How ‘The Great War’ Co-creates Its Hit YouTube Show with the Help of a 700,000+ Member Audience

The Great War Team

“It will be a great idea to start a Youtube Channel covering just World War I!”

Said no one ever.

That is, up until May of 2014, when Indy Neidell and Spartacus Olsson decided to launch The Great War on YouTube to try and make use of some archived war footage from the British Pathe.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of WWI, ‘The Great War’ covers the events of WWI in detail week-by-week.

That’s right, each week they release a new video showing what happened 100 years ago that very week. Sounds much more interesting when you put it like that, doesn’t it?

First video

From then until now, The Great War has published a new video every Thursday—detailing exactly what happened in the war the previous week.

It’s become known for its consistency, its objective perspective, and for being, well… 

“the only channel on YouTube where the comments don’t suck.”

Where YT comments dont suck

As of writing this, over 700,000 people have subscribed to the channel.

So, how did the founders do it?

What did they do to build such a large AND engaged audience?

And what the heck does an uber-niche history YouTube channel have to teach you? (Assuming you’re not also an uber-niche history YouTube creator)

Spoiler Alert: The key is friendship. Indy, Florian and The Great War team aren’t just content creators chucking videos at their audience. You’ll find out by the end that they’re much more than a talking head to their fans. They are friends.

In fact, their friendship is SO strong that their fans are known to:

  • Actively research obscure WWI battles for the show
  • Voluntarily build custom software for the channel
  • AND provide thousands of comments in supportive feedback to the show

I don’t think there’s a single creator out there that doesn’t want everything listed above.

In this story, we share how the Great War team accomplished all of this to build their thriving YouTube channel and business.

Note:  In the story below, we show how The Great War earns over $17,000 per month on Patreon. If you’re also interested in getting paid with your own Patreon page, you can sign up here or learn more on our homepage.

Attracting the Initial Audience

We had the chance to interview Florian Wittig, the Creative Producer and Social Media Manager of The Great War.

He explained to us that The Great War began with a very tight budget granted by Mediakraft Networks. No surprises here, as most creators have a similar start. In fact, almost all of the team’s initial budget went into the production of the show.

That meant there was very little money for anything that resembled “advertising.”

But they knew they needed viewers, so they had to look for other ways to attract their audience.

Specifically, the team decided to optimize the show’s channel to be found organically and through word-of-mouth referrals.

Free! But certainly far from easy.

1. It started with a quality product

The unique format of the show meant individual episodes were unlikely to explode into viral sensations.

Instead, it was the channel itself that was likely to be shared.

“We knew early on that we weren’t going to go viral with any of the individual episodes,” Flo told us. “It was the kind of project that was only going to grow if we showed persistent quality.”

The team also believed that new fans were likely to go back “to the beginning” to catch up on past episodes.

That meant the show’s quality had to be there right from the start.

Otherwise, people who had found the channel wouldn’t convert into fans—and subscribers.

2. They optimized for YouTube search

“You have to understand that Youtube is not just a website that displays channels,” Flo explains.

“Utmost and foremost it is a search engine. You need to have a basic understanding of what YouTube is, how it works, and what it likes and doesn’t like.”

Flo had no clue about how to optimize for YouTube, so he asked a colleague to give him a crash course in YouTube channel management.

He did this all before the first video because he knew just how important it was for the discoverability of the channel.

Specifically, Flo learned to make sure each video contained:

  • A meaningful title
  • A good description
  • Relevant search terms for the title & description
  • Closed captions

Sounds easy right?

It can get pretty tedious. Flo considers all the details that get a user to click on a thumbnail.

Given the fact that all WWI photos are in black and white, no one wants to click on a boring photo dug up from your grandma’s archives. Flo painstakingly colorized grayscale images to serve as eye-catching thumbnails for the videos.

Like this one:

nmuCSQv3Q5Re3l V D3BJBMmeE2rPQEQAA9s1pC0yGj1ikWD5vLUTXdZOP lzVZZ8B5P3ws2048

“I put a lot of time and energy into optimizing the channel for search,” Flo told us.

No kidding. With over 474 videos to date, there’s not a black and white thumbnail in sight.

