Future Neighbor is all about Korean home cooking. My girlfriend (Katie) and I launched this channel in Dec 2016 with the mission to teach the broader international community how to cook Korean dishes. For each recipe, we typically spend a few days (sometimes weeks) to A/B test ingredients, standardize measurements and identify key taste variables. We then film a concise walk-through of the recipe.
Before going to bed, I liked to watch cooking videos on Youtube. (A good way to virtually “binge” without the calories.) Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay in particular. They do a fantastic job in breaking down Italian and Western recipes, making the dishes look so approachable. But what about Korean food? I saw a need for Korean (and Asian) cuisine to be taught in a similar way: reduce complexity, standardize measurement sizes and most importantly, inject some fun into the learning process.
Good question. Future Neighbor’s subscriber base can be split into two groups. The smaller group is made of home cooks who actually try out our recipes at home. I think they subscribe because they like the simplicity of the recipes. The second (larger) group is made of passive viewers who are simply interested in learning how Korean dishes are made. I think they subscribe because of our personalities/persona.
I spent the last five years in a management consulting firm, specializing in corporate strategy and new business development. My team worked closely with the executive teams of international companies to develop and renew business strategy, both at the corporate and business unit level.
Before the strategy work, I also spent time advising consumer-tech startups from the US and Asia. I worked closely with marketing managers to help optimize their user acquisition channels and campaigns. This involved setting up data analytics tools (i.e. customer signup), A/B testing ads, tracking performance and iteratively distributing ad spends. I thoroughly enjoyed this work as you can receive immediate feedback and validation of your ideas from the market.
After five years, I had enough of the consulting industry. I got bored of solving other people’s problems and decided to scratch my own itch(es).
During the last month at my job, I used the Lean Canvas tool to examine 5 startup ideas. After a few weeks of vetting, I ended up crossing out every idea. I could not convince myself that any of the ideas were interesting enough to dedicate the next five years of my life. Instead of rushing into a half-baked idea, I gave myself one year to settle on a startup idea. This would give me mental space and self justification to pursue passion projects, regardless of their business potential. Enter Youtube.
Instinctively, I did a ballpark calculation to see the number of Youtube views required to cover a minimum living expense of $3000/month. Assuming $5 in ad revenue for every 1000 views ($5 CPM rate), I would hypothetically need 600,000 new views every month. I though that figure would be easy – after looking at all of the low-quality videos that had over 1M+ views. (Boy, was I wrong 😂). On the flip side, being naïve helped me to start!
For one reason or another, I made the assumption that Youtube ranking algorithms would operate similarly to Reddit, where newly submitted content get some exposure on the first page of a specific search term and then “decays” to subsequent pages if it does not sustain views. Needless to say, I was wrong. Youtube search algorithms work exactly like Google search results (after all, they are the same company). To get visibility under any search term in Youtube, a new video must already have a large number of views. This made it clear to me that I could not rely on organic discovery within Youtube and I had to promote my videos to external channels.
However, I did not want to bombard all my friends on Facebook with self-promotion posts. After a few hours of brainstorming at Starbucks, I found a “brilliant” hack of using a browser plug-in to refresh my Youtube video every 3 seconds. I thought it would be a sure-shot way to generate enough initial views for my videos to rank in Youtube search results. Surprisingly, the plug-in worked well! I let the program run for 5 minutes and I was ecstatic to see my view count rise from 3 to 63. I remember telling my girlfriend, “We’re going to hit a million views by tomorrow!” I let the program run overnight and I dreamt of Youtube success, an overnight PewDiePie! When I woke up, I immediately logged in and saw a whopping… 185 views 😥. What happened to my million? After some Googling, I learned that Youtube actually froze my view-count. It would remain frozen until I accrued 185 real views.
From this experiment, I learned quickly that Youtube guards its video like real currency. As such, don’t spend time trying to game their system.
In the initial months, I tested traffic from various social media platforms that were popular for cooking content: Instagram, Facebook Groups and Pinterest. However, the traffic volume was disappointingly low across the board. I had high expectations for Facebook Groups but saw that most groups were “zombie groups”. These groups are large but filled with users that rarely upload or engage with posted content.
Instagram fell in the same boat. Plenty of hearts sent our way but the click-thru rate to our Youtube channel (via the profile link) was less than 1%. As such, neither could serve as an sustainable channel.
I then tested link sharing communities like Reddit, Voat, and TopTopic. After a few test posts, I could see that Reddit was an outlier. It proved to be a reliable and effective source for quality traffic. A snapshot of our Future Neighbor’s Analytics page (image below) shows the result of sharing content on Reddit for 6 months: 0 to 120K lifetime views (>2K subscribers) in five months.
While this growth is not “viral”, it was enough to keep us motivated and creating videos. Take a closer look at the chart and you will see that our channel averaged 3-6K views per week. We did this by routinely sharing our new videos across 20 small and medium-sized subreddits. Every week, we would pick 10 subreddits from our list of 20 and submit relevant posts (More on this in the next section).
The large traffic spikes came from posting in one of Reddit’s large subreddits, r/videos. This subreddit alone has over 16M users. In week 11, one of our videos was upvoted to the 2nd page of r/videos and received 33K views in a day. In week 3, another video was upvoted to the 3rd page and received 10K views. A trending post in r/videos provided us with almost 10x the normal volume of views. I am curious to see the impact of making it to the first page of r/videos – perhaps 100K views?
