In most ways, Charlie McDonnell is a very normal young British person. He’s 20, nearly 21. He has nice hair. He likes drinking tea. He shares a flat with one of his friends. He spends a lot of time online.
In other ways, however, McDonnell is utterly remarkable.
Four years ago, he started a YouTube channel called Charlie Is So Cool Like, and began posting fun videos and songs. It just kept growing until, over the summer, he became the first British YouTube user to break 1 million subscribers.
Thanks to his fame — in particular a large following of teenage girls — he’s tried his hand at TV presenting, been on the set of Doctor Who (his favorite show) and had a charity record in the British charts.
But what does it mean to have a million subscribers? And what opportunities has it created? I caught up with him to find out the secrets to becoming a YouTube superstar. It was pretty informative, not just for those who want to emulate his web success — but also for broadcasters wanting to learn from online success stories.
Gaining a YouTube following can be profitable
“I’ve been living off the back of my YouTube stuff — which isn’t just ad revenue; I sell albums and things like that as well — but I’ve been earning enough that I’ve been renting a flat with my flatmate Alex, who’s another video blogger. We’ve been living here for about a year and a half now; we’ve got to the point where we realized we’re earning enough to buy a house. And it’s all off the back of YouTube.”
Online video stars don’t necessarily see TV as their end goal
It’s traditional for television producers to try to pick out online talent, either for their raw talent or, sometimes, to harness their audience. But while some may still dream of being on network TV, Charlie is part of a generation that is increasingly seeing online media as their home — not broadcast.
“I’ve been contacted by various production companies and broadcasters; I’ve been approached by managers,” says McDonnell. “The general consensus from most people is, ‘This thing online is pretty good, but when are you going to take it seriously and make a TV show?’
“For me, it’s always been hard to justify doing stuff on television. To an outsider, it might seem like that’s your big break, but being able to learn about how TV works over the last couple of years, I’ve generally come to the conclusion that I much prefer doing stuff online — it’s freer for me.”
As far as the TV shows he has worked on, the producers often seemed to want his audience — when what they really needed was his total buy-in.
“It wasn’t beneficial for me in terms of building up an audience, but they assumed that my audience would go with me, which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s hard to get massively invested in projects when they come to you with an idea, because I feel like I’m just working for them. My own stuff, I’m happier telling my audience about.”
Control is vitally important
“People see me talking to the camera and think ‘he’s obviously the presenter,’” he says. “But that’s because that’s what they see me doing.”
In fact, he’s as interested in the ideas and the processes behind his videos as he is in being in front of camera. In the future, he’d like to make short films and is even thinking about feature films. But it’s not just about getting his face on screen.
“They might think about the fact that I’m doing everything myself, but they won’t give it much thought whether I’d be interested in producing a show. It’s hard for people to take me as anything other than a presenter.”
Don’t target demographics
“From what I know, the demographic I have is sought-after; it’s 13-18 year old girls; it’s the biggest demographic I have,” he says. “But I’m in the position where I didn’t sit down and think, ‘How could I appeal to 17 year old girls?’ I just made videos, and that happens to be the people who are watching. There’s still enough people outside that demographic that I don’t want to ignore them — it’s important for me not to think about demographics at all.”
He won’t be lured away
I can’t count the number of times people building video platforms have told me that part of their plan is to lure big YouTube channels away. But it’s a mistake to imagine that you can simply by offering them more money — or even more viewers, he says.
“Right now YouTube is where all the people go. I do like websites like Vimeo — YouTube can, at times, be people making videos because they want to trick people into giving them views — but at the same time there aren’t as many people watching videos there. So it’s very hard for you to make it into your job.
“But YouTube is not a faceless website any more. When you’ve been making videos for as long as we have, we have direct contact with the people who work there. It feels much more like a partnership I have with them. I really don’t think there would be any other competitor that would convince me to leave. Even if there was another site that became more popular, I still feel very strong ties to YouTube, and I’d want to work with them to make YouTube top dog again.”