Teens are going crazy for YouNow, a livestreaming app with 100 million monthly user sessions

Younow The Merrell TwinsVanessa and Veronica Merrell.

Every Tuesday, Vanessa and Veronica Merrell spend an hour livestreaming themselves singing covers of their favourite songs or playing charades. But the 18-year-old sisters aren’t doing this on Periscope or Meerkat.

Instead, they’re using YouNow, a livestreaming mobile app and website teens are obsessed with.

YouNow founder Adi Sideman says 70% of YouNow’s users are under the age of 24, and that the platform has 100 million user sessions a month, and about 150,000 broadcasts daily. For comparison, Twitter announced Tuesday that its livestreaming app Periscope hit 1 million users in its first 10 days.

The Merrell twins found out about YouNow through one of their favourite YouTubers, the Harries Twins.

“We were absolutely in love with the Harries Twins — they would always do YouNows,” Veronica tells Business Insider.

“A lot of our subscribers and viewers wanted a way to talk to us and they told us to do YouNow so we could interact with them,” Veronica said. “And we were just like, why not? It’s a cool way to interact with our subscribers and viewers.”

The interaction between performers and their audiences is what sets YouNow apart from other buzzy livestreaming services like Periscope or Meerkat. The average mobile session length on YouNow is about 6 minutes. The average mobile broadcast length is about 18 minutes.

The average mobile session length on YouNow is about 6 minutes. The average mobile broadcast length is about 18 minutes.

Each YouNow broadcast has two main features: a window where the broadcaster livestreams himself or herself, and a chat window, where users interact with broadcasters. YouNow lets hits users buy into a currency called Bars. It lets users buy virtual goods — 50 thumbs up, for example — that they can give to their favourite broadcaster to help them trend. They can also pay to send messages to YouNowers that get sent to the top of the chat window, so both the YouNower and the rest of the viewers see it.

“What makes a great YouNower or a great live broadcaster is the ability to interact in almost a performance setting with the audience live and feeling very comfortable,” Sideman says. “It’s not trivial to do. And it’s not for everyone. But if you are very good with people and if you are not very inhibited, then chances are you would be pretty good on YouNow.”

Sideman is no stranger to the user-generated media broadcast on YouNow every second of every day — in fact, he basically went to school for it, majoring in filmmaking and then going to grad school for interactive telecommunications.

“In my mind, it’s always been a holy grail to allow users to create media,” Sideman says. “And the more real time the technologies became, the more it became clear that live is going to be really huge.”

Sideman thinks this is the right time for an app like YouNow because people have never been more comfortable around video, and people are trying to make a name for themselves online.

The collision of these trends led Sideman to start YouNow in 2011.

If you still can’t quite wrap your head around what YouNow is, Sideman puts it best:

“It’s a global platform for self expression,” he said. “It’s like YouTube, but live. The secret sauce is that it’s all about the audience. And the audience feels like even though it’s a one-to-many, it feels like a one-to-one interaction.”

When you use YouNow’s platform, you can see the top trending broadcasters, as well as which of your friends are online and a number of trending tags, including things like #dance, #truthordare, and #advice.

The theory behind YouNow is that people crave social interaction in every form, and YouNow is the perfect platform for that. Teens, a demographic with a lot of time on their hands, as suggested by the ever-popular #bored hashtag on YouNow, do everything from talk to the camera, eat dinner while they talk to their community of followers, dance, and even livestream themselves sleeping (For a more thorough explainer on YouNow’s fascinating #sleepingsquad, I defer to BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopolous).

Last year, Vine star Shawn Mendes released a single on YouNow. Tumblr star and Internet personality Tyler Oakley raised half a million dollars on crowdfunding website Prizeo for The Trevor Project, a charity that raises awareness for LGBT youths at risk of suicide, and linked to his YouNow account in a sort of modern-day telethon.

Adi SidemanYouNowYouNow founder Adi Sideman.

Even parents are getting in on the broadcasting aspect too. Darrell Tousley, better known by his YouNow name Flippindad, is the parent of YouNower Flippinginja, hia son Jared. With two broadcasters and two cameras in the same house, Sideman says it’s like watching a reality TV show.

“We never had imagined half of these use cases,” he says. “And by giving governance and control over to the community, we provide a platform upon which they can self express in ways they want.”

YouNow makes money by taking a cut of users’ in-app purchases every time someone buys bars to tip their favourite performers.

“It really enhances the ability to communicate,” Sideman says. “It’s a classic freemium model.”

YouNow’s partner program lets broadcasters make money, and Sideman says many of them report making more on YouNow than on YouTube.

YounowYouNowYouNow audience members can pay to give gifts like 50 thumbs ups to their favourite broadcaster to help them trend on YouNow.

For the Merrell twins, YouNow has come naturally. After being on the platform for about 9 months, the high schoolers have amassed 76,000 YouNow fans in addition to their 250,000 YouTube subscribers. While they say they do make “a good amount” of money from YouTube and YouNow alike — “the more and more viewers we get on our broadcasts the more money comes in,” Vanessa says — they have never been motivated by money. The sisters genuinely love interacting with their community of fans.

“We don’t just read the comments,” Vanessa said. “We get to play games with our fans, we get to see where they’re from. We always ask, Where are you from? Who’s watching us right now? And we get answers form all over the world. It’s just amazing to see all these people from around the world come together and chat with each other and just have fun.”

David Pakman is a partner at venture capital firm Venrock, which led YouNow’s $US7 million Series B round of funding in August 2014. He says what drew him to YouNow is how inherently social it is.

“What makes YouNow so different from and more valuable than some competing livestreaming apps is that many of those are utilities used to broadcast, not media creation platforms rooted in social discovery,” he says. “The fact that the camera faces IN as default, not out, suggests how valuable we believe conversation is to the success of this format.”

The Merrells, who are currently in high school with plans to attend college in the future, say YouNow has become part of their weekly routine.

“[It’s] like posting a video every Tuesday on YouTube,” Vanessa says. “Our fans expect us to be there.”

They livestream every Tuesday, singing covers of songs that fans request, playing games with viewers, answering their questions, and giving advice to people who want it.

“We play games like Hangman. We’ll start humming a song or playing a song on guitar and they guess the song, and whoever guesses the song first gets to pick a letter for Hangman. We also do charades and trivia,” Vanessa says. “Every broadcast is different.”

David PakmanOneWireDavid Pakman, a partner at Venrock

In addition, the twins have been cast in “Jane the Virgin,” a sitcom on the CW.

“We were the evil twin stepsisters, who were very mean,” Veronica says. “It was way out of our personalities! It’s not who we are.”

While the Merrells got that role through their agent, they say they have also gotten opportunities through YouNow and YouTube.

At the MTV Video Music Awards last year, they said, YouNow and MTV had a partnership in which YouNowers were livestreaming on the red carpet, singing covers of their favourite artists’ songs so the artists could watch.

“It was a really cool experience,” Veronica says. “A lot of people got to perform in front of their favourite artists.”

YouNow, which has raised $US11 million from Venrock and Union Square Ventures, is still growing. Sideman says in the past year the company has gone from 15 employees to 40, with plans to continue to expand.

“We love products heavily adopted by teens, since they predict the future of consumption, and the organic global teen adoption of YouNow is just amazing to watch,” Venrock’s David Pakman says. “There will be tens of millions of simultaneously broadcasters and viewers on these platforms within months.”

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