YouTube: Beauty Channels
The YouTube website was launched in December of 2005. Beauty-related content can be traced back to the earliest days of YouTube. However, most view Michelle Phan as one of the pioneers of beauty-related content on YouTube. She posted her first makeup tutorial in May 2007. Since then, the popularity of beauty channels has grown exponentially. By 2018 there were approximately 169 billion views that year for beauty-related content on YouTube (Statista). The dominance that beauty videos had was likely attributed to how early they populated in YouTube’s history.
Although, the notion of “influencers” predate the creation of YouTube, YouTube had become one of the most profound platforms for launching internet influencers and celebrities. Homemade content could never be searched through more easily, paving the way for similar apps such as Vine and TikTok. Additionally, the branding and marketing beauty gurus involve themselves in has shaped the modern-day influencer culture and branding.
The beauty genre on YouTube consists of a wide range of content including the following types of videos:
- Makeup tutorials
- Get ready with me
- Makeup Collection
- A day in my life
- Lifestyle videos
The makers of these videos are correspondingly referred to as “Beauty Gurus,” who are seen as mentors and guides of the beauty world.
The Beauty Channels of YouTube will be analyzed using each aspect of the Circuit of Culture to better understand the implications of the success of beauty gurus and the development of modern-day internet influencers and the meaning that viewers have derived through these channels.
Part of the appeal of YouTube is that anyone can be a content creator. Only a camera and editing software is needed to create a video. As was the personal camera technology at the time, the early days of YouTube were far less saturated and lower in quality. However, that did not deter viewers. Michelle Phan’s “Barbie Transformation Tutorial,” which was posted in 2009 is her most viewed video. The ambiance seems rather drab to garner 68 million views, especially given that she is seated on her carpet floor, but the appeal is palpable. The low quality production demonstrates that the appeal is in how she provides viewers with an intimate and authentic look into her experience. Unlike, high-production TV or films, YouTubers, lacked the filter and rigidity of their commercial predecessors. The appeal in the production was brought out by the naturalistic approach to videos. In contrast, one of Jeffree Star’s most popular videos, “My Pink VAULT Closet Tour,” posted 10 years later in 2019, may be highly saturated and glamorously filled with designer products, but it still offers the same intimate view – a deep-dive into his personal closet as he candidly speaks to the camera.
Whether views were driven by the content itself, the vicarious experience, or the voyeuristic tendencies of viewers, users were hooked on beauty content. Beauty YouTubers both fed and fabricated the community that ensued from their channels. The consumption of these videos were not limited to merely watching. YouTubers would actively engage with their fans by replying to comments, posing questions in their videos for viewers to answer, asking viewers to post Instagram photos using their hashtag, hosting meet and greets, and other ways that engaged fans beyond watching.
Consumption was taken beyond the virtual sphere and brought to life through meet and greets and events like BeautyCon, an annual conference started in 2014 that would bring together the world of fans, beauty gurus ,and professionals.
Loyal fans follow the regularly uploaded content of YouTubers, possibly for years. Naturally, some viewers would develop para-social relationships with YouTubers, a psychological phenomenon in which an audience will develop a deep, meaningful, but one-sided relationship with a media persona. Lou & Kim (2019) explored this phenomenon and found that the perceived para-social relationship that adolescents have with influencers is positively associated with the attractiveness, trustworthiness, and perceived similarity of the influencer. The perceived relationship also has an effect on adolescents’ materialistic views and purchase intentions.
The para-social relationship that is developed through the consumption of these videos is beneficial on the side of the beauty gurus in maintaining hooked subscribers, but is capitalized on by the brands that partner with these YouTubers. A study conducted by Google showed that “collaborations with YouTube creators are four times more effective at driving lift in brand familiarity than those with celebrities” (think with Google). Additionally, it has also been shown that in 2013, 4 out of 10 people who watch a haul ended up visiting the store mentioned, either virtually or physically (NPR).
