New creators: when public interactions become financial interactions

YouTube was already a social phenomenon in its very first year thanks to an explosion of content, unprecedented viewing stats, and the viral take-off of certain videos. But the real YouTube phenomenon is the relationship between YouTubers and their fans.

What does it take to become a successful YouTuber? A strong dose of authenticity, a ton of creativity, business savvy, charisma, being on trend, and, above all, the ability to really connect on an ongoing basis with the audience on the other side of the screen.

Creators are the essence of YouTube

“Creators are the essence of YouTube!” exclaimed Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, to YouTubersat VidCon in June 2014.

A few months prior to that, she had presented the Beacon campaign to advertisers: a promotional campaign built around YouTube’s biggest stars, re-released in Toronto in spring 2015, and the US in September 2015.

YouTube stars are true stakeholders in YouTube’s development strategy, the key to how the service stands out against any online competition. They’re the cornerstone of the new YouTube Red subscription service.

Amateur online video has changed who can see what (almost everyone) and what gets represented (almost everything). It has deepened our involvement in the universals of shared culture and heightened our awareness of the particulars of local culture and difference. It has also changed our status as audiences and consumers. The mass audiences are moving from their old analogue position as consumers to their new digitized position as producers. Audiences are watching and interpreting YouTube videos not just as passive viewers but as active commentators and as producers of their own videos.
– Michael Strangelove, Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People, University of Toronto Press, 2010

Having learned from its first run with subscription channels in 2013, a relative failure relying mainly content modeled on traditional TV (long-form content, news channels like The Young Turks, or family channels like Jim Henson Family TV), YouTube built its new subscription project around original content developed by its most popular and prolific creators, including, among others: PewDiePie, No. 1 on Forbes’ list of The World's Highest-Paid YouTube Stars of 2015,the Fine Brothers (13 million subscribers, coming in at No. 2), and Canadian Lily Singh (No. 8 with 7 million subscribers).

A Google search using keywords ‘YouTubers’ and ‘YouTuber stars’ produces millions of results – YouTubers are influential, make millions, and drive viewers wild – and helps us to understand how and why YouTubers have become a force that a number of major players in the entertainment and marketing world intend to harness for profit.

Kids who would, a mere 10 years ago, just be prom queens and kings, or lovable class clowns, and then continue on with their lives as normal, are now monetized celebrities, because thousands and thousands of Instagram and Vine users think they’re cute (attractiveness is an undeniable factor in a lot of social and digital fame) or passingly funny, and adults want those users’ money.
– ‘The VidCon Revolution Isn’t Coming. It’s Here.’ Vanity Fair

To really understand this power, one must attend a YouTuber convention. The first VidCon, in Anaheim, California, drew a crowd of about 2000 in 2010. In 2015, the number was 19,500, each paying between $150 and $600 a pop for the privilege of being there.

Now held in several cities in the west (Video City in ParisSummer in the City in LondonBuffer Festival in Toronto), these events are designed to bring creators, fans and brands together according to the Summer in the City website (“…bringing together creators, fans and brands for a weekend”).

The brands are well-represented in this new relationship between audience and creator, and with good reason: revenues of the wealthiest YouTubers come predominantly from brand contracts and not from their share of YouTube advertising revenue.

YouTube marks the very moment in the larger history of screen practices in which the relational dimension of video – its potential to instigate connectivity between data, people, and devices – has moved to the foreground of consumption. Integrated in mobile media, web-enabled television sets, and social networking applications, YouTube videos have become a key element of the multimedia networks and machineries into which today’s ‘viewers’ are connected. 
– Patrick Vonderau, The John Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, 2014

It’s only logical, if you consider that a sought-after advertising demographic like Millennials hate advertising but have no bone to pick with brands and that close to 25% of Millennials surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group said that celebrities influence their buying decisions, a rate four times higher than for Baby Boomers.

In this context, it’s not surprising that YouTuber authenticity and the relationships they establish with their fans have become such coveted assets.

Traditional media jumping on the bandwagon

Traditional broadcasters are no exception to this craze, especially those desperately seeking to save their place in the digital age. Three Canadian initiatives of note in 2015 are:

  • In April, Bell Media launched Much Digital Studios, a new digital strategy by Much – the new reincarnation of the Canada’s MuchMusic video channel – that aims to combine the visions of YouTube creators of every stripe. Much Digital Studios offers brands the opportunity to align themselves with a fleet of 57 YouTubers thanks to interstitial brand content.

  • At the end of September, CBC teamed up with the digital agency Fullscreen to launch the CBC|Fullscreen Creator NetworkFullscreen helps over 2000 Canadian creators (and over 70,000 worldwide) produce digital content and broadcast it on a number of platforms. The network should eventually integrate Quebec YouTubers as well.

  • In October, Québecor launched Goji, presented as an “innovative initiative that’s custom-designed to support and launch the most talented YouTubers in the multiplatform development of their brand.” There’s no sign of the Québecor brand on the Goji website. The effort is structured like a start-up its CEO said at a recent conference. “YouTube is a starting point,” he said, “and by no means the be-all and end-all.”

All these initiatives share the common goal of associating brands with digital stars, using available tools to ensure compatibility, and to broadcast on the most platforms possible. YouTube is at the centre of this universe, but other social media, in particular Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram and Tumblr, gravitate around it, and some with the clear intention of taking YouTube’s crown for themselves.

Does the YouTube model represent the natural evolution of TV? We’re inclined to say, Yes, based on the way traditional media is enthusiastically hopping on the bandwagon…even at the breakneck speed the bandwagon is moving into the future.

Danielle Desjardins
Danielle Desjardins offers analysis, research and writing services for media and cultural enterprises through her company, La Fabrique de sens. Before that, she was director of planning for Radio-Canada, where she was responsible for strategic, corporate and regulatory matters for more than 20 years.
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