An Interview With Justine Mertz About Earning a Living Making Videos for YouTube

by Evan DeSimone

Like its corporate mothership, Google, YouTube generates revenue through ad dollars. Those pre-roll ads that run for five or 10 seconds before you can watch your cat video or student film generate billions of dollars annually. Though Google doesn’t break down its profits by division, estimates range from three to five billion dollars in 2013. YouTube, in an effort to incentivize the uploading of appealing content, shares a portion of those profits with users via its partnership program. This program allows creators of online video content to monetize their videos and share in a percentage of the ad revenue they generate.

In many cases these YouTube partners can turn creating videos posted online into a full-time career (partners are contractually prohibited from revealing what they earn, but a Wired article estimated that a partner generating two million views a month could earn upwards of $72,000 annually; in 2012, Howard Davies-Carr, the owner of the wildly popular clip “Charlie Bit My Finger” told The Financial Times that he’s made about $500K.). I spoke with Justine Mertz, a 28-year-old from New Jersey who earns a living entertaining over 200,000 subscribers with over 18 million views under the pseudonym JPMetz to find out more about the hustle of a professional YouTube creator.

When did you start with YouTube?

I started posting videos in 2008, and at that time it was strictly for fun. I still had a day job working in retail management and YouTube is something I would do for fun and to connect with my friends. At that time the partnership program was still very new and it wasn’t something that I gave much thought to.

When did you actually start earning money from your videos?

I didn’t start making money for about a year. At that time you had to apply to become a partner and meet different criteria. In 2009 when I became a YouTube partner you needed to have a certain number of subscribers and you needed to demonstrate that you could generate thousands of views on each video you uploaded. Even once I became a partner my first check was less than $100, it took time for me to build up a large enough subscriber base to actually earn a steady income. Today it’s possible for anyone to monetize their videos unless they upload something copyrighted.

How is your pay actually determined?

The money you make is determined by CPI (Cost Per Impression) which is basically the dollar amount you make for every 1,000 views. Everyone’s gets a different CPI depending on how many views they usually receive, total subscribers, how often they post, and a variety of other things. The CPI is calculated by YouTube and before I joined a network the rate would fluctuate. One of the benefits of being part of a network is that they can offer you a flat rate that doesn’t change.

Tell me more about your YouTube Network — that’s something I think a lot of people are unfamiliar with.

Networks are companies that work with content creators to help them develop their channels. They take a slice of your ad revenue, but in my case they give me a better CPM rate than I had when I was dealing with YouTube directly. I belong to a beauty and style-based Network called Stylehaul. There’s been a big push for creators to join networks and the larger your online following the more likely you are to be approached by multiple networks. The networks can then use your views and subscribers to help them attract advertisers. Networks also partner with brands to offer product endorsements sponsorships depending on the kind of content you create and those can help increase your income. They also provide guidance to help grow your channel and reach more viewers.

Are there any downsides?

I’m very happy with Stylehaul although I’ve heard some conflicting things about other networks. I have a lot of freedom in terms of the content I post. Other networks have more strict rules about how frequently you post and what sort of videos you create. In some cases joining a network can be more like having a traditional job. I’ve been fortunate.

You said content creator — is that the preferred term for someone who does this job?

I like to call myself a content creator. That’s the name that YouTube uses to describe us. YouTube itself has been going through a lot of changes lately, but right now that’s how I would describe myself. That platform is really changing though and I’m not sure what that will mean for me in the long term.

Can you elaborate on those changes and how they impact you?

Recently YouTube merged its comment system with Google+ (A Google-owned social networking site, an account on which is now required to post or comment on YouTube videos.) When that happened most creators saw a big drop in views and comments. They’ve also changed the way users view their subscriptions, putting videos recommended by YouTube front and center rather than videos from creators you’ve subscribed to. That makes subscriptions a lot less valuable. At the end of the day they’ve made it more difficult to view and interact and that’s resulted in a loss of views and therefore a loss of income from ads.

Do you feel like being a content creator is sustainable given these changes?

There was a time when YouTube was very interested in content creators and made a lot of effort to keep them happy and given them the support they needed. Recently, there’s been a shift and YouTube is no longer as interested in developing and assisting creators. I think this shift started when YouTube was first acquired by Google (in 2006), but it’s definitely accelerated in the last few years. I’m not sure what it will mean in the long run but with views going down across the board a lot of creators are depending more on brand deals and endorsements.

As an independent creator are you able to save retirement and if so how?

Let’s just say that I should be, and leave it at that. Obviously being self-employed means you’re responsible for your own health insurance as well as figuring out your own taxes. Setting aside enough to cover my taxes was a lesson I had to learn early on. It’s easy to underestimate what you’re going to owe when you can’t predict what you’re going to earn. When you’re working a traditional job you don’t need to worry about any of that, but when you’re self-employed it’s important to educate yourself.

How would you describe your YouTube career to a potential employer if you had to prepare a resume right now? Or would a portfolio be more appropriate?

That’s an interesting question. I think I could describe my work as creating content YouTube content for a beauty and style network. Practically speaking, a big part of what I’m doing is helping to spread the word about certain products that I believe in. I reach out to and partner with other companies to help promote products. A big part of the job is also marketing yourself and I think that those skills that would translate pretty well into a more traditional job if I ever decided to go that route.

How do you see your career potentially growing beyond YouTube? Is there a next step?

I absolutely see myself continuing on YouTube, however I can also see myself doing this kind of work for other companies. I’ve noticed more and more companies coming and brands coming to YouTube and posting content. It’s a huge platform so it makes sense for more businesses to be here getting their message out. I’ve also noticed that a lot of these companies do YouTube wrong. A lot of those videos could be cleaned up and polished into something that people would want to watch. YouTube is probably the toughest social network for brands to break into and I think I consulting might be an option for me while I continue my own YouTube career.

How have you benefited from being a content creator?

My favorite thing about it is the flexibility. I’m not held to any set schedule and I have total control over what kind of videos I post. Like I said, I’m in a beauty and style network but they’re very flexible and it allows me to upload when I really feel inspired and make my best content. When you work a traditional job you have to go to work regardless of how you feel. I can work when I want on what I want and that’s huge. I read a statistic once that 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs so if you’re honestly able to say that you like what you’re doing, if you post what you want and talk about what interests you then you’re one of a very lucky few.

Evan DeSimone is a full-time corporate sellout, aspiring carnival worker, and occasional internet scribbler. He tw(eats) his feelings here.