The Simple Question the Producers of the Wildly Popular ‘Crash Course’ Ask Themselves When Creating Content
With more than 8.4 million subscribers and counting, producer and host Nicole Sweeney takes us behind the scenes.
6 min read
In this series, YouTube Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular YouTube channels to find out the secrets of their success.
While Nicole Sweeney was getting her masters degree from 2011 to 2014, she began studying YouTube fan communities and how they differed from fan communities that emerged before the internet. She then caught the YouTube bug herself.
“While I was spending all this time researching YouTubers, I started periodically making things of my own with friends,” Sweeney recalled to Entrepreneur. “Shortly after I finished grad school, I saw a job listing on Tumblr. Crash Course was hiring an editor and I was like, these are literally the only people in the entire world who will ever care about my thesis. If nothing else, I have to apply.”
She got the job, and three years later, she is an integral part of how Crash Course gets made. More than 8.4 million people subscribe to the educational YouTube channel created by Hank and John Green, which aims to inspire and enlighten viewers about everything from history to computer science to mythology.
Sweeney is not only a host on the channel, teaching its sociology course, but a producer, editor and director as well. She shared her insights about how to build a thriving community, work in a team and create engaging, useful content.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How much of your time do you spend on a video, and what does that entail?
My job is mostly overseeing all of the different pieces in the projects that we have. Once [an episode has] been written, the script editor looks it over and a consultant is present at every stage to make sure that everything is correct. Once it’s edited, that’s the first time that it gets handed to me. Me and the host will go over the episode and make sure that everything makes sense. When we shoot the episode it usually takes us about an hour to film each 10-minute episode. Then I edit the episode and that takes maybe another four hours, give or take, and then it goes off to graphics [contractor] Thought Cafe. They put together a screener and the consultant reviews that.
Once they’re done with graphics they send that to me and then I assemble something and send that off to our sound design team. Once it goes to sound design that comes back to me and then the whole thing goes up to YouTube. That whole process from the moment I get the script to when the episode goes out is stretched out over a few months. There’s there are good dozen or so people who have their hands on each episode from start to finish.
How do you leverage your YouTube channel, and to what extent do you monetize it?
Crash Course was started with money from a YouTube grant. Ad revenue is certainly a piece of it, but ad revenue alone is not enough to sustain what we’re doing. We’ve been fortunate that a lot of people believe in the thing that we’re doing. Crowdfunding is ultimately a huge piece. We have a partnership with PBS, and PBS also helps get us sponsorships.
How would you describe Crash Course’s content strategy?
Every year we have a big pitch meeting to determine what courses and things we’re going to do the next year. In that meeting we talk about a number of different things, but the rising question that motivates that meeting and then down the line as we’re making decisions about what we’re doing, is what we think would be most useful for people.
We’re in a special space because of what we’re doing, but given what we are doing and given the sustainability is tied to people believing in our mission statement, it is critical for us to make all of our large content decisions based around what is going to provide the most good and be the most useful. The fact that we are creating things from that place is part of how we like are able to get buy-in support from other people and so that’s the big question that drives everything we do.
What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
YouTube is a wild and weird space. It’s easy to get on the platform but it is not easy to make it sustainable. You just have to care about the thing that you’re doing. More than that though I think finding good people to work with is essential to the sustainability of the thing. And for my part, I would add that it’s worth considering what is the thing that you most enjoy about making YouTube videos. What is the piece of that that is the most enjoyable to you.
Because this industry has gotten big enough and all of the biggest channels are effectively being produced by teams, it’s easy to view a single personality as the full force, but by and large there are big teams all over the platform. There are administrative people, editors, camera people, graphics people, writers. So what is the thing that you most enjoy doing? Even if your end goal is that you want to be that big personality, it’s worth spending time with other people who are doing this and finding ways that you can be a piece in the larger puzzle.
Check out some of Sweeney’s favorite Crash Course videos below.
The Sun: Crash Course Astronomy #10
“Astronomy was one of the first things I worked on at Crash Course and I learned so much both about astronomy and about how to do my job. This feels so silly now, and I would totally make this video differently now, but I was proud of myself for coming up with a good way to do the scale b-roll of the sun in this episode. Also, the sun is just cool and interesting.”
The Meaning of Knowledge: Crash Course Philosophy #7
“I was combing through philosophy episodes because it was so fascinating to work on, and then I remembered that one time the writers made us bring in a cat to film an episode and it was a journey, so this episode gives you both knowledge and cats.”
Crime: Crash Course Sociology #20
“Sociology was always tricky to navigate, because the nuance matters so much, but I’m proud of how well we managed to handle difficult topics with care.”
Media Skills: Crash Course Media Literacy #11
“Media literacy was an important series for us to make and this video is probably the most important part.”
What is Engineering?: Crash Course Engineering #1
“I have to shout out something we’re working on right now — I am learning a ton from this series already.”