Cracking the YouTube code

In the video above, Josh, Michael, Duncan and Ben thank viewers for helping us break above 50,000 subscribers on our YouTube channel, The Compound. Below, Josh explains how we got here and what’s coming next. 

In February of 2018, after years of people suggesting we do so, I finally put up a channel for our firm on YouTube. We had just moved into our own office space the month before and were finally situated so that we had a place to film stuff. The office itself was colloquially referred to as “The Compound” and compounding people’s wealth is our life’s work, so the double entrendre worked beautifully as a name for the channel.

We began working with an outside video consultant who was coming in once a week to help us translate our written content from the blogs into something visual and entertaining to watch. This was harder to do than we had thought. There was no budget for equipment and we spent the bare minimum on editing software. He helped us create a few show formats – an interview series called Talk Your Book, a live, candid discussion among RWM staffers called Live From The Compound and, of course, our hit show What Are Your Thoughts.

We were having fun and learning the ropes for awhile but then frustration set in. We would see the kind of jokey, absurdist and even criminal content that passed for financial information on YouTube and watch in amazement as it racked up big traffic and viewership numbers. The most popular financial videos seemed to be filled with liars, frauds, people animating Warren Buffett quotes, crypto lunacy, motivation speakers recording from their parents’ homes, guys counting out hundred dollar bills on the hoods of Lamborghinis and Dave Ramsey. There are lots of venture capital-driven channels with great content on them, but that’s not quite the same thing. Same with the real estate flippers – not quite financial advice. Then there are plenty of channels where a monotone trader dude talks over a screenshot of some blurry charts on his desktop. The bearish newsletter cartel are well-represented on YouTube but they’re not financial advisors, they’re gold coin spokespeople. Then you have the currency traders, the binary options psychos and the forex thieves.

The paradox of Finance YouTube is that the more nicely produced a video is, the more likely it is to be affiliated with a product or service that’s going to be harmful to the viewers. Taking advantage of people’s fear and greed is highly profitable, which means bigger audio/video production budgets. Offering education, common sense and perspective is a little more of a long term bet and much less lucrative in the short term. So the lighting and sets aren’t as good 🙁

There are a dozen or so financial advisors on YouTube, and some of it is good, but no one’s watching. Most of it is poorly lit or overly promotional or boring, even if the message is valuable. In 2020, it’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it. Jeff Rose was the best financial advisor on YouTube before he quit to become a full-time influencer.

A handful of the large wirehouse firms and online brokers have made a stab at YouTube, but what they’re producing ends up looking like either a fake newscast or an infomercial. They literally have their analysts or executives sitting at news desks, as though it’s a real television show and they are anchors. This is what’s referred to as a skeuomorph – like when the desktop icon on a computer for storage is a picture of a filing cabinet, or someone puts a rotary dial screen on their iPhone. There’s not a lot of creativity or authenticity, so it’s men in suits and women in pearls reading teleprompter remarks to each other awkwardly for 30 minutes, followed by 2 or 3 viewer comments posted below, usually advertising protein shakes.

We never had any doubt that we could leapfrog everyone and do video well – it was obvious that most people were doing it wrong. We just hadn’t figured out how to do it right yet.

When my consultant got offered a full-time technology job, I knew it was time to make a real investment and take our efforts to the next level. I interviewed 25 candidates, more than half of them in person, after going through the online portfolios of over a hundred applicants for the role of in-house video producer at Ritholtz Wealth Management. I didn’t know where to begin. There weren’t any other firms in the industry who I could ask about hiring internal A/V production folks, because we’re basically inventing this whole thing as we go.

The video production people who came in were all over the map. It’s not like hiring an accountant, where all the applicants basically have the same set of skills and knowledge base. Video people come in having done millions of things – from shooting commercials to filming weddings to making TV shows and movies to cutting corporate video brochures and product guides. And since none of them have ever worked at a financial services firm, and very few financial services firms have ever hired anyone like them, it was a bit of a learning curve for us to even conduct the interviews themselves.

But when we met Duncan Hill, he had set himself apart from the crowd. Duncan was teaching film at a college in Virginia and hadn’t done anything quite like what we were going to attempt. But he was the only applicant who was familiar with us prior to seeing the job posting. Duncan was a fan of the content itself. He knew exactly what was needed for our channel to be successful and was ready to move himself up to New York City in order to do it. That combination of expertise, drive, awareness of our brand and risk-taking made him a perfect fit for us. Duncan came in and every single metric we track exploded as a result of his talent and dedication.

Everything got a quality upgrade – the lighting, the microphones, the recorders, the screen resolution, the edits, the graphics, the music, the frames, the titles – Duncan methodically went through every aspect of our video product and took it several levels above where it started. This is the benefit of having someone full-time, in-house and embedded with the gang, as opposed to a consultant or an outside production company. The videos are Duncan’s biggest contribution to the success of the firm and he works on shaping them and improving them all day long.

