How Hong Kong YouTubers are attracting millions of views, and making money on the way
A scratched and scorched but still functioning Canon camera sits on the desk of ecommerce boss Richard Yu, whose YouTube channel for hobbyists now ranks as the most popular one about photography on the video-sharing site.
The founder of DigitalRev, a Hong Kong-based photography ecommerce website, launched the channel in 2010 to help people improve their camera snapping skills.
It has already amassed 1.2 million subscribers and racked up 242 million views, largely due to its infotainment value. It is so successful that Yu plans to spin it off into a media company.
“We have realised that it can be its own business, and right now we are setting up a separate entity to put the YouTube channel in,” said Yu, whose skinny fit suit and shaggy hair quickly identify him as a new media creative.
“We may possibly acquire other channels and build up a media company,” he added.
Yu has joined the ranks of local YouTube entrepreneurs whose strong personalities and simple concepts became the foundation for building brands and pulling in advertising revenue using the decade-old platform.
Others of a similar ilk include beauty gurus working from their bedrooms, and adventure travel video bloggers.
Yu's channel, also called DigitalRev, has grown from humble beginnings, when a pair of hands were shown unboxing a camera before a run-through of its features. It is now hosted by co-producer Wong Kai-man and Cheung Lok, who guide viewers through a much more intriguingly formatted show.
They host episodes, for example, that pit professional photographers against people wielding cheap novelty cameras, such as one that was physically integrated into the torso of a Barbie doll.
DigitalRev’s most popular video to date went viral and attracted 1.7 million views. It features a so-called “torture test” for the Canon EOS 7D – the same model that was sitting on Yu’s desk when the South China Morning Post interviewed him.
In the 16-minute video, viewers see Wong set up the camera so that it can be knocked down by a 10-tonne truck. It also gets submerged in water, frozen, and set ablaze on a beach.
While Yu’s channel shares the same name as his ecommerce website, the budding entrepreneur said he was careful not to link back to the commercial site in the first three years of its operation. He said he prefers to maintain a “brick wall” between the marketing department and video team.
“If I started this with the aim of helping the ecommerce business, then I think it would’ve failed miserably. But I kept it separate, and there are episodes about not upgrading your cameras. There are episodes where we threw cameras in the rubbish bin,” he said.
A small percentage of visitors to the ecommerce site get there by hitting a link on YouTube, Yu said, adding that the videos have built brand awareness rather than spurred direct sales.
Google’s YouTube Partner programme splits advertising revenue with content creators, allowing Yu’s channel - if viewed as an alternative marketing department - to bring in money rather than to spend it.
Maintaining integrity and building a community are the two key roles for the DigitalRev channel, Yu said. The site refuses to host paid camera reviews, and publishes its policy of ethics online to keep viewers’ trust.
“With photography, [or] the gadget sector, people can be more sceptical,” Yu said.
DigitalRev does not rule out sponsorship from other areas, however, and has produced travel videos with Cathay, KLM and General Motors. It has also partnered with local clothing brands to provide clothes for video shoots.
YouTube has more than one billion monthly users. Its combination of advertising revenue, sponsorship and paid placements has made millionaires out of many young people filming shows from their bedrooms.
Swedish gamer Felix Kjellberg, 25, known to his online fans as PewDiePie, is the video sharing site’s biggest star so far with over 37 million subscribers. His channel, which shows videos of the online star playing computer games and performing skits, has attracted 9 billion views.
Many traditional media have found themselves unable to ignore YouTube's burgeoning popularity.
Attracted by the high levels of viewership, The Walt Disney Company bought one of the platform’s largest networks, Maker Studios, for US$500 million in March 2014 in a bid to pull teens back to Disney.
Amazon followed Disney’s lead last August by acquiring video game streaming site Twitch for US$970 million.
Marty Chen, manager of YouTube content partnerships for Hong Kong and Taiwan, said YouTube stars like Bethany Mota, an American 19-year-old with 9 million subscribers, her own fashion line and an upcoming album, have built global communities and brands through their videos.
Although linked to an existing business, Chen sees the DigitalRev channel, which is Hong Kong’s second-largest YouTube channel, in the same light.
“Their content is more than just camera reviews. It’s about building a community of photography fanatics who want to learn everything about photography,” Chen said.
Hong Kong’s biggest YouTube star is beauty expert Lindy Tsang, 28, more commonly known by the name of her channel, Bubzbeauty.
Her mixture of tutorials and lifestyle tips has drawn a loyal following of 2.9 million subscribers and 384 million views of her channel.
Tsang started Bubzbeauty seven years ago while living at home in Northern Ireland, when she was struggling to find a job after graduating in the wake of the global financial crisis.
After a year of having the site on YouTube, Tsang started to print and sell her own T-shirts to fans. Her business took off, which prompted a move to Hong Kong to be closer to her manufacturers.
She later expanded her line to include make-up brushes, and was able to buy a flat in the notoriously expensive city three years ago.
“It was not an overnight success. It took time and effort,” Tsang said. “When I first moved to Hong Kong … [was when] my YouTube views suddenly rocketed, exposing me to more opportunities that triggered everything else.”
Tsang’s YouTube persona is akin to a wiser older sister, which appeals to big cosmetics brands. However, the mother of one said she is careful to pick who she works with so as not to jeopardise viewers’ trust.
“As long as creators are authentic and transparent, generally viewers won't mind and will continue to support you. Honesty is key,” she said.