Making money from YouTube videos — it's something I've always wondered about. You won't get rich stuffing Mentos into bottles of Diet Pepsi, right?
Probably not. But millions of people are at least hoping for some modest returns, thanks to a profit-sharing program run by YouTube's corporate parent, tech heavyweight Google.
They're also trying to figure out how the system works — and if they're getting honest numbers about how much money they're due.
"There's really no way to know for sure," said Andrew Broadbent, a Santa Cruz Internet consultant who specializes in helping clients with YouTube videos. "You just have to believe YouTube that the figures are the real deal."
He added that serious money — more than $100,000 a year — actually can be made for the talented (or lucky) few who rise to YouTube greatness. But the vast majority of the site's hundreds of millions of users will barely earn enough cash annually to buy a pizza.
Glendale resident Kim Robillard is one of those who dreams of being a YouTube star. His video channel, Ricketts Reviews, features Robillard and a friend, Lorna Scott, doing comedy bits and movie reviews in the guise of "Ray and Brenda Ricketts," a hick couple from the sticks.
But Robillard and Scott aren't just goofing around. They're both established Hollywood character actors with long lists of movie and TV credits. Robillard, for instance, was in"Rain Man"and on"CSI."Scott was in"Wanted"and on "True Blood."
They came up with the shtick for Ray and Brenda last year and started posting their videos on YouTube.
"The great thing about YouTube is that you can create your own television show," Robillard told me. "And you don't need a TV studio to do it."
You do need some basic resources, though: a video camera, lights, some set design, a camera operator. Robillard estimates each video costs him about $80 to produce.
He signed up this year for YouTube's "partner program," which allows users to make money from their videos. In return for permission to run ads before and during your video, YouTube cuts you in for a share of the profit.
How much profit? That's where things get a little squirrelly.
Robillard said his partner account offers a running estimate of annual earnings, which changes from day to day. Never once, he said, has it estimated that the Ricketts Reviews channel will pull in more than $9 for the entire year.
As it happens, Google sets a $10 threshold in the United States for receiving money. If your annual earnings don't top $10, you don't get a check.
"Ads are running with nearly every one of our videos," Robillard said. "But we just can't get past $10."
He said he tried to get more info about the partner program online, but kept hitting dead ends. He wanted to call YouTube, but no phone number is given for customer service. He sent an email. No one at YouTube responded.
This jibes with my column last week on the impossibility of getting anyone on the phone if you have a problem with Google. The company, like other leading tech firms, takes a hide-and-seek approach to customer service, preferring that disgruntled users take their gripes online rather than speak with a human being.
I'd love to say journalists get preferential treatment, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. While I was able to get a couple of YouTube representatives on the phone, they insisted on speaking anonymously. And even then they weren't keen on detailing how the site's money-making process works.
For example, the company reps declined to spell out how YouTube determines the amount of revenue a particular video earns. There are apparently a number of factors considered.
Nor would they detail how many views a video typically has to receive before it surpasses the $10 threshold, even though YouTube and Google are obsessive in their measurement and parsing of every last piece of data.
A YouTube spokesman, Jacques Hebert, said that "helping partners of YouTube is one of our top priorities."
He said there are many programs available to assist YouTube users in their money-making endeavors.
"Anyone who wants to work hard has an opportunity to be successful on YouTube," Hebert said.
That's undoubtedly true, as is YouTube's claim that an ever-growing number of users are making decent cash through their videos. This month, Google pledged to spend $200 million promoting its YouTube content.
But I feel Robillard's frustration. It's tough dealing with a company that doesn't seem to want to deal with you.
It's also tough trying to turn a buck when you're not privy to basic information, such as how earnings are determined.
"It's complicated" isn't a very good explanation.
Neither is "trust us."
YouTube is an awesome site. Really. But it leaves something to be desired as a business partner.