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The bizarre, lucrative world of 'unboxing' videos

Heather Kelly, CNN
On YouTube, an unboxing video showing the toys inside Disney-themed Kinder Eggs has attracted more than 35 million views.
On YouTube, an unboxing video showing the toys inside Disney-themed Kinder Eggs has attracted more than 35 million views.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Unboxing" videos are a growing and surprisingly lucrative genre on YouTube
  • The videos show everything from electronics to small animals being removed from boxes
  • There are 6.5 years worth of YouTube videos with "unboxing" in the title
  • Unboxers can earn up to $4 per 1,000 views

(CNN) -- An enthusiastic male voice announces the new haul -- a dozen fresh Disney-themed Kinder Eggs -- while a disembodied hand rotates a fully wrapped chocolate treat for the camera.

The hand slowly peels the foil off the egg, cracks it open with a thumb and reveals the surprise treasure inside. It's Slinky Dog from "Toy Story"! The video lingers on the plastic pooch for a few seconds, making sure to take in every angle, then repeats the process with each of the remaining Kinder Eggs.

As far as popular videos go, it would seem to pale next to viral skateboard crashes, comedy sketches or music clips. And yet this video has been viewed more than 35 million times since it was posted to the FluffyJet channel on YouTube in 2012.

Welcome to the world of "unboxing videos," one of the many peculiar genres on YouTube, the Google-owned video hosting site where viewers watch more than 6 billion hours of video every month. The volume of unboxing videos has boomed in recent years. Easy to make and surprisingly hypnotic to watch, the videos have become a lucrative little corner of the Internet for the people who film them.

The most popular unboxings are for expensive gadgets, like the iPhone, Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Competition for these views is fierce. Tech-news sites rush to post their own slideshows and videos of brand new Apple products being birthed from their high-end packaging. Companies have even started uploading their own unboxing videos to official YouTube channels, like this clip of the new Xbox One from Microsoft that has been watched more than 3 million times.

Less well known are the secondary product groups, oddly specific areas where there is still plenty of room for YouTube entrepreneurs to stake their claim. Toys of all types are huge, including collectable figurines, Legos and Kinder Egg videos like those posted to the FluffyJet channel are hits. Makeup videos are a small industry unto themselves.

There also are unboxing videos for blenders, Uggs, coffee machines and live reptiles.

If you can buy it, there's probably an unboxing video of it.

Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with "unboxing" in the headline has increased 871%. Last year alone, 2,370 days, or 6.5 years, worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site. The traffic is coming from all over the world, with an uptick in recent interest from such far-flung places as India, Brunei, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The people who post the videos are not just bragging about their latest purchases. They make money off ads displayed at the start of a clip or that pop up while they're playing. YouTube's payment system is complicated, but one unboxer said he can make $2 to $4 for every 1,000 views. Older videos don't necessarily fall off the search rankings, so a creator in it for the long haul can make more money as they add videos over time.

Creators only get paid per "monitized" view. That means visitors have to actually watch enough of the video for ads to appear. To keep people from abandoning a video before they've seen an ad, the videos have to be engaging, well shot and more than just SEO-keyword spam.

"It just needs to be long enough and good enough for people to stay to watch the ad," said the unboxer, who preferred not to be identified to prevent competitors from moving in on his categories. He currently has more than 2,000 videos on YouTube.

Unboxers look at Google Ad Words and YouTube search's auto suggest function to uncover popular search terms and name their videos accordingly. They might borrow the products, or buy and return them after the video is shot. Companies will even ship free samples to the more popular channels.

To keep viewers engaged, unboxers often bring a unique style to their product category. Some put their own personalities front and center, turning their faces into a trusted brand that brings back followers. Others have a specific shooting style that might favor time-lapse style footage set to catchy music, or close-up shots that pan lovingly over the unblemished surface of a new product.

In addition to pulling in search traffic, good unboxers can get large volumes of subscribers to their YouTube channels. Consistency and focus are key to luring in those repeat viewers, so some people will have multiple channels, one for each narrow category.

"If someone really cares about Kinder Toys and you also have chainsaws, they're not going to subscribe," said the unboxer.

It's clear why enterprising people make the videos, but what compels so many viewers to watch an amateur video of some stranger they don't know opening a box? What would compel a viewer to subscribe to the all-coffee channel and binge-watch a guy unpacking coffee makers?

One reason is purely practical. Unboxing videos offer an unvarnished and honest peek at commercial products. The glossy, heavily retouched images and videos companies share of their goods often vary from what's really in the box. People want to know what they're really getting, whether the product looks cheap or well made, or if there are more parts than advertised. It's research material for devoted comparison shoppers and collectors.

Some people actually find watching an unboxing clip to be satisfying and enjoyable. As any kid on Christmas morning can tell you, the process of ripping open paper and figuring out what's inside a package is half the fun. (Some YouTubers take the thrill to its literal conclusion and post videos of themselves opening birthday and holiday presents.)

FluffyJet's audience metrics say viewers are primarily adults between 25 and 44, half of whom are in the United States.

Kids are the primary target for toy channels, and the videos are shot accordingly, with bright colors, quick cuts and chipper narration.

Some viewers are parents who are playing toy-unboxing videos to entertain their children. The parents might not be able to afford all the toys, but their kids can watch the videos and dream.

"Toy unboxing videos are great because kids get to experience the opening just as if they were opening the toys themselves," said a FluffyJet spokesperson. "As for surprise unboxing videos, it is a real mystery, literally. Kids seem to love the mystery of seeing what's inside the surprise and seeing all their favorite toy characters."

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