Paid Content - YouTube, Substack and Influencers

Today I decided to watch a vlog whilst eating my lunch. The vlog I watched was around about thirty minutes long (I didn’t get a chance to finish it) and to me, was completely free. Except for the ‘paid for advertorial’ around seven minutes in. The advertorial was in partnership with Farfetch which meant I watched as the influencer help up her latest Autumn purchases and then showed them in situ. Which in this context meant, her wearing them. This was not my first vlog of the day. The first I watched was around 11 minutes long contained no sponsored content whatsoever. I then watched one after this (so my second of the day) which was about 12 minutes and contained 1-2 minutes of the influencer wearing Crocs.  

The purpose of this introduction is not to tell you that I watched three vlogs today or that these equated to being just under an hour but that I was able to watch this well-filmed, strategically edited content, for free. Some TV shows don’t even go for half an hour!

There is of course the hidden cost that comes with free content. I obviously have to sit through ads on YouTube and the integrated advertising that happens on the site. Though, I don’t mind this. Most of it is stuff I am not opposed to hearing about I understand that this is the exchange. Why I don’t have a YouTube account is beyond me because it’s probably my favourite platform and, as we have seen from today’s example, I watch a lot of it.

I digress, we were talking about hidden costs.

The other exchange which we make for free content is our data. Our information that can in fact be commodified and then used to sell us shit or be presented to marketing companies so influencers can claim that they’ll be able to sell us shit. You don’t see it so much these days, but when influencers first became a thing, it was commonplace to see comments on Instagram posts and under YouTube videos that asked this person what they did all day. ‘This!’ I wanted to scream, and every time you watch, like or comment, it becomes more lucrative I would’ve explained further, if I had engaged in the conversation. Sometimes I can’t believe how much free content is pumped out for us to consume in two seconds. A photoshoot that takes them all afternoon we flick through in a second, and tap on it twice, if we can be bothered.

The reason I have become preoccupied with the cost of content, is due to Substack. The platform on which this very newsletter is distributed. I am still learning what the payment model on Substack looks like but in short it seems to me you can have two lots of subscribers. Those who pay and who get access to all the content you produce, and those who don’t. This may mean that they get access to some of the newsletters but not all. All the newsletters but not the audio etc. It all seems very straightforward and was brought to my attention when Tim Burrowes, the founder of Mumbrella, author of Media Unmade and the newsletter of the same name announced he was turning on paid subscriptions.

Now, let me backtrack a little here. Substack was founded in 2017, so a fairly new player on the scene but the internet moves very quickly, so even though Substack is three in human years, it could be 94 in internet years. I am not sure the exact math. Its main function is to provide a platform for subscription newsletters. It claims to do some other things, but I don’t understand what they are. Anyway, let’s go back to last year and my real introduction to Substack. My most favourite writer, Anne Helen Petersen announced that she was leaving Buzzfeed to create a newsletter on Substack, Culture Study. I signed up straight away. There was an option to be a paid subscriber that allowed you access to the discussion forum and more articles. I entered my card details. From what I understand, Petersen had made a deal with Substack equal to her fulltime salary. I have in my head this was a twelve-month deal which basically meant it was quite risk free for Petersen and had promise to grow into something more depending on the subscriber base.

Now, I currently pay for two newsletters, Culture Study as mentioned above and Gossip Time, home of some of the wittiest celeb/gossip articles I have ever read. Witty is my kryptonite. I am a subscriber of almost twenty newsletters. The rest, I do not pay for.

I am not sure if you take on paid subscribers you are in a partnership deal with Substack like Petersen of you are simply getting paid for your work. So now we are up to date with the whole paid Substack thing I want to take it back to Tim Burrowes, who, as I previously mentioned announced (on the 29th of September to be exact) that his newsletter was taking on paid subscribers. Burrowes email said that he has been talking to Substack and now has access to support and resources provided by Substack.

Before I go on any further, I would like to say I am a big supporter of paid content. I didn’t understand the purpose of it in the digital space for a long time. Part of me thinks it has got to do with my generation and the thought that everything has to be a slog. The idea that you could get paid for your work on such a platform goes against this. The other thing is, there is no way to say this without sounding like a bit of an idiot, Tim Burrowes subscribes to this very newsletter! So, if he is reading I don’t want him to think I am against his work (Hi Tim!), what subscribing to Tim’s newsletter from the beginning has given me, is a front seat look at a newsletter with quick growth and the decisions that come with it. This is a fact which takes me back to my beloved YouTubers.

One of the most frustrating things about the platform, and perhaps the influencer industry in general, is the smoke and mirrors which surrounds the work. This often makes it seem like its not work. So, they’re pretending everything is effortless, even though they often have one, two or three people working with them (plus management) and we are like, ‘Wow this is so effortless, it mustn’t be very hard why do they get so much money for holding beauty products up to a camera?!’

Substack, or should I say the people using the platform are very transparent about how it all works and the notion of being paid for the content they create. A very different approach to influencers, a largely female driven industry, who often hide the paid element for fear of I don’t know what. This has led to many policies having to be created after the fact in order to clear up what is in fact #spon #partner or whatever other bullshit hashtag has been devised to show that yes, they are actually getting paid for this picture or whatever.

I enjoy this behind the scenes look at the media and content creation. This is for a few reasons, firstly, as some of you may know, my Honors research was on influencers and the relationships they build with businesses and audiences to sell products. So, this stuff is in my blood. Secondly, as someone who is writing (and trying to make something of that writing) on the side of a full-time job I appreciate the transparency about the slog that can come with this work.

Recently I was watching one of my favourite YouTuber’s, a 21-year-old college graduate from Pennsylvania. My boyfriend walked in and asked me what I had in common with this person, largely because she was so much younger than I was, still in school and living at home. Besides the fact she and I share a love for stationery, she’s a person who is working on lots of different things, working out what she wants and talks about how confusing and hard it can be. Much more relatable than watching people go to events where they get given more jewellery in an afternoon then I will have in my lifetime. And I’m sure businesses partnering up with her know it too.

Update: Substack are now doing a Writer in Residency series. Just want to put that out there because it’s interesting.