The Trade Secrets of YouTube’s Biggest Stars Revealed

Attendees at VidCon 2016 on June 23, 2016 in Anaheim, California.

Attendees at VidCon 2016 on June 23, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung)

Like a ComicCon for YouTubers, the annual VidCon conference in Anaheim this past June allowed tens of thousands of mostly young fans to meet their favorite YouTube celebrities. There were panels, meet-and-greets, parties and contests. With over 15,000 people in attendance, it was a swinging event.  

Having attended this conference years ago and again this year, I can see how the YouTube landscape has changed. It’s become bigger and more crowded: filled with musicians trying to be the next Justin Bieber, gamers trying to be PewDiePie and everyone else vying for their 15 minutes.

Everyday, over 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute! It can be a tough environment to thrive in—so tough that even the old-timers feel the pressure of all the competition.

But YouTube is still a young and changing frontier. There are plenty of opportunities to make it big and innovate. So I sat down (virtually of course) with some big YouTubers—across various genres—to ask them about their tips for making it in a field that seems to never stop expanding.

1. Collaboration is the key to success.

Like many aspects of life, the key to YouTube success is cross-collaboration. This was drilled into me by everyone I talked to. They all said that if you want to succeed, you must network and produce collaborative videos that can go on someone else’s channel. This allows each creator to get the benefit of the other person’s audience and expand their presence on the platform.

As Laura Bubble from the YouTube channel of the same name said, “It’s become easier to collaborate and learn from people. There’s more access to facilities and locations, and more people are aware of what video blogging is. So there are definitely some positive aspects to the increase in people on the website too.”

Marko from Vagabrothers echoed this point: “We spent the first three years of our channel cold calling potential sponsors, attending industry networking events, working to speak on panels at industry conferences. We read books on business and online marketing and kept abreast of industry news. We approached production companies and auditioned for jobs as hosts, even when our audience was minuscule.”

In short, if you want to succeed, you need to network. Attend conferences like VidCon, reach out to other YouTubers you like, read, attend meet-ups and go on group trips. Collaboration is the No. 1 thing you can do to propel yourself forward.

2. Focus on your community.

Creating a popular channel is like creating a popular blog. You need an audience, you need readers, you need customers. You can’t exist—or succeed—in a bubble.

Focus on building a strong community-first channel. According to Marko, YouTube is king because “YouTube is where the community is, and that cannot be understated. VidCon drew over 15,000 fans eager to see their favorite YouTube creators.”

While there may be other video platforms, YouTube allows you to create and grow a loyal following of viewers. You need to engage with your readers by answering their comments and emails; hosting meet-ups; and addressing them and their concerns in your videos. YouTube is a two-way street, and people want to feel involved. They want you to be a friend.

3. Use YouTube as a launching pad.

YouTube allows people to reach potentially millions of people and create a career doing something you love. But YouTube should be viewed as something akin to your portfolio. This is where you show your work so people hire you off YouTube, because, as Laura said, “I think the biggest challenge with making YouTube videos for a living is the instability. No one knows where the next job is coming from and how long it will last.”

With that instability, more and more people are moving toward work outside of YouTube: presenting, writing and social media jobs. YouTube is simply a staging area where people can find you, see what you are like and hire you for work, where you’ll make the most money.

Taryn Southern (of the channel of the same name) has been moving out of YouTube and finding paid work elsewhere. “It’s very difficult to earn a living on YouTube, unless you can parlay that activity into monetization streams off YouTube. For me, that’s meant making money as a production and consulting company, merchandising, music and licensing content to other companies. It would be impossible for me to make money off my channel given the amount it takes for me to produce my content—but the audience I have on YouTube is often what allows me to earn money through other avenues.”

In short, don’t think of YouTube as the end all, be all. Build up your audience and influence there and then take it off YouTube.

4. Take time for yourself.

The constant nature of YouTube can be draining. The Internet doesn’t stop. It’s 24/7/365. If you don’t create a work-life balance, you are going to burn out.

That was all too apparent from the creators running toward the “Creator Only” sections at VidCon, where creators got away from the maddening fans who demanded all their attention. It’s hard to be creative when you are always “on,” and every YouTuber stressed the need to find some quiet time to think, reflect and focus on the content.

As Taryn said, “There’s a tax we pay on not being fully present and engaged in our world, and time is the one resource we don’t get back. It’s something I struggle with all the time. I used to feel guilty when I wouldn’t post on social media; now I’ve reconciled with that. I post when I want to post (and maybe when I’ve had too much to drink).”

Mark Weins from Migrationology concurred: It definitely makes me tired, and being a creator on YouTube often consumes my thoughts, sometimes too much. So I think in order to be sustainable it’s important to balance your time online with social and family life. What I do love about YouTube is that you can schedule videos ahead of time, so you can easily take some time off.”

Remember, your audience is there for you. They want to see you succeed but also take care of yourself. That’s why everyone got alarmed when this fashion YouTuber acted weird. They were so worried about her safety they even called the cops—out of love. Be “on” and produce great content, but remember that you are only human—and all humans need time to themselves.

5. Create products your readers can purchase.

One of the biggest problems with YouTube is that ad rates are so low. You can’t survive on the ads that play in front of YouTube videos. You need to create products. The most successful YouTubers think of themselves as a store selling a product. From tours to shirts to socks to books, YouTubers are monetizing their brands.

As Mark points out, “Just like any online business, there are so many variables that make up monetization on YouTube. YouTubers should not just rely on YouTube ad monetization but should also focus on having products or services to sell that are off YouTube.”

This is what led Nadine of Hey Nadine and Kristen from Hopscotch the Globe to create their own course about succeeding on YouTube. As Nadine puts it, “There are a lot of different factors involved with monetization. I know that there are creators with 10,000 subscribers making the same amount, if not more, than other creators with 100,000 or sometimes even 1,000,000. If you look at all the top YouTube creators, you’ll notice that all of them have other projects they are working on, be it books, movies, merchandise, touring, production companies, sponsorships. We wanted a way to help people learn the ropes.”

With ad rates so low and brand partnerships so time consuming, you need to create passive sources of income. And products are that source.

By creating your own products and owning your own brand, you are no longer beholden to Google’s ad rates or the whims of advertisers who may one day no longer show up at your door.

*****

YouTube is not for everyone. As Taryn said, “YouTube can absolutely be the sole thing that someone does, but I think most content creators primarily use their channel as a leveraging device to do things in other areas. It’s difficult to see how YouTube can maintain a ‘middle class’—it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

That said, there’s always room for success on YouTube. While there will always be a pyramid effect on YouTube, following the best practices of the industry and creating quality content will allow you to move past your competition and succeed.

But, as Kristen Sarah reflects, saying you can’t succeed on YouTube is “like saying there’s no more room for any more actors, singers or dancers. It’s going to be competitive, but there will always be room for new creators who will be able to succeed and make a living from this. It may be a little tougher than it was five years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

Matthew Kepnes is the founder of Nomadic Matt and the author of the NYT best-selling book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. He’s also the founder of the travel media school, Superstar Blogging.