The week of July 19, 2015

The state of YouTube, 2015

By Rae Votta

YouTube is 10 years old. It serves a billion unique visitors a month. Half of those views are on mobile, site of the largest growth in video consumption this year; there, YouTube reaches more 18- to 34- and 18- to 49-year-olds than any U.S. cable network. Its biggest stars, like PewDiePie and Smosh, are incredibly popular with the millennial set, with subscribers numbering in the tens of millions. By the numbers (except perhaps profitability), YouTube is a runaway success, and the site itself has become a household name.

That’s less true of YouTube’s stars, who may make money and garner lots of views but have rarely broken through to mainstream recognition. Still, many are beginning to expand their audiences on other platforms. Some creators are venturing into television, including examples like Grace Helbig’s E! talk show and the Epic Meal Time gang’s show on FYI. Smaller, less established television channels have taken chances on YouTube stars, but the networks have remained shy. That’ll change this fall, when Flula Borg will star in Cuckoo, an NBC project where he plays a charming but eccentric foreigner, which is pretty much exactly how you’d describe Borg’s YouTube personality. Likewise, Rachel Bloom, famous for her inventive musical numbers like “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” will bring her song stylings to network TV in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW. And others are trying out film, like Shane Dawson’s Not Cool to Smosh: The Movie.

But if YouTubers haven’t conquered other screens (yet?), they’ve been surprisingly successful in, counterintuitively, book publishing. Mamrie Hart’s memoir, You Deserve A Drink, received a New York Times review from Michael Ian Black and hit the paper’s humor best-seller list; British vlogger Zoe Sugg sold 78,000 copies of her debut novel, Girl Online, in the first week (though it was later revealed she’d used a ghostwriter). Joey Graceffa used his autobiography as a part of his coming-out story, and other heavyweights like Tyler Oakley and Shay Carl have books slated for later this year.

Why go to the theater or turn on a TV when you can binge on YouTube videos featuring the same stars with less effort, and for free?

In all, more than a dozen of YouTube’s most notable have branched out into publishing in the past year. Success comes in smaller numbers in the book world, and books have greater longevity; they also give fans something tangible to own—and, potentially, a new experience rather than a retread of what audiences already know. Why go to the theater or turn on a TV when you can binge on YouTube videos featuring the same stars with less effort, and for free?

And while YouTubers have been looking to expand their fanbases, they’re also looking for new ways to make money from their audiences. Previously that meant cranking out more content and monetizing it directly, or turning to brand deals and sponsorships—which, of course, only come after the time and expense invested in becoming popular.

In the last year, a number of YouTube alternatives have arrived on the scene to help creators turn their content into cash. Positioning themselves as complements to the existing YouTube ecosystem, their strategy has been to woo YouTubers with lucrative deals for exclusivity-windowed content and building communities on non-YouTube platforms. The flashiest of these is Vessel, run by ex-Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, which charges a nominal monthly subscription fee for access to the early and exclusive content, ranging from YouTube celebs like Rhett & Link to TV and digital heavyweights like Ellen DeGeneres. There’s also VHX, which lets creators sell content directly and recently opened a subscription-based service that provides guaranteed income directly from creators’ fanbases. Another alternative is Victorious, the brainchild of Bing Chen, YouTube’s former global head of creator development and management, which builds creator-specific apps.

Flula Borg will star as an eccentric foreigner, which is pretty much exactly how you’d describe Borg’s YouTube personality.

While none of these options eliminate YouTube, they offer creators options when thinking about posting elsewhere. They’ve helped creators earn bigger paydays, but according to YouTube, the site remains central.

“The way that we think about it and the way we know the creators think about it is YouTube is really their homebase,” says Jamie Byrne, YouTube’s director of content commercialization. “This is where their fanbase is, this is where their power comes from, and this is how they stay connected and engaged with a community that drives their success over other vehicles.”

Until a viable competitor arrives, this will remain true. YouTube’s huge potential audience and reach keeps its creators from jumping ship completely—hence all the euphemistic discussion of “complements”—but if another company can build a mass audience, it could gestate its own stars. We’ve already seen some elements of a shift with Vine, which built its video views on six-second segments and won over a different kind of creator and content.

YouTube’s huge potential audience and reach keeps its creators from jumping ship completely.

Meanwhile, YouTube is looking to revise how it pays creators. A user-agreement update recently asked partners to either opt in to a yet-to-be-revealed subscription-based service or be phased out of future revenue sharing. Some bristled at this approach, but no major stars seem to have left YouTube over it. Last year, the company also announced the Tip Jar function, letting viewers donate to content creators through Google Wallet—a move meant to rival websites like Patreon, which allow fans to contribute directly to creators.

For the denizens of YouTube, creators and fans alike, having more options to find quality digital content—and how to support it—is a blessing rather than a curse. From a business perspective, according to Bryne, having multiple players in the space will help drive the shift in advertising spending from television to online video. That, in turn, could help make it easier for creators who want to be paid for their work. Subscription options may also make it easier, as will any features that let fans contribute directly.

Creators may still be looking for mainstream recognition, and ways to make their work pay. But it’s obvious from YouTube’s numbers that the audience is there: The youngest demographic may already have crowned YouTube its champion. All that’s uncertain now is what the company will do with that crown.
Illustration by J. Longo