When you first come across the world of virtual YouTubers, it can seem a little strange and exotic, and you might be forgiven for thinking that things work a little differently over in VTuber land (that’s not a real place, by the way). In particular, you may find yourself wondering how do virtual YouTubers make money?
The truth is virtual YouTubers operate in much the same way that regular YouTubers do. Granted, the process of making the content is different, but everything that happens outside of the creation process is more or less the same. We’re going to go over the ways virtual YouTubers make money—bearing in mind that these are also the ways regular YouTubers make money—but there is more to explore here, because while VTubers make their money through many of the same methods, there is a noticeable shift of focus when compared to a typical flesh and bone YouTuber.
But let’s kick things off with those money-making methods.
How Do Virtual YouTubers Make Money?
Virtual YouTubers just like standard YouTubers and influencers make money through the YouTube Partner Program, affiliate marketing, merchandise sales, crowd funding sites like Patreon and brand deals. The only difference between Virtual YouTubers (VTubers) and human influencers is their chosen public persona, avatar or face.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of VTuber monetisation, we’ll give you a brief overview of the most common methods available to a typical YouTuber. For a more in-depth breakdown, check this post out.
The YouTube Partner Programme
The OG, as it were. This method of monetising YouTube content has been around in some form or another since the earliest days of YouTube monetisation. For eligible YouTubers, you simply opt your channel into monetisation, and YouTube will begin displaying ads beside, over, and during your videos. The revenue generated from these ads is then shared with the YouTuber.
In terms of the amount of money you make, the YouTube Partner Programme is hardly at the top of most YouTuber’s list. You generally have to have a lot of views to make any real money, and even then it is an incredibly unreliable method due to the volatility of the advertising market and YouTube’s own constant tinkering with their terms and algorithms. It is also incredibly inconsistent between YouTubers. Due to the nature of online advertising—which is essentially auction-based—one YouTuber could make many times more than another YouTuber, even if the other YouTuber has the same or more views.
For YouTubers with loyal audiences who are either invested in the content that is being produced or invested in the YouTuber themselves, memberships offer a great way to cut out the volatility of the advertising space that we mentioned above.
Unlike advertising, memberships involve your members supporting you directly in exchange for perks that aren’t available to regular viewers. This method is more consistent than advertising. Granted, members will drift away from time to time, but if your content is consistently compelling, new members will replace them, and you are unlikely to see a sudden drop in your earnings—well unless you do something to alienate your members.
This also cuts out many of the issues that have been typified by the “Adpocalypses” that YouTube has brought down upon us. As your members are choosing to support you directly, there is no question of whether the content is suitable, so you don’t need to worry about your revenue taking a sudden nosedive because advertisers have suddenly decided they don’t want their brand associated with your kind of content.
Super Chat is a method that streamers can use to monetise their live streams. Essentially, the live audience can donate a little sum of money (or a large sum, it’s up to them) to get their message pinned to the top of chat for a period. In most cases, the message will also pop up in the video, but that is entirely down to the YouTuber.
Like Memberships, Super Chat has the advantage of not being beholden to changing YouTube monetisation policies and the shifting whims of advertisers. The only real downside is that there is no way for a YouTuber who doesn’t stream to take advantage of it.
Brand Deals, Sponsored Content, and Endorsements
For YouTubers who command enough of an influence in a given area, the prospect of brands coming to you directly (or through an agency) may be on the table. This is where a brand pays you to promote them on your videos, cutting out YouTube in the process.
Though each deal is unique, brand deals are typically more lucrative than the equivalent revenue you would get from YouTube. And, in many cases, you can still monetise your sponsored content through the YouTube Partner Programme, essentially letting you double dip.
Unlike advertising revenue, brand deals are not necessarily predicated on the size of your audience. Of course, the bigger your audience, the more likely you are to get offered this kind of arrangement, but the ultimate value of your content is determined by the conversions generated for the brands that sponsor you. If your videos typically generate a higher-than-average level of interest from your viewers, brands will be willing to pay your more to get their products or services promoted by you, even if you have a relatively small audience.
For YouTubers whose content revolves around products and services—such as YouTubers who review things—affiliate sales are a way to earn revenue from your recommendations.
By signing up for the relevant affiliate programs and linking to the products or services you are discussing in your videos, you earn a commission for every viewer who buys a product or signs up to a service through your links.
You also provide your viewers with a quick and easy way to get to things you are talking about.
For those lucky YouTubers who are able to cultivate an audience that is invested in them, merchandise is another monetisation option.
You could do this through a third-party merch retailer or through YouTube’s own merch shelf. Of course, the success of this is determined by your audience’s willingness to buy your merch.
There is a world of difference between dropping a couple of dollars in Super Chat and buying a twenty dollar shirt from your merch store.
