For every dreamy, world-famous Justin Bieber, there are thousands of would-be YouTube sensations still stuck in the awkward limbo years between utter obscurity and fame. Call it YouTuberty. Luckily, YouTube itself is on a newly invigorated mission to guide the fledgling famous from their first viral hit to ad sponsorship, and out into the wider world of the business of entertainment.
Google's YouTube is helping amateurs like Rubik's Cube impresario Dan Brown and how-to make-up artist Michelle Phan generate fans and revenue by selling ads to support their pages via the YouTube Partner Program, and this spring it sponsored the first-ever Digitour (tagline: "Bringing YouTube to You, in 3D"), a 27-city live tour where fans could connect face to face with YouTube stars like The Gregory brothers, creators of Auto-Tune the News, Dave Days, and the Mystery Guitar Man. And YouTube recently awarded $35,000 grants to 25 up-and-coming channels and gave a week-long course for them at Google HQ in New York in May on topics such as "building a loyal audience," "marketing yourself off-site" and "reporting tools and financial analysis of performance."
"We want to take more people from the hobby, dabbling space into doing this as a career," YouTube spokeswoman Annie Baxter tells Fast Company. Google splits ad revenues with video creators—the creators get the majority, and promises to help fund and support new talent by teaching them how to develop an audience and produce better content.
Casual YouTube viewers may not realize the extent of the sub-economy taking place on YouTube, which has hundreds of "partner" channels, mostly with amateurs who built their following online, that make six figures or more per year; thousands more pull in more than $1,000 a month from their pages. Even one-hit wonders like the Double Rainbow guy or the "Charlie bit me" kid can end up making thousands as Google's algorithms sense when videos are going viral and strike a deal with the creator to sell ads.
Those who've found success on YouTube say you can't treat it like a hobby if you want continued financial success.
"People are wildly underestimating what kind of economy there is out there for online videos as a source of entertainment and, therefore, as a source of revenue," says Evan Gregory, a former consultant at Accenture who's one of the four creators of Auto-Tune the News.
In addition to cashing in on ad revenue, the Gregorys have produced videos for the Oscars, are working on a Comedy Central TV pilot, and rake in thousands by selling songs on iTunes. Their Bed Intruder broke the top 100 charts on both Billboard's Hot 100 and iTunes Singles charts. Evan, his wife Sarah, and his brothers Andrew and Michael have all quit their day jobs to focus exclusively on YouTube and related video projects, and they recently opened a loft studio space in Brooklyn (a sign of success if there ever was one).
There might even be business opportunities for those with business aspirations whose goals fall short of international singing stardom. Ben Relles, the producer of the ObamaGirl videos who founded the Barely Political channel in 2007, sold his company to Next New Networks, a web-video production company that YouTube bought earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. He now runs his own channels, Barely Political and The Key of Awesome, and consults other YouTube channels on success.
"Who knew auto-tuning CSpan clips would appeal to millions of people?" he said, speaking of Auto-Tune the News. That's not to mention other popular channels featuring videos on how to cook with bacon, crochet, or put on makeup.
But for all the YouTube opportunities there are to be had, the term "viral video," the idea that videos just capture the public imagination through no effort from the creator, is misleading. When it comes to surviving YouTuberty, Relles and others offer several pieces of advice. Follow them and you may come out the other side of YouTuberty, all grown up and financially solvent.
- Create great content. "The most important thing to being an enduring YouTube channel is the content itself," says Relles. He says the most successful channels over time have had consistent and phenomenal content.
- Build a home for your content. Building a distinctive channel increases the number of subscribers who are notified of your new content, creating repeat viewers and increasing ad revenue.
- Be social. Perhaps it should go without saying, but smart channels find ways to build their audience on a number of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to their videos.
- Help fans help you. The most successful YouTube stars know how to build relationships with their audience in a charitable and gracious, rather than a pretentious or narcissistic, ways. "They find ways to communicate with and involve their audiences," says Relles. YouTubers such as Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and Auto-Tune the News often invite parodies, song covers, and offer open-source music content.
- Do not live by webcam alone. Get out sometimes. Some YouTube acts go on tour and perform live shows or sell recordings. They have live meet-ups and introduce themselves to their fans.
- Practice good SEO. Top channels learn how to make their videos easy to find on YouTube and Google by first choosing the right titles and tags for the videos, and build loyalty by posting them on a regular, consistent schedule.
- Hire a producer already. Audiences recognize that videos on channels are likely professionally produced, and that's fine as long as you maintain the passion and creativity of the talent that drew them to the videos in the first place.
- Don't lose heart. Most videos will not be instant hits. Some YouTube stars we talked to spent a good five years adding videos and improving the quality, gradually building up to their "overnight" success. So when you're eyeing YouTube stardom, make sure you're creating videos around a subject you'll be interested in for the long haul.