What do Justin Beiber, Issa Rae, and Bo Burnham all have in common? The answer is simple: they're YouTube influencers. From pop superstars to boundary-breaking filmmakers, the online video platform has launched hundreds of careers since it was created in 2005. Could you be next? We’ll break down everything you need to know to become famous on YouTube, from the best filming equipment to the right way to title your next video.
Here’s how to become a YouTube influencer—whether your thing is impressions, improv comedy, or anything in between.
A YouTube influencer (or YouTuber) is a content creator who has cultivated expertise in a niche and established a large following on the video platform. They may also set trends and provide information for others looking to purchase a specific product or service, for example. Some of the most popular YouTubers are performers, makeup artists, and fashion influencers. Creating YouTube videos allows them to share their skills, makes them accessible to a wide audience, and in some cases, even allows them to make a living through their video content.
Some of the most famous YouTubers include Lilly Singh, Issa Rae, Todrick Hall, and Bo Burnham. A good way to create a plan for your own YouTube success is to take a look at the path of those who have come before you and see what worked for them.
Todrick Hall is an actor, singer, dancer, director, choreographer, songwriter, drag queen, and YouTuber who was also on the singing talent show “American Idol” in 2009. His first YouTube video was a performance of “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye.” His channel is a mix of covers and original works, and as of June 2022 has over 3.5 million subscribers. Since he’s hit internet fame, he’s appeared on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and toured the world.
Bo Burnham is a comedian, singer-songwriter, musician, actor, director, poet, and screenwriter, who started with YouTube in 2006. Since then, he’s released several comedy specials, including “Make Happy” on Netflix, and “Eighth Grade,” his first feature-length film, which he wrote and directed, was a runaway hit that was solidly in Oscar conversation and earned a Golden Globe nomination. As of June 2022, he had more than 3 million subscribers (and counting).
King Bach (a.k.a. Andrew Bachelor) is an actor, internet personality, and comedian who is best known for his Vines (the now-defunct short-form video platform that’s been replaced in large part by TikTok). However, Vine compilations of his are still accessible on YouTube. Bach often collaborates with other internet comedians on various sketches and has found success on TV series including “The Mindy Project” and films such as “The Babysitter” on Netflix.
Liza Koshy is an actor, television host, and YouTube comedian. Her two YouTube channels have received more than 2 billion views, with her primary YouTube channel surpassing 17 million subscribers. In addition to providing humorous social commentary, she also completes challenges such as dressing herself using only things she found at the dollar store. She also appeared in Tyler Perry’s horror-comedy film “Boo!” and has her own series on YouTube Originals, “Liza on Demand.”
Colleen Ballinger is an actor, singer, comedian, and YouTuber. She is known for the character she created, Miranda Sings, who inspires her YouTube videos, as well as her touring shows in theaters worldwide. She had her own series on Netflix, but it has since been canceled.
Lilly Singh is a Canadian vlogger, author, actor, and YouTuber known on YouTube as “IISuperwomanII.” Her content often includes references to American and Punjabi culture, collaborations with actors like Justin Baldoni and Will Smith, as well as satirical takes on everyday life and people’s favorite complaints. Since her rise to fame, she was named one of Time’s 30 most influential people on the internet, voiced characters in “Ice Age: Collision Course,” and is set to appear in HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and she also hosted “A Little Late,” a nighttime talk show.
Issa Rae is a writer, actor, producer, director, and web series creator. She first received attention for her YouTube series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” She has since received two Golden Globe nominations for her work on her HBO series “Insecure” and now mostly uses her YouTube channel to promote her content creation company, Issa Rae Productions.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer independently produced the web series “Broad City” on YouTube, which was eventually picked up by Comedy Central with Amy Poehler attached as a producer. The two wrote, starred in, and produced the five-season show.
Justin Bieber may be the most well-known singer who started on YouTube. He was only 12 years old when he began posting his videos to the platform (with the help of his mom). Over time, his channel accumulated a large following, at which point he was noticed by a big record label that asked him to record a demo tape. The rest is history.
You’ll notice that a lot of these YouTuber influencers are described as having overlapping pursuits (ie. actor, writer, and producer, or, singer, songwriter, and producer), illustrating the different types of skills that YouTuber influencers bring to the table, and how one type of creative pursuit can help to broaden the scope of another.
As our list above makes clear, there’s more than one way to become YouTube famous. But there are a few steps that will help put you on the path to success:
- Create a YouTube account and channel. Before you can upload any videos, you’ll need to create a YouTube account and channel. Your channel name is incredibly important when it comes to becoming famous on YouTube—it must be both memorable and consistent with your brand. It’s also important to keep it simple: Your name needs to be easily searchable, so you shouldn't use anything complex or too similar to other popular users.
