Scott Mitchell became convinced that YouTube would make him rich.
Mitchell, 33, got the idea last year of videos promoting courses on building so-called cash cow channels, which are often created through a process called YouTube automation.
So he bought one course, then another and another. He also paid for mentorship services. Mitchell spent about $15,000 on his YouTube venture and encountered stumbling blocks at every stage — courses that taught him little, freelancers who stole content, and Audience Growth Tactics which got him into trouble with YouTube.
“I tried three courses and one expert added, and all I got out of it was an empty wallet,” said Mr. mitchell.
YouTube automation has created a cottage industry with online influencers providing tutorials and opportunities for quick cash. But as is often the case with promises of quick-earned fortunes in online businesses, the YouTube automation process can be a money pit for aspiring internet entrepreneurs and a magnet for posers sell useless services.
It’s not hard to find a video that fits the YouTube automation model, although it’s hard to say how many were made. They usually have an invisible narrator and a catchy headline. They share news, explain a topic or offer a Top 10 list about celebrities or athletes. They often aggregate material such as video clips and photos from other sources. Sometimes they get into trouble with copyright rules.
The term “YouTube Automation” is a bit of a misnomer. 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 become more popular recently. By outsourcing work, people can use multiple channels without the time-consuming tasks of writing scripts, recording voiceovers, or editing video. And the process is often presented as a surefire way to make money. To get started, all you need is money – for instructional courses and video producers.
The courses teach people to find video topics that viewers crave. They are told to hire freelancers from online marketplaces where independent contractors, such as Fiverr and Upwork, offer to manage their channels and produce videos that cost less than $30 to more than $100, depending on freelancer rates. And that’s where a lot of people get into trouble.
Cash cow channels with large audiences can bring in tens of thousands of dollars in monthly advertising revenue, while unpopular channels can earn nothing. YouTube shares ad revenue with a channel owner after a channel has 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of viewers. Monetized channels get 55 percent of the money their videos generate, if they manage to get 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 featured videos on various aspects of YouTube automation, including choosing the most lucrative topic, outsourcing the work, and using keywords to make videos more discoverable on YouTube. Mr Par also explained how YouTube’s algorithms worked.
But Mr Mitchell said the course had gaps – information about how to make high quality videos with good scripts was missing. 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.
Mitchell, who asked The New York Times not to disclose where he lived, started his first channel last fall, Bounty Lux, about wealth and celebrities. He paid a freelancer he found on Fiverr $2,000 for 20 videos. YouTube removed one of those videos, which featured Dwayne Johnson, with content stolen from another channel, sparking a dispute with the freelancer. Bounty Lux wasn’t making any money and struggling for viewers, so Mr. Mitchell sailing.
He later bought a $1,500 course and spent more than $3,000 learning from an influencer at Pivotal Media, Victor Catrina. He paid another $3,000 for Mr. Catrina’s team to make videos, but, he said, the ideas and scripts came from other channels.
After his freelancer was missing for five days, Mr. Mitchell to stop investing in the profitable channel. Mr. Catrina said that if he ever discovered that one of his teams was paraphrasing other people’s scripts, he would replace them.
“I’m far from perfect, and neither is the program,” Mr. Catrina said. “And I have openly and happily sent refunds to those who either had financial difficulties or felt the program was not up to their standards.”
Alexandra Fasulo of Fort Myers, Florida, and her cousin spent $20,000 on a YouTube automation program from Caleb Boxx in March 2021. In return, Mr. Boxx’s team managed a celebrity channel for Mrs Fasulo, 29, and produced videos for over 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 when it came time to pay for a new batch of videos, she dropped it.
“That’s what makes automation not worth it – you put a lot of money into it up front,” said Ms Fasulo.
Dave Nicka Serbian creator whose real name is Dejan Nikolic has been promoting YouTube automation since 2019. Nikolic, 20, appears in front of the camera on three channels and said he had four channels of invisible narrators and 12 on YouTube Shorts, a quick-clip- competitor of TikTok.
Mr. Nikolic said he made $1.4 million in 2021, including for his own instructional courses and services, and had already made $1 million this year. The key was his $995 course, responsible for 70 percent of his income.
“Not many people have done more than a few million a year with YouTube automation,” he said. Online business services is “how to get eight figures”.
He said some of his students on YouTube had been making five figures a month, but he wasn’t sure how many.
Mr Nikolic’s YouTube videos show how much money he has made and how many viewers can expect. His Instagram account features travel destinations, a Rolex and Porsches, as well as passages about building a YouTube business. But Nikolic said his life was “not all glamorous”.
“I spend almost 15 hours a day on my computer,” he said.
A key to monetizing automated YouTube videos is fueling the internet’s obsession with Elon Musk, the tech billionaire.
Jelline Brands from Urk started last autumn with the channel Elon Musk Rewind. Some of the content is incorrect, such as a recent video announcing the launch of a Tesla smartphone. Still, Ms. Brands said it had made $250,000 since it started. (The Times could not verify the figure.) Her channel featured news, rumors and speculation about upcoming Tesla products in addition to it.
She also offers a how-to course and many students on her course have also started Musk channels, even though she has 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 fierce,” said Noah Morris, a coach for Ms. Brands’ course, Cash Cow Academy Netherlands.
Ms. Brands began offering courses in December 2020, months after she paid $1,000 for a YouTube tutorial that she later learned was just a four-page document. She has had 1,700 students, most of whom paid $1,000 for her course, she said. Between 100 and 200 of them have told her that 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 bringing in $7,500 a month, down from $50,000, or about $50,000, in November. Her former students have also seen a drop in income, she said. Recently, she created 16 channels in one week to stabilize her business.
The challenging landscape has even led some of Ms. Brands’ students to offer their own courses.
Youri van Hofwegen, a 21-year-old Dutch creator known online as Youri Automation, said some people had unrealistic expectations about finding YouTube success.
“They want to pay $200 and make $20,000 next week,” he said. “There is no secret, magical strategy. It’s just about making it work.”
Courses created problems for Mr. Mitchell. A freelancer in a guru’s Facebook group told him to buy channels to make money from a company that collected fake viewers from bots. Mr. Mitchell gave the freelancer $5,000 to produce about 60 videos about crypto and making money online.
YouTube quickly stripped one of the channels of its ability to make money. The other struggled for months to find an audience before someone uploaded three illegal videos. YouTube deleted the channel for copyright infringement. The freelancer claimed that someone else posted the videos as sabotage.
But Mr. Mitchell is still considering a loan to buy a $30,000 YouTube channel.
“It’s my last-ditch strategy,” he said. “I just need a little more time.” And Mr. Mitchell can offer a course or a tutorial of his own, if he knows what to learn.