Screen Shot 2017 10 05 at 12.43.27 PM

3. They worked their existing networks

In the beginning, the team followed a classic “influencer marketing” strategy using whatever connections they had.

A day before the show launched (June 27, 2014), the show got a big shout out from none other than Indy himself—who was also hosting episodes for the British Pathe YouTube channel:

British Pathe plug

“That video got us our first 2,500 subscribers,” Flo said.

There were German and Polish versions of the show as well, and the team even got a plug from a popular German YouTuber that resulted in 5,000 subscribers. (Those two versions of the show are no longer running)

4. They pursued collaborations with other YouTube creators

Once The Great War had established a following, it started getting noticed by other YouTube creators.

That, in turn, led to collaboration opportunities.

Their first happened with Extra Credits, a popular channel that publishes content on both game design and history.

In June of 2015, Indy and The Great War got a plug for their new South Africa episode in the opening moments of an Extra Credits video.

Cartoon Indy

On the same day, Dan and Extra Credits got a return plug during an episode of The Great War—in cartoon form of course.

Dan Extra Credits

Thousands of new subscribers found The Great War as a result.

That experience was eye-opening for the team. It led Flo—who leads the channel’s social media efforts—to work much harder at connecting with other creators on YouTube.

“Once you get a few thousand subscribers, other creators can see that you have something going,” Flo said. “The collaborations have been pretty big for us.”

5. They went viral on Reddit (on multiple occasions)

Never underestimate the power of your fans.

When you start with undeniably excellent content, then build initial visibility and momentum, the excitement from your new fans can take you the rest of the way.

Take this for example.

A few months after the show launched, a Redditor, eigenvectorseven, posted a link to the show in the subreddit of r/history.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 4.11.37 AM

People’s reaction?

They loved it.

The post shot up to the front page.

The comments section was filled with people expressing how grateful they were to have found this channel. And for so many varied reasons.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 4.11.00 AM

In five days, 15,000 viewers subscribed to the channel, pushing it past the 25,000 subscriber mark. That’s right, they more than DOUBLED their subscribership in less than a week.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 12.00.32 AM 1

The best part is that they did not do any self-promotion on Reddit.

This happened because a fan wanted to share this channel with the wider community of r/history.

Since then, the show has gained a lot of attention in several other Reddit subreddits as more people have found their way to the channel.

Take a look at Indy and Flo’s Reddit history. Interest in their channel grew so large that they now even have a subreddit for The Great War with over 15k subscribers.

The karma speaks for itself.

How’s that for no ad spend?

The Five Elements of Growth for ‘The Great War’

To summarize, there were five essential elements that combined to drive the growth of The Great War and its subscriber base:

  1. Persistent quality
  2. Search-optimized content
  3. Influencers
  4. Collaborations
  5. Word of mouth

The fifth one being dependent on whether your fans truly like your content and whether they want to share it.

Growth, however, is not the only story from The Great War.

Once people find your content, after all…

It’s your job to keep them engaged, and the Great War founders shared with us their specific and creative tactics for building such crazy engagement.

How ‘The Great War’ Built a Crazy Engaged Audience

“When we started, we decided that engagement would always be important to us,” Flo told us. “And we decided we’d do it no matter how big we got.”

In the early days, that meant Flo responded to every single YouTube comment and often had lengthy discussions with members of the audience.

“We got really great feedback that way,” Flo told us. “It was one of the things our fans really liked about the way we did the show.”

Flo even answered the trolls early on, which is probably why the discussion in the comments sections of the videos is so respectful and helpful—even to this day.

“We learned that even when someone was trolling just to complain about how they thought we did something wrong, we could engage with them,”

Flo said. “We’d point them to a video that answered their question. Or we’d thank them for their comment and sometimes we’d even ask if they had a source for their information so we could use it in future episodes.”

And then they followed through, often including ideas and information sourced from people in their audience.

“It was a way to get people on our side,” Flo said. “And people really liked that. They realized we didn’t just see them as a number on a subscriber chart.”

The shows’ engagement has led to countless collaborative efforts between the creators and the audience.

