoiding goals outside of your control (like the number of new subscribers you're attracting) will help you stay motivated and keep sharing videos. And the more videos you share, the more your subscriber base will continue to grow.
“There's a line from some American football coach,” Ali explains, “that James Clear quotes in Atomic Habits—I think his name is Bill Walsh. He says that ‘The score takes care of itself.' Like it would be absurd to spend the whole game looking at the scoreboard. What you need to do is just focus on playing the game. And if you play the game and enjoy the game, then the score takes care of itself.”
Ali's biggest piece of advice for new creators trying to get more YouTube subscribers?
Enjoy the process.
“It's like Miley Cyrus says: it ain't about how fast I get there, it ain't about what's waiting on the other side. It's the climb and it's the journey that's the fun part.”
Having an email list is the best way to stay connected with your YouTube subscribers. While YouTube sends notifications to your channel subscribers when you upload a new video, you can't just forget about all the viewers who never actually subscribe. And what happens when you're ready to pitch an upcoming product?
Sending your content directly to your subscriber's inbox is the best way to keep their attention, show off your expertise, and build a meaningful relationship. And the easiest way to start building an email list is by creating a free landing page with ConvertKit (you can link this page in the description of your YouTube videos, your Instagram bio, and more!)
Watch the video below to see how to create a customized landing page in just minutes! But the best part? You can do it for Free.