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So you wanna be a YouTube star?

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
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Making money on YouTube
  • Shane Dawson's YouTube videos have nearly a half billion uploads
  • About 12 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • Successful online video makers must consistently post to stay on top
  • Viewership is built by making one-on-one connections with audience

(CNN) -- He is the king of clicks, the biggest star in the most powerful media platform to emerge in recent years. But unless your date of birth hovers near the year 1990, you've probably never heard of him.

Shane Dawson, a 22-year-old college dropout from California, is a YouTube superstar and the epitome of the new era of Do-It-Yourself celebrity. He produces three videos a week for YouTube from his Los Angeles area home. Uploads of his videos approach half a billion views a year.

"I thought I'd be on TV and movies - that's what I really wanted - and I can't believe I didn't need to do that," said Dawson on finding fame and an outlet for his comedy on YouTube. "I did it on my own with just me and my camera. That's very, very weird."

And very rare. With 12 hours of video uploaded on YouTube every minute - and the volume on the rise - scoring a devoted clicking audience online is difficult. "Your odds are like winning the lottery, and its getting worse all the time," said David Burch, communications director for TubeMogul Inc., an online video analysis firm.

Your odds are like winning the lottery, and its getting worse all the time
--David Burch, TubeMogul

Companies are finding increasing success capturing a commercial audience via YouTube. Videos produced by companies captured nearly 5 percent of YouTube's daily top 100 in February - up from 0.4 percent in October 2009, Burch said. And companies are digging deeper to find their niche audience through YouTubers. "You're seeing girls doing cosmetic how-to videos getting sponsorships from cosmetic companies," Burch said. "These girls drop a video and get 3 million views a weeks - that's a lot."

But the odds of individuals making real money on YouTube remain long. TubeMogul estimates that only 15 independent YouTube acts make more than $100,000 a year from banner advertisements on their videos, and only two acts make more than $200,000 a year. Dawson is estimated by TubeMogul to be the top earner with an estimated $295,000 in revenues a year. (Dawson and his manager declined to discuss or confirm his YouTube earnings.)

"These YouTube celebrities are making some great content resonating with a very young audience where the advertising revenues aren't as high," Burch said.

And still a legion of Dawson wannabes pour more content onto YouTube each day. CNN asked Dawson and TubeMogul's Burch to share their tips on how to be an online video star.

Volume, volume, volume

Monday for Dawson is spent uploading his new videos and scripting for the week ahead. Tuesday he collects props and builds sets, if necessary. Wednesday is spent filming, Thursdays editing, Fridays mapping out his second channel video, Saturday is for mopping up unfinished work and on Sunday he picks costumes, themes and dance moves for his weekly "Ask Shane" video.

As a result, Dawson doesn't sleep much depite the protestations from his manager to get more rest. But his consistent volume of new videos has helped Dawson succeed where many major companies have failed.

"A lot of companies went into the YouTube frontier a year-and-a-half or two years ago, but what they didn't have was frequency," Burch said. "You have to update at least once a week, preferably more."

A video posted on YouTube gets half its views in the first two weeks its online, Burch said.

Love it, or leave it

Dawson began shooting videos with his brother when he was 10 years old. As an overweight teenager, he dreamed of a career in Hollywood as an actor and wrote one-act plays for his high school drama class. "I've always been doing videos," Dawson said.

His avocation turned into a profession two years ago after an incident that otherwise would be an Internet 2.0 cautionary tale: He and others were fired from a weight-loss center in August 2008 for a video he posted online that was shot in the workplace.

"I didn't think it was so bad, but someone didn't think it was funny," Dawson recalls. "I laugh about it now, but it was probably the most depressing time of my life. I had so much guilt, and got six people fired."

Although he had posted videos to YouTube infrequently since 2005, his dismissal caused him to focus full-time on his videos to earn a living. "I was out of work and couldn't collect unemployment because I was fired," he said.

Because the odds of success are so small, the labor has to be its own reward before it reaps financial dividends, said Burch of TubeMogul. "If you don't love doing this without making money, give it up," Burch said.

Dare to be different

Dawson's videos feature a stable of characters he impersonates. The content leans to the raunchy and straddles the lines of taste (such as a parody of "Twilight" that has a vampire drinking menstrual blood).

"It's easy to say what these people are doing is so stupid, so asinine," Burch said. "Anyone over 30 probably hasn't heard of these top acts. But it's mostly young kids, and they're resonating with kids."

Dawson started his YouTube career video blogging - or vlogging, talking directly to the camera and making self-deprecating observations about his life. "The first sketch I did was from me having fun at three in the morning, wearing wigs and doing this character for my mom as a phone sex operator," Dawson recalls.

"It doubled the number of views and people started subscribing to me - I didn't even know what 'subscribing' was." Now Dawson has nearly four million subscribers to his three YouTube channels who receive notifications on their YouTube homepage of new videos released.

"It sounds super cliché, but staying true to yourself and what you are works," Dawson said. "People bitch about my videos being too raunchy or whatever, but I'm just making videos for myself. Make the videos that you want to watch, don't think about who is going to be upset or offended."

Stay close to your audience

Like other YouTube successes, Dawson has a wide presence on social networking sites like FaceBook and Twitter. In the early days, Dawson responded to everyone who posted to his MySpace page, "but that got harder after I had 100,000 subscribers."

Still he elicits and shares feedback from his viewers. Ironically, one of the best ways to reach him these days is through snail mail. "I have a P.O. Box that I get about 50 letters a day that my mom picks up, and a lot of weird gifts I like to show on my videos," he said.

"You have to be open ... it's about letting people into your life," Dawson said.

YouTube sensations like Dawson "build an audience one member at a time; they will answer email one person at a time," Burch of TubeMogul said. "They really engage their audience by making a personal connection."