Before I begin to break this case study down, here are a few quick disclaimers:
1. As clickbaity as this title is, this is not a clickbait article. My plan is to be as transparent as possible to show you how much (or little) creating content on YouTube is worth if you put in the effort, and how to optimize a potential revenue opportunity.
2. There's nothing to buy here. No punch line or call to action at the end. I'm not selling a product. I have (modest) multiple sources of income from businesses I've built, including my work as an active writer, director, and producer at my video production company; brand and commercial work for clients; my YouTube channel; and more. Feel free to borrow a page from my playbook if you think it has value.
3. This is not a flex on my net worth. I'm a regular person, living a fairly regular lifestyle in the competitive business landscape of the overpriced Southern California suburbs. I don't have a pair of matching Lamborghinis in my garage, no initials embroidered on my shirts or other clothing, no girls in bikinis dancing around a pool, and I'm not taking exotic vacations in a private jet.
Also, why publish this now? The world is in flux and upheaval; unemployment rates are at an all-time high, in fact double digits worse, compared with the Great Recession. The short answer is because this all feels eerily familiar to a decade-plus-two-years ago, when I felt so hopeless and afraid in a time of turmoil for my fragile new venture as an independent startup. However, despite the odds against me (and many others who found success), in my experience the greatest opportunities can be found (if we have the courage to seek them out) rising from the ashes of failure and during the hardest times.
I can trace most of my (limited) success to generosity, humility, and tenacity--with an emphasis on tenacity. If you haven't heard yet: There's no Prince Charming in this story. There are no rescue boats. No one is coming to save you. It's up to you to save yourself. Maybe harnessing your particular expertise and IP into a side hustle via YouTube might become a valuable thing. At least, that's the way I see it.
I left a big job at a major Hollywood studio in 2007 to pursue my dream of building my own company. I started from scratch at arguably the worst possible time in history, although 2020 might go undefeated in the history books. I've had my share of "sand kicked in my face," given my blood, sweat, and tears for the past decade, and now I'm thriving. But the rent is still due every day. I love what I do, and I'm grateful I get to do it.
4. I'm not a YouTube "guru," and the thought of having a self-proclaimed title makes me want to throw up. I'm a student of the platform with some level of expertise who is also working in the space with brand clients. I'm probably a lot like you--or similar to other people who are married with four children and trying to make ends meet and grow my own business to a place where I have more financial freedom.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's get into it.
I'm not the first person to document this kind of case study. I can think of a few other YouTubers who have made videos like this: David Dobrik, MrBeast, and Graham Stephan come to mind. But I'm very different from these guys in many ways, and my channel is between .01 and 10 percent of the size. I thought it would be interesting and possibly valuable, especially to those thinking about getting started, to give a behind-the-scenes look at someone who has a "business" channel with only a little over 100,000 subscribers, instead of millions or tens of millions like the aforementioned.
Whether you're serious about starting something new, growing your existing YouTube channel, or just curious about what's possible, I'm going to share the secrets of what I've learned over the past few years. Keep in mind that, like just about any kind of professional advice, your mileage may vary. That said, these tips have been personally tried and tested as well as documented by YouTube corporate and other experts.
So what's your guess? How much do you think YouTube paid me for a video with one million-plus views? But wait! Before you throw out a number, subtract 40 percent to account for the revenue split with YouTube. Google has to get paid too! Now, what's your best guess on the paycheck I got for a video that went viral?
Side note: As annoyingly superficial as the term "influencer" is, one of the perks of leverage of vanity metrics (like a viral video) is that you might be able to use this social proof to work more with brands and the media. For those with real influence, this can be another big opportunity to monetize, but I'll save this topic for a separate article.
The moment you've been waiting for, and then some explanation and details below:
You are looking at (graphic below) the back-end dashboard view of my YouTube channel analytics page. The estimated revenue is the net take-home amount I was paid (receiving 60 percent of the money) after an approximate 60/40 revenue split with YouTube.
