These YouTubers Are This Generation’s Rock Stars

On tour with Our 2nd Life—and the marketers that are wooing them

On Our 2nd Life’s tour bus, 15-year-old Trevor Moran’s mother, Nicole, pleads with her bundle of energy to sit down. But he’s got to direct that energy somewhere—so why not make it productive? She tells her baby-faced YouTube sensation he’s about to be interviewed for Invisalign, the brand of teeth straighteners that are an alternative to metal braces, and he busts out a toothy grin and bats his eyelashes. 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine  

“I use Invisalign!” he declares.

For the short video promotion, Moran will rake in something like $1,500. The kid is no stranger to having cameras in his face, considering he’s been a vlogger since the age of 10 and most recently has been living with a documentary crew following the vlogging supergroup Our 2nd Life, of which he is part, during its first headlining tour.

Between touring and endorsements, Moran and the five other boys who make up O2L—Ricky Dillon, Jc Caylen, Kian Lawley, Sam Pottorff and former member Connor Franta—stand to earn in the five to six figures for about four weeks on the road. That haul can grow if the vloggers manage to secure, say, a $1,000 to $2,000 sponsored Instagram photo or $40,000 to $50,000 for a customized branded video, according to insiders.

What makes these guys bankable to advertisers like Invisalign? The legions of loyal teen fans who not only follow them online but who also fill arenas just to catch a glimpse of them. Those fangirls (and a few fanboys)—the same demo that’s tuning out of traditional media like TV and magazines in favor of streaming video, social media and mobile devices—happily claw at a barrier 100 feet away to just snap a picture of O2L’s tour bus. 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine  

Making the Brand

The formula behind O2L and other “collab channels” like The Station (whose members founded Maker Studios, which was acquired in March by Disney for $500 million-plus) is simple: A group of YouTube publishers uploads videos to the same channel, guaranteeing regular updates. In O2L’s case, the guys pick a weekly theme, and each is assigned a day of the week. New videos on O2L’s main YouTube channel—which has grown to 2.3 million subscribers over the last two years—easily clear hundreds of thousands of views apiece. We’re not talking about high-quality video here; most footage features teens sitting alone in their bedrooms, answering fans’ questions about their lives—which emojis they prefer, for example—or blathering on about minutia like waiting for their Ikea furniture to be delivered. Popular clips involve crowd-sourced topics some parents may not want their kids to see—from reading erotic fan fiction about themselves to baking penis cakes. The Brady Bunch it ain’t.

But they are connecting, big time. Individually, each O2L member boasts more than 1 million followers on social media. The most popular, Franta, has 3 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, almost 2 million Instagram followers and 1.8 million followers on Twitter. And there’s a response from the audience. For example, Pottorff’s innocuous two-letter tweet on Aug. 2—“Hi”—was retweeted 2,000 times and favorited 10,000 times.

“They are highly entertaining and highly engaging,” explains Larry Shapiro, head of talent at Fullscreen, which manages O2L and most of the boys individually, except for Moran and Pottorff. To Shapiro, a former agent at Creative Artists Agency, the appeal of signing O2L lies in the kids’ natural charm, a far cry from manufactured boy bands. The idea to create the channel was hatched by the boys after they roomed together during VidCon in 2012. Lawley and Pottorff had been working on a collaborative channel and became friends with Dillon after admiring his vlogs. Dillon introduced them to Caylen and Moran, who he had discovered on YouTube. And Caylen knew Franta from another collaborative channel. (The group had a seventh member, Ricardo Ordieres, who left to pursue a radio career in April 2013.) “Connor just snuck in and was like, ‘Hey guys!’” Lawley jokes, mimicking Franta.

Shapiro notes that the O2L boys converse directly with their audience, creating a stronger fan connection than most teen heartthrobs. A quick good-night tweet is greeted with a swoon from millions of fans. They’ve become friends to fans as opposed to idols, Shapiro observes, adding that when they partner with companies, their campaigns feel more honest. “This distribution channel that brands are tapping into is a living, breathing organism,” he says. 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine  

Hitting the Road

Seeing great marketing potential, live entertainment company DigiTour Media tapped O2L to headline a 16-city tour from late May to late June, sponsored by Invisalign and Tattify. Along with supporting YouTube and Vine acts, the tour sold 25,000 tickets at an average of $50. The group also squeezed in main-stage appearances at DigiFests in New York and Toronto, festivals featuring online stars that sold 17,500 tickets total. Not only did fans turn out, but marketing execs from Disney and Delta came to check things out, too.

In 2010, Meridith Valiando Rojas and Christopher Rojas founded DigiTour Media, which claims to be the first group to send Internet stars on tour. An ex-A&R rep for Columbia Records, Valiando Rojas firmly believes that online celebrities are this generation’s rock stars. “That was my mission with my partner: How can we create what teens want in a festival?” Valiando Rojas says. “It’s all being sourced from social because that’s what teens want.”

The bigger payoff for acts like O2L may involve their hooking up with marketers and media outlets. MTV enlisted the group to create promos and be social media correspondents for its Movie Awards this past April. Tina Exarhos, MTV evp of marketing and multiplatform creative, says the boys were “one of the main forces” behind the online success of the event. “They’re rock stars in their own right, but they’re influencers like journalists in their own ways,” she says. “It’s different, for good or bad.”

O2L members have also struck individual deals with brands like AXE, Hulu, AT&T and Warby Parker. Coca-Cola used Franta for its #THISISAHH campaign in April.

