In vlog we trust: a look at the YouTube personality economy

Instead of bussing tables and tediously tending to customers, there are a number of enterprising youths who are turning to a new avenue of employment: YouTube. What are these kids thinking? 

Felix Kjellberg is a Swedish-born YouTube video maker, most commonly known by his online alias PewDiePie (pronounced pew-dee-pie).

He also happened to make US$7.4 million last year, largely from screaming at video games.

And he’s not alone. There are hundreds of young video bloggers – aka “vloggers” – who film thoughts, observations, comedy sketches, science facts, and an assortment of different things for their followers to enjoy online.

They are a group of young entrepreneurs who have been born into the digital age. And brands are catching on to the social currency these vloggers hold, especially with the teenage and university student demographics.

In New Zealand, Jamie Curry, has a deal with Kiwi Bank, and has done work with Coca-Cola and Netflix, and currently holds court with about 1.5 million followers on YouTube. Perhaps showing that it’s not all just about the digital realm, she’s also written a book

Shannon Harris, who produces videos under the name Shaaanxo, has the largest social media presence on the New Zealand YouTube scene, with just under 1.87 million subscribers. It’s difficult to know how much these vloggers earn, but metrics website Social Blade gives the rather unhelpful stat of somewhere between $137.8k and $2.2m per year for Harris. 

So how do they draw such huge crowds?

Elena Carroll

Elena Carroll, creator of the ClassicSplendour channel (focusing on make-up and fashion tutorials) believes it’s the relatability between video creators and their audiences that holds the key.

“The reason why they do so big is because the people that view [vloggers]would be ranging from 10 to 20. Maybe a little bit more, but more often around that age,” she says.

“[The audience] feel like they know this person, and see them as friends. They’re involved in [the vlogger’s]lives.”

YouTube success

Carroll began the beauty and fashion YouTube channel after watching her dad produce his own stuff and putting it online. It soon paid off – a year after creating the channel, she was made a YouTube partner and started making money.

The 19-year-old student currently has around 6,400 subscribers. Despite the non-disclosure agreement with YouTube, she’s “allowed to say it helps me out at university. It’s basically the equivalent of a part-time job.”

So instead of bussing tables or selling clothes, she’s getting paid to try out, review, and recommend beauty products on YouTube – but that’s not all.

Her success has also meant being contacted by fashion brands and product companies who want to cash in on her popularity. And this is leading to some issues around labelling such content as paid-for endorsements, something Mondelez experienced last year after the BBC raised concerns about native ad transparancy in Oreo ads

But she says being very particular about what makes it on to her channel makes sure her endorsement means something.

“I’m not just going to take on anything just because it’s been offered to me,” she says. “I’m quite aware of what I want for myself, but I would be open to anything.”

However, the life of a YouTube celebrity isn’t all glitz and glamour and free beauty products – a lot of it is constantly sacrificing nights out with friends to produce videos, as well as backlash from people both online and offline.

“In high school, it caused a little bit of grief when my peers started finding out my videos. They weren’t very nice to begin with, and it was mainly guys that didn’t understand [what I do],” Carroll says.

Her pragmatic approach to the negativity is to simply plod on, ignoring the detractors and naysayers. She has good reason to: one video tutorial she created has been seen by more than a million people.

What’s the secret?

“I’m actually still trying to figure that out myself. You make videos, and you hope they’ll do well. It just happens, and you just don’t know [why].”

  • This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on idealog.co.nz

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