How I Make Thousands on YouTube, Without Being YouTube Famous

Here’s how I’ll make thousands of dollars this year

Photo: Alexander Shatov/Unsplash

It’s 9:30 in the morning, and I’m talking about a fan. Specifically, I’m creating an in-depth video review of a Honeywell HYF290B tower fan. Pulling up the camera on my phone, I hit record and spend the next four minutes and 22 seconds discussing the fan in intimate detail — what all its buttons do, how loud it is, how much I paid for it, what I like about the way it swivels, and what I dislike about its front grill. For this, I’ll be paid $46.03.

Welcome to the life of a small-time YouTuber. My video about the Honeywell HYF290B is one of more than 720 videos I’ve created over five years for my YouTube channel Do-It-Yourself Home Automation. I’ve also reviewed Fitbits, Android apps, and toilet plungers. I rarely appear on camera—though this is changing—and it’s a safe bet that most of my 3,200-plus followers would have a hard time recognizing me on the street. Yet I’ll make a comfortable low-five-figure income on the platform in 2021.

Most coverage of YouTube focuses on exceptional channels — the nine-year-old who makes $26 million per year or the vlogger who made a horrific video in Japan’s suicide forest. But YouTube has expanded so dramatically since its launch in 2005 — and attracts so many views and so much advertising revenue — that it’s now possible to make a good living on the platform without ever becoming internet famous or even going viral.

I can rank 2 millionth among around 30 million total YouTube creators in terms of overall subscribers and still make thousands of dollars per year on the platform.

YouTube’s audience and viewership statistics are staggering. According to research company Omnicore, YouTube attracts more than 2 billion monthly active users, who watch more than 1 billion hours of video per day. In a world where the average website visit lasts just two to three minutes, YouTube is remarkably engaging — a typical user spends 40 minutes on the site each time they visit. And it seems that nearly everyone uses YouTube — including 77% of Americans age 25 to 36 and more than half of those age 75 and up. People upload 500 hours of new video content to YouTube every minute. In 2019, the platform earned $15.1 billion in advertising revenue — more than the GDP of many countries.

My own channel received about 1,034,000 views in 2020 and more than 1,400,000 minutes of viewing time. My Honeywell fan video alone has received 208.6 hours of viewing time in the past year. On the one hand, that’s a mind-boggling amount of traffic and engagement. It’s as if nearly 20 capacity crowds at Yankee Stadium tuned in to view my content each year.

Yet, in the big scheme of things, it’s a pittance. According to social media analytics site Social Blade, 1,490,000-plus YouTube channels receive more views than mine and about 2,930,000 have more subscribers. That reveals the absolutely shocking scale of YouTube today. Statistically, someone is viewing one of my videos every minute of every day. Yet millions of channels attract far more viewership than mine.

YouTube hasn’t always been this way. A decade ago, in 2011, YouTube attracted only about half as many monthly views as it does today and received about 10 times less creator content. Its meteoritic growth is a product of the exponentially decreasing cost of video storage, an increasingly content-hungry world, and its early success on mobile devices. (Today, YouTube is responsible for 37% of the world’s mobile internet traffic.)

It’s also a product of YouTube’s decision, as early as 2007, to allow creators to share in the platform’s revenue by allowing YouTube to show ads on their videos. This creates real financial opportunities for thousands of YouTubers — as well as the imagined possibility of stardom and riches for millions more — and encourages creators to upload ever more video.

The reality is that earning money, much less earning a living, is much harder on YouTube than on other platforms. Anyone can create a YouTube channel and start uploading content. But to monetize your channel, you need 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in the previous year. That’s a tough hurdle to clear for many new creators. Again, YouTube wasn’t always that way — as late as 2017, creators could monetize their channels from day one. But after a glut of offensive content drove advertisers away from the platform—an event that creators still call the Adpocalypse—the platform cracked down by increasing standards, implementing new content review systems (many driven by A.I.), and later demonetizing most content targeted at children.

