YouTube’s most popular channel, Smosh (the brainchild of two teens in Sacramento, California), has 9.6 million subscribers; Jenna Marbles’ and Ray William Johnson’s channels have 8.6 million a piece. Right now those subscribers don’t pay anything, but that could change overnight.
On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that YouTube could announce as early as this week paid subscriptions for certain channels. According to FT, as many as 50 channels could transition to paid subscriptions that would start at $1.99 a month.
Reaction to the news on YouTube was… skeptical.
Will people pay to watch videos they’re used to watching for free? They will if they are big enough fans, says Shira Lazar, the creator of the Partners Project (a self-described “Inside the Actors Studio for YouTube stars”) and What’s Trending. Lazar has already seen some YouTubers transition from giving away their content for free to charging a premium for it.
She cites Smosh, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Vlog Brothers as channels with rabid audiences ready to pay for more. “These are fans that are buying merch, they’re buying tickets to shows to see them offline,” Lazar explains — it would not be a big leap for fans to pay for video content.
Some channels have already made the jump. The YouTube-based series Red vs. Blue has enjoyed major success offering extra content for an additional fee. For $20 a year, fans of the show can become “sponsors.” Perks of sponsorship include getting early access to new videos and gaining exclusive access to supplemental videos. When Red vs. Blue celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year, creators Burnie Burns and Matt Hullum cited creative monetization techniques as key to the series’ staying power.
Might the same technique could be key to YouTube’s staying power? A spokesperson for YouTube said that the company isn’t ready to announce anything yet, but the video sharing site was “looking into creating a subscription platform.” The ultimate goal is a model that could “provide our partners with another vehicle to generate revenue from their content, beyond the rental and ad-supported models we offer,” she added.
It’s worth a try, at least, according to Lazar. “I look at people like Smosh,” she says. “I look at how strong their community is and I can’t see why that wouldn’t work.”