With an ADD sense of humour and internet insights from a brief stint at a search engine optimization company, Toby Turner has emerged as a YouTube star and one of the site’s greatest innovators.
Turner ranks fifth among independent YouTubers with 14.8 million followers among his three channels: Tobuscus, where he posts comedy sketches and parody videos; Toby Turner, where he frequently posts “lazy vlogs” about his life range from wacky, energetic freestyles to carefully planned and practiced comedic routines; and
TobyGames, where he posts videos of him playing video games along with improvised commentary.
He got his start back in 2006 when his mother took out a loan for him to get a video camera. A student at the University of Florida at Gainesville at the time, supposedly working toward a career in dentistry, he was eager to find another career path.
“I wanted to do anything beside getting a real job,” Turner tells Business Insider.
In 2007, Turner posted his first big hit on Metacafe, a weird video where he pretends to prove an urban legend that says if you pour Coca Cola on raw pork, worms come out. The video topped 1 million views, and at a rate of 5$ cost per thousand views (CPM) that earned him $US5,000, which he considered an impressive sum.
At the same time, Turner was offered to create a sponsored sketch video for $US5,000. Though the deal never went through, it was a hint that there was a business model in making online comedy videos.
“I was jogging down the street and thinking, ‘That’s six months worth of rent,'” says Turner. “I knew there was opportunity to [make a living online], but then I realised its about making a lot of videos.”
While in the Gainesville comedy scene, Turner became known for a standup routine that was as manic and frenzied as clicking through a set of YouTube videos. It consisted of a jumble of traditional standup jokes, comedy songs, and prerecorded sketch videos.
Turner’s says his style is based around his ADD-personality. He says he gets bored quickly, a trait that led him constantly switch between comedy genres in his live show. That carries over to his YouTube videos, which he edits with an eye towards his audience’s short attention span.
“I would watch a video that I’d made when I was editing and if I got bored, I would realise that I need to throw something in fast to switch up the topic or move to the next joke,” he says.
When Turner graduated from the University of Florida, he had a few hits on YouTube and MetaCafe (including a remix of his fellow University of Florida student getting famously tasered) and just over 3,000 subscribers.
Turner moved from Florida to Los Angeles with a desire to pursue his comedy, but his first job, which he found on CraigsList, was in search engine optimization.
Although Turner says he hated the job, he credits it with teaching him useful insights. He learned how to use Google tools like Keywords and Adwords to find trending topics that were likely to go viral and to write keyword-heavy blog posts that would shoot to the top of Google’s search rankings, and he realised he could use the same techniques to get his own content to the top.
Turner began creating sketches and parody songs that capitalised on memes, movies, TV shows, events, and trends. If he was fast enough and the content was good enough, Turner found that he could make his videos go viral.
“I would do stuff that catches onto popular keywords like news events. You have to be really fast,” says Turner. “I tried to think about how I could use my strengths [like music, comedy, parody] to get in the public eye through search engine optimization. I sprinted up through the ranks of YouTube that way.”
Turner’s videos at time included riffs on popular movies, including “Click,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and “The Ring.” Others riff on a popular Cingular commercial, a popular Dave Matthews Band song, and the recently released iPhone. Hidden in the description of each video was keyword-heavy text that explains the history of each topic in the video, even in videos about non-topical subjects like video-blogging, sky-diving, or boobies (the sea-bird).
Turner’s keyword strategy worked especially well during the early years of YouTube, when there was less sophisticated or widespread competition. Once others started to figure out the same strategy, jumping onto a keyword and getting seen became much harder, though the strategy certainly has not gone away. By the time his competition caught up, however, Turner had built a loyal following that he could cultivate and grow.
Once Turner began making enough money off YouTube to support himself (around $US2,000 per month), he quit the SEO job and focused on his YouTube channel full-time.
Literal trailers and funny gaming
In October 2008, YouTuber Dustin McLean posted a “literal” parody of A-Ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me,” where he dubbed over the lyrics with new vocals that literally describe the odd visuals in the video. The video was a massive hit (13+ million views), prompting many YouTubers to make their own literal music videos in short order.
Turner quickly recognised the trend and decided to put his own spin on the genre by creating literal movie and video game trailers. For the videos, Turner dubbed voice-overs for popular movie and video-game trailers, making fun of what was being shown in the trailers and the plot-holes in the movie/game. He has since made over 30 literal trailers, which have received anywhere from 4 million to 40 million views.
Literal videos weren’t the only YouTube form that Turner mutated into his own either. By 2010, one of YouTube’s most popular forms was the video-game walkthrough, where top gamers would film themselves playing the latest games while providing commentary and strategy tips. Turner had long wanted to do the same, but he didn’t like the genre’s self-seriousness.
“If anyone tried to be funny, [the audience] hated them,” says Turner. “I always felt it was more important for video-games to be fun.”
Turner began posting videos every day of him trying and failing hilariously to play the most popular current video games, the first of which was StarCraft II. He quickly gained a huge following; and in short order, other YouTubers jumped on the comedy-gaming bandwagon, a trend that has been ridden to the top by Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg (username: PewDiePie), who is currently the most popular YouTuber in the world.
