YouTubers working with brands

photo by Craig Garner

YouTubers want to work with brands. Brands want to be on YouTube. YouTubers don’t always have the resources to initiate brand integration deals. Brands don’t always know what to do with YouTubers. In an effort to remedy this situation, YouTubers have been increasingly open as of late when talking about their experiences working with brands.

At VidCon 2013, YouTubers spoke on panels about working with brands. A couple of months ago, YouTuber Nikki Phillippi did a video titled, “What is a YouTuber?!” in which she took about 45 minutes, sponsored by Netflix, to answer questions about the business of being a full time YouTuber. Tyler Oakley was on PBS’s Frontline talking about what he has come to expect from good brand deals.

The through lines with every YouTuber are the same: they only work with brands they like, and they expect brands to be very flexible and receptive to the style in which the YouTubers work.

Brand Integration and Nikki Phillippi

With 500,000+ subscribers, Nikki Phillippi and her husband run a full time YouTube business. Brand integrations with Beauty Gurus, especially for her size and larger, seem like a no brainer.

Nikki, in her video, answers questions from Twitter and gives surprisingly thorough answers. She disclaims that what she talks about is true to her, but not all YouTubers are on the same monetization roadmap doing the same things.

NikkiPhillippi How do You Make Money?

From the above Twitter question, Nikki answers with both, mentioning that she was once given advice on how to make a living on the internet, with the key being diversity. There is almost no way a YouTuber can be full time on AdSense alone. Similarly, being part of Amazon Affiliates, or any other single revenue stream is not enough, but participating in all of them adds up to a full time job, making a living wage.

On the subject of product integration, Nikki says that it works well for her because, “I naturally create content that often, like, I often mention like products or clothes.” Because she already makes content about brands, she is a good fit for brand integration, but not all brand integrations are a good fit for her.

As she explains in her video about how branded content works, she talks about click through rates, implying that most of the brand integration she does include links in the description box to a brand, product or service.

The order of operations in terms of doing a brand integration with Nikki is as follows:

  • Step 1: Brand reaches out. This can be to her personally, or to her MCN, or management.
  • Step 2: Offer to pay her to mention a product in a video.
  • Step 3: Nikki decides if the brand is a good fit for her. If she already knows the brand and the product and thinks favorably about them and the price/rate is good, then move forward.
  • Step 3b: If she hasn’t heard of the product, but thinks she would like it, she asks to try it to see if she likes it. If the rate is good and she ends up liking the product, then move forward with negotiating a rate for cost-per-click, or other payment method.
  • Step 4: Figure out what kind of video will get made. Nikki, up until this point has only done videos where a product gets mentioned as part of a video.

Nikki, when thinking about why she doesn’t like doing videos about a single product, notes that it is a whole lot of attention to one product, when her normal videos feature multiple products. She would have to LOVE a product to devote a whole video to it. It isn’t that she says she is opposed to a single brand focused video, but the right match hasn’t come along.

In order for a deal to work, the price has to be right as well. On this subject, Nikki says, “This is something that is kinda like this awkward little teetering line that I think a lot of YouTubers are walking because I think everybody who was in to YouTube knows, or anything on the Internet realizes, that entertainment is going more towards the digital sides of things.” She goes on to detail that in comparison to traditional media and the cost of making a commercial then buying airtime, YouTube is inexpensive. She continues to say,

“And what is happening with YouTube is there is this weird line where I won’t rep a product I do not like, but, that being said, I don’t work with brands that don’t understand the value of YouTube either. I would rather not make as much and do stuff by myself, for free, with stuff I have picked up from the drugstore, than work with a company who either doesn’t understand the value of it, or does understand the value of it, but they think that we don’t, and are like here is $100, and I realize that that sounds really strange to people […] but it’s really what is going on in the industry and a matter of trying to elevate and help the entertainment industry kind of segue and understand the value of digital marketing.”

Nikki goes on to make the claim that most YouTubers turn down 90% of the things they are offered because everyone is really careful about the things they accept. Sometimes YouTubers get some hate for the brands that they work with, but it probably turns out that the YouTuber really does like the brand and that they turned down a bunch of other offers from brands that he or she feels less passionately about.

This tends to be true across the board. YouTubers, especially at the more professional levels, have a strong sense of their personal brands and what it means to be authentic to themselves and their channels. If brands are not a good fit, culturally, YouTubers are significantly less inclined to work with them.

Brand Integration and Tyler Oakley

Tyler Oakley is kind of a big deal. He is rapidly approaching 4 million subscribers. He is his MCN’s largest YouTuber. He has worked with brands like Pepsi, MTV, Taco Bell, E!, NBC, Warby Parker, Virgin Mobile, and Audible.

Once one brand got involved with him, others followed suit, but for Oakley, he won’t work with just any brand. He spent years building up his personal channel to what it is today and knows that the whole YouTube community has done the same.

