There were a lot of heavy hitters at our recent NewTeeVee Live conference: The CEO of Netflix, the CEO of Hulu, even the creator of the CSI franchise. But all the buzz on the show floor belonged to one precocious 15-year-old kid. He’s from Nebraska and his name is Lucas Cruikshank — but he’s better-known to millions of fans as the high-pitched character Fred, and he is mastering YouTube to maximize playcounts (and dollar signs) in ways big media companies can now only dream of.
If you have kids, you probably know Fred, most likely because you banned your child from watching him. Not that Fred is offensive. Quite the contrary: He’s a bundle of G-rated joy for the tween set. But Fred is annoying. He prances about doing inane things while screaming, and the film is sped up to give the character a hyper-active squeal. Adults don’t get it, kids can’t get enough of it.
Of the 35 Fred videos posted to YouTube, only one has less than a million plays, and that particular video was just posted last week. If history is any indication, by the time this story runs his latest entry into the Fred canon will have passed the million mark. Typically, a Fred video will get 3-6 million plays, and the Fred channel is the most subscribed-to channel of all time on YouTube, with nearly 650,000 subscribers.
While lots of people are racking up big playcounts on YouTube, Fred is actually parlaying his popularity into dollars. In addition to ad-sharing revenue through YouTube, Cruikshank gets outside sponsorships. Wireless device company Zipit paid for placement in three viral Fred videos, and bigger companies are hopping on the Fred bandwagon as well. Walden Media and 20th Century Fox did a deal with Cruikshank to promote the movie City of Ember. According to Cruikshank’s business manager, Fred videos have generated six figures worth of income from ad revenue and sponsorship deals this year. Cruikshank has now signed a deal with GR Branding, a licensing agency, to create Fred merchandise as an additional revenue stream.
There is a method to the Fred madness, and a surprisingly intentional one for a freshman in high school. New videos are purposely released as kids get out of school on Thursday so they can be watched when they get home. These Fred fans then talk about and start quoting Fred catchphrases the next day at school on Friday, building buzz for Saturday, which is when Fred videos get the most amount of traffic. (Tween marketers, take note!)
Cruikshank’s audience is predominately female, with girls making up 67 percent of his audience, according to YouTube’s Insight numbers. The biggest age demographic for his videos are 13-17 year olds, but as Cruikshank pointed out, you have to at least say you’re 13 in order to get a YouTube account, so that number could skew younger. Surprisingly, there is a higher percentage of 35-44 year olds in his audience than 18-24 year olds; Cruikshank’s manager says those stats get a bump from parents tuning in to see what their kids are watching.
Despite his new media success, the young web star is quite blatant about why he created Fred — Cruikshank wants to be a Hollywood actor, and this is his calling card. He’s had meetings with the big networks and studios, and even appeared on Nickelodeon’s iCarly. But so far, massive web success hasn’t crossed over into traditional media attention. Perhaps media moguls just need to see less of the high-pitched “Fred” and more of the savvy, but down-to-earth Cruikshank. I think they’d appreciate videos like this one, where Cruikshank talks about fans taking cell phone video of him at the Red Lobster.This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com