Scott Mitchell was convinced that YouTube would make him rich.
Mr. Mitchell, 33, got the idea last year from videos that promote courses 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 mentorship services. Mr. Mitchell spent about $15,000 on his YouTube venture, encountering obstacles at every stage — courses that taught him little, freelancers who stole content and audience-growth tactics that got him in trouble with YouTube.
“I tried three courses and an expert on the side, and I came out with an empty wallet,” Mitchell says.
YouTube automation has led to a cottage industry where online influencers offer tutorials and quick money opportunities. But, as is often the case with online business promises of quick fortunes, the YouTube automation process can be a money pit for aspiring Internet entrepreneurs and a magnet for pretenders to sell unhelpful services.
It’s not hard to find a video that fits the YouTube automation model, although it’s hard to say for sure how many of them have been created. They usually have an invisible descriptor and a catchy title. They share news, explain a topic or offer top 10 lists about celebrities or athletes. They often combine material such as video clips and photos from other sources. Sometimes, they run into problems with copyright rules.
The term “YouTube Automation” is somewhat of a misnomer. This usually means outsourcing the work to freelancers rather than relying on an automated process. This is hardly a new concept and yet one that has become more popular recently. Farming out work allows people to run multiple channels without the time-consuming task of writing scripts, recording voice-overs or editing videos. And the process is often pitched as a foolproof way to make cash. To get started, all you need is money — for how-to courses and video creators.
Courses instruct people to find video topics that viewers love. They are told to hire freelancers from online marketplaces where independent contractors like Fiver and Upwork offer to manage their channels and produce videos for anywhere from $30 to over $100, depending on the freelancer’s rate. And that’s where many people get into trouble.
Cash cow channels with large audiences can make thousands of dollars in monthly ad revenue, while unpopular channels make next to nothing. YouTube shares ad revenue with a channel owner after a channel reaches 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of viewership. Monetized channels get 55 percent of the money their videos generate — that is, if they manage to scratch that much interest. YouTube declined to comment on the automation process.
Last summer, Mr. Mitchell paid $500 for a course titled “Tube Mastery and Monetization” taught by Matt Parr, who said he makes $30,000 a month on YouTube. He said successful students earned $20,000 a month.
The course features videos on various aspects of YouTube automation, including choosing the most profitable topics, outsourcing work, and using keywords to make videos easier to find on YouTube. Mr Parr also explained how YouTube’s algorithm works.
But Mr. Mitchell said the course had gaps — it lacked information on creating high-quality videos with good scripts. He and other students also complained in a private Facebook group that Mr Parr’s course content was freely available on his YouTube page.
“It’s basically selling the dream,” Mr. Mitchell said. Mr Parr did not respond to requests for comment.
Mitchell, who asked The New York Times not to reveal where he lives, launched his first channel Bounty Luxe last fall, featuring wealth and celebrities. He found a freelancer for $2,000 on Fiver for 20 videos. YouTube took down one of those videos, about Dwayne Johnson, which featured content stolen from another channel, prompting a dispute with the freelancer. Bounty Lux didn’t make money and struggled for audiences, so Mitchell abandoned it.
He later purchased a $1,500 course and spent over $3,000 learning from an influencer at Pivotal Media, Victor Katrina. He paid Mr. Katrina’s team another $3,000 to make the video, but, he said, the ideas and scripts were taken from other channels.
After his freelancer disappeared for five days, Mitchell decided to stop investing in the unprofitable channel. Mr. Katrina said that if he ever saw other people in his teams interpreting 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 problems or felt the program was not up to their standards.”
Alexandra Fasulo of Fort Myers, Fla., and her cousin spent $20,000 on a YouTube automation program by Caleb Boxx in March 2021. In return, Mr. Boxx’s team managed a celebrity channel for Ms. Fasulo, 29, and produced more videos for six months. But there were quality issues, he said, and the videos failed to capture many viewers. Mr Boxx did not respond to requests for comment. The channel made less than $10 a day, so when it came time to pay for a new batch of videos, he dropped it.
“That’s what makes automation worthless – you put a lot of money up front,” Ms Fasulo said.
Dave Nik, a 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 he said he has four channels with unseen narrators and 12 channels on YouTube shorts. TikTok’s fast-clip competitor.
Mr. Nikolic said he expects to earn $1.4 million in 2021, including his own how-to courses and services, and he has already raised $1 million this year. The key was his $995 course, accounting for 70 percent of his income.
“Not many people have made more than a few million a year with YouTube automation,” he said. Online business services are “how you get to eight figures.”
He said several of his students made five figures a month on YouTube but he didn’t have an exact count of how many.
Mr. Nikolic’s YouTube videos highlight the amount of money he has earned and how much viewers can expect to earn themselves. His Instagram account features passages of travel destinations, a Rolex and Porsche, as well as a YouTube business. But Mr. Nikolic said his life was “not all glamorous.”
“I spend about 15 hours a day on my computer,” he said.
One key to making money from automated YouTube videos is feeding the Internet’s obsession with tech billionaire Elon Musk.
Zelen Brands of Urk, Netherlands, launched the Elon Musk Rewind channel last fall. Some of its content is incorrect, such as a recent video announcing the introduction of a Tesla smartphone. Still, Ms. Brands said it has made $250,000 since it started (The Times could not verify the number.) His channel also included news, rumors and speculation about upcoming Tesla products.
He also offers a how-to course and many students on his course have also started mask channels, even though he tells them not to. He even competes with his sister, who has a channel dedicated to the billionaire.
The business model “is going downhill because the competition is so fierce,” said Noah Morris, an instructor at Ms. Brand’s course, Cash Cow Academy Netherlands.
Months after paying $1,000 for a YouTube tutorial, Ms. Brands began offering the course in December 2020. She later learned it was a four-page document. He has 1,700 students, most of whom paid 1,000 euros for his course, he said. 100 to 200 of them told him they were making money on YouTube.
“I love my job,” he said. “I don’t even consider it work. It’s like a hobby for me. It’s like a game.”
Still, he’s not immune to the vagaries of YouTube’s algorithm He said his mask channel made €7,500 a month, down from €50,000, or about $50,000, in November. His former students have also seen their incomes drop, he said. Recently, he created 16 channels in a week to stabilize his business.
Challenging landscape even Ms. Brands has prompted some of its students to offer their own courses.
Youri van Hofwegen, a 21-year-old Dutch creator known online as Youri Automation, said some people had unrealistic expectations about finding YouTube success.
“They want to pay $200 and make $20,000 within the next week,” he said. “There is no secret, magic trick. It’s just about working.”
The course created problems for Mr. Mitchell. A freelancer in a guru’s Facebook group asks him to buy a monetized channel from a company that collects fake visitors from bots. Mr. Mitchell paid the freelancer $5,000 to make about 60 videos about crypto and making money online.
YouTube has robbed a channel of its ability to make quick money. Others struggled for months to find an audience before uploading three pirated videos. YouTube deleted the channel for copyright infringement. The freelancer claims that someone else posted the videos in an act of sabotage.
But Mr. Mitchell is still considering taking out a $30,000 loan to buy the YouTube channel.
“It’s my last-ditch strategy,” he said. “I need some more time.” And Mr. Mitchell can offer a course of his own, or a manual, when he figures out what to teach.