Deepanshi Jain, a young woman in her early twenties, has a YouTube channel that has amassed over 100,000 subscribers. And it all started with the Covid-19 lockdown, when she found herself wondering what to do with the time that hung heavy on her hands.
Figuring that there could be others battling the same dilemma, Jain started a YouTube channel with a simple theme: What do you do--what can you do--when you are stuck at home?
The content gained immediate traction. “My channel was monetised within two months,” Jain says. “My videos went viral during Covid. Within two months, I got 6,000 subscribers.” She quit her job and devoted all her time to content creation.
Jain exemplifies a study, published in 2022, by Oxford Economics which found that the ever-growing numbers of creative entrepreneurs on YouTube contributed over Rs 10,000 crore to India’s Gross Domestic Product in 2021. The study, fielded in eight Indian languages, also found that the platform supported an equivalent of 750,000 full-time jobs.
The study shows that unlike the much-talked-about internet-based startups that originate in the metros and big cities, content creators are emerging from every nook and corner of the country. Jain hails from the tier-2 city of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh; her YouTube channel Chillbee has allowed her to tap into her creativity and become financially independent.
During the lockdown, social media became the default destination for many who--deprived of the solace of face-to-face human interaction--went online to find the next best alternative. And the numbers are sufficient to create scale: As per the quarterly update published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in May 2023, India had nearly 840 million internet subscribers, including wired and mobile phone users, as of February 2023.
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Simultaneously, the India Cellular & Electronics Association, apex industry body for the mobile and electronics sector, cites private data website Statista, to project that the number of social network users in the country would reach approximately 448 million by 2023.
Alongside internet access, the increasing affordability of smartphones has also fuelled the content creation economy. Dinesh Singh, who belongs to Bagru village in Rajasthan’s Jaipur district, primarily uses his smartphone to curate videos for his channel, Trends World.
“I started my channel in 2017 and to date, I only use my smartphone to record videos and upload them with some basic editing,” he says. Dinesh Singh has 1.71 million subscribers--more than the population of Bahrain--on his channel, which is devoted to innovation, science, and technology. He refers to himself as an “underground YouTuber”, a term for those who do not face the camera, and whose content depends on voiceovers.
Dinesh Singh, like Jain, is the personification of a trend. As per Deloitte’s 2022 predictions, India will have a billion smartphone users by 2026. Much of this growth is expected to be driven by the country's rural population, since smartphone penetration in the urban population has reached its saturation point.
Being one’s boss
While revenue generation opportunities are available on almost all established platforms in the social media realm, YouTube is the most enticing option for the likes of Jain, Dinesh Singh and their ilk. One reason is the abundant opportunities for content monetisation, as creators have multiple avenues to generate revenue. In addition, the massive audience on YouTube is a spur for youngsters considering a career in content creation.
Kiruba Shankar, a digital entrepreneur running a website development firm named F5ive Technologies, and columnist for business publications, says “Monetisation is one of the biggest driving forces behind youngsters turning towards content creation. YouTube in particular, and social media in general, have brought about a revolution because it is the antithesis of traditional media platforms, where opportunities are open only to a select few. Hence, these young creative entrepreneurs enjoy being their own bosses and want to run their own entrepreneurial venture.”
Jain, who in her pre-YouTube days had done her MBA and was holding down a job, says that initially, she started monetising her content via barter collaborations with makeup and beauty brands, where she promoted their products and got paid for doing so. In some cases, Jain got in touch with the brands on her own while in some others, agencies reached out with sponsorship offers on behalf of brands. In this ecosystem, companies looking to promote specific products approach agencies who, in turn, contact influencers in that field.
Once her channel began to grow, Jain found more opportunities opening up. She expanded her sources of income via YouTube memberships; she gave paid private classes for subscribers who want to learn how to grow their own YouTube channels. Another interesting revenue stream that Jain experimented with is the ‘Super Chat’ option, which appears when a creator goes live on YouTube. The viewers' comments are visible for a short time, but if a viewer pays a certain amount, his or her comments get a longer shelf life. Youtube says 70% of the revenue YouTube generates via this option goes to the content creator.
Jain is working on adding merchandising to her revenue streams this year--a method popular with YouTubers who make good money creating and selling branded (or customised) merchandise to their fans. This could span the spectrum from T-shirts, hats, phone cases and stickers to pretty much any product that can be sold.
Dinesh Singh, like Jain, is intrigued by the numerous revenue streams that have opened up to people like him. "I have earned around Rs 94 lakh ($115,000) to date just from AdSense,” he says. Adsense is a programme that allows content creators on YouTube to monetise their videos by showing advertisements, either before or during the video, with the creator earning a percentage of the revenue.
Besides AdSense and brand collaborations, says Dinesh Singh, creators can sell YouTube channels to individuals or to companies--at which point the channel is owned by the company, and you get paid to create content for it.
The two major ways in which channels promote brands are by making dedicated or integrated videos. Integrated videos are where the creator dedicates a minute, in the main video, to talking of the product that is sponsoring the show; dedicated videos on the other hand are where the entire video is about a sponsored product.
Dinesh Singh's first sponsorship was with Motilal Oswal, a financial services company that paid him Rs 35,000 for a one-minute video integration. He also earned around Rs 70,000 from YouTube affiliate marketing, the commission amount earned when a customer buys a product or service after learning about it from the concerned YouTuber.
What content goes viral?
