Some agents are making thousands on ad revenue from YouTube and millions from the commissions they get via YouTube-generated leads. But succeeding requires being smart about how to engage with the platform’s technology.

Back in 2019, Texas-based eXp Realty agent Kyle Handy made a video for his YouTube channel titled, “eXp Realty Training – 10 Things to Do FIRST After Joining eXp Realty.” The 25-minute video eventually racked up more than 15,000 views, and helped Handy build a following that today has reached nearly 10,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.

Viewers of the video will find a variety of tips about what it’s like joining eXp Realty, but if they watch it on YouTube’s website, the platform will also serve up a variety of recommended videos — either off on the side or via an automatic autoplay feature.

During a recent viewing of Handy’s video, Inman began clicking through YouTube’s top suggestions. The first recommended video was another from Handy. Several clicks later, Inman was on an entirely different video creator’s page and learning how to get listings as a new agent.

YouTube automatically recommended this video from Tom Ferry after Inman began clicking on the platform’s top recommended videos. Credit: YouTube

Some of the recommendations YouTube offered came from big names, such as Tom Ferry. But other’s were from smaller channels, including from real estate agents who had only hundreds or dozens of subscribers.

From there, Inman kept exploring and within a dozen clicks received a series of suggestions for videos about the real estate market in London. A dozen or so more clicks, and the top recommendation wasn’t even about real estate; it was a documentary titled “Cocos Island – The mysterious island in the Pacific.” Shortly thereafter, YouTube recommended a BBC video about the “best spider moments.”

The episode highlights the strange and organic experience of falling down a YouTube rabbit hole. At its best, the platform can surface fun content that might never have otherwise crossed a viewer’s radar. At it’s worst, YouTube has been criticized for recommending offensive or inappropriate videos.

But the recommendations also highlight the massive role YouTube can play in business; the content creators YouTube recommended based on Handy’s video were getting a prime boost from the Google-owned company. And given YouTube’s massive scale, that boost can mean more subscribers, more ad revenue, and for real estate professionals, more leads. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, in other words, represents a powerful if sometimes mysterious form of marketing.

To better understand how this works, and how more real estate professionals can take advantage of the video platform, Inman reached out to Handy and other agents who successfully use YouTube.

Combined, the agents have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the takeaway from these conversations is that its possible to make thousands, or millions, of dollars as a real estate agent on the platform.

Moreover, making money on YouTube is something almost anyone can do, but it also requires being smart about how to engage with YouTube’s technology.

Here’s what real estate professionals need to know.

The evolution of Google algorithm

In the early days of the platform, YouTube prioritized clicks — meaning the goal of the site’s recommendation algorithm was just to get as many people as possible to click on new videos.

When Inman reached out to the company for information, YouTube provided a blog post from last week. That post indicated that YouTube’s early recommendations often were made without taking into account a user’s viewing habits. It wasn’t a very successful system.

“Not a lot of people watched those videos and the majority of YouTube’s viewership came from searches or shared links off the platform,” the blog post notes.

In response, YouTube began building technology that compares “your viewing habits with those that are similar to you and uses that information to suggest other content you may want to watch,” the blog post explains. The system learns from “over 80 billion pieces of information,” and factors in clicks, view times, survey responses, and shares, likes and dislikes.

This change began around 2012. The idea, according to a blog post the company published at the time, was to “better surface the videos that viewers actually watch, over those that they click on and then abandon.”

“Now when we suggest videos, we focus on those that increase the amount of time that the viewer will spend watching videos on YouTube, not only on the next view, but also successive views thereafter,” the 2012 blog post notes.

“So if you like tennis videos and our system notices that others who like the same tennis videos as you also enjoy jazz videos, you may be recommended jazz videos, even if you’ve never watched a single one before,” the post continues.

These are the videos YouTube recommends to users searching for information on how to become a real estate agent. Today, YouTube’s algorithm recommends videos it things viewers will spend time with. Credit: YouTube

There’s no question the recommendation system has become smarter over the years as YouTube refined its algorithm, though it has generated controversy along the way too.

Over the last several years, a number of observers and analysts have focused on children’s content and noted that when YouTube’s recommendations are allowed to run wild, they can, in the words of TechCrunch, end up serving “a mindless and lurid slurry of endlessly repurposed permutations of pilfered branded content, played out against an eerie blend of childish tunes, giddily repeating nursery rhymes, and crude cartoon sound effects.”

“It’s a literal pantomime of the stuff kids might think to search for,” TechCrunch added, speaking specifically of children’s videos. “And it speaks volumes about the dysfunctional incentives that define the medium.”

The New York Times similarly found in 2017 that kids were in some cases served violent and disturbing content, including depictions of cartoon characters committing suicide. More recent reports have accused YouTube’s algorithm of boosting misinformation and conspiracy theories — allegations that became particularly pointed during the heated final days of the Trump administration, as well as during the coronavirus pandemic.

These discoveries have prompted an ongoing public reckoning with YouTube’s technology, and in its blog post just last week the company said it works hard to make “responsible recommendations.”

Among other things, YouTube said in its blog post that it specifically built filters to identify “racy or violent” content, and conducts evaluations of its machine learning to see how it is handling issues such as race, extremism and misinformation.

During Inman’s experiment that began with Handy’s video and involved clicking on dozens of top YouTube recommendations, no extremist or violent videos turned up. But it only took a few clicks to end up watching content from creators Inman had never heard of before, and only a few minutes to stray into entirely new topics.

For viewers watching a popular Ryan Serhant video, YouTube recommends a series of other videos — visible on the right side of the image — from other real estate creators. Credit: YouTube

The point here is twofold. First, the YouTube rabbit hole is very real, and it’s constantly evolving. YouTube does comment on the broad strokes of that evolution — for instance the blog posts from 2012 and last week — but the nitty gritty of how it works is largely private. The company did not, after all, provide Inman with specific computer code or an exact breakdown on what its algorithm prioritizes.

