How to Make Thousands of Dollars on YouTube (Maybe Even From Your Cat Videos)

Image: Cat video
Evan under Creative Commons

Do you have a video camera or a smartphone? Great — you have everything necessary to start making money on YouTube.

Make a video, load it up, click a couple of buttons to monetize it, and start telling all your Facebook friends about it. Lather, rinse, repeat. You might not hit it big like Ray William Johnson, a little known comedian who made a million dollars with his videos, but perhaps you’ll develop a nice stream of extra income. And you’ll be the star of your own show!

How I Make Money on YouTube

A few years back, my wife and I created a ten-episode show on ultralight backpacking, starring me. We put the videos on YouTube and monetized them with Google AdSense. We already owned a cheap camera, so this cost us nothing but our time. Alas, our videos never went viral, but they did generate more than one thousand dollars of income over the years.

Last month, my backpacking videos made just $25 or so, but then I haven’t added a new one in two years — or even looked at them for a long time. That residual income is one of the nice things about a YouTube-based video publishing business. Long after you’ve finished the work necessary to create and upload the videos to your channel, they could still generate income every month.

And then there are tax benefits. My little show made my trips into the mountains of Colorado a valid business expense. So if you want a fun little side business that turns your trips into tax deductions and which might (with some luck or marketing savvy) provide a decent stream of income, why not start that YouTube channel today?

How to Start a YouTube Channel

It costs nothing to open a YouTube account and upload your videos. To make money from them, just join the YouTube Partner Program and set up Google AdSense. It automatically adds advertisements to your videos, and you earn money every time someone clicks on or, in some cases, even just sees the ad. Choose to have payments deposited directly into your bank account to keep it as automatic and simple as possible.

Once you’re logged into your YouTube channel, simply click the “Upload” button and find the video file in your computer. Use the boxes provided to describe it and add relevant tags (“dog catching fish” for example, if that’s what viewers will see). Click the “Advanced settings” tab for additional options, including choosing a category for the video. Finally, be sure to click the “Monetization” tab and check the box that says, “Monetize with Ads.” If you poke around a bit, you’ll also find free background music, editing software, speech bubbles, closed captions and other features and resources, all for free.

Take a look at Google’s video monetization criteria for an idea of what kinds of videos qualify. Generally, they have to be family-friendly and your own content. In other words, keep your clothes on and don’t steal video or otherwise violate copyright law. But do read the fine print; even having the radio playing in the background can disqualify your video, unless you get permission from Katy Perry or The Rolling Stones (or whoever) to include their music in your video.

As far as what kind of topics to have for your videos, that’s entirely up to you. YouTube channels offer Spanish or Japanese language lessons, opinions on current events, a million cute cats and anything else you can imagine. A theme is probably a good idea; perhaps something based on your hobby or passion. If you have more than one hobby, just start another channel.

How Much Can You Make?

The amount of money you make depends on whether you know (or learn) how to market your videos, what topics you cover and, to be honest, whether you get lucky and have a video go viral. Judson Laipply’s video, Evolution of Dance, is one example of many videos that have spread quickly around the world. It’s been watched more than 270 million times.

The New York Times recently ran a profile of Olga Kay, who used to be a juggler in Russia and now makes videos about her life in the United States. She does as many as 20 of these videos each week, a busy schedule that is apparently worthwhile: in each of the last three years, she has made over $100,000 from her YouTube channels.

To make big profits, you’ll need big traffic. As reported in Business Week, revenue per 1,000 views had dropped to $6.33 last year as advertisers reconsidered the value of ads on videos and users learned to ignore them. If the trend continues and you get just a half-cent per video, you’ll need a million views to make $5,000. It’s tough to get that much traffic. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)

Then again, since a silly cat video can get more than 50 million views and four Canadian guys can build their crazy videos into a media and clothing brand, who knows? Maybe if you put up a video every week, one of them will hit it big and fund your retirement.

Your Turn: Have you shared your videos on YouTube, and have you monetized them to earn some cash? Tell us about it.