Taryn Southern is one of those YouTubers with a name that’s arguably more well-known in traditional circles than her fellow digital brethren. She was a contestant on the third season of American Idol, she’s appeared on TV shows like New Girl and Rules of Engagement, and her musical ode to Hillary Clinton — Hot4Hill — landed her on CNN, Good Morning America and MSNBC in the midst of the 2008 Presidential primaries.
Combine that mainstream buzz with an on-camera presence that’s equal parts quirky and come-hither, a knack for making catchy covers of existing hits, and a serious ability to laugh at herself — and you get exactly the type of personality one would expect to attract millions of YouTube subscribers, with the ad revenues to match. Except she’s not. At the moment, her YouTube Channel Taryn TV is just nearing the 200,000 subscriber mark. And at the moment, the YouTube channel is costing her money, not paying the bills.
“If you’re someone like Jenna Marbles, you can easily get by with your AdSense dollars,” Southern says. “But YouTube is not my source of income right now. I’m spending almost as much as I’m making every month to create a video every week.”
The Danger of Creating Content for Hire
In theory, Southern should be more monetizable than Marbles, whose YouTube channel boasts over a billion video views and more than nine million subscribers. Marbles’ videos are less polished, decidedly more irreverent, and she has minimal traditional media presence. Southern’s music videos are particularly well-produced, she works her comedic chops and … well, she’s been on American Idol.
She’s also been in the digital trenches since 2006, when she sold a travel series to DirecTV. Three years later she partnered with lonelygirl15 star Jessica Rose to found Webutantes, a female-centric web production company. Now defunct, Webutantes “churned out a couple of pilot projects,” and since then Southern has consistently hosted web shows for companies like Yahoo, Playstation and Machinima.com. So why isn’t Taryn TV delivering a six-figure payout like Marbles’ channel reportedly does? Call it brand dilution.
“I built a small brand for myself for about five years, but I had no audience that existed in one place,” Southern says. “I was focused on creating content for companies like Hearst, Heavy and Break.com, chasing after the money they were offering, and not aggregating my own audience.”
Courted by brands amidst one of the first waves of online video content funding, Southern spent much of her time in the revolving cycle of pitching and waiting to begin production. “I was getting funding from all these outside sources,” she says. “But it would take six months to get a pilot greenlit, then we’d shoot a five-to-six minute show, and then wait another six months to actually get it on a distribution platform.”
And by mid-2009, the heady rush into original content led to a hard crash fueled by the economic downturn. “There were lots of companies that tried to build their own audiences and establish their own sites, and so many of them lost their money,” Southern says. “YouTube really came out as the winner, and I realized that if I didn’t put everything into it, I’d be left behind.”
Go Hard (on YouTube) or Go Home
It took her two more years, but Southern officially launched Taryn TV last fall. “My first eight weeks were musical comedies, and other than that I had no idea what to put out,” she says.
Southern still doesn’t have a master content development plan, although she’d like one. For now, she just mines YouTube Analytics for insights. “Looking at the analytics, people didn’t like my sketch about stalking their boyfriends, but they did like one I did about online dating,” she says. “So maybe I do more sketches about online dating. While I would love to have a sketch format to reuse and just plug content into every week, economically, it’s easier to just do one-offs and see what resonates.”
She also says it’s easier to work on the fly because she can only devote one day a week to YouTube. The rest of her time goes to the broadcast TV appearances that pay the bills. “I worked on four TV shows right when I launched my channel,” Southern says. “It was exhausting, but I figured out how to get it done every week because consistency matters.”
So if she actually makes money from TV, why not just focus on mainstream media? “As much as I love the TV medium, I see it more as a side strategy until someone offers me my own show,” Southern says, before pausing and reflecting. “But I already have my own show, and it’s on YouTube. And I don’t have to wait for a casting director or a producer, or anyone else to greenlight what I want to do.”
It’s this autonomy and creative control that seems to fuel Southern’s YouTube ambition. She’s so focused that she’s even cut auditioning for feature films and dramatic TV pilots out of her schedule. “You can get booked for a film, start shooting and still have no idea whether it’s going to go into the theater,” Southern says. “So I stopped auditioning for features and TV pilots a year ago, because I didn’t see it as a good use of my time. I can’t afford to run around town auditioning like a crazy person for a show that may not happen. I get to see the fruit of my labor every day I shoot something for YouTube, so I’m choosing to grow that business.”
“She’s not completely ignoring traditional media,” says George Ruiz, Southern’s former agent and President at Intelligent Artists, the firm that represents Southern. “She will respond to the right opportunities in those areas but her business is best served right now by focusing her creativity on her own YouTube channel, and her own Intellectual Property. It’s an incredibly smart strategy.”
Big Risk, Bigger Reward?
Still, there are challenges that stem from building a brand that resides entirely on YouTube. Growing an audience is harder than it was in the past, and Southern says YouTube’s content discovery mechanisms don’t make it easy to attract new viewers.
Ruiz agrees. “Discovery is a huge issue that YouTube and content creators are struggling with,” he says. “Both in terms of how to get new eyeballs, but also getting those people back to watch the next video.”
Southern is also adamant that the subscriber homepage is of particular concern. “Right now, YouTube doesn’t give subscribers the option of choosing which channels they see on their homepage. The homepage algorithm is very random — it will show videos that are similar to ones I’ve recently watched from all over the place — and often not even the newest video from a channel I’m subscribed to.”
Parent company Google is notorious for keeping the mechanisms behind its various search algorithms a secret, so it’s no surprise that some creators are frustrated with the inner workings of YouTube. Southern says being part of the inaugural Creators Class this year at the YouTube Space LA was a welcome opportunity to share information with the YouTube team.
“It was really nice to learn and get help with resources and production, but I liked being able to give them feedback even more,” she says. “They’ve become more open about trying to make things better — but we still don’t ever know which improvements will be implemented and when.”
Southern and other YouTube content creators face an interesting conundrum. YouTube offers creative autonomy and unlimited earning potential, but it’s still a third-party platform — one that’s subject to the technological, financial and even cultural whims of its owner. So like most other YouTube personalities, she does want to develop connections with her audience that aren’t “owned” by Google.
“I’ve been using Instagram and Facebook more, and I’m working on blogging consistently so that I can have other ways to communicate with my audience,” she says. But for Southern, the risk of fragmenting her fan base before it really solidifies is not a chance she’s willing to take again. “I’m not really focused on building an audience on another platform until I have at least 250,000 subscribers on YouTube,” she says. “Then, I can start saying ‘Go sign up for my newsletter, or catch me on this blog’.”