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How do YouTube stars make money?

Exterior of YouTube Space in Los Angeles.

Robert Garrova

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This is just one of the stories from our I’ve Always Wondered series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? What do you wonder? Let us know here.

Anna Akana is what you might call YouTube-famous. She’s amassed two million subscribers covering topics like dating advice and burnout at work.

“I’ve been doing this for free for five years so now let me please try to make a career off of it,” Akana said. “And I’ve always found that people appreciate it when you’re honest about it instead of trying to sneakily sell them something.”

Akana can spend thousands of dollars producing just one video and even though she’s found some stability now, it’s still a struggle.

“Internet fame is so short-lived that I hope any professional creator tries to think about diversifying their income,” she said.  

Creators get a little help from YouTube. At the company’s Creator Space in Los Angeles, there are pro cameras and sound equipment everywhere you look, plus a state-of-the-art screening room. Creators who reach certain subscriber numbers can check in and use whatever they want for free.

Why? To help creators churn out content, said YouTube Space LA head Alvaro Bajos.

“We give them a path to grow, we get them excited about doing the next thing,” he said. “We show our commitment to them and we keep them engaged in the platform.”

Then, in turn, YouTube has content to sell ads around. But those ads aren’t as lucrative for creators as you might think.

“For the creators, they’re making very little money from those ads,” said David Craig, a fellow at the Peabody Media Center and a professor at the University of Southern California. “They used to make upwards of $20-25 per thousand views, but over time, that number has collapsed as the platform has grown in scale.”

Now, Craig says, YouTube creators make more like $1-3 per thousand views, depending on the type of content.

Laura Chernikoff is Executive Director of the Internet Creator’s Guild, a non-profit that hopes to make the profession more sustainable for people making content on the internet.

“Creators will say they can’t reliably live off the split from YouTube and brand deals give them an opportunity to expand what they’re able to do,” Chernikoff said. “Sometimes they make content for the company’s channel, not just their channel.”

The real money’s in those brand deals, not the ads.

“If an advertiser comes directly to you and pays you to promote their brand or product or service, you could, on average make between $75 -100 per thousand views,” Craig said.

YouTube Space LA

Akana said the majority of her income is made from brand deals with companies like Squarespace and Audible. The brand deals are important if you want to make a living, but it’d be wrong to say it’s the only way creators make a living.

“From virtual goods to fan funding to subscriptions on other platforms to e-commerce to live performances, book sales, music sales, film and TV performances, the list goes on and on,” Craig said.  

And if that list of ways to make money on the internet makes you anxious, just think about creators like Akana.

“I think the scariest part of our job as creators is that it’s completely brand new,” Akana says. “This is new media, it’s the wild west, we don’t know how long it’s gonna stay. And we really hope it does because it’s a lot of people’s jobs and it’s how a lot of people make money.”

To make things even more complicated, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat have all entered the video space, so the brand a creator builds doesn’t need to be tied to one platform anymore.

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