Megan Lee Heart and Reply Girls Game the System
A thumbnail advertising one of Megan Lee Heart's videos
Check out our entire YouTube issue here.
Megan Lee Heart made tens of thousands of dollars in the last year -- and did it all from her home in suburban Sherman Oaks. No special effects. No fancy equipment. Just strategic positioning -- and as many as 10 videos each day. Her most popular YouTube channel, MeganSpeaks, counts nearly 38,000 subscribers and 47 million views.
Heart learned that YouTube's algorithm favored reply videos -- meaning if she filmed a video responding to another video, YouTube would almost automatically put hers at the top of a list of suggested viewing alongside the original.
If she responded to a popular video, such as those featured on the YouTube homepage, she was almost guaranteed thousands of hits and, in turn, thousands of dollars. "A video with 1 million views is roughly $2,000," Heart explains. For 47 million views? Well, you do the math.
Mega Lee Heart's first-ever video, about a marriage proposal at Comic-con
Droves of video creators like Heart are starting to see YouTube as a full-time job. "Once they do that," says Shiva Rajaraman, director of project management for YouTube, "we know that they will focus exhaustively on building an audience, and nothing will get in the way of consistency, voice, personality and quality."
Based on the volume of responses to her work, Megan Lee Heart ought to be a poster girl for how to succeed on YouTube. Instead, YouTube tweaked its algorithm to make videos like hers less prominent.
The problem is boobs. Specifically, the Internet-dwelling male's inability to refrain from clicking on a video featuring boobs. Heart -- and a handful of women known collectively as "reply girls" -- learned that they could lure millions of hapless viewers into clicking their videos if their breasts were prominently displayed in the video thumbnail. And that is not where YouTube hopes this whole Internet video thing is going.
Improving the overall quality of videos on the site is key to YouTube's master plan as the company tries to compete with sites like Hulu and Netflix, which focus on studio-made rather than user-generated content. The better the videos, the longer viewers will stay on the site and the more opportunities advertisers will have to reach them. Everyone -- creators, advertisers and YouTube itself -- gets richer.
"Our objectives are incredibly aligned," Robert Kyncl, vice president and global head of content partnerships, says of YouTube and its "partners." "If they succeed, we succeed. It's very simple. If they don't -- well, we don't do so well."
Robert Kyncl of YouTube
Once upon a time, a YouTube partnership, which a creator needs to earn revenue, was an exclusive club to which only the most popular users were invited. Today, almost anyone can join.
"If you've created a channel on YouTube, it's literally as simple as going to a form on the site" -- YouTube.com/Partners -- "opting in to the program, and you can begin earning right away," Tim Shey says.
Shey is the director of YouTube Next Lab, a section of the company that helps partners become YouTube stars. Through Next Lab programs, partners can be matched with mentors, receive grants and gain access to the considerable resources YouTube and Google are devoting to their development.
Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006, and since then there have been questions about whether YouTube as a stand-alone entity is profitable. Google does not comment on YouTube's financials, and YouTube executives who spoke to the Weekly would only reference very general statistics, saying, for example, there are "more than a million" partners, "thousands" of whom are making six figures and all of whom receive "the lion's share" (more than 50 percent) of revenue from their videos.
In October, YouTube announced it was investing $100 million to produce 100 original-content channels; in May, the company announced it would commit an additional $200 million to market those channels.
That's not all: Earlier this year, the company purchased Howard Hughes' former airplane hangar in Playa Vista, where a YouTube university of sorts is slated to open this fall, offering production facilities with cameras, microphones and green screens, editing tools and facilities for workshops, panels and screenings -- all open to partners.
Most importantly, Next Lab puts together The Creator's Playbook, a handbook filled with tips to help users make popular videos. For instance, since YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world (after Google), Shey says users are advised to "really think about how your video is showing up in search results." Is the title accurate and engaging? Have you included tags and picked the right thumbnail? Shey also advises creators to interact with their audience.
Up next: Megan Lee Heart's road to success
Heart succeeded using precisely those techniques. In her first video, posted a year ago, Heart is responding to someone else's footage of a video game-themed marriage proposal at Comic-Con 2011.
"Hey y'all," she says sweetly, bouncy blond ringlets framing her face. "Have you ever been proposed to, and how was it? Tell me the story; leave me a comment below."
"I kind of sucked," Heart said in a recent video critiquing her first.
Over the course of a year, though, as Heart became more and more popular, she transformed from the nervous blonde, visible only from the neck up, into a brash, boob-bearing brunette.
A video of Heart critiquing her first video.
Heart took to the YouTube "ecosystem" (as Kyncl refers to it) like the velociraptor took to Jurassic Park, quickly learning the most effective ways to exploit the system.
First came her realization that YouTube's algorithm prioritizes reply videos when creating the list of "suggested videos" that appear on every page. Then she noticed, by watching other reply girls' videos, that YouTube's users prioritized breasts with their clicks.
With every video she made, she learned how to craft the next one to get even more views. Using methods straight out of The Creator's Playbook, Heart adapted by adding graphics to her thumbnails, like the neon arrow pointing directly at her cleavage, and a bright yellow, all-caps word (like "FAIL" or "SEXY") to attract more clicks.
Wading through her videos -- and there are thousands of them at this point -- you can find Heart opining on every imaginable topic (Justin Bieber, Muammar Gaddafi, the iPhone 4, a video titled "Baby Put in Oven by Father") while wearing different colors (red, black, blue, pink, violet, chartreuse, wine, seafoam) of the same cleavage-bearing shirt.
At one point, she was making five to 10 reply videos a day. A lot of Heart's views, though, were driven by her detractors, predominantly teenage boys who would return again and again to express their outrage at being "tricked" into clicking the videos.
"We men can't help ourselves! Titties are like Venus Flytraps for our dicks!" one user ranted on the site.
He's not the only one upset. "I get death threats probably every 10 minutes, every day. People messaging me, 'Stop your reply videos or I'll slaughter your family,' " Heart says. Plus, other YouTube creators complained that reply girls like Heart were siphoning off their revenue by replacing their content in the suggested-videos section.
YouTube didn't see reply girls as contributing to the kind of high-quality content it wants on the site. In March, the site changed its algorithm to keep videos like Heart's out of the suggested-videos section. Instead of focusing on the number of clicks a video had, it would prioritize the length of time a video was watched.
YouTube addressed the change in a statement on its official blog: "Sometimes thumbnails don't paint the whole picture."
"This was a pretty big change," Rajaraman says, referring to the tweak to the algorithm, "but we felt like if we didn't do this change, the way we measured and rewarded audience creation would be out of sync with this message, which is all about building great channels."
Rajaraman thinks Heart could potentially find success with her other channels, "but replying to every random popular video -- probably not a sustainable thing moving forward."
Since the change, Heart says, "my income is down around 800 percent."
Shortly after she spoke to the Weekly in May, Heart followed up with a cryptic email. "I am going through some major problems right now personally and financially," she wrote. "I won't be available for a while from this point on."
The next day she posted a video saying she was done with reviews forever, and telling her audience everyone should work together to "clean up" YouTube.
Today, even that video is no longer on the site. In its place is an error message: "This video is no longer available because the uploader has closed their YouTube account."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.