Scott Mitchell was convinced that YouTube would make him rich.
Mr Mitchell, 33, got the idea last year from videos promoting tutorials on how to create so-called cash cow channels, which are often created through a process called YouTube automation.
So he bought a course, then another, and another. He also paid for coaching services. Mr. Mitchell poured about $15,000 into his YouTube venture, encountering obstacles at every stage — lessons that taught him little, freelancers stealing content and audience growth tactics which got him in trouble with YouTube.
“I’ve tried three courses and a specialist on the side, and the only thing that came out of it was an empty wallet,” Mr Mitchell said.
The automation of YouTube has led to a cottage industry of online influencers offering tutorials and quick money opportunities. But as is often the case with get-rich-quick promises in online businesses, YouTube’s automation process can be a pitfall for aspiring internet entrepreneurs and magnet for poses selling non-ancillary services.
It’s not hard to find a video that fits YouTube’s automation model, although it’s hard to say for sure how many of them have been created. They usually have an invisible narrator and a catchy title. They share news, explain a topic, or offer a Top 10 list of celebrities or athletes. They often aggregate material such as video clips and photos from other sources. Sometimes, they run into problems with copyright rules.
The term “YouTube Automation” is a bit of a misnomer. It usually means giving work to freelancers rather than relying on an automated process. It’s hardly a new idea and yet one that has recently become more popular. Farming allows people to run multiple channels without the time-consuming tasks of scripting, voice recording or video editing. And the process is often presented as a foolproof way to make cash. To get started, you just need money — for courses and video producers.
The courses guide 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, offers to manage their channels and produce videos that cost anywhere from $30 to more than $100, depending on freelancer rates. And that’s where a lot of people run into trouble.
Cash cow channels with large audiences can rake in tens of thousands of dollars in monthly ad revenue, while unpopular ones can bring in nothing. YouTube shares ad revenue with a channel owner after a channel gets 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours. Monetized channels get 55 percent of the money their videos generate — that is, if they manage to garner that much interest. YouTube declined to comment on the automation process.
Last summer, Mr. Mitchell paid $500 for a course called “Pipe Sorting and Monetization” taught by Matt Parr, who said he was making $30,000 a month on YouTube. He said successful students had earned $20,000 a month.
The course included videos on various aspects of YouTube automation, including choosing the most profitable topic, outsourcing work, and using keywords to make YouTube videos easier to find. Mr Parr also explained how YouTube’s algorithms worked.
But Mr. Mitchell said the course had gaps — it lacked information about creating high-quality videos with good scripts. He and other students also complained in a private Facebook group that the contents of Mr Parr’s course were available for free on his YouTube page.
“It’s basically selling dreams,” Mr. Mitchell said. Mr Parr did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Mitchell, who asked The New York Times not to reveal where he lived, launched his first channel, Bounty Lux, about wealth and celebrity, last fall. He paid a freelancer he found on Fiverr $2,000 for 20 videos. YouTube removed one of those videos, about Dwayne Johnson, which featured content stolen from another channel, sparking a dispute with the freelancer. Bounty Lux wasn’t making money and struggled for viewers, so Mr. Mitchell abandoned it.
He later bought a $1,500 course and spent more than $3,000 to learn from a Pivotal Media influencer, Victor Catrina. He paid another $3,000 for Mr. Katrina’s team to make videos, but, he said, the ideas and scripts were taken from other channels.
After his freelancer disappeared for five days, Mr. Mitchell decided to stop investing in the profitable channel. Mr. Katrina said that if he ever found any of his teams paraphrasing other people’s scripts, he would replace them.
“I’m nowhere near perfect, and neither is the program,” Mr. Katrina said. “And I have openly and happily sent refunds to those who either had financial difficulties or found the program not up to their standards.”
Alexandra Fasulo of Fort Myers, Fla., 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. Fasoulo, 29, and produced videos for more than six months. But there were quality issues, he said, and the videos failed to attract 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, he gave up.
“That’s what makes automation not worth it — you’re putting a lot of money up front,” Ms. Fasulo said.
Dave Nicka Serbian creator whose real name is Dejan Nikolic has been promoting YouTube automation since 2019. Mr Nikolic, 20, appears on camera on three channels and said he had four channels with unseen narrators and 12 on YouTube Shorts , a fast-paced TikTok competitor.
Mr. Nikolic said he earned $1.4 million in 2021, including his own courses and services, and had already raised $1 million this year. The key was his $995 tuition, responsible for 70 percent of his income.
“Not many people have made more than two million a year with YouTube automation,” he said. Online business services are “how to make eight figures”.
He said several of his students were making five figures a month on YouTube, but he didn’t have an exact count of how many.
Mr Nikolic’s YouTube videos highlight the money he has made and how much viewers could expect to make themselves. His Instagram account features travel destinations, Rolexes and Porsches, as well as quotes about building a YouTube business. But Mr Nikolic said his life was “not just glamorous”.
“I spend almost 15 hours a day on my computer,” he said.
One key to monetizing automated YouTube videos is to feed into the Internet’s obsession with Elon Musk, the tech billionaire.
Jelline Brands of Urk, Netherlands launched the Elon Musk Rewind channel last fall. Some of its content is incorrect, such as a recent video touting the introduction of a Tesla smartphone. However, Ms Brands said she had made $250,000 since she started. (The Times was unable to verify the number.) Her channel included, along with news, rumors and speculation about upcoming Tesla products.
She also offers a how-to class, and many students in her class have also started Musk channels, even though she asked them not to. She even competes with her sister, who has a channel dedicated to the billionaire.
The business model is “falling down because the competition is so fierce,” said Noah Morris, a trainer for Ms. Brands’ class, Cash Cow Academy Netherlands.
Ms. Brands began offering classes in December 2020, months after she paid $1,000 for a YouTube tutorial that she later learned was just a four-page document. She had 1,700 students, most of whom paid €1,000 for her lesson, she said. Between 100 and 200 of them told her they make money on YouTube.
“I love my job,” she said. “I don’t even consider it a job. It’s like a hobby for me. It’s like a game.”
However, it is not immune to the vagaries of YouTube’s algorithms. She said her Musk channel was making 7,500 euros a month, up from 50,000 euros, or about $50,000, in November. Her former students also saw a drop in income, she said. Recently, she created 16 channels in a single week to stabilize her business.
The difficult landscape prompted some of Ms. Brands’ students to offer their own lessons.
Youri van Hofwegen, a 21-year-old Dutch creator known online as Youri Automation, said some people had unrealistic expectations of YouTube’s success.
“They want to pay $200 and make $20,000 by next week,” he said. “There is no secret, magic strategy. It’s just putting in the work.”
The lessons created problems for Mr. Mitchell. A freelancer on a Facebook guru’s group told him to buy monetizing channels from a company that was collecting fake viewers from bots. Mr. Mitchell gave the freelancer $5,000 to create about 60 videos, about crypto and making money online.
YouTube quickly removed one of the channels from its ability to earn money. The other struggled for months to find an audience before someone uploaded three pirated videos. YouTube deleted the channel for copyright infringements. The freelancer claimed that someone else had posted the videos in an act of sabotage.
But Mr. Mitchell is still considering a loan to buy a $30,000 YouTube channel.
“It’s my last strategy,” he said. “I need a little more time.” And Mr. Mitchell can offer a lesson or a textbook of his own when he figures out what to teach.