While every form of content finds an audience, however niche, the genres that attract viewers in numbers include beauty, lifestyle, technology and education. This is a double-edged sword--while creators benefit from knowing what forms of content go viral, the flip side is that such genres attract creators in thousands, which makes standing out from the crowd a daunting task. In this situation, those who got in early have tapped into the first-mover advantage and now enjoy the benefits accruing from a loyal and growing audience base.
Devesh Mishra, a 23-year-old who hails from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, owns a YouTube channel named Kissa Kahani. He started his channel in 2018 and publishes a mix of poetical and political content. “Hitting it big on YouTube is like fishing in a crowded pond; only the lucky ones get a bite,” he says.
As per Mishra, the key to making it big on YouTube is to curate unique content offered from a fresh perspective. With millions of videos on the platform, viewers are seeking anything that sticks out. "People want novelty; they don’t want the regular updates. If you want to create the same content that an already established YouTuber is creating, you have to find a way to stand out--otherwise, why would people watch you and not them? Thus, a new angle is required.“ The content that Mishra puts up seems to be working well for him so far. While he has only uploaded 12 videos to date, his subscriber base is already over 3,500.
Jain’s channel picked up the pace once she realised that people craved for information about activities they could undertake at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. But as the lockdown eased, she adapted and turned to evergreen subjects like beauty, lifestyle and more.
For Dinesh Singh, the channel was a way of showcasing technological hacks, innovative solutions, the-making-of videos of products and so on. Hacks, particularly, are always a big draw across genres.
In speaking to YouTubers, the consensus is that there is no surefire recipe for what will work and what will not--the trick, they say, is to keep experimenting and innovating, to tap into their own skills and convert that into content others find useful.
The digital divide persists, leaving many behind
While the success stories of the likes of Dinesh Singh and Jain sound exciting, the scenario is not entirely rosy.
Firstly, India has a high offline population. The digital divide, and the lack of digital literacy, mean that half the population of the most populous country in the world is neither able to consume content, nor create it. India’s latest National Family Health Survey had found that between 2019 and 2021, just one-third (33.3%) of women and 57.1% of men had ever used the internet.
The digital divide mirrors the socio-economic disparity within the country, in which the most marginalised group bears the brunt, according to the India Inequality report by Oxfam, an organisation whose work revolves around economic and gender justice. In other words, it is precisely that section of the population that finds regular employment hard to come by that is unable to benefit from these opportunities.
Suruwinder Singh is a 28-year-old YouTuber who started his channel, Infamous pajjji, in 2022. He belongs to a lower-middle-class family; his father is an auto-rickshaw driver. “I did not have a smartphone for a very long period of time,” he says. “I managed to get one after working in the retail sector two years back.”
Over time, he has come to realise the toughness of the job market. As per a monthly report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think-tank, the unemployment rate in India was more than 7% as of March 2023. Once this realisation set in, Suruwinder Singh decided that there was a paucity of job opportunities, and so decided to start his own YouTube channel which he hoped would earn him a living.
Almost a year after starting his channel, however, he has just 828 subscribers, the last we spoke to him. Several YouTubers confirm that a channel should have a minimum of 1,000 followers and 4,000 watch hours to be eligible for monetisation.
One reason his channel is not growing quickly, says Suruwinder Singh, is that he is unable to upload fresh content with a fair degree of regularity, since he works a full-time job to help support his family.
The way forward
On the one hand, creators from remote corners of the country have found new avenues opening up at a time when traditional employment opportunities are drying up. On the other, every success story is balanced by the thousands who try, and fail, to make their content pay.
In 2020, seeing the explosive success of short-form video content on Tiktok and Instagram reels, YouTube launched YouTube Shorts. Its popularity owes to the decreasing retention period of the audience and to the fact that many consumers, particularly in the younger age bracket, prefer watching short videos that last a minute or less.
In a press release, Bain & Company, a global consultancy firm, said short-form video content will witness promising engagement in the future. It estimates that by 2025, about 650 million users will consume short-form videos in India.
While such videos gain considerable traction, they are harder to monetise because it is next to impossible to incorporate a sponsorship message into a video lasting just 60 seconds.
Meanwhile, as per a 2017 report by PageFair, an online analytics and advertising platform that helps websites deal with ad blocking, consumers increasingly use ad blockers or pay for premium subscriptions to avoid seeing ads on their content--which also diminishes the value of the channel for potential sponsors. This creates a conundrum where longer form videos become less valuable to sponsors, while short-form content has no real sponsorship potential.
Shankar believes that the next big driver of the content economy will be regional language content--which, he adds, puts enormous opportunities in the way of creators from smaller towns and villages. “Anyone from anywhere can upload content per their personal interest, and there’s always a micro audience for all kinds of content,” he points out.
The other opportunity lies in creating content that appeals even to consumers outside local geographies, as per Shankar. Content can be created in local languages and then subtitled for a wider audience; the reverse is equally true that content can be created in English and then subtitled to appeal to regional, small-town audiences. Dinesh Singh points out that a channel that has viewers from developed countries like the United States and Australia, and from countries like China, receives more revenue from AdSense than those channels whose viewers are only from India.
The content creation ecosystem in India has sufficient opportunities to entice people to view this as a viable alternative to regular employment; at the same time, YouTubers say the ecosystem forces creators onto a treadmill where they are constantly scrambling to stay ahead of the curve. What is indisputable, though, our reporting found, is that it has opened up potential avenues to young creators outside the major metros and big cities, who otherwise were starved for employment opportunities.