As someone who watches a lot of YouTube (and someone who daily vlogged for a while and still wishes he vlogged) I’ve noticed some things that have changed about YouTube since I first joined in June of 2007. The idea for this post came around 1 am when, for the first time since Dan 3.0 ended, I watched a video by Dan Brown. This video was his very last “Delicious Steak” video (the show that preceded Dan 3.0), and Dan spoke about the rift between those who use YouTube as a source of income vs. those who use it for fun. I feel like that’s been a constant debate for a long time and it’s something I want to discuss. I should note before this rant goes any further that the views expressed below are solely my own and none of the YouTubers listed below are associated with me in any way. I respect them all very much, enjoy (most of) the content they produce, and am using the business ventures described below purely as examples of things I have observed, not that have necessarily been established as fact.
Of course there have always been YouTubers who make money and clearly have fun doing it. The most obvious example is the VlogBrothers (http://www.youtube.com/vlogbrothers). John and Hank have a great relationship and are literally changing the world by communicating their ideas to a receptive and engaged audience. If it wasn’t for YouTube, there’s a very good chance they wouldn’t have the relationship they have today, a lot of charities would never have been founded or gotten so much publicity, and VidCon wouldn’t be what it is today. They’ve spoken publicly about their rules for making videos on their respective tumblrs (http://fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com/post/16468768894/how-to-run-a-business-that-doesnt-suck-the-hank-and) and on their HankGames channel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2ScRffqURI) and I agree with these rules.
To look at a different side of the same coin is Philip DeFranco. Phil has the sxephil channel (http://www.youtube.com/sxephil) where he produces the Philip DeFranco Show 4 days a week. He’s also got the PhilipDeFranco channel (http://www.youtube.com/philipdefranco) for vlogs and his new channel SourceFed (http://www.youtube.com/sourcefed), featuring Elliot Morgan, Joe Bareta, & Lee Newton among others. Unlike the VlogBrothers, Phil pretty visibly publicizes his sponsors at the end of each show. Among them are Netflix, Amazon, and several others – these sponsorships are the reason he can give out gift cards and prizes to his audience 4x a week. I trust Phil and I really don’t believe having sponsors and his program monetized effects his opinion or what he’s willing to say in his videos. The first reason I believe it is because I’ve been watching Phil’s videos for a long time and they’re exactly the same as they were before Netflix and Amazon picked him up. The second reason is because I know these are services Phil was using anyway before they were his sponsors. Phil was doing a movie of the week or month club and Netflix, rather than ignoring the huge amount of traffic Phil was sending their way, decided to reward him and so people who found Netflix through him were rewarded with a free trial, Phil was rewarded with some extra money to put towards the production of his show (and later SourceFed), and Netflix was rewarded with new customers (http://www.netflix.com/PhillyD). That’s just the internet being done right.
Yet another example of this in a third format is the ShayTards vlogs (http://www.youtube.com/shaytards). Shay (http://www.youtube.com/shaycarl), Colette (aka Katilette aka MommyTard) (http://www.youtube.com/kaitlette), and their family are the ones who made The Flip the camera to have for vlogging. They were also sponsored by Flip though. They have new product endorsements for products such as Swivl and the Volcom clothing line among others. The integration of endorsements into their videos is very different than that of the VlogBrothers or DeFranco. Shay endorses a product by using it, and flat-out saying “I am promoting this product and you should buy it.” This didn’t really happen with the Flip, but that was because Cisco had great marketing for that camera. However, there’s no way Swivl would exist without Shay using his audience to his advantage. These guys contacted Shay and said something to the effect of “you have a great big audience and we think they might like this product. If you like our product, we will pay you to tell people how great it is and that they should buy it.” Because Shay agreed and did that, Swivl was able to get the funding they needed and now have thousands of products pre-ordered. The opposite is also true though, that Shay wouldn’t get these sponsorships if it wasn’t for his audience. The sponsorship and clothing line Shay has with Volcom only came about because the guy Shay started negotiations with at Volcom has a son who loves the ShayTards vlogs. The kid noticed Shay wearing Volcom clothes and had his dad contact Shay about getting a deal brokered between the two of them.
