The dirty secret of cable TV is audience numbers are often pitifully small, with many programs drawing under 100,000 viewers. That's not the case for a select group of YouTube creators.
This cadre of stars is no longer toiling away in Internet obscurity in the hopes of breaking into TV. Instead, they are raking in six-figure ad revenue deals from Google, commanding up to $20,000 a pop for branded videos and even dabbling in merchandising.
First and foremost, the top YouTubers have honed their craft over the past three or four years, building large and loyal audiences. Many of the top stars fall in the general entertainment category, doing offbeat skits. The most successful heavily incorporate audience interaction.
The numbers they draw can be staggering. Comic actor Shane Dawson averages nearly 1.5 million views per day, according to video analytics service TubeMogul, and has racked up 670 million views of his videos over two and a half years. The typical YouTube star will average 250,000 views per video. "On any given night or day or two, the top 10 YouTubers will have more views than any cable channel," says Walter Sabo, a former ABC radio executive who started an Internet talent agency three years ago called HitViews.
Brands are taking notice. Google distributes more than $100,000 per year to "hundreds" of YouTube stars, according to Tom Pickett, online sales and operations director at YouTube. GE recently tapped 15 YouTubers to make a series of videos for its "Tag Your Green" campaign. In just three weeks, the videos have gotten more than 12 million views.
GE needed to get comfortable with only supplying the YouTubers with a theme and a few points to hit, says Jeffrey Kaufman, vp of strategic programming at Howcast, which organized the campaign. "They've been very cool about the fact that we need to loosen up a little bit and allow them to speak in their own voice."
All-time views: 196m
Avg per day: 301k
Since she started posting to YouTube in 2006 as iJustine, Justine Ezarik has become a tour de force. Her videoblogging channel has nearly 1 million subscribers, attracting a loyal young audience. She's done several brand videos that draw equally large audiences. TubeMogul estimates her brand integration views this year alone have generated more than 9 million views. Ezarik is a brand favorite for the gusto she puts in advertiser videos. Unlike some stars who will only include a product in passing, Ezarik goes beyond product placement to make the brand a co-star. Take her video last month for Mattel's Video Girl Barbie. The three-minute clip shows off the product and directs to a Mattel contest. In a week, the video garnered more than 460,000 views and 2,000 comments.
RHETT & LINK
All-time views: 73.7m
Avg per day: 120k
The North Carolina comedy duo Rhett & Link are more than amenable to advertising; they're students of it. Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal created a dozen tongue-in-cheek local spots for their "I Love Local Commercials" project. The effort was done on behalf of Microbilt, a small-business information service. McLaughlin and Neal are veterans of the Web video scene, active on YouTube since June 2006. They built a following via quirky videos that often take the form of music videos. "The Facebook Song," released three years ago, skewers social networking. It hit a chord, drawing 6.7 million views. Thanks to "I Love Local Commercials" and work for GE, Dentyne and others, Rhett & Link have generated nearly 21 million views on brand videos.
All-time views: 537m
Avg per day: 1.4m
The comedic duo Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla were early YouTube stars, joining the platform back in 2005. Thanks to its early start, Smosh became the No. 1 YouTube channel by 2007. (It's now the No. 5 most subscribed of all time.) Smosh can regularly draw more than 1 million views for its short-skit videos with a young male demo increasingly hard to reach through traditional media. One of its most popular videos showed what would happen "if videogames were real." The sheer size of its network makes Smosh an attractive outlet for advertisers. Smosh's brand work has included a video for Kraft promoting its Kraft Singles Melt Downs product that drew 1.4 million views. For GE, Smosh created a series of four videos around its green theme that netted a total of 2.5 million views.
All-time views: 259m
Avg per day: 752k
This past February, Lancome introduced its latest spokesperson. Rather than an actress, it chose a 22-year-old who films cosmetics tutorials from her bedroom. Michelle Phan is the leader of a group of young women creating makeup videos. TubeMogul estimates they collectively average more than 1.2 million views per day. Phan's tutorials evoke a New Age Bob Ross with soothing music in the background, her soft-spoken narration and text subtitles. In her breakout video, Phan showed how to recreate Lady Gaga's look. The clip has been viewed more than 14 million times in 10 months. The content is ready-made for product integration, and she's gone beyond Lancome to run videos for other brands. Phan shot a "Kissable Lips" video for Colgate that features its Wisp disposable toothbrush. It has gotten more than 2.5 million views since it debuted in May.
WHAT THE BUCK?
All-time views: 278.4m
Avg per day: 277K
Just over two years ago, Michael Buckley toiled as an admin at Live Nation. His side job making videos riffing on pop culture is now his main gig. The What the Buck? show offers sharp, funny commentary on pop culture, taking aim at celebrities like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. His commentary comes in a breathless rapid-fire style. Buckley's 2008 video lampooning Hollywood "skanks" like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Cyrus has gotten more than 9.6 million views. The celebrity angle has made What the Buck? popular with entertainment companies. He's promoted Melissa and Joey for ABC Family, Lie to Me for Fox and Victorious on Nickelodeon. The videos typically take the form of interviews with the stars or commentary with clips. All told, What the Buck? has generated 4.6 million views on branded videos.