Yep, you're reading this correctly. By the time you see this article, I've probably been paid over $20,000 (net), with an average CPM of $18.61. In other words, this video generated about $32,307 in gross ad revenue. I've received $19,453.75 to date and YouTube got $12,853. And this video continues to garner views and earn money while I sleep. In perpetuity. I'm very happy with the results, but they didn't happen overnight. In fact, this video was basically dead for 12 months until I resurrected it with a few key adjustments on the back end.
Some Key Learnings and Tips
High(er) CPMs are where it's at. Assuming you've met the basic threshold of 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 cumulative watch hours, you can apply for the YouTube Partner Program and begin monetizing your videos. Once you flip the switch, you'll start seeing a full host of analytics including Reach (with CTR, for click thru rate), Engagement and Watch Time (a very important metric showing how much time is spent watching each video), Audience (who's watching, on what device, and from where), and more.
In the Revenue tab, you'll see CPM (cost per mille), or "cost per thousand," which is a metric commonly used in advertising. It's basically the cost an advertiser pays for 1,000 ads to run on YouTube. YouTube also recently introduced a metric called RPM (revenue per thousand) that is a more accurate measure of the true net metric after the revenue share.
RPM is a simple metric that compares your total revenue against your views. It's calculated by multiplying all your revenue reported in YouTube Analytics (including ads, YouTube Premium, channel memberships, and Super Chat and Super Stickers) by 1,000, and then dividing it by total views in the same time period.
Take a closer look at the timeline. When I first uploaded this video episode with author Mel Robbins in May 2018, I knew it was great, but it actually statically flopped. Nobody watched it, and I was really disappointed. To make matters worse, I was also sweating the underperformance because I had asked my sponsor partner, AKA Hotel Residences, for a favor to let me film in their Beverly Hills penthouse suite in exchange for a shout-out in the video description.
No views was really bad news, so I asked AKA to be patient with me and keep the faith. I scrutinized the analytics to try to find the reason for failure, but I didn't find anything unusual or telling. All I could do was start a series of experiments.
The first thing I looked at was Categories. If you have a YouTube channel, go to your Channel/Settings/Upload Defaults/Advanced Settings and you will see a drop-down menu to choose one of 15 categories for your video.
This list was not intuitive to me. At first, I didn't give much thought to it and rolled forward with the default People & Blogs, because I didn't know any better. Surprisingly, there is no option for Business videos on YouTube, which describes my channel best. After months of no improvement and desperate for results, I decided to change things up and switched Mel's video episode to Entertainment. This seemed logical, since I think my videos are mildly entertaining and they are part of what I call a "show" and "web series."
What happened next was also unexpected:
What I believe happened after making the change (again) is that I further confused the YouTube algorithm. It seems like I was thrown into the deep end of Entertainment with huge channels, massive competition, and even lower CPMs. Twelve months had passed since I'd first uploaded the original video and stats went from bad to worse.
The screen shot above is from MrBeast's channel with nearly 40 million subscribers taken from Social Blade. SB is a website that "gives all users access to a public database which, using advanced technology, is able to provide you with global analytics for any content creator, live streamer, or brand."
Side note: Social Blade currently has my channel Behind the Brand ranked with a B- grade. I guess it's fair based on the fact that there's a lot of room for improvement.
In my observation, Entertainment channels tend to get higher views but generally lower CPMs between $2 and $4. From my previous career experience in brand marketing on the client side, this makes sense. Advertisers are willing to pay higher CPMs for higher-quality and affluent audiences.
My guess is that MrBeast's core demographic is between 10 and 22 years of age. While this group probably consumes more content, it likely has a much lower disposable income (and value to advertisers) compared with my core of business professionals. MrBeast's videos are juvenile and simple, but entertaining, with sensational pranks and outrageous social experiments. His videos earn less per view, but regularly collect 10 million views each. Uploading consistently once per week allows him to rake in massive amounts of cash, and my prediction is that MrBeast will become the first YouTube billionaire. Way to go, Jimmy! (Jimmy Donaldson is MrBeast.)
