How he grew a philosophy/video essay channel to 287K subscribers & $8.5K/mo

Apr 2 2024
Case Studies

Clark Elieson Overview

Clark Elieson runs a YouTube channel that creates philosophy videos using a unique blend of art, video games, anime and online media. Clark is an outlier in that he has 287K subscribers and just 10 videos on his channel.

Key Takeaways

  • Put in as much effort as possible even if it's for the smallest thing. People will notice that. Even if they don't say it, it'll leave an impact.
  • The topic is the most important part of a video. Amount of people you reach < amount of people who are interested in that topic. But your reach shrinks a lot whenever the topic is not very interesting. 
  • Don’t try and drum up your title; just simply make the title the topic of your video. What it is should be interesting enough to capture attention all on its own; if isn’t, it’s probably not a good topic.
  • To find great video ideas, find ideas related to videos you’ve posted that have been successful in the past or bring a new perspective to content you’re consuming
  • Start a video with the climax/most provocative part of the entire video. Put the explosion/climax at the beginning and then eventually build up to the climax again with a story.

Why did you start your YouTube channel?

Starting this YouTube channel was inevitable. When I was a kid, I was thinking deeply and philosophically about things even before I knew that it would be classified as philosophy.

I also had an obsession for many years with filming, directing, and editing my own home movies/videos. I'd burn them on DVDs and we watched them as a family.

During COVID, I started my YouTube channel as a hobby. I started a video podcast where my best friend and I would read a book a week, write questions about it for each other, and discuss it.

It didn't grow very popular. I never got more than 10,000 views on a video and there weren't very many of these, but it kind of sparked for me a love of the platform.

After that moment, I took down all the videos and started what would become this channel as it’s known today.

Today I see my channel as only half of a greater endeavour: my education in philosophy.

I often joke that I just want to get paid to read. But there really is no other way I’d rather teach myself than working on videos at the same time. 

How did you get started?

I remember seeing a video by Solar Sands on Liminal Spaces and thinking “I want to make whatever that kind of video is”. I later learned that those videos were called video essays.

The first video I posted was for a final paper for one of my philosophy classes (Existentialism and Phenomenology). It was a huge coincidence that I could submit a video on liminal spaces as a final paper.

Clark Elieson 1

To research, I went back and poured over all of the books that we’d read in class and scrolled through the r/LiminalSpace subreddit. And I paid close attention to how I felt about these images. My goal was to use what I was studying to explain my feelings.

Before I wrote everything out, I made a playlist of music to set the mood for the video (which would end up becoming a pattern later on). Then I just started editing.

I wanted the video to feel homemade but cinematic and well thought-out/ produced at the same time. Making it feel very relatable and homemade adds a certain charm to the experience. Especially when it comes to philosophy. 

I think most of that video was just images of these liminal spaces as I'm talking about them. So the editing wasn’t exactly advanced. But I also went out and recorded scenes of myself kicking around past midnight on these empty streets in a small town.

I've always liked putting in as much effort as possible even if it's for the smallest thing. Especially then. People will notice that. Even if they don't say it, it'll leave an impact.

How & when did you get to 10, 100, 1000 subscribers (etc) and to where you are currently?  

Clark Elieson 2

I've seen channels grow way quicker than I have by posting more but I'm not so worried about the subscribers as I am about views.

The first 1,000 is definitely the hardest.

Everything up to the first 1,000 came from doing that podcast. I didn't start a new channel because I knew my audience would still appreciate the content I’d put out in the future. So I just deleted all those videos and started posting the new stuff.

My principle was just “put out quality, and you don't have to worry about much else”.

When I was first starting, I would help other channels with their title or thumbnail. Not every video I helped took off or improved anything but I learned through that why it didn't do well later. And so having all of the reward without the risk was super super helpful. I still do this, just nowhere near as much.

I'm a big believer that nobody loses when everybody wins on YouTube.

Clark Elieson Channel Growth

What are the key lessons you’ve learnt on your way to 287K subscribers?

The topic is the most important thing about your entire video

If you don't have a topic that people want to hear about, you're never going to reach the full amount of people that you want to reach. 

Clark Elieson 3

The amount of people that you reach is always going to be smaller than the amount of people who are interested in that topic. But it shrinks a lot whenever the topic is not very interesting. 