I must also mention that relying on Reddit had an unexpected side-effect. The viewer demographics of Future Neighbor (screenshot below) now closely mirror Reddit’s user base – young males, aged 18-34 years old.
We had expected our fan base to be primarily women. I was positively suprised to see so many young guys taking interest in Korean cooking.
The first step is to use Reddit as a real user. Forget your agenda to self-promote for a few weeks. Join a few *subreddits and begin to routinely comment on posts. This has several benefits: First, you will learn the nuances of a particular subreddit (rules, lingo, popular posts) and thereby increase your chances of submitting relevant content. Second, it will help build Karma Points, which serves as social proof that you are a credible Redditor. Third, it keeps your account activity balanced. If your account activity is filled with self-promotion posts, Redditors will quickly flag your content as spam. After you have developed a habit for commenting, I would incorporate the following steps:
*Tip: If you don’t know which subreddit to start with, try r/AskReddit. Click on the “new tab” and start with the most recent questions. Be the first few to comment on a popular post and increase your chances of getting mass upvotes on your comment. This is an easy way to grow comment Karma Points.
Shortlist a large mix of relevant sub-reddits (>20)
Don’t rely on just a few subreddits as you will eventually be flagged as a spammer. Instead, make a shortlist of at least 20 relevant subreddits. I like to use Snoop-Snoo to search for relevant subreddits under a specific keyword (as Reddit’s search tool is terrible). Each week, pick 10 subreddits from your shortlist and craft engaging posts for each subreddit. Repeat this process and find new subreddits to add to your shortlist.
Prioritize subreddits that allow direct Youtube links
The best-performing subreddits allow link submissions. When readers click the content, your Youtube video plays – leading to a direct conversion from click to view. You should prioritize these subreddits in your shortlist. If a subreddit bans link submissions, get creative! Submit a text, image or GIF post and leave your Youtube link in the comment section.
Look at the data
Ultimately, you want to identify those subreddits that generate lot of views for your Youtube channel. You can do this by cross-posting the same video across multiple subreddits and comparing the number of post views. I did this for six months using a excel-based heatmap tool (screenshot below).
Subreddits are listed on the Y-axis and my Youtube videos are listed on the X-axis. The cells in the matrix track the number of total post views*. Viral posts are colored gold and large-traffic posts are indicated by darker shades of green.
*Note: The cells in the table are showing Karma Points (rather than post views). That is because Reddit only recently (May 2017) allowed Redditors to see the view count of their own posts. I have since switched to tracking post views.
In the heatmap, I also color each subreddit (Y-axis) as either red, green or orange. The colors indicate on which page my latest post is currently ranking. If my latest post is on the first page, it gets labeled red. If it is on the second page, it is orange and anything beyond the third page is a green. This prevents me from re-posting in a subreddit where my content is already trending.
If you would like to try a copy of this excel tool, click here. I am in fact also working on a SaaS version which should automate the data collection and color-coding. If you have any user feedback, let me know!
Our current revenue from Youtube Ads is negligible (~$20/month) and I don’t see that figure dramatically changing in the next few years. To make Future Neighbor a full-time job, we need to find another monetization model. So I have been asking myself another question, “How can we develop true fans?” This question comes from a famous essay by Kevin Kelly called 1000 true fans. In short, Kelly suggests that any creator (including Youtubers) can make a sustainable living if you have only a 1000 “true” fans. A “true” fan is a fan who is willing to buy almost anything you produce. Thus, if you have 1000 fans that would be willing to spend $100, you could hypothetically make an yearly income of $100,000. The numbers can of course be adjusted, but Kelly’s point is that you don’t need millions of subscribers to make a living. Finding a thousand paying fans is enough to fund a full-time Youtube career.
The next question is then, “Does Future Neighbor have true fans?” My gut feeling says very little. But the truth could lie in a experiment. Once we hit 10K subscribers, I am planning to open an account on Patreon, a platform that allows fans to support their favorite creators via monthly subscriptions. I would like to test our fans and ask for support at different contribution levels ($1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100). This experiment would let us know if we have “true” fans that would be willing to pay. I would love to hear from Youtubers who have successfully raised on Patreon.
I used to DJ when I was in high school and I really enjoyed “digging” for samples in vinyl records. For Future Neighbor videos, I now dig for background tunes on SoundCloud. Soundcloud is filled with emerging artists that are looking to share their music. When I find a tune that I like, I email the artist and ask about usage rights for Youtube videos (reference below).
About 4 out of 5 times, emerging artists will allow you to use their music for free – even if your Youtube videos are monetized. They want exposure as much as you do. All they ask if for you to credit them in the comment section of your videos (see below).
In some cases, more well-known artists will request payment to use specific tracks (typically between $1-5/track) or ask you to buy their discography at a discounted price ($15~$30). This is also a good option and far better than stock music.
Try making a sample video with your iPhone. During your first shoot, check how (un)comfortable you feel while filming in public. Is it manageable? Or does it feel unbearable? Getting a feel for this can help scope down your long list of potential Youtube concepts. Initially, I tried doing food reviews at restaurants but I felt way too uncomfortable and did not look forward to filming a second video. So I took it indoors and focused on home-cooking! Do what works for you.
Future Neighbor is new and we have yet to try new video themes like hosting live mukbangs, reviewing weird international fast-food menu items and sampling food trucks in Seoul. With the new themes, I would like to infuse more personality into our short videos. It will be a key ingredient in building loyal fans.