What’s Ryan Trahan’s secret to going viral?
Ryan Trahan is one of YouTube’s most prolific new creators. In 2021, he amassed 313 million views, 35 million hours of watch time, and gained over 3.3 million new subscribers. His thumbnail and editing style are regarded as legendary in the creator community, and his infectious positivity and engaging videos continue to reach increasingly massive audiences.
His videos like “I Spent 100 Days in the Metaverse” and “Overnight in the World's Loneliest House” led him to pass his idol (and internet grandfather) Dr. Phil in subscribers, resulting in a hilarious collaboration: “I Confronted Dr. Phil.”
This month, Ryan has embarked on his most determined journey yet: a 30-day project where he plans to survive for a month on the road starting with just one penny. The goal? To raise money for Feeding America to help end hunger. To date, Ryan has already surpassed his ambitious goal of $100,000 — equating to about 1 million meals. How far will he be able to go?
We caught up with Ryan to learn more about his creative tricks, tips and the inspiration behind it all.
Let’s get down to the basics — how did you get started on YouTube?
I loved YouTube growing up. I didn't have cable, so I grew up watching YouTubers and they were the people I always aspired to become one day. And it was so crazy because I grew up in a small town, and you just don't really think that you have the permission to dream that big.
One summer I had this idea of trying to turn a penny into $1,000 instead of getting a job because I was obsessed with Gary Vee at the time. I was going to a garage sale to buy comic books and sell them on eBay, and thought, “What if I just recorded it?” And so I did that and the video did really well. I grew up in a town of 3,000 people and they got 5,000 views, and it was the most unreal thing. In my head, I didn't understand how it was mathematically possible. And so that was how I got started.
This concept has now evolved from one day on a penny to a week to now your entire month of June. What’s your latest mission all about?
So I'm starting in Los Angeles with one penny. My goal is to give that penny to MrBeast. However, I'm only allowed to use that penny to get there so I have to buy and sell my way to buy bus tickets, plane tickets. And we have a whole fun fundraising element where if a company or brand donates $50,000 to Feeding America through my channel, I have to restart to a penny.
It's a really fun and interactive series and every day is going to be a new story. I'm going to meet incredible people along the way, and try to give a voice to people that don't have a platform. And you can hang out with me the entire summer every day of June. It's going to be a blast!
Your penny series has clearly shaped the direction of your channel. What is it about a single penny that inspires you so much?
It’s just so accessible. I can find one of those literally under an abandoned shoe on the beach. They're everywhere. And I think what it taught me is that spending a lot of money and having a high production value doesn't necessarily mean it's going to connect with the audience and inspire people, and really resonate with people.
I got a tattoo of a penny on my leg because it just represents this idea that creativity and passion can literally come from the smallest thing.
You’ve become known in the creator community for your epic thumbnails. What’s your secret to making them? Is there a formula?
The path that a lot of creators find themselves on, and I even have sometimes, is creating an image for the thumbnail that feels inaccurate, exploitative and crazy reaction face when in reality, we actually connect a lot deeper with a very subtle face” Ryan Trahan
I think the path that a lot of creators find themselves on, and I even have sometimes, is creating an image for the thumbnail that feels inaccurate, exploitative and crazy reaction face when in reality, we actually connect a lot deeper with a very subtle face and subtle emotions.
The approach we take is, “How can we honestly make a very pretty photo?” It's almost like a canvas. It's, “How can I create a piece of art that represents this video that will resonate with people?” And typically it's very simple. It's a clear background, clean background, my face and then whatever the heck is going on. So it's less technical and more artistic which is really fun.
When you’re out taking photos for a thumbnail or editing your footage, do you immediately know when something is the thumbnail?
Yeah! In my “I spent 100 days in Grand Theft Auto” video, we took 3,000 photos. We woke up five mornings in a row at 5:30 a.m. because the lighting is the best right before the sun breaks dawn. And there was literally one where I was like “Oh, that's the thumbnail.” And it's crazy because it could be lighting on my face, the smallest expression, maybe it's the money being held in the right sort of format. There is a factor of luck too, but just going out there consistently and taking so many photos allows for that one perfect one to come through.
There seems to be a lot of opinion on keywords or even the amount of text to put on the thumbnail. What’s your approach?
Sometimes a complementary subtitle on the thumbnail can literally be the difference between it being the most interesting thumbnail they see for the day and something they just scroll past. I'll type so many different options in that subtitle slot, and it'll be some things that just don't fit or some things that just don't really resonate. And then you find out oh, these three words make this thumbnail so much better. It really is just a brainstorm process.
There’s a big sense of community in your videos, from you interacting with folks you meet on your journey to setting your project goals to benefit communities in need. Why is this so important for you to emphasize?
I remember growing up watching YouTubers and thinking “Wow, one day if I had a platform like this I'm going to use it for good.” I told myself early on that I didn't want to wait until I was the biggest YouTuber in the world to try to do something good. There's so many people that watch my videos that want to see the world be a better place.
The realization I had is, this is the only thing that's truly real that I have with my community because we're doing something that actually makes people's lives different and better.” Ryan Trahan
When I moved to Austin, Texas, it was really eye-opening. There were a lot of people experiencing homelessness there. My wife and I would be at stoplights talking to people and hearing their stories. I feel like a lot of people might not even roll down a window and ask their name, but even that is so empowering for them. And so that motivated me in 2019 to do my first fundraiser for Front Steps, which is a local homeless shelter there.
The realization I had is, this is the only thing that's truly real that I have with my community because we're doing something that actually makes people's lives different and better.
As you evolve, both as a person and as a creator with an increasingly growing audience, how do you maintain your authenticity through the pressure to make and put out more content?
This year we had a great breakthrough. We realized that it's very easy to do exploitative work. But the idea that we could potentially do redemptive work in which we're actually creating restoration in our viewer's lives rather than trying to exploit them to stay watching for a few more seconds got us really excited. And we were absolutely enthralled with the idea of making the next video transformative for the viewer.
Our content now is doing better than when we were trying to strive for profit or views or retention. We're done striving and it's crazy that it's working. A metric of success for us is just being honest with ourselves. Did we make this with love? And we know, we can definitely tell.
It seems like you just lean into your natural curiosity and empathy for things that are around you.
That's a great way to put it for sure. It's trying to bring an active mindset to the creating. I think that's why the daily vlog is so exciting because it feels alive.
It would be an absolute disservice if [creators] didn't bring their unique personality, their unique perspective ... Because that is the most addicting thing about finding and discovering someone new.” Ryan Trahan
As we wrap up, what are some things you want to say to your viewers and creators who look up to you?
l love this question. I have conversations with up-and-coming creators a lot, and the biggest thing I try to tell them is you can absolutely be inspired by people and you can even copy people to get started just to figure out how to make a video. But I think it would be an absolute disservice if they didn't bring their unique personality, their unique perspective. How do they see the world? What's their favorite font? What makes them, them and how can they bring that to the platform? Because that is the most addicting thing about finding and discovering someone new. Everyone is a genius and has that unique thing inside of them that they can bring to the platform and run with. Just be yourself.
…well, what is your favorite font?
I love an Arial font. You could probably go to a library and there would be a grandmother using it. It’s vintage and classic. I just love it!