I learned that through my video on parasocial relationships. There aren't a lot of people or communities who just scroll through YouTube to watch videos about parasocial relationships. So I learned that just because I have something to say about a topic doesn’t mean people will want to hear about it.

Whenever you're looking for a topic, you should search for that topic on YouTube and look at the difference between the videos’ views and the channel’s subscribers. If a video has more views than the channel that posted it has subscribers, it's probably going to be a good topic. 

Just don’t ignore any extra nuance about outlier videos on topics, formulas like this can only take you so far on their own.

The mistake I made in my video on parasocial relationships was seeing a video with ~1M views and concluding I could get those same numbers with a video of my own.

What I failed to acknowledge was that that video featured several of the largest streamers on Twitch who reacted to that video with their audience live after it was published. It was a total outlier. Oops!

Put as much effort into the thumbnail as possible

I try to subtract as much of the noise as possible from a thumbnail and focus on inspiring a feeling in people. 

Here’s two thumbnails I used side by side for my “The Desire to Not Exist” video. I’ve never shown this to anyone before.

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The first thumbnail was a copy of the Ryan Trahan format. I was really hyped about it. But just because something has worked for one person doesn't mean that it'll work for you, for a million different reasons.

So I originally posted the video with [the first] thumbnail and it did not take off. Then I used [the second] thumbnail of Shinji in this white space with nothingness all around him and people would leave comments saying it looked different to what people were used to seeing. 

I want my thumbnails to be able to stand alone as works of art outside of YouTube. I mainly use things directly painted or drawn by people for that reason. If human hands created it, it feels so much more inviting. It also signals to potential viewers that effort was put into the video if the thumbnail is handmade.

I’ve stuck to this concept of inspiring simple emotions through very simple primal concepts instead of doing those hyper-colourful, noisy thumbnails.

It isn't that these styles of thumbnails are bad, it's that they’ve been copied from bigger creators without knowing why they work. Thumbnails work best when they inspire a feeling.

Change the thumbnail if it’s not working

I’ll always have one or two thumbnails ready to go and just swap them out. If you see an increase in views, good. If you don't after several better thumbnails, it probably means the topic is bad. You’ll get it next time!

Clark Elieson X

Make the title the topic of the video

Instead of trying to drum it up and add artificial intrigue, just simply put what it is. What it is should be interesting enough to capture attention all on its own.

If MrBeast has a video on the “World's largest swimming pool” and it's just an average swimming pool, it's not going to work. So if we remove that clickbait element and say “World's most average swimming pool”, that's just not that interesting of a topic. 

In my “The Desire to Not Exist” video, the video is literally just about the desire to not exist. I don't say how the desire to not exist influences X, Y, or Z; I just put the topic. 

What I've learned works best for me is not to write videos about a specific piece of media but about its subject matter, and then include other pieces of media in my discussion of that central topic.

Tailor your videos to stand out to people who aren’t watching videos on that same topic

YouTube will show your video to people who are already consuming videos on that same topic. But you want it to stand out to people who aren’t watching videos on that topic. 

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My original idea for “The Game with a Perfect Portrayal of Trauma” was just to put the name of the game in the title (Omori) and talk about what made it unique. 

But to appeal to people who’d never heard of this game before, I made the title a kind of thesis and many more people were interested in it (who were interested in trauma or maybe just the game).

That’s why I don’t advertise my videos as videos on philosophy. It would limit my audience. Sure enough, when I put “philosophy” in the title of one of my videos the kind of comments I got were different from usual. 

How much money are you making (and how)?

Clark Elieson Channel Income Report

Sometimes you'll have a great month where a video that you posted two years ago is suddenly seeing more views now. And sometimes you don't, and you just have to use what you've saved. 

AdSense is my most unstable source of income. When I post a video, it gets a lot of views and then tapers after that. Because I have many quality, evergreen videos, I've been riding on the coattails of these videos for years.

In the last six months, AdSense has made me $1,500 per month on average (fluctuating between $1-6K per month). But I also took a three-month long break. So I haven’t posted anything successful in that time.

Patreon is my most stable source of income but people still unsubscribe and resubscribe all the time. I’m planning to start making lectures on books I reference over and over again and post them on Patreon. 

For my sponsorship deals, I was getting about $8,000 per video but I found out that I was undercharging. So now I work with an agency and we shoot for $17,000 per video.

