Hong Kong YouTube stars turn their self-made celebrity into online careers
The global roll-out of an ad revenue sharing scheme is helping Hong Kong YouTube stars turn their self-made celebrity into online careers, writes Jenni Marsh
Tommy Leung Ka-ming adjusts his webcam and starts recording a "freestyle" tirade, titled "Everyday Narcissism Worsens". With his bed and wardrobe in the background, it's a raw attack on vain Chinese men who post "selfies" of themselves on social networks, wear sunglasses indoors, and fuss over their boy-band hair styles.
Leung, better known as Ming Jai, posted the video on YouTube three years ago. It has since had over 1.5 million hits and 15,000 likes. But this isn't a viral hit like "Charlie Bit My Finger", which attracted nearly 600 million YouTube clicks and earned the toddler's family enough money to buy a new house from the advertising revenue.
While Charlie's success was unplanned, Leung knows the secret to his "virality" and is part of a new wave of entrepreneurs who are capitalising on their self-made celebrity to launch businesses. "I never imagined I'd make my living on YouTube," he says. "It's a new channel of revenue that only a handful of people have picked up on."
But that's about to change. YouTube came of age as a business model in 2012, with the worldwide roll-out of the YouTube Partner Programme it launched in the US in 2007. This allows contributors to share advertising revenue with the site, with the contributor taking 55 per cent.
In Hong Kong, more than 19,000 people registered their channels for the Ad Sense tool, which delivers adverts to sites based on website content. With the barrier to entry removed, the floodgates are now open for Hongkongers to cash in online.
Bren Lui Sin-ping is an established YouTube beauty expert who got into vlogging (video blogging) in 2011 when it was a nascent market. An exponent of the How To genre, she focuses on crowd pleasers such as make-up for bigger eyes, tutorials on K-pop star Hyuna's cat eyeliner look, and Japanese trends.
She has 109,000 subscribers, seven million hits on her videos, and has signed up for the partnership scheme to monetise her popularity. People now stop her in the street, asking "Hey, are you that girl from YouTube?"
Riding on her popular vlogs, she launched the Rosy Rain online beauty store in 2011, and three cosmetics shops in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kwun Tong, and Causeway Bay have followed. Lui says 40 per cent of her customers come from the YouTube channel, and there is a careful cross-pollination of products.
"At first, I used YouTube more as a hobby, but now I can earn a lot of money. It's become my work," she says. "I shoot videos in my shop, brands pay me to feature them in my reviews - I tell them I have to remain impartial - and I connect with my online friends via my YouTube channel. I think YouTube is my life."
Leung might say the same. He was studying economics in Canada three years ago, but dropped out of university five months after his video went viral and returned to Hong Kong to make freestyle monologues about everyday bugbears. At the time, clips from Hong Kong were "just uploads of people doing awful things on the MTR", he says. "I spotted a gap in the market."
Today, the 29-year-old runs his own new media company, Freeman Productions, which employs two staff and provides product placement services to brands and creates viral videos for clients, such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
He has also been cast in dramas and movies, last month appearing in Patrick Kong Pak-leung's film The Best Plan is No Plan on the strength of his performances in the videos.
YouTube has always encouraged celebrity, says David Burch, communications director at research firm TubeMogul in San Francisco. Just a few years ago that fame was fleeting, except for pop stars and celebrities. Now ordinary people are establishing themselves as entertainers.
In the US, Jenna Marbles earns a six-figure income from comedy posts, such as "Drunk Make-Up Tutorial" and "How to Trick People into Thinking You're Good Looking". Posting her vlogs every Wednesday, Marbles' episodes work like a television series.
"YouTube is now behaving like it is a TV studio and a lot of the partners are upping their production values to meet the scale and standards that are being set," Burch says.
To promote better quality, YouTube launched its "original channels" venture in 2012, investing US$200 million on creators the site believed showed potential. Less than 12 months later, YouTube announced that it would only reinvest in the top 40 per cent of the 160 channels it initially selected. Essentially, shows that didn't get the ratings were abandoned.
Since Google acquired YouTube for a US$1.65 billion all-stock transaction in 2006, the tech giant has had the financial clout to really rival television - a move that has knock-on benefits for entrepreneurial entertainers. Earlier this year, it converted a 41,000 sq ft helicopter hangar in Los Angeles into a production playground with stages, giant sets, green screens and editing suites that contributors can use for free. Similar bases have been launched in London and Tokyo.
But there are no plans for a similar hub here, says YouTube's partnerships manager for Taiwan and Hong Kong, Marty Chen, so Hong Kong creators have to finance their own productions.
One Super Tuber doing this with great success is Norma Chu Ka-yin from Day Day Cook, a website and YouTube channel of culinary videos and recipes. The enterprise started three years ago as a food blog, as an aside to Chu's day job as a private equity analyst. It is now her full-time career, and she employs a team of support staff, from kitchen assistants to web developers.
The site gets 1.5 million page views per month and 120,000 unique users ("mainly housewives") that Chu pushes to her website via her YouTube channel. The secret ingredient for hits on YouTube food tutorials is simplicity, she says. "We keep them basic, two minutes long and upload regular content, around eight to 15 videos a week".
To create the video content, she has invested tens of thousands of dollars in professional cameras and lighting equipment, and rents a cookery studio off Hollywood Road, in addition to her offices on Queen's Road West. If she was based in Los Angeles, access to such resources could be free.
But Burch says there isn't necessarily a correlation between success and access to a YouTube hub. "In Australia, consumption is massive and advertiser command is incredibly high," he says. "You'll see ad price spikes there you don't see anywhere else in the world, but that's not a country where YouTube is setting up studios right now."
It certainly hasn't hurt Chu; major brands such as Quaker and Knorr sponsor her to use their products in her videos. Her YouTube appearances have won her a slot on Now TV's Chef's Corner, raising her exposure ahead of the Day Day Cook app launch and a food e-commerce site that is in the pipeline.
"In Hong Kong, it's not easy to start something like this, especially if you're serious about making a lot of money," she says. "People here have only just started to realise that online advertising is important, compared with those living overseas."
Still, Chen sees growth in the region. "Since launching the YouTube Partner Programme we've seen great momentum locally. Hong Kong creators are contributing a huge variety of quality content, including music, comedy, make-up, DIY, cooking and animation," he says. "Like any job, building a channel takes work, but anyone has the potential to be successful."
Chu, Lui and Leung have good timing, as all three established channels and online personalities before YouTube launched its partnership programme, giving them a valuable head-start.
Globally, one million creators are now taking advantage of the ad-sharing scheme, so the revenue pot is smaller as the volume of content devalues advertising rates. TubeMogul says rates on popular videos have fallen a third since last June. What's more, 72 hours of new content is uploaded every minute, compared with 48 hours in 2011.
Gallery worker Sue Chang Hou-you is undeterred by the competition. The 23-year-old arrived from Seoul with her father's kimchi dumpling company 16 years ago and now uploads humorous Korean-language tutorials onto her channel Alazizi.
Her first YouTube lesson eight months ago received 10,000 hits in three months. Inspired by her success, Chang has made 20 videos since, and is already reaping the rewards.
The Korean consulate general in Hong Kong appointed her to promote Korean culture, she says. "I've also published a tour guide to South Korea, which I want my videos to promote."
While Chang appreciates the ad revenue, she is more focused on building her profile. "YouTube is very international and a great way for modern people to watch my videos," she says. "Sometimes I think YouTube is more powerful than television."