Arieh Smith, aka Xiaoma, owns a YouTube channel with over two-and-a-half million subscribers. In his videos, Ari surprises native Chinese speakers with his ability to speak Chinese.
But while YouTube has given Xiaoma a considerable audience for his Chinese language videos, it has also brought a core of fans who want to learn Mandarin the way he did; naturally, through conversation and study, and because he fell in love with the language.
In this interview, you will learn:
How Arieh got to China
How he got started on YouTube
Some of his motivations
How his videos went viral
How he figured out what his audience wanted to watch
Monetization possibilities on YouTube
Arieh’s passion for teaching Chinese
Tips for Langpreneurs on YouTube
Arieh’s stay in China
Arieh Smith was a regular sophomore in college, wondering what to do for the summer of 2009, when he got the chance to travel to China. A place opened up in the “Princeton in Beijing” programme; a two-month course for American students. Ari knew a smattering of Chinese, having studied it in school, and he immediately grabbed the chance to immerse himself in the language.
The students may have been American, but they pledged to speak nothing but Chinese for the entire two months of the course. Instead of studying Chinese, they were using it, which is the best way to learn a language.
Arieh enjoyed the experience so much that he stayed on for the whole year at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). In 2010, he returned to New York speaking Chinese almost like a native and with an abiding love of the culture and language.
A taste for video
In China, there’s a fascination with foreigners who can speak Chinese. Arieh says there’s a cottage entertainment industry there with TV, radio and online programmes featuring singing programmes and competitions like “Who can speak the best Chinese?”
Arieh cheerfully admits that stage fright prevented him from doing well in any of these competitions, but it did give him the taste for doing video.
So, when he eventually made it back to New York, Arieh decided to post some videos of himself speaking Chinese online.
A confusing start on YouTube
In 2011 Arieh created his first channel, Ari in Beijing, but he wasn’t sure what sort of videos to make or who might watch them.
His first language videos were aimed at foreigners who were learning to speak Chinese. But when he posted a video of himself speaking various Beijing dialects, it went viral, with 800,000 views – many of which came from China.
Arieh decided to post other, similar videos on his channel, but somehow they didn’t have the popularity of that first hit.
So he kept experimenting with language videos and came up with his “Chinese Street Food” series. In these videos, he persuaded Americans to try Spicy Chinese Hotpot and other dishes for the first time, and filmed their reactions.
Again, the videos went viral among his Chinese viewers, but the views dropped as the novelty wore off.
Clearly, Arieh’s YouTube channel might be popular with Asians for the novelty value, but it wasn’t going to make him much money. So, he concentrated on his day jobs in finance and software and kept the Chinese language videos as a happy sideline.
Arieh having fun in the streets of New York
Xiaoma in NYC targets a different audience
Arieh kept trying to play the viral-video numbers game on YouTube and other websites such as Bilibili, with similar mixed success.
So, he decided to approach the problem from another angle. Chinese people enjoyed the “street food” videos but quickly lost interest. Perhaps, he thought, the format would work for other Asians too. So, he tried making Filippino, Malaysian and Indonesian food videos. Sure enough, they were popular as well.
On “Ari in Beijing” the videos were mainly language videos for people who were learning Chinese. But these new videos were aimed at native Chinese speakers, so Arieh felt he needed a new channel to cater to this new audience.
That’s how Xiaoma in NYC was born. Ironically, Arieh says, although he started the channel because of the new audience, his fanbase has probably changed a dozen times since then. That fact has taught him a valuable lesson. He finally realized that:
“The channel is less important than who the video gets promoted to because YouTube is very smart about promoting to different audiences.”
Finding formats that work on YouTube
Arieh believes it’s necessary to try a lot of different things and analyze what works and what doesn’t. While the big numbers aren’t everything, they are essential for monetization. He says:
“A lot of people think ‘I don’t want to chase the numbers’ but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. A large view count on YouTube is a signal that there are a lot of people that are interested in that content. It has to coincide with what you’re good at and what you like doing. If it doesn’t, people are going to see that and/or you’re going to get bored with it.”
Another thing creators often try is copying a format that’s been successful for another YouTuber. Arieh admits to trying that too, and knows that it didn’t work because it wasn’t authentically his voice or style.