You should, no matter what your job is, discuss with your peers/coworkers what you make. Don’t let brands undercharge.

What does your content creation process look like?

Clark Elieson Content Creation Process

Finding ideas/topics

Inspiration for me comes from just about anywhere. The idea for a video on dementia came to me from a nightmare I once had. There are a lot of ways that I get inspired. 

When I attended VidSummit in 2022, Paddy Galloway took the stage to recommend coming up with 100 video ideas regularly in order to end up with 5 or so viral ideas. Then, at VidSummit 2023 he claimed that they’re the most important part of a video.

Because I post so infrequently, having a lot of great ideas leaves me with a lot of videos I want to do but never get to. So brainstorming 1,000 video ideas a month isn't beneficial for my model. 

What I do is write down (most) of my ideas when they come to me. Those will be the titles of the videos, as well. I like to have my subscribers vote on which of these ideas they like the best. But I do what I find most interesting regardless. 

I find that my subconscious will automatically start working on really great video ideas and inspire me with material for them at random moments. That’s when I know I definitely have a banger.

I think it was Hemingway who said that you shouldn’t write down your ideas because if you forget them then it means they weren't worth remembering. I wouldn't go that far, but a good idea is hard to forget.

Find something related to a video I've already posted that was successful

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My first video was on “Liminal Spaces”. Then, I posted “The Backrooms: Fear of Being Forgotten” which was related to liminal spaces.

Then, I went from “Fear of Being Forgotten” to “Fear of Forgetting” to “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be” so those four all influenced each other. 

Bring new perspectives to the content I’m consuming

I was watching something, like “Attack on Titan”, and thinking ”Oh my gosh this is so Hegelian”. And I had all of these theories about how the philosophy of Hegel would add a new perspective to people who are watching it. 

There’s a video by Jacob Geller (a creator I think so highly of I can't watch his content or else it sends me into a horrible state of imposter syndrome), in which he discusses the ‘future of writing about [video] games.’

The thesis of his video is that your personal perspective is the secret sauce for truly profound and compelling writing. Things that are personable are irreplicable. Your passion will drive your viewers. This is why I always say that if you aren't having fun as a YouTuber, you’ve lost the plot. 

Video games as pieces of art aren't meant to be digested objectively. And neither is philosophy. We don't interact with the world objectively. Kant and Lacan testify to that. How is philosophy supposed to capture the true essence of life if it fails to recognize the subjective experiences that give birth to it? 

All of my videos are secretly self-directed therapy sessions. I’ve never told anybody this but when I wrote my video on "The Desire to Not Exist", I was suffering from that desire myself. Eventually, I would be medicated for depression, and that’s done wonders.

But before that, I found that as I wrote about the desire, I began to cure myself of it. And after publishing the video I haven’t felt that way since. That very real emotion that went into the research and writing for that video is undoubtedly what put it on another level. 

Then, my video on "The Horror of Having a Body" was inspired by my experiences with Type 1 diabetes.

As Emil Cioran wrote: “Only write books if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” That quote is tattooed on the inside of my skull.

This kind of writing makes you very vulnerable. I still struggle to put a spotlight on myself. There’s also something to be said for allowing people to read themselves in your emotion by not stamping it all with words like “I” and “me.”

Sometimes, the word you’re really looking for is “you.” But if you want people to relate to your work on an emotional level then your work should be the product of your personal perspective. That’s also what makes for ‘effective’ philosophy.

Title and thumbnail

If I can’t come up with a title that feels like it's going to click, I don't make the video. Pitching the title to my friends or family and seeing how they react vs how I want them to react is usually a good method for deciding that.

[Similarly], if you can't come up with a thumbnail that meets the criteria that I already outlined [above], maybe you don't know how to express the title or maybe the topic is sour and you need to throw it out.


Finding music

The next step is finding music and reading books on the topic (in that order).

I start with music because I want to make people understand an emotion by giving them the opportunity to be immersed in it. 

I mainly use music from video games (or old anime) but I also work with someone (HOHENHEIM) who I go to whenever I need a piece specially made.

In my “Fear of Forgetting” video, I used songs that were meant to simulate dementia while I was talking about what it’s like to have dementia. It paints a picture of why it’s so much more devastating than just the initial, simple premise that we already understand it as.

