Fifteen years ago, people started finding fame and making a living simply by being themselves on the internet. This phenomenon began with the proliferation of social platforms, Myspace being one of the first.
In those early days, Alec Shankman launched a new department at Abrams Artists Agency focused on alternative programming, unscripted television, and shortly thereafter, digital and social media. A new type of client had emerged, seeking help navigating a new type of success and extending it into the offline realm. Then in 2005, YouTube launched, and even bigger opportunities began to take shape.
Shankman left Abrams between 2009 and 2014, during which time he founded and ran an incubator for digital and social media talent, as well as spent some time at another agency. In 2009, he says, a YouTube creator’s best hope for success outside of the platform was to be cast in or sell the rights to a web series, forfeiting ownership of any project they were a part of.
By 2012, “check sizes were becoming much more real,” Shankman says of the kinds of deals and partnerships YouTube creators were landing. Talent also began to maintain ownership and distribution of their own content. The opportunities have grown exponentially from there.
“Every year since then, more brands, more ad agencies, more PR firms have become more and more comfortable with trusting influencers and creators,” says Shankman, who rejoined his former department at Abrams in 2014 and has since grown it from a team of two to 14 that represents 150 clients (including gaming and esports talent).
Now that YouTube has been proven a viable launchpad to success by countless creators, many have flocked to the platform to replicate the formula themselves. But the standards continue to evolve. More importantly, what viewers see in an edited video doesn’t tell the full story behind how a creator achieved a high subscriber count or coveted brand deal.
Entrepreneur spoke to Shankman and three YouTubers -- Jackie Aina, Deepica Mutyala and Tess Christine -- about how to be successful on YouTube in 2018. (Aina and Mutyala are Abrams clients.) Click through for the tips they shared.
1. You have to build a viable brand before talking to an agency.
Just to clarify things out the gate, Shankman says that by the time a potential client is in talks with Abrams, they’ve already established themselves as a successful creator. They’ve been creating videos in a signature style for a while -- months, if not years -- gained a following and are ready to expand into opportunities such as licensing, brand partnerships and media gigs.
An agency such as Abrams doesn’t advise on content strategy and development -- that’s up to the creators themselves.
“They’ve had to, on their own, with no one paying them, telling them how it’s done or incentivizing them, build an audience,” Shankman says. “They’ve had to learn to create content that is captivating.”
2. Be consistent.
All three YouTubers explicitly mentioned this tip as something they learned over time. It’s key to building a personal brand, because with so many other people competing for viewers’ attention, being known for a certain style of video or personality will help people remember you. When viewers click on your video or navigate to your channel, they’ll get what they were looking for.
For example, Aina has a secondary vlog channel where she uploads videos she and her boyfriend co-create. She decided to keep those off her main channel page, where subscribers and fans expect to find beauty-related content.
“If it’s not related to beauty, I put it on different platform,” Aina says.
3. And yes, be authentic.
Don’t groan too loudly when you read this one: The “be yourself” ideal is not going out of fashion.
“For a while, I found myself creating content that I thought brands wanted to see,” Mutyala admits. “I looked at other creators, and I thought, they’re winning in that space, I’ll try to do what they’re doing. And I ended up resenting my career.”
Mutyala explains it took her a few years to reveal her raw, unfiltered self, and Aina admits the same -- that she’s slowly incorporated more of her sense of humor into her videos.
Related: How to Get Famous and Make Money On YouTube
Don’t filter your personality or try to pigeonhole yourself into making a style of videos or following a trend that doesn’t speak to you, the creators warn. It’ll be difficult to sustain and worse, people will see through it.
Beyond showcasing personality, Abrams helps its clients be authentic in brand partnerships. On day one, when a client signs with the agency, they fill out a detailed questionnaire with their likes and dislikes. What toothpaste do they use? What smartphone do they have? What car do they drive? All of that is on file, so when agents are pairing clients with opportunities, they won’t pursue any that don’t match. If a client uses Colgate, Abrams won’t try to broker a brand partnership with Crest, for instance.
4. Find a niche, even over time.
“Nobody is you,” Mutyala often advises people just starting out on YouTube who wonder if they can gain traction on the crowded platform.
Mutyala’s focus on YouTube is beauty, but she’s differentiated herself from the swaths of people who create tutorial videos. As an Indian-American woman, she identified that there was a disproportionately low number of beauty-focused channels catered toward women with brown skin.
Today, she says, there are many other creators in this category, and she admits many of them are more skilled than she is (many of them are trained makeup artists and she’s self-taught). She stands out, she says, because she tries to relate to her audience as a friend who has DIY, quick and on-the-go beauty tricks to share.
5. Vlog, now more than ever.
Another recent development that Mutyala says has helped her solidify her niche is vlogging. She hasn’t been doing it for very long -- only since May 2017. But it was at that time that she made a conscious effort to reflect back on why she started her channel in the first place.
Her first-ever video, back in 2015, was a contouring tutorial. She wasn’t trying, at the time, to launch a successful beauty channel. She was just sharing an idea.
In May 2017, she posted a reflective vlog, and her fans loved it.
“It showed me I don’t have to do beauty tutorial after beauty tutorial to win on YouTube,” Mutyala said. “I can just be myself.” Whether it’s a video of herself without makeup, talking about her South Asian cultural heritage or even sharing details about her mental health (which, culturally, is taboo), she’s found space for her unfiltered self on her channel.
While many YouTubers shoot with fancy cameras and use pricey editing software, you don’t need expensive tools to create content people will love.
“Someone could have the same equipment as you, but no one’s going to have content exactly like yours,” Aina says.
Not everyone is interested in tech specs, either. Mutyala says she has often found herself frustrated with the learning curve associated with new gear. However, the second video she ever posted (in 2015) had 10 million views and was shot on a phone -- vertically. To date, one of the videos she’s proudest of, covering the Met Gala for the Today show, was shot on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
As a creator of beauty videos, both Mutyala and Christine have lighting equipment such as a ring light and soft boxes, but they agree that nothing beats natural light. But part of the reason equipment standards have evolved, Christine notes, is because some creators push their limits by experimenting with new gear.
“You should want to grow,” Christine advises. “If we were all still filming on our webcams, we would all be bored.”
Aina concludes that it’s impossible not to get discouraged as you work to build your following on YouTube, but that it’s important not to wear it on your sleeve in your videos. People “just on the tip of really poppin’ off,” she says, get frustrated that they haven’t achieved their goals yet.
“You can’t let that overshadow your growth and what else you have to accomplish,” Aina says.