Like many comedians on YouTube, Franchesca Ramsey was struggling to break out. She clearly had the talent: One spoof, in which she mocked the self-importance of red carpet interviews by interviewing her own faux-celeb, a Boston Terrier named Filthy McNasty, won a People magazine contest to bring her act to the Emmys.
Still, her online humor channel ChescaLeigh! had stalled at about 18,000 subscribers, in part because of some starving artist induced technical difficulties. To make videos, she used her iMac's iSight camera along with a Canon FS100 and no pro lighting. "Everything was dark or blown out and you couldn’t hear me very well," she says.
By day, Ramsey was a graphic designer in Manhattan. At night, she struggled to make sleek, popular videos without the right equipment or insider secrets as to how exactly the best sketches go viral.
That’s a common problem among many You Tube creators—and seemed to be a major oversight in the company’s attempt to build a new universe of routinely entertaining content on the backs of amateur auteurs. That is, until YouTube stepped up to solve the issue. In 2011, the company launched Next Lab, an in-house division that helps spot talent among creators and work with them to grow their channel's popularity.
To do that, Next Lab has built their sort of own innovation pipeline, a series of programs that give out grants with coaching to help amateurs learn the techniques and marketing tricks needed to build a strong online audience. "It’s not that we are coming up with the ideas for their content," says Ben Relles, Next Lab’s head of programming strategy. "We are helping people think about how to use YouTube to build their channels in a way they are not able to do elsewhere."
Relles personally mastered that art. He’s the guy behind the Obama Girl series, a handful of video spoofs featuring a scantily clad girl with a crush singing odes to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign season. His inaugural Obama Girl video netted 25 million views. Combined, the series itself has gotten more than 150 million views. That provided a windfall of attention to Barely Political, his own comedy channel, which has since been viewed 1.5 billion times, helping make hits out of other series like "The Key of Awesome" and "Auto-Tune the News." Many people think viral videos are created by chance—a fluke of someone capturing something cool on camera. Relles proved that hit-making can be totally repeatable across lots of genres; you just need to build out the audience willing to share them.
Next Lab itself started after a Google acquisition. In 2011, YouTube’s parent company bought Next New Networks, the web video production company where Relles also worked, for reportedly less than $50 million. The company was re-branded as Next Lab with the goal being to help creators find new ways to make better videos that earned money—the crux to creating consistently good content. An initial program, dubbed Next Up, kicked off a unique talent search. Next Lab offered a $35,000 grant and week-long video development boot camp in New York to anyone who thought they might have future star potential. Ramsey read about it on the YouTube blog and decided to enter. Lasting a little over two minutes, her video used a sleight-of-hand editing trick to let her argue the pros and cons of entering the contest with a reflection that talked back through a bathroom mirror.
In total, YouTube received more than a thousand submissions. Relles and five other judges from both Next Lab and a content partnership team culled that to 177, and posted them on a dedicated site, where the 25 winners were chosen by viewers themselves. While YouTube won’t release the vote count, Ramsey’s video gained 25,000 views and made the cut. Unlike reality-TV shows, Relles would rather have more winners than some vote-off finale; the larger the talent pool, the better the odds that they might collaborate and help each other to become famous. "This is about enabling all of them to grow and succeed," he says.
Ramsey spent some of the prize money on an HD camera (the Canon T3i), plus a new lens, microphone, lighting equipment, and a new iMac, MacBook, and editing software. At the Next Lab tutorials, she spent time with the Gregory Bros and beauty blogger Michelle Phan to learn more about how to attract both viewers and sponsorship from advertisers. Other cram sessions included topics like copyright law, trademark licensing, and better video production.
All that helped Ramsey develop a series of loose rules that now guide her work. First, she often spoofs celebrities like Beyoncé, Kanye West, or the entire cast of Basketball Wives and offers up commentary of trending topics (when #YOLO started, she found ways the phrase might backfire). Second, she collaborates with other creators, hoping appearances on their channels might lead others to follow her. She’s also added bonus features to her own site like video outtakes, a "best of" reel, and holiday video cards that can be posted to other peoples’ Facebook pages, all of which encourage people to stick around longer and interact with more content.
The result: After the program, Ramsey saw her subscribership quadruple. Her channel now has more than 18 million views with weekly offerings attracting hundreds of thousands watchers per video. Other winners with channels geared toward special effects (FinalCutKing) military tactics (ratedrr) and music insiders (bryanstars) seem to have had similar success.
Relles and his team have since expanded Next Lab’s competition circuit into franchises. Last year, there was a casting call for the next trainer, chef, vlogger, comic, and education guru, all with their own grants and coaching sessions. Each still has multiple winners, letting the company build out those genres quicker. (Some also offer free promotion, an undisclosed amount of free advertising on YouTube and relevant websites.)
YouTube won’t share its total investment in these programs, but the payouts for Next Up alone totaled $850,000. It’s a safe bet that the company has spent at least somewhere in the low millions. That’s a drop in the bucket for a company that has also invested more than $100 million to procure original programming from more recognizable names like Madonna, Jay-Z, Ashton Kutcher, and Rainn Wilson.
To makes sure the caliber of amateur content stays high, Next Lab uses other ways to boost the video making curve. The department now publishes a YouTube Creator Playbook online, a how-to manual with simple tips to help newcomers learn the basics of production, publishing, and community building. In 2011, it tried a series of more formal YouTube summer classes at the University of Southern California and Columbia College in Chicago. Those programs seem to have been scuttled for something more condensed; this summer, Next Lab hosted a weekend seminar for budding comedians to interact with pros like The Fine Brothers at L.A.’s Laugh Lab, something expected to expand to other genres.
To help people learn to use gear smarter, there are also public film studios in Manhattan and London, complete with green screens and top-notch equipment. Similar spaces in L.A. and Tokyo recently opened. At the studios, any channel maker can sign up shooting time. To keep their content current, Next Lab also occasionally sponsors vloggers to attend events; this year, they sent 50 people to the London Olympics.
As Ramsey puts it: "There really is a science to making videos. A lot of it seems like pretty basic stuff you should know but when it’s actually spelled out for you in the long run it helps you grow and be more successful."
Today, that’s professional advice. In January, after a spoof capitalizing on a popular meme that was entitled "Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls" went viral, racking up more than 9 million views, Ramsey decided it was time to finally quit her day job. She is now part of an emerging class of full-time entertainers: the professional vlogger.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that studios in L.A. and Tokyo were under construction. They are already complete and open.
[Photo Mash : Joel Arbaje]