In the end, Arieh realized that he needed to make videos that both he and his audience cared about. So, to have a popular channel:
“You have to make things that coincide with your interests and your passions… and something that the audience values and wants to watch.”
It’s not always the amount of work that counts
Many people believe that the more work they put into a video, the better it’s chances of success. Perfectionists may drive themselves crazy, trying to put out the perfect video. Or they may have analysis paralysis and never get their channel off the ground.
Arieh says, there is no direct correlation between the amount of work you do and the virality factor of a video.
He points to one video where he set up an elaborate hoax, designed to surprise a Japanese friend. It cost a lot of money, took a considerable chunk of time to set up — and completely bombed on YouTube.
Know what resonates with your audience
On the other hand, when Arieh listened to suggestions from his audience, his video views soared.
American fans suggested that he film himself speaking Chinese in a nail salon. So, although he didn’t understand why, he did as they suggested, first speaking English and then surprising the nail technicians by speaking in Chinese. The video didn’t take a lot of work to make, but it currently has over 30 million views.
Arieh surprising Chinese people with his Mandarin and Fuzhounese in a nail salon.
Lessons learned: Why the nail video worked
Nail salons are a touchstone of American culture. So many people have experienced sitting in a nail salon and hearing the technicians talk to each other in their own language. You always wonder, says Arieh, just what are those ladies saying? Are they gossiping about you?
People are interested in hearing Arieh’s fluent Chinese, and they like seeing him surprise people who think he can only speak English.
So, the nail video combined the interest of an American speaking Chinese with the cultural relevance of a familiar situation. It proved to be a winning combination.
Repeat the formula in other situations.
Once you find a winning formula you can repeat it in another context. Ari, for instance, used it again to make a video in a Chinese restaurant.
Monetizing your YouTube channel
Arieh has two main revenue streams on his YouTube channels: AdSense and sponsorship.
Every time you watch a video on YouTube, there is a pre-roll advertisement and that revenue is split 50/50 with the creator. It’s not very much money, so it only becomes significant if you’re getting millions and millions of views per video. If you rely on AdSense for revenue, then you’ll need your videos to go viral regularly.
Sponsors are often willing to pay YouTube creators with a big audience to promote their products. Ari says it’s vital to ensure it’s a suitable product and is a good fit for your fans.
He also points out that sponsorship can create a lot of extra work for the YouTuber. That’s why he’s glad to now be able to hand the task over to an agency that arranges all the details, leaving him free to concentrate on making the video.
Taking monetization to the next level by selling courses
When you create a course, it has the potential to multiply your revenue.
Ari is teaching his current course live, for several reasons.
It enabled him to validate the idea before doing any of the work. By advertising the course and getting sign-ups first, he knew that people were interested.
He could create the course piece by piece rather than trying to make it perfect all at once.
He warns that course creation is a ton of work though, and says,
“If people are paying you, it has to be worth their while.”
He also has a word to say to creators who become paralyzed by wanting to put out perfect material.
“I used to be a perfectionist… but one thing I’ve learned from YouTube is that perfectionism is the enemy of everything. Because the most important thing by far is trying to figure out what people are interested in. When you can figure that out and drive home on that particular point that is when you can build a business.”
Ari’s Tips for Langpreneurs
Know your audience
Arieh has given many Chinese lessons to Chinese-American students at a middle school near his home. They are interested in learning Chinese because they have relatives who speak it.
But when he came to teach online, he found a completely different audience who wanted to learn from him because they felt they knew him from his videos. They were people who said: ‘I want to learn Chinese because it would be so cool to be able to speak Chinese.’
Identify with your audience.
Arieh understands why his audience wants to learn Chinese because that’s the way he felt ten years ago. That makes it easy for him to offer a course to them because he knows what to say and how to pitch it.
Concentrate on your core audience.
The important thing is to focus on the audience that shares your passion. Try to aim for an audience where you can see yourself in the people that watch your YouTube channel or pay for your courses. Try to make a course that you, yourself, would have bought ten years ago.
If you know you really want to do this, don’t stop trying.
”It took me so long and so many years and years of making videos on many platforms that nobody watched and nobody cared about before making YouTube videos that people actually found interesting.”
Arieh knows that if he had given up on his YouTube channel while making all those mistakes, he wouldn’t have the success he enjoys today.