What are how-to videos?
How-to videos demonstrate a particular way to create something or accomplish a given task. Video guides have a leg up on written tutorials because they remove room for confusion by actually showing viewers in easy-to-comprehend steps how to achieve a goal. Viewers can follow along in a way they just can’t in a written manual.
What types of how-to videos are popular?
How-to videos are incredibly popular—as a whole, “how-to” is the fourth most-watched category on Youtube. As an example, the Youtube channel 5-Minute Crafts, with its collection of hacks and how-to’s, is the ninth most followed channel on the entire platform with 74.1 million subscribers.
Despite the genre’s popularity, though, there are countless how-to channels that struggle to gain traction or find an audience. The lesson here is that even if you create quality content, you need to think about presenting it in an appealing way to a wide swath of viewers. Here are some tactics to consider:
- Make your tutorial approachable. Using words like “easy” or “hack” in your framing lets people know that your tutorial won’t eat up their whole day and likely won’t require specialized skills to follow.
- Create a low-stakes, high reward expectation. Framing the video in terms of saving money or doing something on a budget lowers the bar to entry since it tells people that they won’t break the bank trying to replicate your process. A niche audience with the available tools might watch a video on how to assemble a car engine, for example, but a compilation of kitchen hacks on a budget will pull in a wider pool of people.
- Put your video in a cultural context. Another good strategy is to peg your video to a popular piece of culture, like making a trending dish or an item of clothing inspired by a movie or TV show everyone is talking about. Keep in mind that cultural phenomena only pop for a limited amount of time, so this type of content isn’t as evergreen as more generalized how-to videos.
5 tips for creating successful how-to videos
How you assemble and edit a how-to video for your channel impacts how effective it is as an educational tool and how well it performs. My colleague Harmony Jiroudek, who’s a customer success manager and product specialist at Descript, makes the instructional videos in Descript’s Learning Center. She offers these tips both for creating your first videos, or for experienced creators looking to break into that hallowed roster of trending videos:
- Consider your audience. When structuring educational materials for Descript, Harmony says she always tries to keep eventual viewers in mind: “Where are they? What tools do they have access to? What are the typical pain points they might encounter?” While your how-to video should reflect something you’re interested in, it’s important to remember that you’re making this video for other people. As you’re making creative decisions or putting together a video outline, ask yourself if your framing would make sense to someone who’s new to the topic—or ask a friend who doesn’t know anything about the topic.
- Create easily digestible content. Harmony starts planning to teach a topic or skill with an outline that “[breaks] it down into microlearning segments so none of the information is too verbose.” Even if the topic you’re covering necessitates a longer-form video, she recommends breaking up the video into segments no longer than two to four minutes. For example, if you make a how-to video about a conceptual, broad, or abstract concept, like learning better time management skills or making a music video, approach it with clear, grounded examples rather than a long discussion about a general topic area. Consider using linked timecode markers in the video description so viewers can skip to the parts of the video that are relevant to them. Or make a playlist with a series of shorter videos—they’re more viewer-friendly and shareable.
- Set expectations and reiterate your main points. Harmony stresses that letting viewers know what they’re in for is a great way to set expectations and help them stay engaged with the video. After giving a quick personal introduction, she suggests offering an overview of the checkpoints the video will cover. Then, once you’ve completed the steps, do a recap to hammer home the takeaways.
- Build trust and engagement. “So much of the time there’s connective tissue missing,” Harmony says of many online tutorials. In other words, a video will skip steps in the process, probably because the creator takes those steps for granted. Sometimes the connective tissue is just the acknowledgement of what the viewer is feeling or experiencing as they follow along. Calling out the parts that can be frustrating or that take lots of trial and error shows empathy, and that builds trust. Harmony suggests a helpful attitude to have is, “Here’s this learning path we’re going on together.”
- Practice your approach and incorporate feedback. If you have a video idea but have never actually made a video before, record a trial run and watch it. Then “take a moment to observe what your natural tendencies are on camera,” Harmony advises. If you need to read from a script or outline, consider doing a quick intro on camera and then diving into a demo so you can narrate from a script. Watch the comments section too. You can ignore the trolls who mock your appearance, offer ludicrous feedback on your voice, and so on. But pay attention to substantive feedback on elements or tendencies that viewers find distracting (or effective—reinforcing feedback is helpful too). Consider each comment a little product review about what’s working and what’s not, then retool as needed.
- Think about your content visually. Think about your how-to video content from the visual perspective—how it appears onscreen and whether it will draw viewers’ eyes. Consider the kinds of Youtube thumbnails people are more likely to click on—they’re often vibrant or demonstrative. In the how-to genre, you’re likely to have success if you can tease a process or show a classic “before and after” graphic illustrating how materials become a finished product.
5 how-to video ideas to jumpstart your creativity
Coming up with how-to video topics can be daunting, but if you approach it systematically, it’s surprisingly doable. Here are a few thought starters for creating a how-to ideas list.
- Make a list of your skills and interests. You can generate a few ideas for how-to video content by taking inventory of what you’re good at, or just what you enjoy doing. For example, if you’re a home cook, you can turn your nightly dinner preparation into a how-to video, focus on a particularly cherished dish, or even dive deep on a single ingredient. Imagine: 8 Way to Make Dinner Better with Paprika.
- Document your own journey. A quick survey of DIY or how-to videos on Youtube will show you that funny how-to video ideas regularly rack up millions of views. That’s not to say that your how-to video needs to be intentionally bad, only that you don’t need to be an expert at what you’re teaching to draw people’s interests. For example, record yourself learning something new in a group setting, then follow up with a reaction video of what went wrong and what went right when you tried to do it on your own. Viewers will benefit from seeing the mistakes you made, and social media loves a triumph story.
- Break up a chore or task into individual steps. In the spirit of creating digestible content, consider brainstorming content by taking an everyday task and turning it into micro-steps. Take the TikTok cleaning video trend—it’s just people sharing simple, efficient tricks they’ve learned to get housework done faster. People eat it up. We’re always looking for ways to make our lives easier, and if you’ve found a way, you shouldn’t sit on it.
- Take on a project and do a little bit every day. If you don’t have time in your day to take on a large-scale endeavor, consider finding a hobby or craft you’re interested in and documenting the creative process in small bites. It might take a while to go from inception to finished product, but the video you wind up with might just be worth it.
- Teach something to friends or family. Assuming your social circle is game to be on camera, you could gather some loved ones and try to impart a new skill to them. Even if it turns out to be a disaster, disasters make for compelling content.