How to Optimize & Improve Your Video Watch Time on YouTube

Dozens of marketers share the strategies that have worked for improving watch time–YouTube’s top ranking factor for search and discovery.

Avatar Dann Albright on August 27, 2018 (last modified on August 29, 2018) • 8 minute read

Over 400 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute.

That’s 576,000 hours of new content uploaded every single day. (Source)

As is the case with any social network, YouTube needs a way to identify which content is most engaging in order to deliver the best experience possible to its 1.8 billion monthly active users.

Enter watch time, a metric that tracks the amount of time in aggregate that your users are watching your videos.

Most important, however, is that according to the YouTube Creator Playbook, “YouTube optimizes search and discovery for videos that increase watch time on the site.”

Seems obvious, right? YouTube surfaces content that is most likely to keep people on the website or in the application.

It’s important to note that watch time is not simply the percentage of your video being watched. (Unfortunately, many marketers attempt to game the algorithm and increase their watch time by making their videos shorter. This doesn’t work.)

Instead, watch time is a measurement of how long viewers watch your videos, measured in actual minutes and seconds. Watch time also indicates to YouTube content that increases a viewer’s time spent watching videos across YouTube in general, not just videos on your channel.

As you can see, the metric is a lot more expansive than just you channel.

According to YouTube, “we are actually optimizing for how a video contributes to a longer viewing session on YouTube. So your video isn’t more likely to be seen just because it’s shorter.”

So you can see, simply making your videos shorter is not going to help increase watch time.

This got us curious as to how long the average video is from brands and marketers, so we asked…

While most of our respondents (62%) are creating shorter videos under 5 minutes, it’s clear that a lot of time is being invested into video creation. Since watch time is so important, how can marketers go about creating content that indeed improves this metric for its viewers?

According to YouTube, the answer is simple: “The best thing creators can do to be successful on YouTube is to make videos that people want to watch.”

We wanted to go deeper. Here’s what we learned…

Editor’s note: The first step in improving watch time is having a clear handle on how all of your video content is currently performing. Grab this free template and visualize your watch time on YouTube in seconds.

Open With a Preview

Many of the marketers we talked to had a simple piece of advice for increasing watch time: start your video by telling people what you’re going to talk about. A simple overview can make a big difference.

Think of it like a quick table of contents at the beginning of your video. Or “[t]hink of them like bullet points in sales copy,” says James Pollard, digital solution manager at The Advisor Coach. “That’s essentially how they work.”

Sean Si founder of Seo Hacker, says you’ll need to give this overview right away. “The most crucial part of your video is the first 15–30 seconds . . . this is the window you have to convince the audience that your video is worth watching further.”

On a related note, you can organize your video by breaking it up into small parts. “For example, if you’re working with an explainer video, structure it like ‘ours 3 step-proces,'” says OptimizePrime‘s Harris Schachter.

HealthLabs‘ Lauren Crain included another important point. It’s simple, but it can make a big difference: put your most important point at the end. Viewers will know to stick around longer once you’ve told them what to expect.

(Just keep in mind that you’ll have to tell them that the most important point is at the end.)

You can go even further, says Doidea‘s Thoralf Lindström. “[W]e always try to start off with a cliffhanger,” he says. “This gives the viewer no choice but to stick around and find out what’s in the rest of the video.”

So why does this strategy work? Why is a simple overview so effective?

“One of the biggest reasons users drop off is because they don’t think there is any value left in the video,” says Cat Crawford with Cat Crawford Marketing.

“[I]f you include the points that will be addressed early on in the introduction, viewers are more likely to stick around to get the information they need.”


Besides offering a quick preview of what’s in the video, we also received some technical tips.

“Take advantage of YouTube’s analytics,” says John Z Wetmore of Perils For Pedestrians “You can see exactly what percentage of your initial viewers are watching one of your videos second by second. Is there a place where many people are clicking away?”