Patreon and Similar Services
In essence, this option is the same as YouTube Memberships, though YouTube has certain restrictions in place—such as requiring your to have at least 30,000 subscribers—before you can make use of that option. Third-party alternatives such as Patreon do not have such restrictions, meaning you can offer your subscribers a way to support you directly much sooner than you would be able to through YouTube itself.
Like Memberships, the basic principle is that your Patreons want to support you directly, but you would generally offer them some incentives, such as exclusive content.
What’s Different for Virtual YouTubers?
The most significant difference between a regular YouTuber and virtual YouTuber is, of course, their appearance (in the videos, of course). People don’t typically want to buy merchandise with a human face on it; we tend to prefer designs and artwork. For virtual YouTubers, their digital avatar is the artwork. With the majority of virtual YouTubers being Japanese anime characters, they have artwork ready to go by just taking a screenshot of their digital avatar.
The next area of difference is how YouTube perceives them. YouTube has been cracking down on videos intended for consumption by children. This is due to stricter regulations on what data can be collected on underage viewers, which in turn leads to advertisers being less willing to show their ads on children’s YouTube videos because they can’t be as accurate with their targeting.
This can present a problem for virtual YouTubers because most of them are cartoon characters, and even though their content may not be intended for children, YouTube doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to separating out videos that should be demonetised from videos that look a bit like videos that should be demonetised.
The final main difference we’re going to highlight is the fact that many of the top virtual YouTubers are run by agencies like Hololive, essentially creating a team of popular mascots to generate revenue. This doesn’t necessarily affect new entries into the virtual YouTube space—the barrier to entry for creating virtual avatars and content is relatively low—but it is an interesting aspect of this space that is worth noting.
Virtual YouTube Expansion?
For the moment, the majority of virtual YouTube is sitting comfortably around its place of origin; Japan. Most of the YouTubers in this space are creating Japanese-language content and seemingly have little interest in expanding beyond that sphere.
That being said, the few virtual YouTubers that have ventured into the world of English-speaking content are doing very well, and there is a strong interest in Japanese anime culture in the west.
These things would suggest that there is a potential explosion of interest in this scene on the horizon, as more people see the potential of English-language virtual YouTube content.
The Creation of Virtual YouTubers
There are several programmes and mobile apps out there that can be used to create digital avatars for use in virtual YouTube content. And, if the above prediction of a boom in interest holds true, it would be reasonable to expect the number of applications available to grow, also.
These pieces of software range from applications for making a digital avatar to applications for animating those digital avatars, with a few options straddling this line and offering both functions in one package. The most useful part of these applications, however, is the ability to animate the digital avatars using things like VR controllers, or webcam-based motion-tracking. Without these techniques, it would be expensive indeed to create the videos, as animating by hand is a lengthy process that requires a lot of skill.
Any financial benefit there is to running a virtual YouTube channel would quickly be erased if the YouTuber were forced to animate their avatar by hand. With motion-tracking technology, the YouTuber can mostly just film themselves as though they were making a regular video, while the software takes care of translating the YouTuber’s movements to the digital avatar.
Should You Become a Virtual YouTuber?
All this talk of a potential explosion of interest may have you wondering if virtual YouTubing is something you could try yourself.
The good news is that there is a very low barrier to entry technologically speaking—you can purchase software that will enable you to animate a digital avatar with a nothing more than a webcam for as little as $15, or even free in some cases. There is also no real restriction on what kind of content you can make. The existing popular virtual YouTubers cover quite a broad spectrum of video types, showing that it is more of a fandom-driven thing than a content-driven thing.
In other words, viewers are coming for the virtual YouTuber more than they are coming for the specific content in the video.
To that end, you should ensure you have something to hang your channel’s hat on. This could be informative or interesting content, or it could be an entertaining personality—ideally, it would be both. As long as you have something to draw viewers interest, you will be fine. Of course, this part at least is true for regular YouTubers, as well.
There are plenty of reasons why you might be interested in taking on a virtual persona rather than getting in front of a camera yourself—camera shyness, privacy, a need to express yourself in different ways—but ultimately that part of the equation isn’t important; you could just do it because you think it’s cool.
For the most part, virtual YouTubers make their money the same way as non-virtual YouTubers. The primary differences in that respect are where the focus lays, with virtual YouTubers making more of their money from different areas to regular YouTube. More merch and less Patreon. More Super Chat and less YouTube Partner Programme.
It should be noted, however, that while the top twenty or thirty virtual YouTubers generate a very hefty amount of revenue from their content, there is a very steep drop off after those top channels. There were around 30,000 virtual YouTubers at the start of 2020, and most of them weren’t making much—if any—money at all.