This rant isn’t to say that sponsorship is bad and product placement has no place on YouTube. Quite the contrary, I think it’s incredible that people can make high quality content and get paid to do something they enjoy. It’s a true collision of the internet, of new media, and of American entrepreneurialism. I also find YouTube to be fascinating for this reason.
There are however YouTubers who I feel do not utilize their sponsorships the correct way, and because of it, they suffer. My most obvious example is, unfortunately, Dan Brown (http://www.youtube.com/pogobat). When I started watching Dan, he absolutely fascinated me. Dan was an idealistic kid only a few years older than me and he became a huge influence in my career as a YouTuber. I looked forward to sitting down at my computer and hearing “Hello World!” before engaging in a thoughtful discussion on whatever Dan was discussing in that particular video. The PogoTribe was my first real YouTube community and the first group to make me realize that YouTube was changing from a place where videos were uploaded to a place where communities, relationships, and real-life actions and consequences were being formed. Dan too noticed this change and wanted to run with it. What if these real-life actions and consequences were chosen by the audience and then they got to see what happened. This was idea behind Dan 3.0 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=xDaHeenBZXg) but unfortunately, the execution wasn’t done properly, and I think the format of the decision making, in addition to Dan’s sponsorships, are where the fault lied.
Dan had a forum where he and his editors/eventual decision-makers could see what ideas had been submitted, how popular the ideas were, and how feasible they thought the idea was. Unfortunately, Dan could do these videos, but by the time it would get done, the idea had been around for literally days. Dan tried to fix this by making videos more frequently, but got stressed out and the quality of his videos went down. Dan then hired Michael Aranda to edit his videos, but it didn’t work out and Dan, once again, became stressed out. At first Dan decided to keep doing more videos, but do less things in them. This defeated the purpose of Dan 3.0 because his audience wasn’t controlling him. Dan then changed the format to do more, but release videos fewer times per week. This also didn’t work out because Dan’s audience couldn’t see how their choices affected Dan. Eventually, Dan disappeared for a month and started making videos, but Dan 3.0, as well as the pogobat channel, were never the same. For this experiment to have worked, Dan would’ve needed suggestions in real time in a much more accessible way, such as sending a tweet and responding to the first response or the most popular within an arbitrary time limit (for example, 5 minutes). He also would have needed a live-stream of his life so at any time his audience could watch him and see their decisions having an influence.
The reason Dan was under so much pressure when making videos was because of his sponsorships. He was required to produce content that would, ultimately, make money. This change in priority led to a decrease in what Dan wanted to make and an increase in what he thought his audience would watch, and this is directly correlated to when Dan stopped enjoying making videos and when his audience stopped watching his videos. When any business venture cares more about its profit than its product, that’s when something is wrong and needs to change. I know there are plenty of major corporations out there who focus solely on getting money, but they obviously have some product or service on the market which consumers enjoy or they wouldn’t be around.
The situation Dan now finds himself in can be best summed up by Charlie McDonnell (http://www.youtube.com/charlie), a YouTuber who found himself in a similar situation to Dan – he didn’t enjoy making videos and so he changed something. Charlie always preferred videos of quality rather than quantity, but recently, he made a video every day for a week just to see if he could. Charlie enjoyed it and he’s gone on-record as saying he would make videos more often, because it can be fun to just sit in front of a camera and talk. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Charlie, or any YouTuber makes videos of quality or quantity, because they all think this:
“I don’t like the idea of forcing myself to make things just because I feel like I need to. If I’m going to make something, I want to make it just because I want to make it.” -Charlie McDonnell, Settling In (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoVB4bwY2v4)
The most important thing is that these YouTubers enjoy what they do and make videos they’re proud of. Getting paid to do so should just be a bonus, and if it’s the primary motivator, then they may need to reconsider their priorities.