- Determine your online brand. Social media expert Heidi Dean says that creators often make the mistake of trying to appeal to everyone—but end up with overly broad videos that appeal to no one. She suggests narrowing your audience, and doing research on YouTube to see which videos are already performing well in a topic area that interests you. “Think hard about who you’re creating content for. Are they TV actors, ‘Game of Thrones’ fans, Harry Potter fans, or horror film lovers? Be specific.” The content should be reflective of your skillset and brand.
- Create your first video. You’ll need some equipment in order to shoot, but don’t fret about having the most expensive cameras and microphones out there. Depending on your style of content, professional video equipment may not be necessary—plenty of famous YouTubers got their start shooting videos on their smartphones. However, if you are looking to create a film-specific project (i.e. a full-fledged web series or film short, instead of, say, a cooking video), you might need more serious film equipment than just your smartphone (more on that below).
- Get your first 100 subscribers. While a big part of getting your first followers is the content itself, YouTube has ways to help get your content seen by a bigger audience—like creating a trailer for your channel that will automatically play when a non-subscriber visits your channel, or filling in the “About” section on your profile. Make sure your videos have interesting thumbnails for your videos. “If your thumbnail is boring no one will click on it (and, obviously, never subscribe),” warns Dean.
- Post consistently. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in order to get famous on YouTube you will need to post consistently and post often. Casual viewers become subscribers when they know you as a creator will be uploading regularly.
- Understand YouTube’s algorithm. As a content creator, a big part of your success depends on how easy it is for people to find your videos online. Key ranking factors are what determine how well your video performs in the YouTube ranking algorithm—things like the number of comments, views, likes, plus video length and resolution. Doing the work to improve your ranking will help you get to the top of the YouTube algorithm, in turn providing you with more organic views.
To create high-quality videos for your YouTube channel, you’ll need five key pieces of equipment: a camera, a tripod or gimbal, a microphone, lights and editing software.
- Camera: The camera is arguably the most important equipment choice you’ll make, but fortunately for YouTubers, there are plenty of affordable, reliable options to choose from. Shadd says that it’s important for your camera to shoot in 1080p, at least. She suggests investing in a DSLR camera like the Canon EOS 70D or the Nikon D5600.
- Tripod: A tripod or a gimbal will stabilize your camera and improve your footage. If you plan on having a mostly stationery setup, a tripod will be your best bet. For content that requires more handheld shooting, Shadd recommends the FeiyuTech G6max Camera Gimbal (or the iPhone Gimbal Stabilizer if you plan on using your phone).
- Microphone: To start, recording with your phone is perfectly fine. But Shadd notes that investing in a proper mic will “increase the quality of your videos by ensuring crisp audio and room for more editing possibilities.” For content that is dialogue-focused, Shadd suggests lavalier microphones, like Rode smartLav+ Omnidirectional Lavalier. And for handheld work, she recommends a shotgun mic that can plug directly into your camera, like the Rode Compact On-Camera Microphone.
- Lighting: Shadd recommends using two softboxes, one on either side of the camera, to give your videos “a clean, well-produced look.” For a more cost-effective option, consider right lights, which will give a “glow” to a single subject. And if you’re looking for more control over your lighting, Shadd recommends investing in a LED kit, which will offer dimming and color warmth options.
- Editing software: Editing tools are essential for any creator. Shadd recommends Adobe Premiere Pro, because it is “straight-forward enough for novices to learn on, yet capable of satisfying the complex technical needs of professional projects.” (It’s also the industry standard.) For those who are brand-new to editing, and want to learn the basics before committing to paid software, Shadd says that iMovie is the perfect, free resource for creators just starting out.
All that said, a lack of equipment shouldn’t stop you from creating. “If you’re overwhelmed by the countless (and usually expensive) gear options, just grab your phone and get to work,” filmmaker Jenn Shadd advises. “The content part of your work will be the foundation of your success.”
Consistency is the key to success when it comes to your YouTube posting schedule. “If your goal is channel growth, create a schedule for your content,” says Dean. “Decide whether you’ll publish weekly, bi-weekly, etc. and what days you’ll publish. Viewers like structure and will be more likely to subscribe if they know how often they’ll be getting a video.”
You’ll need to use tools both on and off the platform to promote your YouTube channel. YouTube allows you to create playlists and trailers—plus, it provides creators with analytics to see how their content is faring. And don’t forget the power of other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to promote your YouTube channel by driving traffic and subscribers to your page.
Once you’ve established your channel and claimed your niche, social media expert Heidi Dean recommends a few different ways to promote your YouTube videos:
- Create a trailer that will autoplay for people who are not already subscribed to your channel. Dean says trailers work best when they are “short, exciting, and end with a call to action to subscribe.”
