This article originally appeared in VICE UK.
Remember Candace Payne, the "Chewbacca Mom," from literally three weeks ago? I know you do, because she was completely unavoidable; the four-minute clip of her laughing while wearing a roaring Chewbacca mask quickly became the most viewed Facebook Live video of all time (or at least since people actually started using it about six months ago), racking up more than 150 millions views.
Last week, it was revealed that Payne has made almost $500,000 since streaming her video, reaping rewards in the form of gifts, fees from talk-show appearances, and a handful of all-expenses paid holidays.
Of course, Chewbacca Mom is just one of many viral stars who've made serious, life-changing sums following their 15 minutes of fame. In the past year alone, Swedish vlogger PewDiePie earned an estimated $11.8 million via his YouTube videos, while the Sunday Times reports that British beauty vlogger Zoella earns at least $71,000 a month.
But how feasible is it for the average person to make it to that point? YouTube has more than a billion users, who collectively watch 4 billion videos every day. According to experts, 71 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube every hour. Since the average clip lasts around 4.12 minutes, from the moment a new video is uploaded, users are competing with over 1.4 million other videos, not counting the trillions of videos already on YouTube and other similar platforms. The odds of going viral are so low that marketing and production company Curveball Media Limited has claimed users have "more chance of getting shot, dating a millionaire, or being flown by a drunken pilot than getting 10,000 views" on a video.
But if by some stroke of sheer dumb luck your video does go viral, how do you capitalize on that and cash in? I spoke to viral content studio the Viral Factory's founder, Matt Smith, to find out.
VICE: The Chewbacca mask mom has supposedly made almost $500,000 off a single video—how is this even possible?
Matt Smith: I haven't looked at the last view count, but the first way is obviously just monetizing the video. YouTube and Facebook will pay tiny amounts for each view, as long as you've gone into your account and switched on the relevant advertising deals, so effectively, whenever you look at any video with advertising around it, the user is getting paid. So [Payne] will be getting a check from Google because obviously her video's been seen gazillions of times, and that's a decent chunk of change.
In fairness, it sounds like a lot of that sum has been given to her in the form of various gifts, rather than in cold hard cash.
Yeah, I heard that Kohl's sent her some money, and I imagine she will be getting appearance fees. She was on [The Late Late Show with] James Corden, and I'm guessing she made some money off of that. There will also be agencies like us who go, "My god, she's really hot right now—what can we get her to endorse?" I don't know specifically about her, but I know there are plenty of other fifteen-minutes-of-fame internet celebrities who have done quite well out of appearing in ads.
Well, for instance, "Overly Attached Girlfriend," the [girl who was a] massive meme on YouTube and Reddit with the crazy eyes—we did a video with her for Samsung that she got paid for. We had the initial idea, but she helped us with the execution and the writing, because obviously it was her character. We flew her out to London, and she's the main aspect of the video. That's one thing I can tell you about because we did it, but I've seen lots of others, like the Delta Airline inflight safety video. It's got Charlie Bit My Finger, it's got the hamster, it's got the rainbow guy… it's got the bloke from the Will It Blend? campaign—just loads and loads of internet celebs. They would have all been paid quite decent money to be in that, and there's a whole bunch of them. It's a thing now where those people are legitimate celebrities, so they get paid and they get featured in stuff.
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Is it feasible that everyday YouTubers and Viners could make this kind of money, or do they need something to go wildly viral before anyone takes real notice?
In theory, anyone could do it. A lot of the people who have had their fifteen minutes of fame are pretty much ordinary people. The Chewbacca Mom is so obviously an ordinary person, which is one of the reasons the video is so great, because you're totally with her. She's so obviously just having fun and laughing her head off; there's no agenda behind it, there's no nothing, she's just an average kind of Joe—or Josephine. So yes, it can happen, but you have to do something different. Although she's a normal person, she's done something actually pretty exceptional. That video is gold. You know, if we as an advertising agency who specialize in making viral videos tried to make that video, I think we'd fail. It's almost impossible to conceive of it and direct it and cast it and make it as a film. The fact is it was great because it was completely spontaneous and off-the-cuff.
So it was just one moment of magic?
The odds are fairly stacked against the chances of your average person achieving that. But once it's done, I think increasingly there are mechanisms that there weren't ten years ago. I've met quite a lot of people at various conferences who had exactly that fifteen minutes of fame, but a while ago, and they found it very hard to make any money. In fact, some of them were upset by the fact they had all the downsides of fame and perhaps they didn't necessarily want all that attention, but they made zero money from it because the structures weren't in place. Now, they would probably be contacted by agents.
What kind of structures are you talking about?
YouTube has a representation system where they will talk to brands, and they will put forward their celebrities, so if you're a girl who does makeup tutorials on YouTube and you're really popular, YouTube will put you forward to makeup brands, fashion brands, etc, and help you monetize that. I know for a fact there's a talent agency in LA that specializes in accidental YouTube celebrities. So these days, if that happens to you, even if you're not that keen on the attention—some people obviously love it, some people hate it—but at the very least, you can make a few bucks. I mean, £350,000 [$500,000] isn't bad, is it?
Take me through your working process—how are you able to determine what will go viral and what won't?
As I said before, I think stuff like the Chewbacca mask is really tricky from a creative point of view. What we do is write loads and loads of ideas, and spend bloody hours thinking, and going, "Is that going to work or will it not work? How do we make it work?" We get it wrong sometimes, but more often than not, we get it right because we have the resources that the clients give us to spend on production. We can get really good people involved, we can use photo production, special effects, etc. So that's one way. It's not failsafe, but it's decent.
How long after uploading something are you able to tell if it's going to be successful or not?
Well there are algorithmic ways to predict viral content, so Facebook probably knew before more-or-less everybody else that the Chewbacca mask lady's video was going viral, because they would have spotted it even when it was only seen by very few people and shared by very few people. I'm pretty sure it would have shown up on someone's dashboard somewhere, saying, "This thing is going crazy—it's on an exponential curve and it's being shared a lot, far more than anything else we're seeing today." Again, YouTube has that. They can spot something that has been made and that is trending or starting to trend pretty much before everyone else does. So those are the two ways [of telling if something is going to go viral or not]; one is predicting it by just being very creative and making good stuff, and the other is, once the content is finished, if you're the content distribution platform owner and you've got sophisticated algorithms, you can probably spot it.
What tips do you have for people who want to go viral and make loads of money out of it?
Think very carefully. That's what I tell my own kids. They go, "Oh, Dad, can you help me go viral?" and I say, "Oh really? You want to go viral? Why do you want to be famous?" It's crap being famous. It's nowhere near as good as you might think it is. Just take a deep breath and go, "Why am I doing this again?" because you'll have the piss ripped out of you. You'll become a target—especially if you're young. But if you're someone who goes, "Well, actually, I just really want to be famous, so I'll put up with the downsides," I think on the internet it's all about being human. Show your real self and then do something kind of exceptional, but as a normal human being.
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