Using music helps add atmosphere and it gets me in the mood. It’s kind of like I'm trying to paint not just theory but a fantasy world that people step into.

Reading books

For my longest video (almost 2 hours long), I read 21 books, watched a documentary, and repeatedly played two games. Not to mention all of the other little things that contributed. But it varies wildly. 

When I first started writing video essays I told myself “Eventually, I’ll get to a point where I can use the books I’ve read already for future videos.” That’s kind of where I’m at now. 

What's really helpful about philosophy is that every book is about other books. 

So, once you have a basic understanding of research, you just have to pick up a book, flip to a mention of something close enough to what you’re looking for, look at its source, and then just read those books. 

Because I will forever be asked this question until the day I die… I don't have any philosophy books that are good for beginners. The philosophy you read should be a reflection of YOUR life. I’m talking about your concerns, your problems, your desires.

What are you worried about? Go to your library and find a philosophy book on it. While not every philosopher would agree, I’ve always believed philosophy should first and foremost be used to solve problems. 

Scripting and editing

I start thinking about what the final video will look like (edited and published) while I’m writing my script.

Writing has kind of blended into the research phase where I read, write and do a lot of the editing as well.

Sometimes before I start writing my scripts I’ll write prose or just jot down words that I like. They may not make it into the video but they still set the tone for the project and can be a helpful refresher when I have writer's block.  

Clark Elieson Z

After 10 videos, what I try to do now is start a video with the most provocative parts of the entire video. The part that is really the most emotional of all of it.

If someone like Mark Rober is doing an elephant toothpaste video, he'll put the explosion at the very beginning of the video and then show him leading up to that. 

You put the climax of the video at the beginning and then eventually you build up to the climax again. It makes so much sense because then it comes full circle and you provide a kind of storytelling satisfaction. 

When writing, I use ChatGPT as a research assistant with the prompt: “What would <philosopher> think of <idea>?” (e.g. “What would Walter Benjamin think about nostalgia?”). It tells me sources that fit perfectly with what I’m trying to use this thinker for that I didn’t know about.

The part of my writing process that takes the longest is translating dense philosophical texts into layman's English. A lot of other channels disrespect the original texts. That annoys me.

I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I would never compromise on writing about complex ideas in a way that people can understand without dumbing them down and losing what’s so powerful about them. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

I also like to use free association while putting together my visuals. If I don’t know what to put in for a part of a video, I’ll ask myself, “What’s the first thing I think of?” and just go with that. I come up with some seriously personal visuals that add personality to a format that can easily lack it.

One of my secret techniques is that I shoot for having a few ‘comment generators’ in my videos. The most common examples from my videos are panels from the manga Berserk. People go crazy about it in the comments, which boosts engagement. 

It’s not too hard to come up with these. Memes, unexpected music from popular games, and nostalgia bait all qualify as comment generators. Anything people have a strong pre-existing emotional connection to. Is a game trending? Use part of its soundtrack.

Where can we find out more about you? And is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just subscribe to my YouTube channel. That's where everything important is.

I'm not sponsored by them but something that was really good for me was going to VidSummit. If you watch every episode of The Editing Podcast for a month you would probably have the same amount of knowledge by going to VidSummit once. 

Still, meeting and talking to other creators you likely never would have met otherwise is helpful in a way beyond just the knowledge. Later, seeing these creators who’ve become your friends evolve and succeed over time motivates you to do better yourself. And you can pay the good generated from your relationship forward to new YouTubers. 

If you’re like me and yearn for book recommendations, the only business book I’ve ever needed was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The other books on my shelf with destroyed spines are The Sublime Object of Ideology, Being and Time, and Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity

Let me conclude by acknowledging the many contradicting pieces of advice out there about this job.

There is no one perfect business model for YouTube. One person’s ‘ace in the hole’ may not be ideal or even possible for you. And I think that’s absolutely beautiful.

What I hope you’ll pay close attention to from now on as you try to improve your craft are the fundamental principles behind every piece of advice.

As a creator who writes about philosophy, a lot of the conventional tips about storytelling that get passed around weren’t helpful at face value. But when I thought about why those techniques worked so well for that niche, I learned how to apply those principles towards writing arguments. There’s some Aristotle in that for you. 

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