Their talents range from comedy to gaming and from singing to playing pranks, often captured with nothing more than a handheld camera. But YouTubers are at the vanguard of an industry worth tens of millions of pounds.
Forbes’ ranking of the 12 highest-earning YouTube stars shows they collectively earned £55m in the past 12 months, an increase of 23% on last year.
The substantial rise in income is a testament to the growing influence of YouTube celebrities, who have moved beyond the platform to monetise their digital success, by authoring bestselling books, securing film deals and, in one case, becoming the face of L’Oréal.
It is the second year that Forbes has ranked the earnings of YouTube celebrities, who come from countries including the US, France, Sweden, India and Chile.
The list was again topped by PewDiePie, whose name is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg. The 27-year-old from Sweden has built up a following of nearly 50 million subscribers for his videos, which have had 11bn views, in which he comedically narrates while playing video games.
It has proved to be an increasingly lucrative pastime since Kjellberg joined YouTube in 2010. Forbes estimated that he earned $15m (£11.8m) last year from advertising revenue and sales of his parody self-help tome This Book Loves You.
The list this year features four new entries, most of whom have capitalised on their enormous online following to earn six-figure book deals and sell merchandise.
Roman Atwood, who earned $8m last year from videos of him and his friends performing pranks in the street, has a book and feature film in the pipeline, as well as an online store that sells branded hats, pens and sunglasses.
Integrated sponsorship deals, where companies pay for their products to feature in popular vlogs, are also a large source of revenue for this generation of YouTube celebrities.
The comedy duo Smosh, who are fourth on the Forbes list with earnings of $7m, had a series sponsored by razor company Schick.
One of the new entries is the vlogger Tyler Oakley, who has won plaudits for using his largely video diary YouTube channel to challenge LGBT issues and speak about being bullied and having an eating disorder. Oakley, who earned $5m last year, has had a book reach number two in the New York Times bestseller list and interviewed Barack Obama.
Oakley attributed the success of YouTube vloggers to the DIY ethos they continue to represent for a young audience. “I think it’s the concept of authenticity,” he said.
“It’s an honesty that didn’t exist in media before when I was growing up. For example, gay youth might look at me and feel more of a connection because it’s a human, as opposed to a fictional TV character who’s gay.
“For sure, YouTube is becoming so important in challenging those closed-minded attitudes. I think through YouTube, a lot of people have met their first openly LGBTQ people.
“And by feeling that level of intimacy with people like me and other YouTubers, it has definitely accelerated the sentiment of acceptance.
“I think there’s a level of intimacy with YouTube people, where maybe [with] a movie star, you feel [a] connection maybe once a year. With YouTube, you can find who you want and if you don’t like someone, you don’t have to watch it.”
The number of YouTube channels making six-figure sums is up by 50% on last year.
One of the UK’s biggest YouTube stars is Zoe Sugg, known as Zoella, a vlogger living in Brighton whose chatty videos about beauty have earned her millions of followers.
Her book, Girl Online, broke the record for the highest first week sales of a first-time novelist when it was released.
However, Penguin later admitted that Sugg had not written the book and had instead “worked with an expert editorial team to help her bring to life her characters and experiences in a heartwarming and compelling story”.
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