I estimate that I make at least $53 per hour when I create videos for the platform.

As a result, many YouTube channels earn nothing. But for those who clear YouTube’s hurdles and learn how to avoid running afoul of its moderation systems, the rewards can be substantial. The average YouTuber in the United States earns between $6 and $8 per 1,000 monetized views on their channel. Depending on a channel’s content, it can earn much more. My channel covers consumer electronics — a higher-value topic. Last year was a rough one for advertising in general, but my videos still earned $11.34 per 1,000 monetized views (not all views are monetized, for a variety of reasons) and are averaging more than $13 per 1,000 views so far in 2021. I estimate that I make at least $53 per hour when I create videos for the platform.

Creators with a larger audience can do much better. In an article in Debugger, YouTuber Shelby Church shared that she can make as much as $20 per 1,000 views, though her average is around $2 to $5. Church writes that “there are so many factors that go into how much a video can earn,” and factors beyond creators’ control, such as the average age of a video’s viewers and their location, make a big impact on advertising revenue.

There are many ways that creators can earn revenue from their videos beyond YouTube’s built-in ads. YouTubers with tens of thousands of followers often create sponsored videos, where they post content to the platform on behalf of paying brands. For this, they can receive $10 to $50 per 1,000 views — much more than YouTube pays for its built-in ads. The platform encourages branded content, in part because it’s in on the action. In 2016, YouTube acquired Famebit — a marketplace that connects brands with prominent YouTubers — allowing the company to offer sponsorship deals to select creators on an invite-only basis. (I haven’t been invited—yet.) Across all platforms, influencer marketing was a $9.7 billion industry in 2020.

Even without paid sponsorships, YouTubers with even a few thousand followers are often showered in free stuff. I’ve had brands, including prominent ones like Panasonic, send me free drones, kids’ toys, phone stabilizers, video cameras, and much else in the hopes that I’ll review their products on my channel. Creators are required to disclose in their videos when they’ve been paid by a brand or given a free product, although many don’t. (I always disclose these.) For the most part, viewers couldn’t care less whether content is organic or sponsored. Some YouTubers have even been caught creating fake sponsored content to make their channels appear more legitimate and influential.

Many YouTubers also cross-post content in multiple places, use videos to sell products via affiliate marketing, or use their channels to drive new customers to their own products or businesses. I cross-post many of my YouTube videos to Amazon Influencers, an invite-only video network that displays creator videos on Amazon product pages, as well as Facebook Watch. Other creators monetize their content through subscription platforms like Patreon or through YouTube’s internal channel membership program.

All of these routes to monetization mean that YouTube creators have an ever-expanding set of ways to profit from their content. This opens doors to real revenue opportunities — even for relatively unknown creators with relatively small followings. In traditional content industries like the music industry, revenues are unevenly distributed. According to Rolling Stone, the top 1% of artists received 90% of total streams on services like Spotify and presumably 90% (or more) of streaming revenue.

YouTube is different. While top YouTubers earn absurd amounts of money, their piece of the total pie is extremely small. For a platform with such a massive reach, YouTube’s revenues are surprisingly evenly distributed among its millions of creators. That’s great news for small-time YouTubers like me. I can rank 2 millionth among around 30 million total YouTube creators in terms of overall subscribers and still make thousands of dollars per year on the platform. It also means that there are tremendous opportunities for future growth — I’ve already added around 100 videos to my channel in 2021, and I plan to add thousands more over the next several years, increasing my revenue accordingly.

If you’ve ever considered creating a YouTube channel, jump in and give it a try. It might take months (or years) before you reach 1,000 subscribers and begin earning ad dollars directly through the platform. But once you do, you can take advantage of the platform’s incredibly long tail and massive size and earn good money as a YouTuber, even if you’re not internet famous. If you succeed, make sure to give me a shoutout on your next sponsored video trip through Paris. And if you’re a brand: Yes! I would love to review your newest air conditioner!

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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