And when the pandemic struck this February, we had to completely reimagine the entire shooting and editing process for the new reality of remote work. We were up and running again within weeks of the shutdown.

So now, we’ve filled the missing gap on YouTube while blazing a new trail of our own. High-quality content married with high-quality production value. And the audience has responded.

(Duncan, Josh and Michael taping What Are Your Thoughts remotely)

Since Duncan has joined the firm, we’ve had over 450,000 hours of watch time and over 3.5 million video views. Two weeks ago we broke above 50,000 subscribers and just a couple of days later another thousand or so subs came along. We have momentum now. We’re no longer pushing the boulder up the hill. It’s rolling.

Our flagship show, What Are Your Thoughts (WAYT), has evolved a long way stylistically since its origins, but it is still structurally the same thing we’ve been doing for two years. Michael Batnick and I have gone from biweekly episodes to weekly due to popular demand – they go live every Tuesday around 5:30pm ET. WAYT now regularly gets between 20,000 and 40,000 viewers per episode – many of the viewers are brand new to our oeuvre and would never have otherwise discovered us via the blogs alone. They skew younger than the audience for, say, financial television or Barron’s, WSJ, Fortune, etc. They want to learn about investing and get smarter. Many of our viewers are already very knowledgable and they just want to mix it up with us in the comments – either during the live premiere or after. We’ve been making the show even more interactive by incorporating audience questions each week, which keeps Michael and I on our toes. (email to get your topic on the next episode!) 

The other major breakthrough we had on the channel was taking Michael and Ben Carlson’s podcast and hewing a video component from it during the week it goes live. Animal Spirits is one of the most popular financial podcasts in America. Each week it’s downloaded by tens of thousands of listeners – over 5 million total downloads to date, and with every passing week that number grows. Their email inbox is flooded with listener comments and questions, which they dedicate time during each show to answer. Duncan helped us translate the enthusiasm for Animal Spirits the podcast into an edited video edition each Friday (playlist here). Animal’s video viewership continues to grow, which in turn feeds more new listeners to the original podcast version. It’s a virtuous circle of discovery and I have much bigger plans for this going into 2021.

Yesterday we published the fourth episode of the channel’s newest show, Big Trends Monthly. My friend JC Parets, a technician and the founder of All Star Charts, does a chartbook on the first day of each new month, when the closing candlesticks for the prior month are in. We use these to investigate the biggest trends happening across stocks, bonds and commodities. The idea behind the show is to give investors and traders a longer-term context for what’s happening on their screens and in their portfolios.

We’ve also had some massive interviews over the years that have yielded viral videos. These have helped the channel grow but it’s hard to predict which of these videos is going to be big in advance. Some of our most popular videos ever have included Rob Arnott, Tony Dwyer, Greg Zuckerman, Tom Lee, Campbell Harvey and other well known guests we’ve interviewed. But then there are a whole list of videos that have done big numbers without this sort of star power – and sometimes it’s mystifying as to why. The algo moves in mysterious ways.

Sometimes a really great thumbnail or title could be the difference between a video generating 50,000 views or 500. The “Suggested Videos” engine is a hugely important part of viewer discovery on the platform. And YouTube will take the existing popularity of a video and amplify that even further (if the first 100 people to see the thumbnail clicked it, then the next thousand people will probably do the same). YouTube wants engagement and for people to stay on longer. This is the metric they show their advertisers. So if your videos can help them with that, their algo will rank you and showcase you accordingly.

There isn’t any shortcut that will work more than once or twice. There aren’t any magical keywords that everyone else isn’t already using. In the end, you have to actually deliver the quality – consistently – if you want to keep people coming back. Viewers will not give you their time if you don’t give them your effort. They have to walk away from what they’re watching feeling that they’ve learned something new and have been entertained in the process. If you’re publishing a 50-minute, meandering Google Hangouts conversation in 720p resolution, it doesn’t matter what you title the video, it will not build your audience.

Now, 50,000 subs is not a large YouTube channel, generally speaking. There are toddlers unwrapping birthday presents in South Korea who get 50,000 views an hour. But for our thing – financial advice – it’s one of the biggest channels there is. I don’t know if there’s another financial advisory firm with a bigger following on there, but let me know if I missed one, it’s possible! And we’re doing it our way – no gimmicks, no bait and switch, no stunts. Just actual industry professionals being open and honest about what’s going on. Most importantly, we’re just getting started. So make sure you’re subscribed and if you like what we’re doing, by all means, forward our stuff to your friends.

And thanks so much for watching! See you there!

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