When I changed my video category (to Education), CPMs continued to improve.
The screen shot above is from the last seven days of the Mel Robbins video, and you can see that the CPM has increased from approximately $18 to nearly $34. The early progress I saw in 2019 with Mel prompted me to change all 600-plus videos on my channel to the Education category. It is probably responsible for a 10x increase in overall channel revenue. My videos get fewer views compared with the bigger channels, but I noticed the pre-roll ads started attracting better brands like Mercedes-Benz and TurboTax and my CPMs shot up to $15 to $40.
I have continued to work on Mel's video and hundreds of others with a focus on titles, tags, thumbnail, and description to make sure the algorithm understands my content and serves it to the best audience.
Over the past few years, I've been working with a handful of bigger brands and a few celebrity clients to grow their audience on YouTube. Here's a quick look at what I did for Kevin O'Leary's channel.
Without sharing too much, I can tell you that Kevin's channel was completely dead when I started on it in June last year. He had a few thousand subs with old videos from six to eight years ago that looked totally outdated and were gathering cobwebs.
If you know Kevin from ABC's hit TV show Shark Tank, you know that he is ruthless and loves money. I was shocked to find out that Kevin had not monetized his channel. It was time for a total reboot.
We got to work and set everything up for him. We created a series based on his niche and started making original video content that his audience wanted.
Here's a bit of my strategy: Since Kevin (a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful) is widely known as the prickly royalty deal king without feelings on TV, we decided to show people on Youtube the other sides of Kevin. For example, did you know Kevin is a foodie and classically trained chef? He's also a rare-watch connoisseur, fashionista, guitar collector, and musician who writes and plays music, and who is obviously very knowledgeable about business and finance.
Note: This is not an ad for Kevin's channel, and I'm not being compensated in any way to write for him. I'm sharing my strategy so that you can take a page from my playbook and maybe use this model for yourself. You don't have to be rich and famous like Kevin to do well on YouTube.
In my experience, I look for five things:
- Do you have deep domain knowledge in a particular niche? In other words, do you know stuff that most other people don't know? Are you an expert? If so, this is valuable IP (intellectual property). The problem with most people is that their IP is stuck in their brain and they don't know how to publish, share, and monetize it. YouTube is a great place for that.
- Do you have a willingness as the creator to be on camera? Voiceover can work with animations or whatever, but I've found the most success with creators who get personal and connect with their audience. That means you have to show your face. If you can't do that, maybe you should consider an audio podcast instead.
- Do you have charisma and believability? This is self-explanatory, but don't worry if you're not natural on camera. These are skills you can practice and learn to improve.
- Do you have patience? Kevin's channel started with a slow roll for six months until it started to pop and got 250,000 subscribers. Your channel might take longer. If you know the content is solid, stay the course.
- Do you have a desire to collaborate with others? We did collaborations, and I put Kevin together with YouTube icon MKBHD and actor Mike Rowe, to name a couple of peole who helped cross-promote his channel and bring in new subscribers.
A few resources I use...
- For help with video titles, keywords, analytics, competitor tracking, etc.: TubeBuddy, VidIQ
- To create better thumbnails: Canva.com
- Free icons: Icons8.com and Flaticon.com
- Free stock photos: Pexels.com, Pixabay.com
- Remove background from pics: Remove.bg
- Remove background from videos: Unscreen.com
- Royalty-free music: Premium Beat Better
- Titles/headlines: CoSchedule.com/Headline Analyzer
- Competitive analysis: Social Blade, Social Bluebook
- Compress pics for faster website load: Tinypng.com
That's it for now! What else would you like to know? Leave me a comment and I'll consider doing a follow-up post or writing about a new topic. I wish you much success and encourage you to consider starting a YouTube channel. In my experience, the opportunities are big and the possibilities are endless.