Just to name a few…

1. You need better maps!

One of the very first problems fans of the show identified was that the team needed better maps.

“We had a lot of people writing in that our maps were wrong,” Flo told us. “It turned into a nightmare for us trying to get it right.”

The team tried (and mostly failed) to improve the maps on their own. They needed to add important references like terrain and topography. But then, someone from the audience stepped in with a referral.

“Someone from our community introduced us to someone who’s an expert in digital cartography,” Flo said. “After that, it was smooth sailing.”

By hiring the professional cartographer to make maps like the one below, the channel maps are much more accurate and better paint a picture of the situations faced in WWI.

2. Fan-suggested specials

One of the easiest ways the team created engagement was by asking what topics people wanted to see for special episodes.

Over and over again, people asked for specials on two individuals:

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Adolph Hitler

Tolkien, if you’re curious, served in a reconnaissance unit, and did not expect to survive the war.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 2.34.49 AM

Hitler, for his part, was on the German western front nearly the entire war. He was wounded twice and partially blinded in a mustard gas attack.

He described his experience in WWI as the happiest time of his life.

Go figure.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 2.39.15 AM

The Great War has now published dozens of specials like these.

Much of the research for these special episodes have been contributed by volunteers from the audience.

3. Authentic letters from the war

As the show has grown, Flo and the team have been contacted by more and more people with letters or other authentic artifacts from the war.

Indy writes the script for each episode and also compiles the research. On any given day, his study in Sweden can be seen stacked full of historical textbooks.

As fans began to take an interest in the channel, letters and manuscripts from the war came pouring in to the team.

They were able to incorporate genuine letters from the war written by one fan’s grandfather.

They were also able to enlist the help of fans to help translate manuscripts from different languages.

Fans were equally as passionate about the creation of the show as watching the final product.

4. Out Of The Trenches Q&A site

Just this year, a group of students studying software development reached out to ask if they could volunteer to build a special question and answer site for the show.

“We get way more questions than we could ever answer now,” Flo said.

“But with this new platform they built, we can at least have one place for people to go when they have a question.”

The team named the site “Out of the Trenches,” and it launched just a few weeks ago.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 2.53.21 AM

The tool is a browser-based web app that works kind of like a mini-Reddit for questions.

“It’s open source,” Flo said. “Anyone else who wants to use it for their projects can do so and it’s great.”

In all the examples, the engagement of Indy, Flo, and the rest of the team has paid off again and again in the form of audience members volunteering to make the show better.

The benefits of a highly engaged audience go well beyond volunteer contributions, however.

There’s also… the financial support.

$10,000/month from Patreon

On February 26, 2015, The Great War launched a Patreon, promising to use any funds generated to upgrade certain features of the show—like, getting better maps.

The channel had around 75,000 subscribers at the time, and they expected a couple of hundred dollars at the most.

Instead, within days, their audience had pledged $1,000/month.

Within a year, that number grew to $10,000/month raised through Patreon.

And as of writing this article in October 2017, they are at $17,518/month.

This revenue—freely donated by their audience—enables the team to hire freelancers to create maps and other graphics for the show.

It has also financed four trips the team has made to WWI sites all over Europe.

“It’s been amazing,” Flo told us. “We get all these ideas and resources from our fans, and now we also have what we need to make big improvements to what we’ve created.”

Note: If you want to launch your own Patreon and start getting paid, you can do it, free, right here.

Also, They Made Socks

You know you have an engaged audience when they start making memes:

conrad von hoetzendorf is the last guy i want to co op with on a strategy game o 6054095

That would be Conrad von Hötzendorf, the particularly lousy general and head of the army of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire at the start of the war.

He comes up a lot.

First, the audience started making memes (like the one above).

Then, in November of 2016, the team responded with a special one-week sale of…

…Hötzensocks.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 12.07.27 AM

They expected to make a few sales of the socks.

Instead, they sold 633 pairs.

The socks were so successful, they ran the sale again in February of 2017—and sold an additional 694 pairs.

Socks

“Oh my God Indy. Are these the original Conrad Von Hötzensocks that were only available for sale in November of 2016?”

We conclude our story here, with Hötzensocks.