On PBS’s Frontline, Oakley says:

“If you want to get involved, then you have to play by our rules. This is our platform. We have built this up in our own capacity, in our own way without you. So if you want to come on and if you want to get involved, you can’t just come in like a bully and kind of get your way. You may have to like, play by our rules a little bit. Which is FUN!”

The through line between the brands that Oakley chooses to work with are their understanding of his personal brand and message. The brands understand that Oakley is a direct line to fan interaction and not just a channel on which one distributes content. For him, in his own words, “it takes the creative teams that get what we are doing, for me to want to work with them.”

Some Best Practices

The keys that both Nikki Phillippi and Tyler Oakley mentioned in spades is that brands who want to work with YouTubers need to be receptive to working the way YouTubers work, rather than the way traditional media does. YouTubers make money off of their personal brands, so if they aren’t a fan of your brand, it is better to find a YouTuber that is, so that the brand and YouTuber mesh well together.

From a stylistic perspective it is important to not try and force a storyboard. Since YouTubers are involved in every step of the process from ideation to production to social engagement, they want to have a say in the creative process of crafting brand deal videos as well.

From the brand perspective, that means:

  1. Find YouTubers who already like your products.

  2. If you are a new brand/product, give YouTubers a chance to get to know your brand/product before trying to make content.

  3. Be receptive towards a collaborative development process.

  4. Open up the opportunity for YouTubers to be as involved as they want in production (which could be a lot or a little).

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As a YouTube creator, when thinking about YouTube and the future of the platform, there is always the question about the sustainability of a career on YouTube. Everyone wants to know how it is that YouTubers make money, especially enough money to work on the platform full time. The answer involves growing an audience and leveraging multiple revenue streams. This is easier said than done in the continually evolving competition for people’s attention, but many YouTubers have found formulas that work for them.

As more brands turn to the platform, the YouTube ecosystem will grow and thrive for both brands and YouTubers.

People always ask about how much money can actually be made on YouTube as a full-time talent. By way of example, look at Olga Kay, one of YouTube’s oldest and most prolific stars, who takes in between $100,000 – $130,000 a year from all of her revenue streams across multiple channels, by making about 10-20 videos a week with the help of an editor. Her main channel has around 750,000 subscribers, and much of what she brings in financially is invested into sustaining and improving her business.

Below are six major revenue streams for YouTubers, and they use one, some, or all of these tactics to keep their careers afloat.

AdSense/Advertisements on The Channel

YouTube splits advertising revenue with the channel, taking 45% of that, but the other 55% goes to the YouTuber.  If a channel works with an MCN, then that MCN takes a percentage of the 55% left over. What is left after that goes to the Channel. How much money made here is determined by the CPM of ad formats and how many monetize-able views the video gets. How high a CPM can get is contingent on the kind of content a channel makes, retention rate, location of the YouTuber, location of the viewers, if audiences are watching on desktop or mobile, and many other factors.

YouTube Ad Performance Report
This is a sample Ad Performance Report that Google uses as a teaching tool.

Branded Deals

These are brand deals like integrations and sponsorships, and working with a brand off of YouTube. The terms of these deals can be raised CPMs, a single sum, or any other arrangement made between the brand and the channel. Olga Kay charges a $75 CPM for product mentions in her videos. YouTube recommends that depending on the brand deal, Channels charge $75-$100 CPMs.

The Ford Fiesta Movement lent Olga Kay a Ford Fiesta while she was with that program and paid for the car’s expenses:


Since the beginning of the partner program, channels have been selling t-shirts and merchandise to subsidize their careers as YouTubers. The Vlogbrothers started selling t-shirts fairly early on in their YouTube careers. Jenna Marbles, an unsigned YouTuber has a pair of plush dogs available for purchase that are modeled after her actual dogs. Michelle Phan has her own makeup line, and Bethany Mota did a collection of clothes for Aeropostale.

Olga Kay has her own line of socks called Moosh Walks.

Olga Kay Moosh Walks

Owned and Operated Platforms

This is one route that YouTubers like Smosh or Olga Kay tend to explore successfully. YouTube drives traffic to their owned and operated web site, which gets  a much higher CPM than YouTube will give them. Smosh, in addition to their website, also has a print magazine available in places like Barnes and Noble, which is ultimately an owned and operated source of income for them.

Olga Kay
This is Olga Kay’s owned and operated web site.

Affiliate Programs

GlamLifeGuru Luvocracy
Affiliate programs are essentially turning YouTubers that already talk about products into commissioned salespeople. A case study on Sigma’s use of an affiliate program can be found here.

Amazon has a prolific affiliate program. The Amazon affiliate program gives the person sharing a link a commission not only if the item linked is purchased, but also any purchases made on Amazon during that session after having clicked the affiliate link.