John gave an example from his own analytics:

“In my case, I discovered that a third of my viewers were clicking away during my 17-second title sequence. The title is necessary for cable TV, but is expendable on YouTube. So now I trim off the title sequence on YouTube and people stay a little longer.”

Mackenzie Thompson, marketing associate at National Health Care Provider Solutions gave similar advice. “We utilize Google Analytics to pinpoint where the peaks in user retention are in our videos. Once we identify where in the video the peak is, we go back and review the video to see what we did at that time frame and try to replicate it in future videos.”

It’s a simple formula, but it has increased watch times for the National Health Care Provider Solutions.


Two marketers suggested something that we weren’t expecting: taking advantage of playlists. James Nuttall of Healing Holidays suggests that marketers “[c]reate an enticing playlist running order so your audience opts for a linear viewing experience.”

Sequencing is important, he says. “For a longer watch time, you need to have an interesting sequence, which flows naturally from one video to another.”

Colibri Digital Marketing‘s Andrew McLoughlin said the same. If your playlists “[follow] a more or less linear flow, each video will follow the last and lead to the next.” This creates a better viewing experience, Lenney says, and leads to increased watch times.

George B. Thomas, Inbound Evangelist at Impulse Creative, echoes the sentiment of creating a high volume of content for your viewers to get “lost” in.

“Create, Create, Create,” said Thomas. “You need to have a bank of helpful videos that your viewers can get lost in. Businesses can not think that they can produce 5 or 10 videos and immediately see improved watch time. Give your viewers a journey they can travel on. I have gotten lost for hours on content from Nick Nimmin, Peter McKinnon, and Gary Vaynerchuk because of the sheer amount of videos.”

Thomas added, “The same thing happens with our Sprocket Talk community. There is always another update, tutorial, interview, or strategy for HubSpot users to watch and educate themselves.”

Optimize Your Videos

“The first step to increasing a company’s video watch time is actually getting seen,” says Steve Pritchard of Ben Sherman.To do this, he says, you’ll need to optimize your keywords.

“Keywords apply to YouTube videos just as much as they do on Google,” and you should include them in both your title and description.

Pritchard also noted that your description should grab people’s attention and get them to watch.

Channel Factory‘s junior marketing specialist Matthew Bianchi suggests using a third-party tool to help you out. “Channel Factory’s ViewIQ is free for Creators and offers powerful features that allow for creators to identify trends at the channel, video, and keyword level.”

Using these insights combined with information on similar channels, genres, and relevant tags lets creators see what their audience is looking for.

Tell Good Stories

In the end, capturing viewers’ attention comes down to telling good stories.

Michael Hammond, founder and creative director of Storyboard Media Group, lays it out:

“[If your videos are] scrumptious, memorable, delivers on a promise, has some intrigue, the journey makes sense . . . people will stick with it by spending more time-consuming.”

Colorful Eyes with Stacy Caprio gave a simple tip to help you tell better stories: script your video in advanced. Scripting makes sure your video “clips along at a good pace and is interesting in a way you can’t achieve when you just film off the cuff.”

Of course, you still have to get people to start your videos so they appreciate your stories.  JLenney Marketing recommends boosting views and watch time by posting at the right time of day. In his experience, that means posting your video mid-afternoon on a weekday.

But you should also test post time, storytelling techniques, keywords, and everything else. “Test video lengths, test types of content, test filming styles, test everything you can,” says Amy from Content Career.

“Every creator’s channel is different. The audience is different, the content is unique, and the reasons people watch are diverse. There is no one size fits all, so the need to create, test, and measure metrics like watch time is vital.”

Have you employed tactics to increase the watch time on your videos? What did you try? Did it work? Share your experience in the comments.

About the author
Dann Albright Dann is a freelance writer who helps B2B companies reach their audiences more effectively. With an emphasis on organic traffic and conversion, he takes big ideas and turns them into highly practical content that keeps readers hooked.
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