Alaskans Stake Claims in the YouTube Gold Rush
YouTube makes uploading videos easy, but making an income on the platform takes as much work as any traditional job. Several Alaskans have found success sharing their unique points of view—with a particularly stunning state as a background.
You were TIME magazine’s Person of the Year for 2006, thanks to a certain tube first established one year earlier. YouTube was one of several platforms from the early ‘00s that enabled, encouraged, and even demanded users to generate their own internet content. The video hosting service, acquired by Google a few months before TIME’s mirror-reflective cover, gave “you” a way to broadcast globally—and Alaskans have used its tools to bring their home state to viewers worldwide.
YouTube makes uploading videos easy, but counting on the platform for income is as strenuous as any job.
“I know some people who make good money on the platform, but they work harder than everyone else,” says Jake, creator of the channel How to Alaska. “It’s one of those jobs that people look at and idolize those doing it, but what they don’t recognize is just how much work goes into putting out good videos and content and how much of a grind it can be. It doesn’t come easy.”
Another Jake, Alaskan videographer and photographer Jake Sloan, learned the same lesson after three and a half years on YouTube.
“It has taken a lot of work with almost no payoff until this last year. I did it every single week for three years without getting revenue and views to get where I am now,” Sloan says. “People think it’s easy: they post videos, and in six months, they have 100,000 followers. But it takes a lot of investment up front.”
Sloan recalls how reality set in during his early grind. “Those first three years, I would spend a day filming, a day editing and posting, and then waiting for people to watch,” he says with a laugh. “I might get three views—me watching it twice, and one from my mom.”
The Guy Who Stands on Glaciers
Sloan’s latest video (as of publication) racked up 535 views in its first day; the one before that tallied 24,000 in five days. His record is 616,000 views. More than 78,000 subscribers await each new upload on his eponymous channel. Sloan’s videos are, in a way, meta-videos geared toward helping other creators make their own content, such as reviews of filmmaking equipment, tutorials, and storytelling advice.
“What got me started was recording adventures with myself and my kids for our memories, and then I purchased a drone and posted something about that, and it got a lot of views,” he explains. “That got me looking at the whole idea of the business model behind YouTube and how random people on the internet finding videos that you post can lead to bigger things down the road.”
Sloan committed to posting one video each week three-and-a-half years ago, and his page has continued to grow.
“When I started in this niche it was a pretty crowded space, but what set me apart is Alaska and having access to so many incredible locations and insane backdrops,” he says. “I started focusing on going out to make videos in the wild, compared to what I was doing before which was sitting at a desk, doing ‘scientific’ equipment tests like so many other people.”
When COVID-19 hit, his channel grew even more quickly as people were looking to experience something other than being in the house while the country was locked down.
While drone and camera enthusiasts make up most of his audience, Sloan acknowledges that he has earned a reputation as “the guy who stands on glaciers and shows off ridiculous locations to see how well a camera can take photos.”
“A lot of people comment that they don’t care about the equipment, but they love the places I go,” says Sloan. “That makes me happy because I think that Alaska is a pretty awesome place.”
Nutty Like a Fox
Cars are one of Nu Xiong’s interests, so they feature in several playlists on his NuttyNu channel.
Nu Xiong, known as NuttyNu on YouTube, started posting “random” videos in 2011, including videos of motorcycle and camping trips and time spent with his family.
“At first, YouTube was just a platform to upload videos; it was never my intention to start a channel,” explains Xiong, “but I realized that I really liked sharing my videos with everyone. While I enjoy filming the videos, that’s what really keeps the fire going.”
In 2016, he started cranking out more content, and now his 35,000 subscribers follow his lifestyle videos featuring hobbies and family, as well as some professional video that he uploads to showcase his work as the owner of NuttyNu Media.
Alaska plays a big part in Xiong’s videos, showing up in about 90 percent of them. “People want to see what’s going on up here,” he says, estimating that about 70 percent of his subscribers come for entertainment and 30 percent watch for the knowledge he provides in tutorials and how-to videos.
“The biggest challenge is finding the time to make videos,” he adds. “Two years ago when I didn’t have my first child, I had all the time in the world to produce content. Now with my first kid and a second on the way, I have to find a way to balance between the work, my platform, and everything else with only 24 hours in a day.”
Xiong tries to post daily, or at least four to five videos per week.
“When I first started, I didn’t think about how to film things; now I plan ahead to know what the introduction, middle, and ending will be,” he says. “It’s something I wish I had learned earlier, but you learn as you grow and do more.
“Once you get the idea of what you like and what your audience likes, you can get a better idea of the workflow,” he adds. “Now it’s almost automatic for me; I know what I’m going to create, and I film it with the editing process in mind. That speeds it up.”
Alaska as a Verb
Alaskan living is the biggest asset local YouTubers have to share, so Jake and his family tapped into that audience.
