Why you should focus on YouTube watch time

[This article was written by Gray Gannaway. To make the most money from your music and videos on YouTube, check out Illustrated Sound.]

Watch time is one of the most important but misunderstood concepts that affect the health of your YouTube channel and videos.

While many video creators focus exclusively on their view counts, YouTube prioritizes watch time (and not view counts) when it’s deciding how favorably to treat your video in search results and featured placements across the YouTube platform.

Because YouTube view counts can be so easily gamed by misleading thumbnails, automated bots, and other illegal services that promise to artificially increase your video’s views, YouTube now measures the total amount of time a viewer watches your video (and any videos they watch after your video). They call that metric “watch time,” and it’s the total minutes and hours that a viewer spends watching videos.

YouTube states that watch time is “the most important method for measuring success on your channel and videos”, and it is the primary influence of all major search and discovery algorithms across YouTube.

Watch time isn’t about the length of your video

Channel owners commonly think that making their videos longer or shorter may help because they either think that longer videos will increase the total amount of time viewers watch their videos, or that shortening them will ensure that someone will watch the full duration of their videos. While both of those instances may occasionally happen to contribute to additional watch time, the most important element in determining watch time is the viewing session length – the total amount of time the viewer spends watching YouTube after your video in one sitting. So making your video longer than it should be probably just means the viewer will lose interest and click away to something else, and making your video shorter than it should be doesn’t provide any real benefit to you.

There are a few key sections in your YouTube Analytics that will help you monitor and understand your watch time, and how that is affecting your channel’s activity. Several reports in YTA (YouTube Analaytics) will allow you to view the total estimated minutes watched for individual videos, playlists, or the entire channel.

Audience Retention

The Audience Retention report allows you to see the average view duration of videos on your channel. For individual videos, you can also view a graph that shows you the exact percentage of your audience that watched any portion of your video. This allows you to see exactly what parts of a video are causing your audience to lose interest, and which parts of the video viewers may be rewinding to watch again. YouTube also provides a “Relative audience retention” graph that shows you how your video’s audience retention compares to other similar videos.


You may have noticed that the most successful YouTube channels constantly remind their viewers to subscribe to their channel in every video they release. Data has proven that subscribers are much more likely to generate more views and watch time for your channel than a casual unsubscribed viewer will, so it’s important to prompt your viewers to subscribe to your channel through a call-to-action (CTA). This CTA can be a verbal cue (like clearly stating “make sure you subscribe” on camera during your video) or a visual cue like an annotation or Card.

Make it a habit to prompt viewers to subscribe to your channel every time you release a video, and let them know exactly what kind of videos they can expect to see from you once they’re a subscriber. Also make sure to regularly check the Subscribers report in YouTube Analytics to see exactly where your subscribers are coming from and which videos are gaining you the most new subscribers.

Optimization Tips

1. Make your videos as long as they should be. Don’t try to game the system by making content shorter or longer than you normally would.

2. Hook your audience. At the beginning of the video (and possibly in the description field), tell your viewers what they have to look forward to towards the end of your video so that they’ll want to continue to watch it in its entirety.

3. Develop programming strategies. Use official series playlists, sections on your channel page, and end slates on your videos to sequence your videos and encourage your viewers to watch more of your content.

4. Highlight additional videos. Use Cards, Featured Content (formerly known as “InVideo programming”), annotations, and the description field of your video to notify your viewers of other similar videos you have on your channel.

5. Include calls-to-action. Use CTAs by telling your viewers exactly what they can expect when they subscribe to your channel and including subscribe links with Cards.

Apply to join Illustrated Sound (CD Baby’s new YouTube network): maximize your YouTube earnings, build a content strategy, and optimize your channel and videos! 

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