Here’s Turner’s most popular video from his gaming channel (9.6+ million views):
Making It Big
In 2010, Turner signed to Machinima Studios, the YouTube gaming behemoth that has over 11 million subscribers. At the time, the company was snatching up popular YouTubers into its network with the promise of lucrative ad dollars. While Machinima does produce its own content, at the time, Machinima’s main focus was negotiating pre-roll and banner ads on YouTubers’ existing videos.
For Turner, the main attraction to signing was the “wall of protection” he thought with Machinima would provided. Turner frequently posted content that co-opted more traditional media, either through his parody videos or his video game commentaries, both of which required that he use copyrighted content.
In 2013, Turner switched sides, signing with Maker Studios, Machinima’s main rival. Maker Studios has been challenging Machinima for YouTube dominance over the last year, picking up big name YouTubers like PewDiePie and celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Robert De Niro. Earlier this spring, Maker Studios was bought by Walt Disney for $US500 million, which could rise to $US950 million, depending on how the company does.
Turner says he hasn’t noticed a difference between the two companies, whether monetarily or in services provided, possibly because he produces all his content independently.
Despite rising success, he says he tries not to focus on views, CPMs, or income dollars, even if he knows that it would make for a better business model.
“You get obsessed and you don’t focus on being creative anymore,” he says. “You start focusing on what the most monetized keywords are.”
Turner declined to give a hard income number, but said that he, his friends, and his family are living comfortably from his career.
SocialBlade, a YouTube analytics site, estimates that Turner makes somewhere between $US226,000 and $US2.18 million per year, through ads negotiated by Maker Studios or sponsorships and product placements that he negotiates himself. SocialBlade’s estimates are based around a $US5 CPM rate and the idea that all of Turner’s videos are monetized, which is certainly not the case. Add in the fact that CPM rates fluctuate wildly — Turner says that sometimes they are as low as $US1 — 3 — the lower end of that range is probably a better ballpark figure than the higher end.
Finding Time For Everything
Maintaining three popular YouTube channels is far from easy. While Turner will routinely offer up projects for his friends to work on, most of the shooting, editing, and posting falls solely on him. His most elaborate videos can take months to bring to fruition, while other like his daily Vlogs or video game commentaries he can shoot and post in a day.
Turner’s most time-consuming videos by far are his Tobuscus Adventures, an animated series on YouTube where his alter-ego Tobuscus goes on adventures with his friend Gabe.
Although popular, routinely getting between 3 — 4 million views, the videos take so long that they probably aren’t worth it from a financial perspective, Turner says. To him they are more of a passion project.
All things considered, Turner says that he does little else besides film and edit videos, write scripts, and sleep.
Breaking Out Of YouTube
As Turner’s position on YouTube has solidified, it has become more viable for him to leverage his fanbase to pursue projects outside of YouTube. Currently, he is working on both a book for Harper-Collins and an iOS/Android game based on his Tobuscus Adventures YouTube cartoon show.
In the case of the Tobuscus iOS/Android game, Turner looked to his rabid audience for funding. He put up a campaign on IndieGoGo in 2013 with a hefty goal of $US240,000. He ended up raising far more: $600,000 in an impressive show of support.
Turner is developing the Tobuscus game with a team of independent developers he has cobbled together himself, with mixed results. Despite the extra budget from the IndieGoGo campaign, the project has gone over-budget and succumbed to delays. Turner says the problem lies in he and his team’s inexperience.
“The developers have never made a game by themselves before,” Turner says. “They’re talented, but I didn’t realise how much time I’d have to spend helping them along. It’s been a rough ride at times.”
The game development, like his book, has been a learning process. Turner is certainly a multi-talented performer, but like the do-everything millennial generation that he appeals to, he has a tendency to overextend himself.
“It’s gonna be a lot smoother next time around,” says Turner. “I had no idea what to expect when I got into [developing the game]. It was the same with writing the book.”
The game, due out in October, adheres to Turner’s frantic style. Amidst painstakingly tested gameplay, he throws in cutscenes and voice-overs meant to break the tension, make players laugh, and occasionally distract from less-polished parts of the game.
Turner sees his long term projects as a path towards breaking into traditional media, something that has been notoriously hard for YouTube stars until recently. It shows in his work; though he still publishes frequently to all three channels, he seems decidedly focused on both the Tobuscus Adventures video game and book.
The list of YouTube comedy stars that have crossed over is short: Donald Glover (who started in YouTube sketch comedy team DerrickComedy), Jimmy Tatro (appeared this year in 22 Jump Street), and Bo Burnham (on MTV and recently released a Comedy Central stand up special) round out the list.
That may be changing, says Turner, who believes the stigma of rising as an internet star is dissipating as Hollywood studios and casting agencies turn to web stars and their built-in fan bases to find the next great entertainer.
“There’s an opportunity right now for YouTubers to break into traditional media,” says Turner. “In the beginning, YouTube content wasn’t up to the same standard as traditional media. Now, people are using it as a launchpad.”
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