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."
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