Why?

Because, inside jokes are the mark of a creator that has gone far beyond the traditional creator/audience relationship that exists for most productions.

Hötzensocks prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Indy, Flo and the team have become friends with their audience members.

When you can print an obscure photo of a dead WWI general on a pair of teal green socks and sell almost 1,400 pairs in two weeks?

That’s when you know you’ve made it.

A Timeline of ‘The Great War’

For even more information on the channel’s history, including subscriber counts and Patreon monthly support figures, check out this detailed timeline of all the events mentioned in our article and more!

April, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 0
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

Two months before the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, Indy Neidell and Mediakraft CEO Spartacus Olsson have the idea to use an existing trove of photos and video from WWI in a new show that documents WWI, week by week, 100 years after it happens.

Indy and Spartacus

Mid-July, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: <3k
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

Florian “Flo” Wittig (Social Media/Production) and Tony Steller (Camera, Sound, Editing) are hired as producers of the show.

A flurry of activity begins to prepare the first video for the WWI centennial on July 28.

Flo and Toni on a tank

June 27, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: <4k
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

Indy narrates a video on the YouTube Channel British Pathé” introducing “The Great War” as a new project.

British Pathe plug

June 28, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: <5k
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

“The Great War” launches its first video, narrated by Indy.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 5.33.19 PM

 

September 26, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 6,770
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

Reddit user Dre_J posts the show on r/documentaries subreddit. Post goes viral and makes the front page of Reddit.

Screen Shot 2017 10 01 at 11.44.09 PM

Comments are almost entirely positive. The show picks up thousands of new subscribers.

Screen Shot 2017 10 01 at 11.43.14 PM Screen Shot 2017 10 01 at 11.43.36 PM

November 12, 2014

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 34,575
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

The Great War reaches 25,000 subscribers on YouTube:

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 12.00.32 AM

February 26, 2015

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 68,885
  • Patreon Monthly Support: N/A

Patreon launched for The Great War. Within weeks, fans have committed to $1,000/mo in support.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 5.38.49 PM

 

June 29, 2015

The channel reached 100,000 subscribers!

Patreon Monthly Support: $3532/month

Summer 2015

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 126,417
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $4,899/month

Markus Linke (Research, Fact Checking, Pictures) and Julian Zahn (Editing) join the team.

Markus and Julian in front of a German plane

December, 2015

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 202,510
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $6,877/month

Merchandise store launched.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 12.05.45 AM

Here’s Indy modeling one of the shirts on set:

Im an Austro Hungarian Soldier

March 27, 2016

The channel reached 250,000 subscribers!

  • Patreon Monthly Support: $9,904/month

August, 2016

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 374,530
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $14,047/month

Funded by Patreon donations, the team makes its first road trip to Poland, where they film several special episodes.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 6.06.00 PM

November, 2016

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 449,620
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $16,127/month

Special Conrad Von Hötzensocks issued in a special one-week sale.

633 pairs sold.

Screen Shot 2017 10 02 at 12.07.27 AM

January, 2017

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 516,190
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $16,127/month

Reissue of Hötzensocks for additional one-week sale.

694 additional pairs sold.

The channel reached 500,000 subscribers!

February, 2017

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 540,490
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $16,877/month

Trip to Verdun, France, to film episodes from the western front of much of the war.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 6.07.55 PM

April 26, 2017

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 611,220
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $19,495/month

Flo films a special episode in the midst of the YouTube “Adpocalypse,” when many YouTube creators were seeing dramatic reductions in the income they received from the platform.

Flo reassures the audience that The Great War will continue without interruption, largely due to the support of the audience on Patreon.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 5.59.39 PM

July, 2017

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 666,830
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $19,975/month

Trip to England to the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome in Chelmsford and The Tank Museum in Bovington, where the team stood on a tank.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 6.18.18 PM

September, 2017

  • YouTube Subscriber Count: 705,060
  • Patreon Monthly Support: $20,933/month

Trip to Austria, Slovenia, and Italy, including a stop in Salzburg at Conrad von Hötzendorf Street.

Screen Shot 2017 10 03 at 6.09.42 PM

 

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