“O2L are the right amount of edge and are contemporary with great values,” says Kelly Mullens Brown, president of marketing, strategy and communications at Ryan Seacrest Enterprises, which worked on the Coke campaign. “If you’re talking to kids, you want someone who talks to kids in their own language.”

Jim Venable, Align Technology’s group marketing manager for teen consumer marketing, says Web talent know best how to speak to young Invisalign users. “Social media was created by teens for teens,” he notes. “In order for us to resonate with them, we have to have permission to talk with them, and it has to be authentic and genuine. You just don’t do that in a recorded spot on TV.”

Just being relatable and trustworthy doesn’t necessarily make a YouTube star ready for prime-time ads, though. One marketer who worked with one of the boys reveals he needed training to maintain a credible tone and a more mature, polished look for a campaign.

Meanwhile, sending them on tour comes with its own set of challenges, as Rojas admits. Onstage, only Dillon and Moran possess traditional performing talent—singing, to be precise—so O2L’s act is essentially a mashup of Q&As, live challenges and simple dance steps. The content barely seems to matter. The group’s patter is barely discernible over the hordes of screaming fans. 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine  

Going Backstage

The tour itself is a rolling caravan of chaos and marketing appearances. (“I’m not pleased with the way it was organized,” confesses Pottorff’s manager Naomi Lennon, president of uFluencer Group. “I thought that they would consider that they are so young.”) The largest event on O2L’s schedule is the sweltering New York DigiFest, held June 6 in the parking lot of Citi Field. About 12,500 fans turned out to see the acts. They also were exposed to experiential marketing from sponsors Invisalign, Iconix Brand Group, Dormify and Instagram. But the real attraction of the day was the meet and greet. “I just want to take a selfie with Sam,” gushes one girl.

O2L sells 150 VIP experiences for $75, allowing the fan to snap one photo with the group. Things quickly devolve, though. A metal barrier precariously tips as fans surge and security barks at the kids to back off. After failing to get a staffer to hand Franta a fan letter, one smitten fans hurls it at the star. “I love you so much! I told you that already. Do you remember?” she pleads. Another girl sobs as she has her pic taken. “Lucky bitch!” snaps another.

When the boys head back to the bus four hours later, Fullscreen manager Andrew Graham informs them they have another meet and greet. Franta—the most levelheaded of the bunch—has had it and storms to the back of the bus. Moran’s mom says he can’t make it due to meetings with marketers. Only Dillon, Caylen and Lawley honor the obligation.

Franta gets snippy with a brand rep who stops by. She’s disappointed to discover he missed the meet and greet—blowing off a scheduled appearance is a major no-no with her brand. She ultimately decides that O2L is not a viable partner for her brand—in part because of the kids’ sometimes risqué topics. “They’re online, so they don’t have to deal with the same rules. And they’re kids,” she says. “But that’s what gets them the eyeballs.”

Pottorff, meantime, is missing from the day’s events. In the middle of an earlier interview, he slumped to the floor—ostensibly the result of his diabetes (his manager cites exhaustion). When Pottorff is roused to fulfill his DigiFest obligations, he brings surprising energy. He’s rushed back to the bus to rest up after the first 10-minute routine, though—he’s due back in a couple hours to kiss a girl onstage as part of an Invisalign promotion. 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine  

‘A New Chapter’

By the time the tour comes to an end at VidCon in Anaheim, Calif., the madness has grown exponentially. It’s O2L’s last performance on the schedule, and the final time all six of the boys will appear together. Getting them from the Hilton to the venue is a feat that involves guards, private cars and freight elevators. Despite all that, teens manage to dive-bomb them with smartphones.

Before their Anaheim Arena performance, Graham calls for a group meeting, reeling off a litany of words the boys are not allowed to say—”fuck,” “shit” or any swearing for that matter. “This affects the future of them inviting us back. Please, please, please do this for me,” Graham pleads. Though the boys’ eyes glaze over at the admonishment, the performance goes off without a hiccup, or a curse.

The following Monday, Franta announces his departure from the group via—what else—a video titled A New Chapter. Twitter goes nuts—at the time of its release, the video accounts for four of the top trending terms worldwide. “My videos are very experience based and I tell every detail in my life, but there’s obviously many things they don’t know about me,” says Franta.

His fellow O2L members voiced support for his decision. “It’s just a little complicated right now. We’re all friends. We love each other. What we created over these past two years, it will live on, no matter what,” says Caylen.

With or without Franta, the group keeps getting more massive. O2L won a Teen Choice Award while Franta was nominated in the Web Star: Male category. But fame can also be fleeting. MTV, which was considering O2L for its Video Music Awards coverage Aug. 24, says it has decided to bring in “new leading social faces and creators,” says Exarhos. Only Dillon has been confirmed. “One, these kids are young. Two, there’s the expectation that there will be rapid evolution among who’s popular,” says the exec.

Franta says he wants to write a book and design clothes—meanwhile, he has resumed vlogging. As for the other members of O2L, Dillon and Moran are making music, Lawley is pursuing modeling, Caylen is working on a clothing line, and Pottorff and Dillon want to act. All the while, they continue to build content on their own video channels and on O2L.

Graham says O2L doesn’t see TV or recording music as a next step—rather, they’re just arrows in the quiver. The goal is to become a multiplatform force. “In any way you can program or commercialize an individual brand, that’s what they want to be,” he says.

Of course, online video remains at the core of those ambitions. With all those adoring fans following them on YouTube, why would they ever want to leave?