Scott Mitchell was convinced that YouTube would make him rich.
Mr Mitchell, 33, got the idea last year from videos promoting courses on building cash cow channels, often created through a process called YouTube automation.
So he bought a course, and then another, and another. He also paid for mentoring services. Mr. Mitchell spent around $15,000 on his YouTube project and encountered stumbling blocks at every stage — courses that taught him little, freelancers who stole content, and audience growth tactics that got him into trouble with YouTube brought.
“I tried three courses and one expert on the side, and all I got was an empty wallet,” said Mr. Mitchell.
YouTube automation has created a cottage industry of online influencers offering tutorials and quick bucks. But as is often the case with promises of quick fortunes in online businesses, the YouTube automation process can be a money pit for aspiring internet entrepreneurs and a magnet for posers selling unhelpful services.
Finding a video that fits the YouTube automation model isn’t difficult, although it’s hard to say how many of these were created. They usually have an invisible narrator and a catchy headline. They share news, explain a topic or offer a top 10 list of celebrities or athletes. They often collect material such as video clips and photos from other sources. Sometimes they get into trouble with copyright regulations.
The term “YouTube automation” is a bit misleading. It usually means outsourcing work to freelancers rather than relying on an automated process. It’s hardly a new idea, and yet one that has grown in popularity in recent times. Distributing work allows employees to run multiple channels without the time-consuming tasks of writing scripts, recording voiceovers, or editing videos. And the process is often touted as a foolproof way to make money. All you need to get started is money – for how-to courses and video producers.
The courses direct people to find video themes viewers crave. They are said to be hiring freelancers from online marketplaces where independent contractors like Fiverr and Upwork offer to manage their channels and produce videos ranging from $30 to over $100 depending on the freelancer’s plan. And that’s where a lot of people get into trouble.
Cash cow channels with large audiences can rake in tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue per month, while unpopular channels can’t make anything. YouTube shares ad revenue with a channel owner after a channel reaches 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of viewer time. Monetized channels get 55 percent of the money their videos generate — that is, if they manage to garner that much interest. YouTube declined to comment on the automation process.
Last summer, Mr. Mitchell paid $500 for a course called “Tube Mastery and Monetization” taught by Matt Par, who said he was making $30,000 a month on YouTube. He said successful students made $20,000 a month.
The course included videos on various aspects of YouTube automation, including choosing the most lucrative topics, outsourcing work, and using keywords to make videos easier to find on YouTube. Mr. Par also explained how YouTube’s algorithms worked.
But Mr Mitchell said the course has gaps – a lack of information on how to create high-quality videos with good scripts. He and other students also complained in a private Facebook group that Mr. Par’s course content was available for free on his YouTube page.
“It’s basically selling dreams,” said Mr. Mitchell. Mr Par did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Mitchell, who asked The New York Times not to reveal where he lives, launched his first channel, Bounty Lux, about wealth and celebrity last fall. He paid a freelancer he found on Fiverr $2,000 for 20 videos. YouTube removed one of these videos about Dwayne Johnson, which contained content stolen from another channel, leading to a dispute with the freelancer. Bounty Lux wasn’t making any money and was fighting for viewers, so Mr. Mitchell gave it up.
He later bought a $1,500 course and spent more than $3,000 learning from an influencer at Pivotal Media, Victor Catrina. He paid an additional $3,000 for Mr. Catrina’s team to make videos, but he said the ideas and scripts were borrowed from other channels.
After his freelancer went missing for five days, Mr. Mitchell decided to stop investing in the profitless channel. Mr. Catrina said that if he ever spotted one of his teams paraphrasing other people’s scripts, he would replace them.
“I’m far from perfect, and neither is the program,” said Mr. Catrina. “And I’ve openly and happily sent refunds to those who were either struggling financially or felt the program wasn’t up to their standards.”
