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How to make money on YouTube (and off YouTube) with web series

by Mike Tringe

We all love to be entertained online and share funny videos with our friends, but have you ever paid to watch a one-off video online? Ever? Probably not knowingly outside of watching an ad or two.

And will you ever directly pay to watch a video online? Or let’s say, a series of videos (web series) that are about something you care about, and if so, what would make it worth it to you? Chances are, you’d have to really want to watch something pretty badly for you to pay even a few bucks to watch it.

But here’s the good news for filmmakers and creators looking to make money on their projects, so that they can make more projects like them, and at a higher level, maybe even earn a living doing it. There are audiences out there, who if you create the right web series, show, or even movie, really want to watch it, and will want to support you as a creator in some way.

Is that by watching pre-roll ads on YouTube, Blip, or Dailymotion? A VOD style payment a la Amazon? Subscription service like Netflix or Hulu? Or a pre-buy download or DVD via Kickstarter? Or none of the above?

And how do we know your audience will pay in some form? Well, all we need to do is look at some recent numbers to see that they already are for shows they really care about.

I recently had the privilege of moderating a panel on “Monetizing Content for New Media Platforms” at the University of Southern California with some pretty talented creators and industry experts, including Freddie Wong (who happens to be another USC alum) & Matt Arnold of Video Game High School, Tarika Khan of Maker Studios, Seth Jaret of Content Engine, and Jeremy Azevedo of Machinima. Here were some of the key takeaways from that conversation, along with some interesting questions raised by audience members as well.

We started off by just defining some terminology that’s pretty basic to the world of online content monetization, which is really just a fancy way of saying making money with videos. From the YouTube Network perspective of Maker Studios and Machinima, the answers were pretty cut and dry: most of their creator partners make money off of a revenue split based on advertising sales (pre-roll ads, post-rolls, mid-rolls, donuts and rolls . . . sorry, it was too easy), and sometimes branded deals, as well with those same advertisers which can be more of a lump sum.

But it’s important to note here that for every thousand views, we’re usually talking about a couple bucks. So in order to be really raking in the cash (hundreds or thousands of dollars), these creators need to be getting hundreds of thousands of views. And because they’re part of  a network that’s helping them cross-promote with their other popular channels, they’re able to do that a little bit more easily than just a single creator could do on his/her own. But, of course, the network takes its cut too. What are those cuts? Well, the standard answer is “it depends” and it does. But expect 70/30 in favor of the creator, maybe less, maybe more.

For the most part, network partners are focused on a single revenue stream, and their job is to just crank out as much on topic consistently looking and feeling content as consistently as possible for their particular audience. But for independent content creators like Freddie Wong, there is a more complex picture of the number of revenue streams he’s able to tap into outside of just “advertising revenue.” This includes but is not limited to the branded deals as well (with the Dodges of the world). It’s important to mention here that Freddie Wong isn’t the typical creator, he’s one of the top creators who now has a manager who can help get him some of these deals. That said, his team has worked hard to diversify and innovate on their business model, which includes merchandise, Kickstarter campaigns (2 to date totaling well over $1M) for complete narrative web series, and the option of featured appearances and deals (see his promotion with Jon Favreau for Cowboys and Aliens).

So now what. You’re not in a network, and you’re not Freddie Wong (yet), or maybe you don’t even want to be that kind of content creator that is living the lifestyle of the YouTube world of always being on and making content. That’s okay. There are so many different audiences out there, and so many super-fans who are in those audiences, who want to find a way to help you make your show.

To either give back by paying to help fund your show, or by buying something they want for themselves because you’re selling it and it resonates with them. So the takeaway from the panel on monetization basically goes something like this: Find the audience that your idea fits, find a way to make content for them, and determine what your monetization strategy will be for that audience based on the kind of audience that they are.

Is it a cooking show? Maybe you’ll be doing affiliate deals with cooking-ware retailers or maybe you’ll be able to get local restaurants to sponsor each episode with a dish that you like from their place?

The point is, make good content that your audience wants to see, and then, since you’re already a creative person, get just as creative about the way in which you decide to make money with those videos. Here’s the biggest hint: it may not be by selling that web series or video content directly to your audience.

Your audience’s biggest gift to you online is their attention. Don’t ask them to pay you for their gift. Instead, give them what they want to watch, and then give them other ways to help you continue to give them what they want.

As an analogy, the music industry re-tooled starting with Napster, then iTunes, and now Spotify . . . and is now capitalizing more through live concerts and merchandise. You might just be surprised how many more people you’re able to reach that way, and you might also be surprised just how much they’ll be willing to give you.

Need some proof? Take a look at Smosh, Nostalgia Critic, Rooster Teeth, freddiew, Annoying Orange, Hannah Hart, iJustine, and on and on. These are independent content creators who have built a brand around producing content for their particular audience. What have they done most right to be able to make money? Knowing their audience well, and giving them what they want consistently.

Not a full blown YouTuber and don’t want to be? That’s okay too. Scale it down to a distribution strategy that works best for your schedule and resources, but follow the same best practices that have helped the best content creators build a sustainable business model.

Mike Tringe

About Mike Tringe

Mike Tringe is the co-founder of CreatorUp, the online web series school. Mike worked in Film Finance/Sales at CAA, Creative Development at Vuguru, and on the Content Partnerships team at Blip Networks. He earned his MFA in Film from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. CreatorUp is one of sixteen companies accepted into the DreamIt/Startl Accelerator program in NYC for Summer 2013.

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