How I Hacked the YouTube Algorithm for 150k+ Views

How I Hacked the YouTube Algorithm for 150k+ Views

My short film, Ace and Anxious, premiered back in 2017 at a tiny online film festival. As of this writing, it has nearly 150,000 views on YouTube, was distributed by Amazon Prime (before they started removing indie content) netting a neat dollar or two each month (and if you know anything about Amazon Prime payouts, that makes it a very popular title), and was even picked up by Revry TV, a queer curated streaming platform. I can’t really quantify how people found the film on Revry (if at all, prior to my contract expiring in late 2019), and it’s no longer available through Amazon Prime, but I can definitely walk you through how exactly I got the YouTube algorithm to finally give me the time of day.

First, know your audience.

For me this was pretty straightforward. My audience segments for this piece were as follows: the asexual community (and to a lesser extent the aromantic community), the mental health community (specifically, those diagnosed with anxiety and depression, though other diagnoses sometimes made it into the mix), and female filmmakers. The latter doesn’t really require a lot of work on my part, given that my jobs over the course of this film’s distribution have always put me in direct contact with other women filmmakers, so naturally it comes up. It’s also a film by a lady writer/director, had gender parity behind the scenes, and two of the three lead characters were women, so that tends to appeal.

The other two segments, though they are segments I also identify within, took a little more effort, which brings me to my next tactic.

Second, know where they are.

Despite myself being an anxious asexual woman, I wasn’t a known entity in either of my other two segment communities yet. So, I started to do research, discovering that the asexuality subreddits, unlike most other subreddits, were generally lovely, supportive places to hang out, and that Tumblr was very much still a thing (in hindsight it makes sense, since most asexual people weren’t overly despondent at porn being removed back in 2018). I subscribed to the subreddits, though didn’t post or comment much since Reddit isn’t really my scene, and also followed a number of prominent asexual Tumblr blogs. For the depressed segment, I just kept using Twitter as usual, which is kind of a joke but also have you been on Twitter recently? Or ever?

Third, know how to talk to them.

This is where I started to run into some trouble, once my short film was officially available on YouTube as a result of premiering during an online festival. I had a small spike of viewership right away, particularly on my first trailer, because when I learned I’d be premiering soon I posted an ask to the asexual Tumblr community, using the hashtags I’d been keeping track of in my research phase, the ones I knew fellow community members were following (if you’re curious, #actuallyasexual is a big one).

“Help me, Ace Tumblr community!” I wrote. “I’m an ace filmmaker with a short film about asexuality (called Ace and Anxious) premiering soon! What blogs and sites should I contact to let them know about it, to potentially get some buzz around the film?” To date, over 1,000 people have liked or shared that post, and because I knew where the audience of my film was looking and because I asked for their expertise first rather than their appreciation/fandom, I made a much better first impression.

This is where things started to go a bit wrong. Originally, when I would talk about my film (online, at festivals, at events, etc.), I would use my logline to describe it to people:

“An asexual woman with generalized anxiety disorder learns of the stress-reducing properties of sex and decides to place an ad on Craigslist for a test sexual partner to determine if it will help cure her panic attacks.”

That’s what happens in the film, to be sure, but that wasn’t resonating with the asexual community, and I couldn’t figure out why until I went back to step two and did my research. While there were no canonically asexual lead or supporting characters in popular media until 2016, asexuality had been mentioned every once in a while. A notable mention was in "House MD," season 8’s “Better Half.” In it, we meet an asexual couple but by the end the husband had a pituitary issue that explained his lack of sex drive and was cured and the wife was revealed to have been faking her asexuality to please her husband. Yikes!

So, when I was going around using the word “cure” in a logline about a film featuring an asexual lead character, despite my best efforts to be clear that what she was attempting to cure were her panic attacks, people were understandably triggered and suspicious. Especially when I was promoting my own movie still, rather than a fellow community member they were more familiar with and whose taste they trusted. As a result, I started to switch things up, not mentioning the Craigslist ad beyond a “questionable Craigslist ad,” and spending more time upfront (if I had the character limit/time), establishing a few things:

  1. I, Bri Castellini, am an asexual woman, and I wrote and directed this film.
  2. The lead character, also an asexual woman, does not die (there’s also the whole bury your gays trope to contend with. Making queer content is a minefield, y’all. The straights are out of control), is not “cured” of her sexuality, and is not questioned or demeaned as a result of it.
  3. She is canonically, out loud, asexual. This isn’t a Dumbledore situation where I’m revealing her sexuality after the fact for clout.
  4. All these aspects of the film were really important to me, personally, because I didn’t know asexuality was one of the options you could be until I was 22 years old, let alone that it was the one that I identified as. I spent 22 years thinking something was wrong with me, only to come across a flippant post on Tumblr mentioning asexuality and realize … I’m not broken, I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I always knew, and I certainly didn’t have the media representation I desperately needed.

When I only had a tweet’s worth of characters and wanted to convince someone to watch the film, I simplified: “I’m an ace filmmaker who wrote and directed a short comedy film with an asexual lead character called Ace and Anxious! You can watch it here."

Let’s move on to the mental health community. Because they’re not quite as organized as the asexual community, other than continuing to be on Twitter these audience building moments tended to be more person-to-person, and what I learned over time is that using the word “anxious” actually wasn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately, Hollywood has bastardized that word so that it's functionally meaningless as a descriptor; usually it’s shorthand for “quirky” or “type A.”

To make sure my meaning was being conveyed, I had to start actually diagnosing my lead character in my logline when speaking to someone I thought would like the movie for it’s mental health representation, changing my logline to “an asexual woman with generalized anxiety disorder.” Just two more words, but it instantly helped convey that this was a film about mental illness (and not just a lady with a weird pen organization system).

Fourth, always *clap* be *clap* closing *clap*.

To date, Ace and Anxious has accrued 148,498 views, 8.4k likes, less than 150 dislikes, and 679 comments, most of which are some variation on “#mood.” By all accounts, it’s a success, and those numbers are still growing nearly four years post-premiere because YouTube’s algorithm has started to help out by making it a suggested video on just about any other asexuality-related video, or any video about Todd from "Bojack Horseman."

But here’s the thing—there was no hack to get me here. No combination of tags that finally convinced the algorithm I knew their secret code. Instead, the thing that finally bought me some sweet, sweet algorithm love was a year and a half of constant marketing, film festivals, and never ever shutting up.

I never went viral. I didn’t watch dudebros explain how, if you just post hour-long ASMR actual-play videos every Tuesday and Friday, daddy YouTube will finally love you, I did the work. Ace and Anxious is a success not because of a cynical marketability equation I worked out in advance, but because I spent hours and hours figuring out how to get it in front of people who I knew would love it from previous hours and hours of research. It was only after I succeeded independently that the algorithm started pulling any weight at all.

For more details on this process, plus ways in which it could have definitely been easier, you can check out the Breaking Out of Breaking In podcast episode about marketing!

*Feature photo by Darlene Alderson (Pexels)

Bri Castellini is a screenwriter, director, adjunct professor, and, like any good millennial, a podcaster. She’s known for the short film Ace and Anxious and the podcast Breaking Out of Breaking In.
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