Easy, Breezy, Beautiful: Uncovering the Business of Beauty on YouTube

/ Jul 8, 2013


It all started with a simple YouTube search: “smoky eye for brown eyes.” Four hours later, I had a basic grasp of how to achieve the coveted look — not to mention a newfound appreciation for eyeshadow primer, liquid liner, and brow highlighter. Welcome to the Business of Beauty on YouTube, where thousands of digital beauty gurus upload thousands of hours of tutorials, product reviews, and interviews every day.

It’s where mega-brands like P&G and Estee Lauder are targeting a rabid audience with channels of their own, or through partnerships with media companies like Hearst and sponsorships of high-profile content creators like Tanya Burr. It’s where the “face” of beauty actually mirrors the demographic makeup of the United States (and abroad), with popular content creators across a variety of ages and ethnicities, and both genders. And it’s where viewers like me can get lost in a sea of great (and not-so-great) content.

YouTube Beauty by the Numbers

The global beauty industry is massive — total sales for Q1 topped $2.2 billion last year — so it’s no surprise that the appetite for beauty content on YouTube is equally huge. Some quick stats from luxury research group L2:

  • Dior was the top-ranked beauty brand on YouTube in 2012, racking up nearly 57 million views

  • Views on Proactiv’s content jumped by 118 percent year-over-year to almost 14 million in 2012

YouTube hasn’t publicly released official stats, but a quick dive into the 12 beauty channels listed on its Ads page also shows the magnitude of the audience:

  • Michelle Phan — arguably the most popular of all beauty gurus — boasts more than 4.1 million subscribers and over 738 million views on her channel alone

  • Excluding Phan and her Fawn Network, five of the channels — It’s Judy Time, PurseBuzz, The Stylish, Xteener, and Hello Style — have more than 100,000 subscribers each

  • Even “smaller” channels like Total Beauty and eHow have managed to accrue upwards of 20 million views on their videos

  • Combined, the 12 channels have amassed over 1.2 billion views — a bigger audience than this year’s Super Bowl, traditional media’s biggest event in terms of ad prices

Of course, views and subscriber counts are just one type of metric. Stats like subscriber retention, view-through rates, and ad click-through rates would provide a more nuanced understanding of how engaged the YouTube beauty audience is, but there’s currently no definitive, third-party source for that type of information.

Individual content creators and multi-channel networks (MCNs) like StyleHaul and Big Frame’s ‘Polished‘ likely offer their own analytics for brands — particularly since advertisers want a granular understanding of the audience — but from an outsider’s view, it’s all a matter of either knowing who to subscribe to or rolling the dice with search.

Show Me the Pretty

Much like any YouTube adventure, searching for beauty content using common phrases like “statement lip,” “applying liquid liner,” or even “organic skincare” yields a mixed bag of results. Some content is popular — but not necessarily good — and exploring beyond the first few pages of results is time-consuming (hence my initial four-hour trip down the eye makeup rabbit hole).

Promoted videos can dominate the search results and the targeting is hit-or-miss. Over the course of a single viewing session, viewers can often be served the same, irrelevant ad multiple times — and then other times, get the perfect 30-second spot that boosts purchase intent or product consideration (L’Oreal Spain Agua Micelar makeup remover, I’m looking at you).

Still, some commonalities emerge when you spend enough time digging. For example, it appears that many of the more popular content creators — including Jennie Jenkins, Kandee Johnson, Rachel Talbott, and Amanda Steele — began uploading beauty videos in 2009. In fact, many of the most popular videos in terms of overall views are clips from 2010–2012, and not a channel’s most current content.

That hasn’t stopped beauty haulers from adhering to seasonal calendars, a factor YouTube beauty and entertainment strategist Taylor Marcus says contributes to overall success. “Whether it’s tagging videos around summer hauls or catering specifically to Halloween makeup, beauty videos work very well when programmed around certain tentpole moments,” Marcus says. “Of course there are evergreen topics, like what foundation works well or a skin cleaning regime, but definitely creators are successful when they lean in to the current trends and seasonality.”

Meanwhile, beauty content is dominated by two types of videos – how-tos or tutorials and product reviews or “hauls” – across five main categories:

  • Makeup

  • Hair

  • Skincare

  • Natural/Vegan

  • Nails

There are subcategories like men’s and celebrity-focused content within each vertical, which makes sense, since the categories mirror the breakdown of how beauty products are sold in stores. The categories and subcategories also reflect global trends in beauty product consumption. For example, demand for organic beauty products is forecast to reach $13.2 billion in 2018, so you’d expect to see networks like Nature’s Knock Out to continue to increase in popularity. And men’s grooming is one of the fastest-growing categories in personal care, hence the growth in popularity of content creators like Jair Woo and Men’s Skin Care with Ross.

MensSkinCarewithRoss SMALL

Redefining Beauty One Channel at a Time

There’s also a distinct heterogeneousness to the beauty content on YouTube, a reflection perhaps of the global nature of its audience. Whether discovered by search or from clicking through content creator suggestions and tags, the faces behind the content are quite diverse.

Natural hair-care vloggers like Franchesca Ramsey, Kim Love, and Long Hair Don’t Care have surged in popularity with women of color. There are hundreds of videos focused on makeup for Indian weddings, and even channels focused on makeup for women battling cancer.

Far more than just helping brands sell products, YouTube is evolving into a place where the “business of beauty” isn’t defined by “mainstream” American or Western standards of beauty. There is a diversity of races, nationalities, and an influx of “alternative” ideas of beauty — take the punk rock-inspired Monroe Misfit or Vintage or Tacky for example. In this way, YouTube is helping to democratize what “beauty” means, much in the same way it’s democratizing what it means to be a comedian, a news anchor, and even a romantic actor.

Come farther down the beauty rabbit hole with VideoInk as we continue exploring the Business of Beauty on YouTube this week. Tomorrow, I will take a closer look at how brands and MCNs are monetizing this content. VideoInk will also be profiling specific beauty haulers like Kandee Johnson, Rachel Talbott, and Zoella throughout the week, so stay tuned!

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