Meet the YouTube Stars Brands Love

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.”

iJUSTINE

Subs: 917k
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

Subs: 593k
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.

SMOSH