Alexandra Fasulo of Fort Myers, Florida, and her cousin spent $20,000 on a Caleb Boxx YouTube automation program in March 2021. In return, Mr Boxx’s team managed a celebrity channel for Ms Fasulo, 29, and produced videos for more than six months. But there were quality issues, she said, and the videos failed to captivate many viewers. Mr Boxx did not respond to a request for comment. The channel was making less than $10 a day, so she dropped it when it came time to pay for a new batch of videos.
“That’s why it’s not worth automating — you’re investing a lot of money up front,” Ms. Fasulo said.
Dave Nick, a Serbian YouTuber whose real name is Dejan Nikolic, has been promoting YouTube automation since 2019. Mr Nikolic, 20, appears on camera on three channels and said he has four channels of invisible speakers and 12 on YouTube Shorts, a quick-clip competitor to TikTok.
Mr. Nikolic said he earned $1.4 million in 2021, including from his own instructional classes and services, and has already raised $1 million this year. The key was his $995 course, which accounted for 70 percent of his income.
“Not many people have made more than a few million a year with YouTube automation,” he said. Online business services are “how to get eight digit numbers”.
He said some of his students made five figures a month on YouTube, but he wasn’t sure how many.
Mr. Nikolic’s YouTube videos show how much money he has made and how much viewers can expect to make themselves. Travel destinations, a Rolex and Porsches as well as passages about building a YouTube business can be found on his Instagram account. But Mr Nikolic said his life is “not just glamorous”.
“I spend almost 15 hours a day on my computer,” he said.
One key to making money off automated YouTube videos is feeding the internet’s obsession with Elon Musk, the tech billionaire.
Jelline Brands from Urk, Netherlands launched the Elon Musk Rewind channel last fall. Some of its content is false, such as a recent video proclaiming the launch of a Tesla smartphone. Still, Ms. Brands said she’s made $250,000 since starting. (The Times couldn’t verify the number.) Her channel featured news, rumors, and speculation about upcoming Tesla products.
She also offers an instructional course, and many students in her class have also started Musk channels, although she asked them not to. She even competes with her sister, who has a channel dedicated to the billionaire.
The business model “is going downhill because the competition is so tough,” said Noah Morris, trainer for Ms Brands’ course, Cash Cow Academy Netherlands.
Ms. Brands began offering classes in December 2020, months after paying $1,000 for a YouTube tutorial she later learned was only a four-page document. She had 1,700 students, most of whom paid €1,000 for her course, she said. Between 100 and 200 of them told her they make money on YouTube.
“I love my job,” she said. “I don’t even consider it work. It’s like a hobby for me. It’s like a game.”
Still, she’s not immune to the vagaries of YouTube’s algorithms. She said her Musk channel was making €7,500 a month, compared to €50,000, or about $50,000, in November. Her former students have also experienced a drop in income, she said. Recently she created 16 channels in a single week to stabilize her business.
The challenging landscape has even prompted some of Ms Brand’s students to offer their own courses.
Youri van Hofwegen, a 21-year-old Dutch YouTuber known online as Youri Automation, said some people have unrealistic expectations of YouTube’s success.
“They want to pay $200 and make $20,000 by next week,” he said. “There is no secret magical strategy. It’s just a matter of putting the work into it.”
The courses gave Mr. Mitchell problems. A freelancer in a guru’s Facebook group told him to buy monetizing channels from a company that was accumulating fake viewers from bots. Mr. Mitchell gave the freelancer $5,000 to produce around 60 videos about crypto and making money online.
YouTube quickly deprived one of the channels of the opportunity to make money. The other struggled to find an audience for months before someone uploaded three pirated videos. YouTube deleted the channel for copyright infringement. The freelancer claimed someone else posted the videos in an act of sabotage.
But Mr. Mitchell was still considering a loan to buy a $30,000 YouTube channel.
“It’s my ultimate strategy,” he said. “I just need a little more time.” And Mr. Mitchell can offer his own course or manual if he figures out what to teach.