When most people think of YouTube, most likely they think of guys dancing on treadmills and bootleg clips of Stephen Colbert, from Comedy Central's Colbert Report.

Charles Smith, a pottery artist from Mobile, Ala., thinks about the tens of thousands of people worldwide who have clicked on his videos to watch him create works of art on his pottery wheel only to break them up at the end.

'You've got to have a gimmick, so I broke up the pots,' says Smith, who says about 90 percent of that traffic is students, but 10 percent is actually generating sales.

Before YouTube, Smith's ability to market his pottery was limited to driving from town to town hitting as many art shows as possible and hoping for that occasional local news feature story to generate business.

'Now I don't have to go to the art fairs as much. It's too expensive with the price of gas anyway. I've got the website and YouTube. It's so much better. I'm hearing from heavy collectors and galleries who've watched my videos. You never know who's watching them. I'm hearing from people as far away as Japan. It's a great tool and best of all – it's free,' says Smith.

Michael Miller, author of YouTube for Business: Online Video Marketing for Any Business (Que 2008), points to Smith as a perfect example of how a small business owner or entrepreneur can hit it big on YouTube. 'YouTube gets 20 million viewers a month. That's a really big market to tap into and there are no placement costs. It's low cost and high potential,' says Miller.

However, if you think it's as simple as uploading a commercial spot or corporate video and waiting for the e-mails to pour in demanding your products or services; think again. 'The people who fail on YouTube are the people who don't understand the community aspect of YouTube or what attracts viewers,' says Miller.

Attracting eyeballs

Eighteen months ago when Charles Smith put up his first pottery video that has since generated more than 37,000 unique visitors, he instinctively knew what he was doing by coming up with a gimmick. 'YouTube viewers want to be entertained,' says Miller, who offers three categories of videos that generate traffic.

  • Informational videos. The Stone Brewery out of Escondido, Calif. sets a great example of this strategy. The little independent brewery has more than a dozen or so videos posted on YouTube featuring various behind-the-scenes tours of their operation led by Brewery owner, Greg Koch. It's an engaging way to connect with the story of the brewery and thus, get interested in their beers. His videos generate typically between 1,500 and 2,000 visitors.
  • Educational videos. Charles Smith's how-to instructional videos demonstrating his pottery wheel highlights this successful approach. 'A lot of people come to YouTube wanting to learn something. They might run a search for ‘how to build a bookcase', for example. So if you sell auto parts, you might put together a tutorial how to change your oil. The result is driving traffic from the video to your website,' says Miller.
  • Entertainment videos. One of the greatest successes of guerrilla marketing on YouTube would have to be Blendtec, based in Orem, Utah. Blendtec sells high end industrial strength blenders so strong they are touted to be able to blend just about anything. Their series of videos on YouTube -- called 'Will it blend' -- are wildly popular with some of the pieces generating more than five million viewers. Each quirky piece features an attempt (almost always successful) to blend something both odd and tricky; like hockey pucks, an iPhone, glow sticks, marbles, even a rake handle.

Getting noticed on YouTube

Producing an engaging video for YouTube is just the first step in launching a successful marketing campaign on YouTube. With 20 million viewers a month and literally millions of videos to choose from, it's easy to get lost in the crowd.

Here are some tips for making your company's videos rise to the top and leveraging them to help your business:

  • Participate in the YouTube community. People forget that YouTube has an active community, similar to eBay. Miller suggests getting your name around by commenting on other videos and joining existing topic-oriented groups or creating one if there isn't one in your niche area.
  • Make sure your videos direct visitors to your site. Tens of thousands of viewers watching your videos sounds great, unless they have no direction to find your business afterwards. Make sure you include your Web address and other company contact information. Miller recommends creating a special 'landing page' for viewers coming to your site from YouTube. It should have a similar look and feel to YouTube and intuitive navigation to close the deal on transactions or gathering client leads; whatever your marketing objective may be.
  • Using the right production values. Believe it or not, spending too much money producing the video is more of a problem than spending too little. 'If you look too slick, it may work against you. Most YouTube videos are shot with a $300 camera. YouTube videos are 320 x 400 pixels. You could spend $100,000 on a video, but no one is going to see it,' says Miller. Less important is the equipment, while more important is technique. 'Talking heads, stationary shots work best. That's why spots like Blendtec work so well. It's a guy standing at a little table with a blender. Audio, however, is something people don't think enough about. If you're using a camcorder with an external mic input, use it. Invest in a decent microphone,' says Miller.
  • Choose your keywords carefully. There's only one way viewers find you on YouTube and that's the site's search engine. Using the right keywords is essential. Choose words that best fit your subject area and niche. Keywords should draw in a broad enough audience to get the exposure you seek, but not too much. With 20 million viewers passing through the site, businesses should use words that weed out traffic too. 'I know of a realtor in Florida who uses YouTube. For her, she doesn't want 100,000 hits. She wants nine good hits,' points out Miller.

SIDEBAR: Other Benefits to Using YouTube

  • Rising through the ranks. Now that Google owns YouTube, there's the added benefit that a video on YouTube automatically goes into Google's search engine. Videos tend to catapult to the head of the line. It's a great way to increase your site visibility in the rankings.
  • Spare your own site the bandwidth drain of streaming video. For some companies, generating new business or exposure via YouTube may be low priority. However, some are finding it's a great place to park video clips using YouTube's bandwidth with a simple link from the corporate site.
  • Create your own channel and customer base. Anytime you post a video, YouTube creates what is called a profile channel. Viewers can subscribe to that channel. Businesses can then send out e-mails to those subscribers.