The Watch Journey

Video Creative Director
Published 1/31/19
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You shot a killer video that the whole world needs to see.  You uploaded it to YouTube, anxiously waited a week before you checked your analytics for the stream of validation that surely would descend upon you as you see hundreds, nay, thousands of views rack up.  Your expectations are undoubtedly high -- hundreds of minutes of watch time.  Thousands of followers who will like, share and continue to fill your comment stream with a seemingly endless fount of praise.  And this, THIS video will be what vaults your destination into the stratosphere of YouTube fame as influencers beg to work with you and VidCon books you as one of its keynote speakers.

Except…no one seems to be watching your video.  Your analytics show a pitiful handful of viewers who stopped watching only a few seconds in.  Wah waaaaaaaaah.

What happened?  You did “everything right” from a content perspective – you told a great story, you had amazing footage – so why has your video avoided the limelight and fallen into the proverbial YouTube abyss?  The problem is, you may not have been aware that the Watch Journey begins before the viewer even clicks play.

The Watch Journey is influenced by both human psychology and algorithmic influence (as determined by the platform the content is displayed).  For the purpose of demonstration, I’ll describe the Watch Journey through the lens of YouTube’s platform.  The Watch Journey is comprised of five key components: Discovery, Visual Attraction, Visual Recognition, Content, Call to Action. 

Phase 1 - Discovery

The Discovery phase is how viewers find your video.  Is it even popping-up in search results?  This should be a no-brainer to most seasoned web users but making sure your video has been properly optimized with relevant metadata is essential.  Title, description, thumbnail and relevant keywords should all be included. 

Phase 2 – Visual Attraction

Thumbnails provide visual cues to a possible viewer on what they’re about to watch.  Viewers want to know what to expect before they decide to watch a video, so the quality of your thumbnail can play a major role in attracting viewers to click-thru to your content.  While YouTube offers default thumbnail options for basic users, verified account users have the option of uploading a custom thumbnail.  It is highly recommended that you take advantage of this offering.  In creating a thumbnail, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is in this video?
  • What is this video about?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Does it look like the “best” of this kind of video?

When designing a thumbnail for your video, keep those foundations you learned in Art 101 in mind.  Things like alignment, hierarchy, contrast, balance, etc. can help your thumbnail stand out to potential viewers.  In particular, make sure you’re thinking in terms of scale.  Thumbnails are small, so any visuals or graphics need to work well when scaled-down in size.  Make sure your font choice, color and size are bold enough to still be legible at a smaller size.

Psychologically, people are attracted to faces.  If your video prominently features on-camera talent, pulling a still that features them as subject matter is also a great option.  Look for shots that display clear (positive) emotion and expression.

It’s also important to avoid any misrepresentations or otherwise “click bait-y” thumbnails that deceive a viewer.  The true value of your video is measured in how long your viewer will watch your video, not just how many click-thrus you receive.  To YouTube’s algorithm, Audience Retention > Views.  So, while a click bait-y thumbnail may get you more clicks, you’re likely to see steep drop-offs in viewership very quickly into the content.

Phase 3 – Visual Recognition

Titles should entice the viewer to watch the video while also providing an accurate representation of what the video’s about (again, avoid anything click bait-y).  Viewers want to know what they’re about to watch, use your title as a means of quickly describing what they’re about to see.  Use simple language akin to what a viewer may potentially search for, avoid sesquipedalian loquaciousness.  When appropriate, create intrigue through posing a question (“What are the best Florida beaches? Secret paradises revealed!”), using a list or “Top Ten” format, or incorporating superlatives (“The BEST beachfront accommodations in Florida!”) 

Phase 4 – Content

As described in my previous blog entry on storytelling, telling a great story should be at the forefront when creating any video content.  But, what are the components to a great story that especially appeal to YouTube and other online audiences? 

Early into your story, you should connect with your audience.  Depending on the style and format of your content, this can be done through incorporating engaging talent to help guide the viewer through the story.  Fantastic stories can be told even without a single word being uttered but this can only be done when the viewer feels connected to what you’re trying to convey, by expressing personality and emotion, and this is more easily accomplished by incorporating people into your story.  In the world of destination marketing, we want the viewer to see themselves within the video, enjoying and exploring the destination, in order to hopefully inspire them enough to book a vacation. 

In telling your story, keep in mind that unlike linear television, there aren’t any commercial breaks.  In a variety show or multi-scene format, this is the natural transition that allows for change of scene (or change of segment).  Without this natural transition, a switch in format or subject matter may be jarring to your viewer.  They may lose interest in your content and stop watching.  For instance, if your video starts off as a fun family vacation and then shifts abruptly to wild nightlife, your viewer is going to be confused and may feel that the content is not what they were expecting to watch. This is why you’ll find that many television shows end up breaking up their content into singular segments for YouTube and other online distribution platforms so that there’s consistency in the video from start to finish.  In other words, if the change in scene can’t naturally transition within your storytelling, maybe consider making it its own stand-alone piece of content in order to maintain consistency in the viewing experience. 

Phase 5 – Call-to-Action

At the end of your video, your viewer is presented with the daunting choice of where to proceed next.  If you’re not presenting a clear call-to-action to your viewer, you are missing additional opportunities to keep them engaging with your content.  A call-to-action can be as simple as incorporating branding and website information at the conclusion of your video to direct traffic elsewhere (if that’s your goal).  Via YouTube, you also have the option to incorporate end screens which can be a valuable tool in directing viewers to your channel or other related videos, keeping viewers engaged with your content.

If you do decide to incorporate end screens, smart design decisions should be made.  The same rules of good graphic design still apply as described in the creation of thumbnails.  But, don’t be a cliché.  Avoid what’s known as habituation, something that’s so visually banal that your viewer will simply ignore what you’re asking them to do, a la the ubiquitous “please subscribe!” plea at the end of a video.  Additionally, you want to avoid what’s known as “decision fatigue.”  Quite simply, don’t overwhelm your viewer with too many choices.  Give them 1-3 options that are clearly related to the content that they just watched.  Thus, the watch journey begins anew!

The path that a viewer’s Watch Journey takes is based partially in the sorcery of YouTube’s algorithm and partially on human psychology.  Understanding both systems and how they operate is essential to making smart decisions that will motivate viewers to “click play,” watch the video through, and hopefully act on your desired call-to-action.  In the next installment, we’ll dive into some YouTube best practices that should help you harness the power of YouTube’s algorithm.

(Source: Matthew Patrick aka “MatPat,” keynote speaker at VidCon 2018 – “Psychology of the Watch Journey” https://www.youtube.com/user/MatthewPatrick13)