- Think about titles in terms of what people will actually type into YouTube to search for content. “Pro tip: only the first 45 characters of your title are viewable in search,” Dean says.
- Thumbnails are also an important tool for promotion. Dean says they serve as “a mini movie poster for your content.” She recommends using “bright, high-resolution, compelling thumbnails overlaid with the title of your video” to help your video stand out from the crowd.
- Use YouTube’s Audience Retention Graphs in YouTube Analytics to understand the habits of your viewers. “People could be clicking away from your video at the same time,” Dean says. “Maybe your intro is too long or maybe your video is too long and many people leave after five minutes.”
- Create branded watermarks for your YouTube videos, which will allow viewers to subscribe with one click.
- Add a subscribe link—an automated pop-up that will allow viewers to subscribe, which Dean calls “the secret sauce for increasing subscribers” on YouTube.
Making money on YouTube isn’t as simple as uploading a video and then cashing the check. How much YouTubers get paid varies depending on several key factors, such as their subscriber count, the number of views their videos receive, and non-YouTube sources like sponsorship and affiliate links.
The most straightforward (although not necessarily the most lucrative) way to make money from YouTube is through ads. To earn money as a YouTuber, you must be accepted into the YouTube Partner Program. The requirements include a minimum of 1,000 channel subscribers and at least 4,000 watch hours in the past 12 months.
With AdSense, YouTubers earn an average of $0.18 per view—but creators with higher subscriber counts generally make more money. Forbes has estimated that the most popular YouTubers make approximately $5 for every 1,000 video views, meaning that a video viewed 1 million times would earn around $5,000.
Increasingly, content creators are turning to other platforms to help increase their revenue stream. The top ways YouTubers make money outside of AdSense are:
- Affiliate links: By endorsing specific products in posts through affiliate links, YouTubers can receive a percentage of the sale if the viewer makes a purchase.
- Merchandise: The more popular your channel becomes, the more likely it is that your fans will buy branded posters, shirts, phone cases, and more.
- Brand ads: Sponsorships are a common way for YouTubers to earn money. They partner directly with brands to call out their products during their videos.
Patreon, a platform where fans can pledge a monthly amount in exchange for exclusive content, has also become a go-to place for YouTubers. Many people think that “YouTube is a great place to make money and make a career,” say sisters Hilly and Hannah Hindi, the creators of popular YouTube channel “The Hillywood Show.” But for their resource-intensive videos, YouTube’s 45% cut of creator earnings made it difficult to break even. “Many YouTubers—like ourselves—have turned to a few other platforms for help and we’re blessed to say that ‘The Hillywood Show’ is completely fan-funded” through Patreon, they told Backstage. “There is no sponsor or company behind us and we do not rely on YouTube for earnings.”
If you are looking to launch your acting career on YouTube, it all comes down to branding and professionalism. YouTube is a great platform for promoting your demo reel, individual clips from projects, or entire web series online. But YouTube shouldn’t be your only platform as an aspiring actor––think of it as just one of the many tools in your toolbox to help your career.
Many actors who’ve found success on YouTube eventually moved on to wider-reaching platforms like Netflix, cable and network TV series, and mainstream films. For instance, Arif Zahir started his career by making YouTube videos, most notably impersonating Cleveland Brown from “Family Guy.” When the original cast member Mike Henry stepped down from the show, Zahir was able to leverage his social media following and YouTube presence to land an audition—and eventually the role of Cleveland.
The rise of web series has proven YouTube to be a fertile ground for emerging filmmakers, allowing creators to step outside the mainstream production model and produce work that reflects their unique sensibilities without spending a fortune.
Creator Bernie Su found an audience—and a Primetime Emmy—with her web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” on YouTube. She says that working on YouTube not only helped get her noticed as a creator, but taught her valuable lessons that she’s carried on into her career as a filmmaker. “Just because you put your heart and soul or even lots of money into something doesn’t make it a hit, or even necessarily good,” Su says. “My advice is to build momentum for your career. Make something, play out the run, move on, make something better. With the current project, think about the goal.”
Philip Wang and his partners, Wesley Chan and Ted Fu, have built an entire career from the ground up, starting with internet videos and YouTube content. They now run Wong Fu Productions, and have made waves with the Netflix films and YouTube-hosted series. “On Netflix, you can give something 30 minutes and decide whether you like it or not,” Wang says of the differences between the platforms. “But on YouTube, you’re not even giving it 15 minutes before you decide to click away. You need a hook to catch the audience right away.”
For aspiring filmmakers on YouTube, Wang says it’s all about putting in the work. “Practice makes perfect. That’s what’s great about YouTube. If you have an idea, you don’t have to wait for a huge budget. We made hundreds of sketches and shorts, and that’s what prepared us to work with a huge budget and hundreds [of people] on a crew. Consistency is key.”
Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.