New Hot Properties: YouTube Celebrities
No one would mistake the Ask a Jew guy for Lonelygirl15, but these days YouTube contributor Shmuel Tennenhaus is feeling like a hot commodity.
Mr. Tennenhaus, an aspiring comedy writer who gained a modest following on YouTube for his droll question-and-answer clips and other spots featuring his grandmother “Bubby,” is being wooed by the site’s competitors, including Metacafe, ManiaTV and others, with promises of guaranteed exposure, a share of advertising money, or both.
“It’s all very odd,” said Mr. Tennenhaus, speaking from Hallandale, Fla. His YouTube channel, Oneparkave, has logged roughly 32,000 visits and a few hundred subscribers since last fall. “My parents say I’m special, but I can’t imagine I’m the only guy they’re contacting.”
He has that right. The most popular YouTubers, who have generated millions of visits and tens of thousands of subscribers, say they have received overtures from multiple sites. And YouTube, meanwhile, appears ready to respond to the challenge.
“I think everybody that has a site has contacted me,” said Paul Robinett, whose YouTube persona Renetto has attracted 1.19 million views and more than 23,000 subscribers. Mr. Robinett, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, and frequently posts commentaries on YouTube-related issues, said: “They’re not throwing a ton of money around. It’s kind of chump change. And I haven’t responded because I know revenue-sharing is coming to YouTube.”
Few performers will divulge what kind of money is being thrown around. But Metacafe pays $5 for every 1,000 views, with their most popular acts netting tens of thousands of dollars, figures that the site will mention when trying to persuade YouTube stars to defect.
In January, YouTube’s co-founder, Chad Hurley, said the company would in the coming months begin sharing advertising revenue with contributors. The company last week said it would not elaborate on that plan, or on the efforts of competitors to lure its contributors away.
But Mr. Robinett said he was contacted by a talent agency claiming YouTube plans to share about 20 percent of the advertising money gleaned from each video clip with the clip’s producer. Mr. Robinett said he could not confirm that claim with a YouTube executive.
YouTube is by far the most popular video site on the Web, with about 26 million visitors in December, according to comScore Media Metrix, an Internet statistics firm. Yahoo Video had 22 million, while the closest independent site, Heavy.com, had about 6.5 million visitors.
But YouTube has been stung by the departure of its most popular acts. Last fall, Lonelygirl15, an online show about the exploits of a fictitious teenager, left YouTube for Revver, which pays producers half of all advertising revenue. The comedy duo Smosh, another of YouTube’s biggest stars, moved to LiveVideo.com, where its videos begin and end with that site’s branding messages.
The Smosh stars did not return e-mail messages seeking comment, but David Peck, LiveVideo’s vice president of operations based in El Segundo, Calif., said: “Just as every TV network, film studio and record label in America has done for decades, we are proactively signing talent to bring their work to new audiences.”
Mr. Peck would not disclose the terms of its deals with contributors, but other popular YouTube contributors say LiveVideo has recruited them with promises of money in exchange for the right to show their videos exclusively for an introductory period.
James L. McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, an Internet consultancy in Cambridge, Mass., said YouTube’s executives can expect hardball tactics from competitors, given the stakes.
“It’s not at all bad form to try to poach other users,” Mr. McQuivey said. “The people providing the best content are obviously valuable. The only problem is, no YouTube competitor can say, ‘We’ll get you millions of eyeballs in a week.’ ”
As a result, Mr. McQuivey said, YouTube’s competitors must offer cash. “And who’s going to pay them? Advertisers. But advertisers also want to see millions of eyeballs.”
Revver, with a monthly audience estimated by comScore at about 400,000, is big enough to attract advertisers, said Steven Starr, the company’s chief, speaking from Hollywood. But in luring Lonelygirl15’s producers to his site, he said he had offered nothing more than Revver offers any other contributor, nor did it demand exclusivity.
Other sites “are making noise around advancing guarantees to their talent, but we don’t do that,” Mr. Starr said. Because Revver earns ad revenue based on the number of clip views, he encourages producers to distribute their videos on as many sites as possible.
Allyson Campa, the vice president of marketing for Metacafe in Palo Alto, Calif., said the site, which shares advertising revenue with its producers, routinely recruits contributors from other video sites.
“We don’t have a specific strategy to poach specific creators, but we’ve certainly increased our emphasis on getting the word out and letting creators know we have a great system,” she said.
Ms. Campa added that Metacafe has not offered incentives to contributors to join the site, but that she “would not rule out” such an approach.
Drew Massey, the chief executive of ManiaTV, a video site based in Denver on which users create channels with homemade clips and professionally produced content, acknowledged that the site has recruited YouTube contributors with pledges to feature them on ManiaTV’s home page.
“I’m sure every site does it,” Mr. Massey said. “We’re not saying ‘Here’s a ton of money.’ It’s more like, ‘Check us out and get exposure if you’re really good.’ For producers, two things are important: fame and fortune. In that order.”
Indeed, some of YouTube’s stars say they don’t necessarily want money. Mr. Tennenhaus, who recently received an e-mail overture from ManiaTV, said: “It’s a no-brainer, especially since the e-mail didn’t talk about me doing exclusive content.”
“This is not about the money,” Mr. Tennenhaus said. “Right now, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to showcase my stuff and get feedback from real people. For me it’s like going to college, and getting hands-on experience.”
Ben Going, creator of Boh3m3, another of YouTube’s most popular channels, started his YouTube series in part because he aspired to work with the “Jackass” team. Mr. Going, a waiter in Huntsville, Ala., who shoots videos from his bedroom, now says he hopes “video blogging might become some kind of career.”
“I’ve seen people mentioning that now that Google has given YouTube $1.6 billion, they’re going to share it with users,” Mr. Going said. “That’s not going to happen, but if the site keeps escalating, maybe in six months it’ll grow into something very profitable for everybody.”
That is what Mr. Robinett, a k a Renetto, is hoping. Mr. Robinett recently posted a video chastising YouTube stars who have bolted to other sites. He said the video was tongue in cheek, though many in the YouTube community missed the joke.
Loyalty does count for something, Mr. Robinett said. “If YouTube stays on top, would you like to be the loyal guy who stuck it out, or the one who ran from here to there to be popular?” he said.
Then again, Mr. Robinett added, no one has tested his loyalty with a truly lucrative offer.
“These companies don’t quite understand,” he said. “If they understood the power and influence that some of the bigger people bring to the table, they wouldn’t think twice about paying me and 10 other people $100,000 apiece to blog for three months. If they thought twice about doing that, they’d be nuts.”