When 22-year-old Eva Gutowski first started making YouTube videos in college, she thought of it just as a way to help her broadcast journalism major. The idea that she could be a YouTube personality for a living didn’t even register in the general sense, let alone for her specifically.
But fast forward less than five years, and Gutowski’s YouTube channel MyLifeAsEva has over 7.5 million followers, she’s coming out with a book, and has an upcoming TV show on YouTube’s premium “Red” tier, with Emmy-winning actress Rhea Perlman.
And Gutowski isn’t the only one.
A crop of top YouTube stars are making up to $15 million per year, snagging shows in places like Netflix and HBO, and striking major deals with brands.
Business Insider talked to Gutowski to learn about how YouTube stars are making the leap from the video website to other venues, the various ways to make money and support a career as a YouTube personality and what it’s like to work in an industry that’s still in the process of defining itself.
A $20 dinner
Gutowski first discovered the power of YouTube when she was running a fashion blog in college. She started making videos and embedding them into her blog posts, but then she noticed that the videos were actually getting a ton more views on YouTube than on her blog, and she switched her focus.
She understood that YouTube was an easier way to grow an audience for her particular mix of style, beauty, and comedy.
Gutowski’s subscribers began to climb, from thousands to hundreds of thousands, but still, she wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. She said the first check she ever got from YouTube was for about $20.
“Maybe I can get myself a special dinner,” she thought.
The first time she thought about her videos as a business was when she signed to Fullscreen, a network the helps promote and develop stars on places like YouTube, in exchange for a portion of ad revenue. The underlying ad revenue began to provide enough of a baseline income for her to think about it as a career.
But YouTube was just the starting point.
As the social media landscape changed, so did both the sources of income for Gutowski and the type of creative product she was putting out.
It’s no longer about just growing her YouTube audience and boosting the amount of ad revenue YouTube is sending her way.
In a nutshell: She has to be everywhere.
“YouTube channels are home,” Gutowski explained. “But other platforms [like Snapchat, Instagram, and so on] are excellent way to show off personality.” And what audiences want is a full 360-degree view of your life, she said.
“Luckily I don’t have secrets,” she laughed, though she admitted it’s definitely exhausting. “I’m always thinking about the viewers.” She recounted a moment when the Bruno Mars album came out, and she had to decide whether it would be better for her fans to Instagram or Snapchat about it.
A big source of revenue for Gutowski, like other YouTube stars, is working with brands on sponsored posts or videos. In many cases, the brand will also have a preference on how they want it distributed, so she has to be nimble. A favourite is Instagram because the measurement is quick and easy, within 24 hours, to see how it performed. While Instagram used to be just a complement to YouTube, it has often become the main event for brands.
Hopping from platform to platform
Moving from platform to platform is a hallmark of successful YouTubers like Gutowski. “I always used to tell people I wanted to be the next Oprah Winfrey,” she said, and it certainly makes sense in the type of brand she’s creating.
And it’s not just moving between different social media platforms.
Like many YouTube stars, Gutowski has a book deal for a memoir, “My Life as Eva: The Struggle is Real,” forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in February.
And a big new avenue that has opened up for her is getting her own high-budget show. Services from Netflix, to Verizon’s go90, to YouTube Red, are all are shelling out money to create “premium” shows from YouTube stars.
In Gutowski’s case, the show is with YouTube $9.99 per month “Red” service, and it’s called “Me and My Grandma,” a buddy comedy with “Cheers” star Rhea Perlman, which will be released later this year.
“It was absolutely crazy walking onto set for that show,” Gutowski said. “There’s a trailer for everything.” It is so different from the normal crew of her YouTube videos, she explained, which is basically just her and one other person.
But Gutowski was in a unique position during production. She was both a newcomer with regards to many of the TV veterans on the production, who had decades of experience, but also the only one who truly understood her audience. And she was the star.
Gutowski had a hand in everything from set and costume design, to the writers’ room. She was learning the ropes and correcting things at the same time.
And when “Me and My Grandma” comes out later this year, it will be a test of how Gutowski’s brand travels to premium TV.
The record of YouTube stars breaking into more traditional show formats has, so far, been mixed. Netflix has bet on two social-media stars, Miranda Sings and Cameron Dallas, only to see their Netflix releases get walloped by bad user reviews. Yet on the other end, YouTube star Issa Rae’s new HBO show, “Insecure,” has garnered critical praise.
With the intense growth of the investment in high-quality “streaming” TV shows, led by Netflix and Amazon, there’s opportunity. And the crossover success of YouTube personalities like Gutowski over the coming months will help carve out, or close up, a potential major source of revenue for future YouTubers.
“When the dust settles we’ll see where the eyeballs will land,” Adam Wescott, who manages Gutowski told us late last year. It’s not yet clear which audiences have an appetite for the type of high-budget shows YouTube stars put out.
But what is certain is that the number of ways YouTube personalities can make money continues to grow and to change. Being adaptable to each new medium isn’t optional, and will likely be a key factor that determines how much YouTube fame is really worth.
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