Subblime is a platform designed specifically for YouTubers to share their favorite things and get commissioned on their sales. Luvocracy is a platform that many Beauty Gurus use, similar to Pinterest, to post the items they mention in videos, and if someone purchases an item from Luvocracy, the poster gets a commission.

Crowdfunding and Patronage

subbable logo
These can be anywhere from grants, to Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Patreon, or Subbable. Subbable is a platform built by the Vlogbrothers to facilitate regular donations for the creation of serialized programming. They use this to continue funding their educational programs on YouTube, namely Crash Course and SciShow, along with the serialized content of other YouTubers.


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Cultural Trends

If you’re seeking a comprehensive understanding of online video culture and how platforms like YouTube differ from traditional media, you’ve arrived at an excellent starting point. With 100 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute, choosing just 10 videos to watch in order to understand this continually evolving community is indeed tricky. But, when you watch as many videos as we do here at ZEFR, you begin to see key trends and patterns emerge, and our goal here on the ZEFR Blog is to uncover these trends, explain where they come from, and help prepare you for what’s coming next.

Thus, we curated the following 10 videos to introduce the diversity found on YouTube with regards to content type, style, and intention, all coming together to illustrate a unique culture driven by a shared passion for the power video.

1.  The Little Moments

Little moments can have a big impact. The first video ever uploaded to YouTube was a short vlog at the San Diego Zoo from 2005:

This might seem insignificant today, but publicly opening up to strangers on the internet about the mundane portions of life had a tremendous impact on the future of YouTube. Before the presence of brands, and before the partnership program allowed for monetization, there were vloggers, chronicling the little moments of their lives, minute by minute.

2.  The Big Moments

YouTube is also a place to bear witness to life changing moments – birth, first steps, first words, the formation of your identity, and, for this 29 year old woman, the first time she heard her own voice:

With over 20 million views, she became a huge inspiration on YouTube and beyond, leading to an appearance on Ellen where she received an incredible gift from the company that supplied the hearing implant.

3.  Fanvids

Frequently associated with fangirls, fanvids are user created remixes of content, usually featuring their favorite movies or television characters. This is a form of devotional art made to tell new stories with established narrative universes, often in the name of love:

This “Dair” video emphasizes the relationship that could of, and, for some people, should have been, between the characters Dan and Blair on the CW show Gossip Girl. The music and the editing style seen above is very, very true to fanvid form.

4.  Cover Songs

Whether it’s someone singing into a webcam or a highly produced music video, cover songs have long been the music bread and butter of YouTube. Justin Bieber got his launch from the platform singing a Chris Brown cover. And, this future pop superstar is just waiting to be discovered:

This cover of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” has that intimate feeling of being shot in a workspace, giving it that raw feel of a YouTuber just starting to launch on an upwards trajectory. It has all the elements that make for great shareability, including a surprising voice and a unique musicality given the interesting cover choice.

5. How-tos/Tutorials/Instructional

If you want to learn how to do something yourself, people on YouTube are willing to teach you. One famous channel known for its instruction is Epic Meal Time, which is a cooking program for foods that resemble heart attacks and diabetic comas on plates:

This breakfast cupcake video gives enough instruction to be useful, but not so much that it is overly scientific. With the channel’s frequent devotion to bacon, and the Internet’s great love of bacon, Epic Meal Time is some manly instructional cooking. This particular dish is one of their tamest.

6.  Watching someone else play a video game

You haven’t understood a large population of YouTubers until you have watched someone else play video games. The single biggest YouTuber yet, PewDiePie, has made his professional life out of other people watching him play video games, as he gives colorful commentary, and plenty of swears, along the way:

PewDiePie is a Swedish video game YouTuber, and his vlogging presence continues to grow along with his subscriber fan base, aka “The Bro Army.” He now has almost 20 million subscribers.

7. Comedy

Laughs abound on YouTube, and few comedy channels have done better than Smosh, which has become more of a YouTube empire than simply a comedy channel. While Smosh’s actual level of humor is debatable, their use of color, randomness, loudness, and other devices make them very appealing, and millions of people clearly enjoy it:

Catering to both comedy fans and gamers,”If Video Games Were Real” has almost 30 million views, while the channel as a whole has as ammassed almost 3 billion views.

8. International Content

For programs that might be difficult to watch outside their country of origin, YouTube essentially has no borders. One of the most famous instances of this was Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent:

There is a growing expectation that all content, no matter where it is produced or for whom, should be viewable by everyone around the globe. The result can be seen in the global phenomenons known as “Gangnam Style“, which maybe you’ve heard of.

