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Can You Still Become 'YouTube Famous'?

It's not as easy as it used to be: If you’re lucky enough to achieve a moment of virality, you better be already prepared to be a rock star.

Conan Gray/YouTube

To be clear, “YouTube famous” is “actual” famous. Rock-star famous. So, yeah, it’s tough.

I’ve worked with a lot of the top online talent in my career, and my perspective around this issue is likely more skewed than most. But I had an experience a couple days ago in New York that opened my eyes.

I was meandering from Union Square toward the Meatpacking District to my next meeting during this year’s NewFronts. I wasn’t in any sort of rush, just checking emails and making calls, and at one point when I looked up, I saw about a hundred or so teens crowding the entrance of the Dream Hotel. Security was pushing them back. More security piled out of the hotel to help. It was a mob scene. Manageable, but a scene nonetheless.

I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen it on TMZ when Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber were making a ruckus at some hotel. I’ve seen it in Beatles documentaries. This was rock-star fan behavior in front of a rock-star New York hotel. I’ve also seen it at coordinated events for online talent like VidCon and Playlist Live. But this wasn’t coordinated. This was was the streets of New York.

I knew it was NewFronts. I knew the top YouTube talent was in town, but … no way. And keep in mind that I represent and am partnered with some of the top talent in the space. This isn’t totally foreign to me.

I asked the kids who they were there for, and they rattled off a few names; Bethany Mota, Rhett & Link, PrankvsPrank. The top YouTube talent.

This was real-time. This crowd formed in minutes after learning their favorite stars were in there.

Online stars are real stars. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that is like the dad in 1985 who thinks that the lascivious blonde (a.k.a. Madonna) on MTV is some random woman in a crappy music video.

But YouTube is a democratized platform, right? These stars emerged without gatekeepers via a top-notch social-sharing tool set engineered daily by Google. This isn’t Hollywood. Any kid in any basement can become “YouTube famous,” just as the stars in the Dream Hotel did.

Well, it’s not that easy (and now it’s more difficult than ever).

The platform has reached a level of maturity, both technologically and culturally, that it’s just not as simple as it once was.

Once upon a time, in the early days of the platform, a charismatic personality could point a Webcam at themselves and launch into a fascinating topic of interest — say, the vlog. If you were relatively compelling, you’d get shared and commented on, and you quickly became a part of a small community. The platform powering that community, however, was growing at an exponential rate, so your social following grew alongside that rate of growth. YouTube’s growth was (and is) larger than any individual creator.

Moreover, tools existed in the early days that don’t exist today that gave savvy creators the ability to capitalize on the platform’s virality. For example, the video response tool. Back in the day, you could leave a video response on a popular video. This response would sit at the top of the comment pile, and you’d effectively get an ad placement for yourself directly in front of everyone who was watching that video. So if someone was getting a million views on some video, and it was sitting on the homepage of YouTube, you could record your own video, respond to it with appropriate energy/charisma/controversy, and get a portion of those viewers to convert as subscribers on your channel.

A number of top creators, including Philip DeFranco, have publicly spoken about using that tool in the early days to garner new subs. Over time, that tool became less and less valuable as users adopted it more regularly, and eventually YouTube did away with it.

Today, there’s no tool available on the platform that allows you to piggyback off of another video’s success.

YouTube talent, which has always been a tight community, then began to learn the value of the “collab,” in which they’d appear in each other’s videos, ultimately drafting audience from one channel to another. This really worked, at first. The savvy creators (and the not-so-savvy) began to build audience from video collaborations.

So let’s look at the trajectory here. First, early adopters, who benefitted greatly from YouTube’s monstrous virality, leveraged platform tools to optimize and catalyze growth for their channels. Those tools then became overrun by scale, and effectively useless for this purpose.

The bar was then raised. An actual video collaboration with another creator became the best way to actionably grow audience. This required a relationship, a scheduled video shoot, etc. Not as easy as simply posting a video response from your living room, right?

Over time, these “collabs” started bearing less and less fruit. The audience became more discerning about subscribing to another channel just because someone appeared in someone else’s video. Creators also realized that their credibility was on the line with these collabs. So maybe the guy with the larger audience would do a collab video, but wouldn’t put it on his/her channel. It would go on the “collabee” channel, the one with the smaller audience, yielding way less conversion for the collabee. The bigger star’s superfans might find the video, but it wouldn’t hit the bigger star’s subscribers, making it much less powerful for the guy trying to draft audience.

Through this period of time, the top stars kept getting bigger, supported by the inherent benefit of a longer presence within the algorithm, an increasingly growing subscriber base and with the introduction of the partner program, which provides a revenue share to the creator, funds within which to produce more and better content than any hobbyist just starting out.

We’re now in phase three of the rising barriers to entry:

  • There are no longer effective platform tools available to draft audience from third-party hit videos (e.g., the video-response tool).
  • Collaborations with other talent require real-world relationships, and the bigger stars are increasingly more difficult to access for a newbie, while simultaneously the audience is savvier about the folks they’ll subscribe to.
  • Top creators now have financing from the partner program (and other sources), whereas the newbie is still shooting on a Webcam in their living room.

The last barrier against stardom is that YouTube now has a decade of securing its place in the cultural pantheon, and anyone and everyone across the globe with a wish to express their talents knows that YouTube is the best way to do that. So the competition is much more fierce. Are you a special-effects wizard? If so, now you have to be pretty incredible to rise above the thousands of others. Not only that, you’ve gotta have a unique, engaging point of view, like Action Movie Kid (whose proprietor, by the way, is a DreamWorks animator who is far from a hobbyist).

So let’s say you actually break through and find a moment of virality on the platform. Your video has gone homepage-wide with millions of views. People are subscribing. Are you a rock star? Definitely not.

Top YouTube channels are meticulously programmed by their creators, just like TV networks and radio stations. Content appears on a regular basis with sophisticated marketing supporting each video release. If you break through, you’d better be educated about the platform, and be prepared to produce, publish and market videos on a regular basis.

This phenomenon, capitalizing on a viral moment that’s larger than oneself, is not unique to YouTube or the Internet. It’s the nature of media. Dan Rather is a great example of this — in fact, many mega-successful journalists launched their careers from a big story. Rather happened to be a reporter in Austin, Texas, the day President Kennedy was shot. That story, much larger than Mr. Rather himself, gave the reporter the platform through which to speak to the nation, and (not to be too crass) “audition” for what ultimately became the CBS anchor chair. In his case, he was a professional reporter. He was good at his job. The transition felt appropriate.

The same law applies to becoming a rock star (or YouTube star). If you’re lucky enough to achieve a moment of virality, it’s essential that you’re already prepared to be a rock star. Or it just won’t happen. You’ll just be one in a million viral videos that comes and goes.

Max Benator is founder of Supergravity Pictures, a technology-driven, direct-to-consumer motion picture studio and distributor. Additionally, Benator is partnered with Fine Brothers Entertainment, which creates, produces and distributes some of the world’s most-viewed entertainment programs, including the “React” franchise. In aggregate, Fine Brothers Entertainment holds more than 17 million YouTube subscribers, with more than three billion lifetime views. Reach him @benator.

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