YouTube created a new kind of celebrity. Now it has to treat them like stars or risk losing them.
At the annual VidCon gathering of Internet video personalities, a battle of pitches is being waged this week between Google Inc.
’s incumbent service and new rivals looking to lure away top online video talent.
More than 10 online-video providers presented for the first time, including Twitter Inc.
’s Periscope and Vine, GoPro Inc.
and Comcast Corp.
, according to VidCon organizers. Facebook Inc.,
YouTube’s biggest rival, sent executives to the Anaheim, Calif., event.
“Everyone is interested in other platforms to diversify or to develop new audiences,” said Hank Green, host of popular YouTube shows such as “Crash Course” and a co-founder of VidCon.
Cenk Uygur, host of a top YouTube news channel called “The Young Turks,” earlier this year launched a show exclusively for Facebook. YouTube has “stepped it up over the last six months,” he said, though he is talking to other platforms at VidCon.
That kind of pressure is forcing YouTube to forge better relationships with popular creators, finding them opportunities for growth and in some cases paying them more.
YouTube now has a division that focuses solely on its “top creators,” addressing their complaints, helping them to craft new material and generate more revenue. The team tries to steer the best videos to “Google Preferred,” which makes the top 5% of YouTube content available for advertisers to buy upfront at premium prices.
“I want to be running a platform that they can stay on, that they can grow up on and extend their work even further,” YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki said in an interview.
More than 1.3 million people subscribe to Anna Akana’s YouTube channel of comedy and advice sketches. A member of YouTube’s top-creators team called her in early July inquiring about any concerns or ideas she had. Before that encounter, she said, she had rarely spoken to an employee in four years posting to the site.
Ms. Akana said she wanted to do longer, narrative videos. The team arranged a meeting with YouTube Originals, which helps creators develop shows and movies.
A YouTube representative helped Elise Strachan, creator of the popular channel “MyCupcakeAddiction,” apply for a grant from a joint venture between the Australian government and Google that funds higher-quality online video production.
At VidCon on Thursday, Ms. Wojcicki announced new studios in Toronto and Mumbai slated for 2016, where YouTubers can use free stages and equipment. She also unveiled a redesigned mobile app that showcases creator channels more. On Wednesday, YouTube hired MTV programming chief Susanne Daniels to oversee original movies and series starring top creators.
Online video, and the payments that go with it, is one of the hottest battles. Annual advertising spending on digital video is growing 34% a year and will hit almost $10 billion in 2016, according to investment bank Luma Partners.
YouTube late last year began dangling extra money—upfront payments and bonuses on top of the usual 55% cut of ad revenue—to some top creators who post to YouTube first or at the same time as other platforms, according to people familiar with the situation.
Vessel, run by former Amazon.com
and Hulu executive Jason Kilar, is one of the rivals offering lucrative payouts if creators post first to the startup. Vessel charges a $2.99 monthly subscription and offers creators 70% of ad revenue. It also shares a big chunk of its subscription revenue with creators.
Ms. Akana isn’t getting as many views on Vessel as she does on YouTube but said she is making a larger, steadier income, including a minimum annual income.
She said her YouTube videos garner about $2 in ad revenue for each thousand views, meaning a video seen one million times will generate $2,000. The creators get 55% of that. A person close to Google said YouTube videos can fetch far more on average than $2 per thousand views.
Ms. Strachan, the creator of MyCupcakeAddiction, still says Facebook caught her interest when it said in early July it would start sharing ad revenue. “When it is monetized that will be very interesting,” Ms. Strachan said. “I honestly don’t know which will be the better option.”
Meanwhile, YouTube and its rivals are trying to one-up each other in offering to get stars to the next level.
Vimeo, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, is launching a new series in September that is packed with YouTube stars such as PewDiePie and Grace Helbig. Netflix
has also started streaming shows created by or starring top YouTube talent.
YouTube in April announced its similar efforts with top stars such as the Fine Brothers and Smosh. The movies will premiere on YouTube before becoming available elsewhere, it said.
Ms. Wojcicki said deals with content creators are confidential but that YouTube isn’t resting. “Other media companies are coming to creators and doing XYZ with them,” she said, “and I’m saying well why can’t we do XYZ with them?”
Write to Alistair Barr at email@example.com