Booming online comics are building their brands and businesses
In one of Julie Nolke’s YouTube videos in her series Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self, a Julie from January 2022 offers vague updates on the pandemic to the Julie from August 2021.
“Season three, I’ll be honest, isn’t as good as seasons one and two,” says Julie 2022 – she’s talking about the Omicron variant. “Season three, I feel like the writing really fell. It’s like we’ve been here before, we’ve seen these storylines.
For her clever writing and precise comic timing, Ms. Nolke has won numerous awards, attracted more than a million subscribers on YouTube and more than 300,000 subscribers on TikTok.
The Calgary-born theater graduate started on YouTube in 2015 when she struggled to find acting gigs. “It was me trying to take control, be creative and create something,” says Nolke. “Cut to seven years later and now I have a business where I get to do exactly what I want to do and it works in tandem with traditional industry.”
She generates income from advertising revenue, by creating sponsored content – she, I’m a mom! the video is sponsored by educational video company Skillshare, for example – and gets paid subscribers through its Patreon page. Other money-making opportunities for online personalities can include selling branded merchandise, hosting in-person events, and even creating their own product lines.
Ms. Nolke is one of a small but growing group of female comedians who are making pandemic-weary Canadians laugh on social media – consider them the heirs to online comedy phenomenon Lilly Singh. It’s a funny old road to success.
“The comedy industry in general is difficult to break into and make a lucrative career out of it,” says Ela Veresiu, associate professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, who studies social media. “There’s a lot of comics and a lot of saturation.”
Dr. Veresiu notes that it’s harder for women in comedy.
“People don’t always believe my stories, they say, ‘You made that up,'” says Sandra Jeenie Kwon from Vancouver, who posts as Jeenie Weenie and has 4.3 million subscribers on YouTube and 8, 4 million followers on TikTok.
Kris Collins, who hails from Abbotsford, British Columbia and performs under the name Kallmekris, says she has had her gear stolen by male creators.
“There are always trolls who say things like, ‘Women aren’t funny, you suck,’” Ms Collins explains.
But she’s funny, according to millions of fans. Ms Collins, who started making videos when COVID-19 lockdowns disrupted her hairdressing career, has 6.1 million subscribers on YouTube and 44.5 million subscribers on TikTok – she is the top creator of Canada and among the top 25 on the platform.
Build audiences – and keep them
The path to online comedy success isn’t always straightforward. Ms Kwon took to YouTube when she had to temporarily close her Vancouver restaurant in 2020.
“It was about telling stories,” she recalls. She started sharing stories about her past life as a flight attendant (Ms. Kwon has held many finance, hospitality and small business jobs).
“Being a flight attendant was part of my life, so I shared these stories. They touched everyone, which I never expected,” says Ms Kwon, who also posts comedy videos on flight advice.
“Sometimes it’s relatability over anything else,” says Joe Gagliese, co-founder and co-CEO of Viral Nation, an agency that represents influencers through its Viral Nation Talent arm. “I think the people who build the most audiences online are the people other people can relate to the most.”
Ms Collins also isn’t sure why her social media content has taken off, but she says she’s committed to learning about and understanding the platforms early on, then posting frequently and regularly.
“That first year, I had no strategy, I was just consistent,” she says. “I started doing five or more TikToks a day for over a year.” She started out making lip-sync videos, then pivoted to comedy sketches.
Dr. Veresiu says successful online comics retain the same personality between their channels and their offline work. She says Lilly Singh’s two-season NBC late-night talk show struggled in part because she strayed from her usual material, which often involved poking fun at the South Asian community of Mrs. Singh and her upbringing.
For online comics, keeping audiences happy also means keeping all sponsored videos on-brand. Ms. Collins says she has turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in product recommendations. “I didn’t get into this to do promotions for the brands in all the other videos,” she says.
Ms. Kwon says she chooses products for her brand videos carefully. “Everyone I work with sells products that I use,” she says. “I have to be me.”
Consistency is also about being present online all the time. This pressure can be exerted on these content creators. “It’s not easy to make videos every week. You often have writer’s block,” says Ms. Nolke.
Running a business while learning on the job
Ms. Nolke, Ms. Kwon and Ms. Collins are basically small business owners who learned to manage things as they grew their following. Mr. Gagliese says the instant fame of some online personalities can be difficult to navigate and monetize.
“You can be at home and all of a sudden you have a million followers. So it’s like, what do I do now?” he says. ‘they do, which is a problem.”
For Ms. Nolke, learning on the job was a must. “I said that to my mother [is] my mastery,” she says. Lessons learned included signing with an unstable management company. “The contract was horrible,” she says. The company did nothing for her but took a generous cut and it was hard to get out of the deal, she says.
Ms Gagliese says this is unfortunately a common occurrence in the online influencer space – there are always bad actors out there ready to tap into new talent. “It’s the same in sports, the same in Hollywood,” he says.
Ms Nolke says she has no regrets, having learned from the experience. She now surrounds herself with a team she trusts and carefully reads her contracts. She took the advice of her parents, who are accountants, and formed her company. She pays herself regularly, saves for the future, and hires more and more people to help her so she can focus on content.
Grow the brand
Another concern for YouTube and TikTok comics is staying relevant in the fleeting world of online fame.
“Everything passes,” notes Ms. Collins. “I saw that happen with YouTube – the people I followed when I was younger, they’re all gone now.”
Gagliese says the risk of irrelevance is real for creators who have achieved overnight success. “Those who have achieved success through hard work, dedication and time usually have a much longer horizon of success,” he says.
For many, building their career beyond digital is a goal. Ms. Nolke has landed roles in series such as working moms and Murdoch Mysteries as well as writing work and a recurring role on the CBC show Run the Burbs. She is now writing an original series.
Although her acting agent dissuades her from promoting her success on social media, “I feel like the stigma of YouTube is changing,” Ms Nolke says. “Now the idea is that if she was successful on YouTube, she must be good.”
Ms. Collins has similar expansion plans for the future. “I want to keep evolving my content,” she says. “I don’t think anyone in this field can be successful by just doing the same thing all the time.” She has collaborated with other creators and is working on a podcast. She’s written episodes of a 30-minute show, but isn’t sure what she’ll do with them — she wants to retain creative control.
For her part, Ms. Kwon also wants to continue growing as a creator and performer, but says she is determined to stay true to her values as she ventures into other pursuits.
“It’s stressful thinking about the future,” she says. “But I will continue to do what I do and continue to do what makes me laugh. I hope I never lose that, that’s how it all started.
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