But second, getting a video to show up in that rabbit hole matters. In a conversation with Inman, Handy noted that YouTube “is the number two search engine in the world after Google,” meaning that its user base and reach are vast. And for a YouTube creator, getting videos to show up in YouTube’s recommendations translates to more subscribers and, eventually, revenue. The alternative is a channel that languishes in obscurity.

Tips from the pros

While the public doesn’t have access to the code behind YouTube’s platform, successful users do gradually learn how to make sure their videos get tractions.

Handy, for example, said that in order to get videos at the top of recommendation lists, it’s important to have a high “click-through rate,” which means the number of times a video is clicked on relative to how many times YouTube displays it.

Kyle Handy

“Four percent is a good click-through rate,” Handy said. “Anything less than that and it’ll be pushed down. So, if they show it 100 times, you’re hoping 4 people click on your video. The highest I’ve seen are 8 to 10 percent. That would be an excellent click-through rate.”

Handy also broke down the watch-time metrics that YouTube pivoted to years ago. In his case, he started out doing videos that were nearly an hour long, but found that even if people watched several minutes of such videos that was still a minority of the overall duration — which didn’t appear to go over well with the recommendation algorithm. As a result Handy has since pivoted to videos that typically run between 10 and 12 minutes.

“Lets say you create a 10 minute video but people are only watching 1 minute of it. That’s a bad signal to YouTube,” he explained. “If you’re getting 5 minutes of watch time out of a 10 minute video, that’s good. Anything above 40 percent watch duration of your video is really good.”

Loida Velasquez

Loida Velasquez, who works in the Los Angeles area and is also with eXp Realty, makes videos of a similar length for her YouTube channel. She started making YouTube content shortly after becoming an agent in 2015, and today she has more than 75,500 subscribers on the platform. In addition to duration and watch time, she also said YouTube’s system seems to foreground creators who post consistently.

“I think that is what has allowed me to grow to where I am now,” she explained. “The videos just start popping up for people.”

YouTube’s algorithm also responds to well-placed titles and descriptions according to Bryan Casella, an eXp Realty team leader in Florida. Casella’s YouTube channel has more than 187,000 subscribers, and he said the algorithm “is kind of this mysterious thing” and “always changing.” However, one basic thing that does make a difference is using specific language and phrasing in a video’s title that users actually might search for.

A video from Casella that was viewed more than 4,700 times shows how he used a conversational title and in-depth description, among other things. YouTube draws on the terms in those fields when deciding what to recommend to viewers. Credit: Bryan Casella and YouTube

“How am I going to search for it? How am I going to put it into the search bar?” Casella said, adding that video titles should be as close to what someone might type into YouTube’s search bar as possible.

This was a point all of the agents who spoke with Inman made. Velasquez, for example, noted that if there are videos with similar titles, the algorithm may group them together and recommend one of them to viewers of the others.

Handy also noted that when deciding what type of content to produce, he combs YouTube to see what kinds of videos already exist and to test out different types of searches.

“The way that I’ve kind of built up my following has really been through a lot of keyword research,” he explained.  “Terms that Realtors are looking for and that I feel are underserved. I’ll get on Youtube and type in a couple of words or a short phrase and I’ll see what pulls up on their autosuggestions. From there I can kind of determine the most searched phrases.”

Handy, Velasquez and Casella also all said that tags — or words that give YouTube information about a video’s subject and intended audience — are important, but often overlooked by real estate professionals.

“You have 500 characters where you can write tags for you video,” Hand said. “You want to make sure you tag them ‘real estate” or ‘cold calls’ or whatever you tags are.”

Handy creates content after typing different phrases into YouTube’s search bar, seen above, in an effort to determine which kind of content people might watch. Credit: YouTube

Why any of this matters

One of the most explicit ways YouTube success impacts agents is through monetization, or in other words by running ads on the videos. And there’s potentially a significant amount of money at stake. Casella, for instance, has monetized his channel and told Inman he makes between $3,000 and $4,000 a month from ad revenue.

Velasquez has monetized her channel as well. She recalled getting her first check, which was for just $0.14, but over time the income started to “add up to the point that it’s another stream that can cover my expenses or mortgage.”

As her channel grew, Velasquez also began receiving inquiries from other agents about how to succeed in the business. Over time, those inquiries prompted her to launch courses, which she promotes via her YouTube channel — meaning the video platform is a source of two different income streams.

Bryan Casella

And of course there are referrals. For instance in Casella’s case, he said a YouTube referral landed him “one of my biggest commissions ever.”

“At this point I would say that YouTube and social media have led to me making millions,” he added.

Handy made a similar point, and said that one of his colleagues went from an $8 million producer to a $30 million producer by raking in referrals from YouTube.

“From one year, he tripled his business just from YouTube,” Handy noted.

Not everyone succeeds on YouTube, and indeed the agents who spoke with Inman did not immediately begin with high subscriber counts or loads of referrals. And agents who fail to capture the attention of the platform’s algorithm may see their channel perpetually stuck on a stunted, low-reward trajectory.

But the agents who spoke with Inman did generally share the view that with time and determination, anyone can rake up subscribers and views — and the financial rewards they bring.

“I’m not special,” Casella said. “I’m just the one who decided to do it.”

Velasquez made a similar point, saying that agents shouldn’t wait until the have fancy equipment, expert production skills, or anything else to get started.

“Time and time again, I tell people, ‘just pick up your cell phone,'” Velasquez said, “‘and start recording videos.'”

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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