The interplay of Production and Consumption reveals the Identity that was established between viewers and the beauty content they consumed. The identity of the beauty community was further driven by the immersive experiences that beauty gurus eventually created.
Beyond video content, as YouTubers gained fame, several went on to pursue other ventures that would further envelop fans into their contrived universe. Several beauty gurus went on to launch clothing lines and makeup collections, write books, or release other products that can be interacted with outside of their videos. Their influence is evidently profound; Michelle Phan’s business, Ipsy, which was founded in 2012, came to be valued at over $500 million by 2015 (Forbes). This not only created an identity for the community to be a player in this immersive world, but also created a new identity for YouTubers. The creation of products outside of their videos evolved the identity of YouTubers from content creators into influencers and business owners because the reach of their scope extended beyond YouTube. How these YouTubers were able to leverage their following generated on YouTube to build businesses is explored by Mardon et al. (2018) who claim that the “tribal style of entrepreneurship” that beauty gurus on YouTube have created thrives off of the emotional bonds with their viewers. Although it may seem transgressive for YouTubers to capitalize on the emotional bonds they have with their viewers, the researchers argue that the tribal-like identity of viewers leads to a role with challenging emotional management for YouTubers in order to appease the relationship they have developed.
The success of beauty Youtubers represented a shift in modern day marketing and celebrity culture that thrives off of the emotional bonds that influencers form with their audience.
For brands, YouTube beauty gurus were the prime target for brand partnerships. Previously, few other genres on YouTube had both the popularity and style of content that could naturally be paired with brand partnerships. This phenomenon opened the door to a new medium of marketing that extended beyond cosmetic and beauty companies for other genres of YouTube and social media. The prioritization of influencers on marketing is significant for companies. In a 2019 report by eMarketer stated that approximately 31% of chief marketing officers said they were increasing their focus on influencers. It was predicted that brands will spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022 (Forbes). The seismic reallocation of funds toward influencer marketing reaps benefits for the influencer. One of the most popular beauty gurus, Jeffree Star, was estimated to make an income of $18 million in 2018 (CBS).
The ability for ordinary individuals to rapidly gain fame and wealth represented a new opportunity to achieve status on the internet. When surveyed, 86% of Gen Z and millennials said that they would post sponsored content for money, and 54% wanted to be an influencer if given the opportunity (CNBC).
The monopoly that YouTube maintained during the 2010s offered an outlet for anyone to become viral. No status or prior fame was necessary for gaining the status comparable to the traditional concept of a celebrity. This meritocratic approach to becoming famous is now pursued through other platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, which were released in 2010 and 2016 respectively.
Beyond brand partnerships and product placements, YouTube provides compensation to creators through AdSense. On average, YouTubers will make $0.18 per view (Mint). The policies around video monetization on YouTube have been increasingly demarcated as YouTube has gained more traction. Current YouTube monetization policies state that violation of any one of their policies, such as harmful content, harassment, hate speech, sexual content, etc., will result in the removal of ads from content, suspension of participation in the YouTube Partner Program, or suspension of a YouTube channel. YouTube maintains tight enforcement on these policies. James Charles, despite being one of the most popular beauty influencers, had his channel temporarily demonetized in April 2021 over sending sexually explicit messages to 16-year-old boys. This demonstrated that the YouTube policies will uphold even if the behavior is exhibited outside the scope of a video.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has guidelines that social media influencers must obey when partnering with brands and showing advertisements. The FTC states that “Influencers must clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media”. In 2017, the FTC even personally sent out letters to 90 influencers reminding them to disclose relationships to brands.
The success of beauty gurus on YouTube relied on the strong emotional bonds they developed with their audience. This phenomenon helped to shape the path of modern-day influencers and their relationship with their audience. The commercialization of influencers signaled a shift in the marketing strategies of businesses in the age of the internet, who would start to prioritize social media and influencer branding. Ultimately, the creators, the audience, and the business partners involved all derived their own meaning through the intimate experience created by these content makers.
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