Editing is the bottleneck for How to Alaska. “I try to get out and do something cool that I can share once a week, but editing is my least favorite part. It’s a chore for me and slows me down,” says Jake. “I try to post content weekly, but I have gone a couple months between posts. If I were more consistent, I’d probably be further along.”
Jake (last name withheld) works as a full-time real estate and drone photographer in Southcentral Alaska, squeezing in YouTube videos around that schedule. “Having an excuse to get my family outdoors and being able to show people Alaska really motivates me,” he says. “The editing and time factor, and having another job alongside of YouTube, is a challenge though.”
Jake’s videos center on his family’s outdoor adventures, so he chooses to keep his last name unlisted for his children’s privacy. He got the idea for the channel when his friend Lonnie’s page, Far North Bushcraft and Survival, reached 30,000 subscribers.
“When I found out that YouTube would start paying you when you reached that point, I thought it would be a good hobby income, and I’d do a good job of it,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, but our family loves to spend time outdoors, and we’ve always enjoyed sharing Alaska with others.”
Jake has been making YouTube videos since 2014, and How to Alaska has grown to more than 42,000 subscribers. Lately his content has focused on short videos formatted for mobile screens, which are more liable to go viral. “What You Can Catch Surf Fishing in Alaska,” a 30-second snippet posted in early October, scored 53,000 views within two weeks. The channel’s most popular video, “Launching Cars Off a Cliff for 4th of July,” has been viewed 6.4 million times in five years. Not bad for a 7-minute slice of Alaska life.
Where the Money Is
Nobody can predict what will catch fire on YouTube. For instance, NuttyNu’s most popular video, with 3 million views, is a 30-second close-up of lips covered with glittery lipstick, titled “LIP.” Who knows why?
Sloan researched YouTube to determine where success might lie. “It took me a long time to figure it out; it was so far out of my wheelhouse,” he says. “I had to dig through a lot of different information to figure out how to monetize my content.”
He found that financial videos have the highest ad revenue and affiliate income of any videos in the online market space, but anyone producing kids’ or entertainment videos can face drastically different ad revenues. While Sloan considers his YouTube videos to be a side hustle to his full-time job of drone filming for national TV shows and movies, he does make a decent return.
“Most people with under 100,000 subscribers in my niche probably make in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, though that varies wildly depending on the niche that someone is in and the views that they get on every video,” he explains. “Because all online advertising is targeted, a creator’s niche varies greatly on how much ad spots pay out.”
How to Alaska’s how-to advice for succeeding at YouTube also relies on a calculated approach. “You have to allocate time properly and figure out quickly how to get the best bang for your buck, as well as what will resonate the best for your audience,” Jake says.
Instead of chasing trends, though, Xiong prefers to follow his own muse: “If you put your attention on that and you love what you’re doing, the subscribers, money, and ads will follow.”
Cashing In on Clicks
The view outside his window is what Nu Xiong’s YouTube channel presents to the world.
Sloan’s videos have led to solicitations for other jobs. “My work for Caterpillar, Bell Helicopters, and the Chicago P.D. show came from me posting videos on YouTube,” he says. “It’s another way the online distribution market space can be monetized.”
More direct avenues for YouTube creators to monetize content include ad sales, affiliate sales, sponsored posts, or selling digital courses online.
“The key to being successful on YouTube is to have multiple streams of income,” says Sloan, who profits from ads sold in the middle or at the end of his videos and from affiliate sales, for which he makes 3 to 5 percent from any products sold through the link on his website. He also provides a digital sales course teaching people how to fly drones, and he hosts sponsored videos, where a company pays him to make a certain type of video.
“In some cases, they pay for me to just go do something awesome,” says Sloan, who filmed inside an ice cave at Castner Glacier, north of Paxson, which was sponsored by a company that makes film emulation software.
How to Alaska’s Jake appreciates YouTube’s streamlined system for monetizing and sharing content.
“You can start making money on YouTube when you get 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours. That allows you to apply for their partnership program,” he says. “If you’re not doing shock content or anything overly political, it’s pretty much a given that they’ll accept you.”
Once established, creators split ad revenue 55/45 with YouTube. “The longer the content is, the more ads can be put into it; a two-minute video may have one ad and a 30-minute video will have twelve,” says Jake.
Creators can also take part in Super Chats, where people send creators money to push their channel along, which they split 70/30 with YouTube. Content creators get the same split when they produce live videos.
“They are talking about rolling out a new way of monetizing called YouTube Shorts that they will use to try to compete with TikTok,” says Jake. “They’ve been working out the bugs for a couple of years and may introduce it at the beginning of the year. Creators will split the ad revenue 55/45 with YouTube.”
NuttyNu makes income through affiliate links, including Amazon, as well as through the Google AdSense link, which helps Xiong monetize his platform. That seems secondary, though, to simply sharing life in Alaska.
“I never had a numbers goal; I just thought it would be nice to get 1,000 subscribers,” Xiong says. “When I got to 10,000, I stopped worrying about it. I started focusing more on creating the content that I wanted to create.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.