9. Memes

Nyan Cat is an excellent historic example of what some might shrug off as stupid internet stuff, but memes are here to stay. In just a short period of time, this cat was copied and re-posted to YouTube over and over again with alterations of every kind, such as changing its country of origin by substituting the Pop-Tart cat body for another geographically signature food or symbol. This particular version is 10 hours long. Good luck:

Using ZEFR tech, we ran a search to determine the total number of Nyan Cat videos out there, and it turns out there’s close to 40,000 of these things, totaling nearly 800 million views.

10. Cuteness

YouTube will in all likelihood never outlive its reputation for cuteness. Easy to film and easy to upload, puppies, babies, kittens, and other adorable pets acting totally adorable are like a major food group on YouTube.

While many people are trying, in vain, to move beyond this low hanging fruit, this article would not be complete without showing you this video of a golden retriever puppy falling asleep:


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Cultural Trends

photo above by Johan Larsson

Not all YouTube users are alike. It’s easy to see the high view counts on videos and envision a mass of viewers all doing the same thing, but it’s more complicated than that. There are varying degrees of involvement, from minimal interactivity all the way through “full time job.”

Understanding engagement on YouTube starts with understanding the people on YouTube, and the varying ways they use and interact with the platform. While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it does cover the core differences among users, and it should be helpful when building and engaging your audience.



Lurkers simply watch rather than engage. They might be compelled to share from time to time, but they rarely comment and certainly don’t create videos. Lurkers are as close to a passive audience as audiences get. They are hard to find and may not even login to YouTube to watch or subscribe to channels, leaving little evidence they were ever around, except for a view count. But, all engaged users gotta start somewhere, and with more engaging content hitting YouTube every day, these lurkers will continue to jump in and get involved more and more.


These viewers comment and subscribe. This could range from a handful of subscriptions and a comment now and again, to having entire conversations in the comment sections.  When thinking about fans on YouTube, this is the segment of the audience we tend to think of most frequently. They may not be the largest group, but they are vocal. These fans enter giveaways and respond to calls to action. When things change, like aesthetics of videos, fans take note. Fans follow their favorite YouTubers on other social media platforms. For them, YouTube is part of their media routine. Sharing is a huge part of this audience segment; they evangelize what they like. The fan category does not exclude influencers (explained below). Most influencers are also fans, but not all fans are influencers.



photo by Joel Olives

Anyone who makes YouTube videos is an influencer. By creating and uploading videos, they are influencing the scope and direction of the platform in their own unique way.  Influencers are still fans in their own right, but they are adding to the conversation much more actively, and they are always pushing it forward. Influencers can range from the earliest stages of making videos to being on the cusp of YouTube fame.

There is, however, a difference between most influencers and “professional YouTubers.”  The line between being a professional YouTuber and being an influencer is a bit challenging to differentiate. Some of the most famous YouTubers are still in school, middle school, high school, college or beyond. Does their enrollment in school prevent them from being a professional YouTuber? Not necessarily.  In many cases, fame is in the eye of the beholder. And, just as all influencers are fans but not all fans are influencers, likewise all professional YouTubers are influencers, but not all influencers are professionals.

Ultimately, choosing to put out content on YouTube is a brave move. It requires filming, editing, uploading and then publicizing a video and releasing it for public viewing, and hence criticism. Thus, it is especially brave for vloggers and people who show themselves on camera and actually speak directly into the eyes of the viewer, where they are left especially revealed and vulnerable. When compared to text based communication, making videos is is an act of real strength, and the influence coming from such people is similarly strong in its overall effect.


Professional YouTubers, aka The YouTube Famous

Even famous people on YouTube are fans if they are native to the platform. YouTubers start as fans, and it is their fandom, and sometimes brandom, that keeps them on YouTube. These are the people that organize meet-ups and are on panels at VidCon. They make the front page, get written about and, most of all, have large subscriber bases. YouTube famous people tend to make their money on Youtube and are full-time YouTube personalities. This class of YouTuber posts regularly.  They also run social media in other forums and engage with fans online and offline. YouTube famous individuals also tend to generate money through brand integrations or alternative revenue streams. Many are looking at monetization strategies that extend beyond YouTube.

It is important to note that scoring one viral video does not make someone a professional, because they may not be able to leverage that one-hit-wonder into a sustainable community. But, viral videos can serve as launch points to vibrant YouTube careers.

When it comes to drawing lines, even VidCon has a hard time differentiating between influencers and professionals as illustrated by the following image and quote from the “Special Guests” section of their web site:


“It’s always been really hard for us to draw the line between attendee and “Special Guest.” But we have to draw it somewhere, and it is clearly more of an art than a science. But, basically, we think the people below will be of particular interest. It is entirely possible that your favorite creator is coming to VidCon but isn’t on the list. That’s just because it takes forever to crop pictures, so we have to stop somewhere.”

As the YouTube community continues to grow and evolve (with more than 1 billion unique users visiting each month), it seems likely that the kinds of users, and the creative way those users interact, will continue to grow and evolve as well. So, stay tuned.


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