Lessons from a YouTube Star: Using Video to Build a Brand

Authors and clients often ask me about whether they should have a presence on YouTube and if video truly is a realistic way to build a brand and sell books. I wanted to bring in the king of video–author and YouTube celeb Jefferson Bethke–to speak to these questions.

Jefferson’s story paints an awesome picture of how video can cause a brand (and book sales) to explode.

Long story, short: Jefferson found YouTube stardom accidentally, when he created and uploaded the video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” a few years ago. The video resonated with some, hit a nerve with others, and got more than 6 million views within the first three days. (That’s insane.) That number is now about 31 million–and growing.

Jefferson published a book with my team at Thomas Nelson–a follow-up to the video–in 2013. The book, Jesus>Religion, rocked in the marketplace! It hit numerous bestseller lists and has continued to see strong sales. Jefferson published a second book about a year ago.

He’s an awesome YouTuber and videographer/vlogger still today (alongside his wife, Alyssa), yet he’s also expanded his brand beyond video. I asked him to join me on the blog today to talk about how it all happened–and how any author can use video to build a brand and sell books.

1- How did you get your start on YouTube?

I started in a more unique way than most. My friend and I thought it’d be fun to turn a poem I did at my college’s open mic into a YouTube video. We weren’t pursuing a platform or anything. We were just doing what millennials do, making videos for fun. We made it and uploaded it thinking our moms and friends would maybe see it. The first two days it was online it got around 7 million views. Crazy. And that’s how I got started on YouTube.

2- Tell us a little bit about your journey from YouTube star to author.

So after the video went viral, I got a couple emails from publishers saying, “Hey. You should write a book.” Now, writing a book had always been an insanely huge dream of mine, but I never thought in a million years I would or could. After I started getting those emails though, a mentor friend of mine was really close with a literary agent. He introduced me and we started asking, “Is there a book here?” Not just for a book’s sake, but something I want to say and write about. And we concluded that was a yes. So we went for it! Never will I forget that whole year of writing to editing to seeing it on shelves for the first time.

3- What was it about that original video that generated so much buzz?

I think a few different factors. I think the scandalousness of grace will always have a buzz around it. Also, spoken word was a newer medium but also gaining a lot of traction. The title certainly helped (“Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”). And lastly, the strong critical responses it garnered really pushed it over the edge in regards to traffic. So it was a perfect storm of sorts or about 5 variables that all aligned.

4- How have you continued to build and expand that original audience?

One of the things about the first video that was so powerful to me was a front row seat on how amazing the internet can be as a community for feedback, conversation, help, growth, and so on. And so from the very beginning I’ve tried to do everything to foster that very same thing and hold authenticity very high.

5- How did you turn those YouTube-viewers into book-buyers?

You know, I’m not totally sure. But I think a huge part of it was expanding on the message. The video left them (I think at least) wanting more. So the book became that “more.” Also there were multiple creative marketing things we did as a pre-launch that I think really helped. I think the thing that really convinced people to buy though was the big “first chapter free” campaign we did. It was kind of a “prove it” moment for folks from me, to really show this wasn’t a gimmick but hopefully a book that will take them on a journey.

6- How have you used YouTube as a starting place for building a bigger social media platform and overall brand?

I see YouTube exactly as that right now. It’s great for income, but that’s steadily declining for everyone on the platform; the more channels grow, the more advertisers get ads cheaper and cheaper (because there’s so much video to serve it on). So I actually see YouTube as one of my first impressions. It’s usually how people are going to find my website, my books, and my general feel or personality. It displays that better than any other social media since it’s video-based. So I try to strategically keep people in the loop. I want to try and direct them after watching a YouTube video to come say hi on Facebook. And then from there I want them to check out my blogs and books. And so on.

7- Tell us some of the lessons you’ve learned as you’ve refined your video strategy.

I think in the beginning I was so concerned with each video being perfect I began to upload less. I wanted the production to be super high and have it be a work of art before releasing it. But now I realize consistency and staying in front of people’s eyeballs actually helps a lot. And the real thing that grows a channel and creates sustainability is consistency and community. Be consistent in uploading, and also foster a conversation in the comments and the cues of the video. The best thing anyone can do.

The real things that grow a channel? Consistency & community. -@jeffersonbethke Click To Tweet

8- What does an author need to know who wants to build a YouTube channel and develop a following there?

It’s not a one-way street. The biggest mistake people make on YouTube is to upload sermons (if they are a pastor) or videos that basically were for something else they are just housing on YouTube. You can get away with that on all the other social platforms, but it really crushes a YouTube channel’s growth. All successful YouTube channels have one thing in common: they talk directly to the YouTube audience and treat it as its own entity and platform. And they have a huge emphasis on engagement and community. That’s the strength of YouTube in my opinion, there is way more loyalty there than any other platform, but the creator is the one who has to set that precedent.

9- What are the keys parts of each video you do that key a viewer engaged and coming back for more?

Try to catch them in the first ten seconds every time. A lot of times that has me starting the video with a blooper of sorts. I’ve seen that work real well (and helps number 8 above, connecting with audience, and them seeing the real you not a highly polished produced you). Lists also help. I don’t do them all the time but a “5 ways to” or “3 thing to” keep the tempo of the video up. Another thing is master really fast jump cuts. It will feel like crazy fast and ADHD to you but if you watch ANY successful YouTuber who is talking directly to camera they use crazy fast jump cuts. Watch the vlogbrothers as an example and count how many times they take out every breath, um, pauses, fluff sentences that didn’t help, etc. It’s usually every 2-3 seconds.

10- What advice do you have for first-time authors who want to build their platform?

Concentrate on community building. Find a tribe. Find your angle or niche and rally every last person on the internet to join your tribe. Don’t spam or always be asking people to do stuff, but instead give, give, give. Give value. Give good content. And create a community. Nothing is more powerful than that.

For more on Jefferson and his awesome wife, Alyssa, check out