In one of Julie Nolke’s YouTube videos in her Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self series, a Julie from January 2022 offers vague pandemic updates to the Julie of August 2021.
“Season three, I’ll be honest, is not as good as season one and two,” says 2022 Julie – she’s talking about the Omicron variant. “Season three, I feel like the writing has really fallen off. It’s like we’ve been here before, we’ve seen these plot lines.”
The Calgary-born theatre grad started on YouTube in 2015 when she was struggling to find acting gigs. “It was me trying to take control, to be creative and create something,” Ms. Nolke says. “Cut to seven years later and now I have a business where I get to exactly what I want to do and it works in tandem with the traditional industry.”
She generates income from ad revenue, creating sponsored content – her I’m a Mom! video is sponsored by educational video company Skillshare, for example – and getting paid subscribers via her Patreon page. Other money-making opportunities for online personalities can include selling branded merchandise, doing in-person events and even creating their own product lines.
Ms. Nolke one of a small but growing group of female comics making pandemic-weary Canadians laugh on social media – think of them as the heirs of online comedic phenom Lilly Singh. It’s a funny old path to success.
“The comedy industry in general is hard to penetrate and make a lucrative career of it,” says Ela Veresiu, an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University who studies social media. “There are a lot of comics and a lot of saturation.”
Dr. Veresiu notes that it’s harder for women in comedy.
“People don’t always believe my stories, they say, ‘You made that up,’” says Vancouver’s Sandra Jeenie Kwon, who posts under the name Jeenie Weenie and has 4.3 million subscribers on YouTube and 8.4 million followers on TikTok.
Kris Collins, who hails from Abbotsford, B.C. and performs under the name Kallmekris, says she’s had male creators steal her material outright.
“There are always trolls out there who say things like, ‘Women aren’t funny, you suck,’” says Ms. Collins.
But she is funny, according to millions of fans. Ms. Collins, who started making videos when COVID-19 lockdowns disrupted her career as a hair stylist, has 6.1 million subscribers on YouTube and 44.5 million followers on TikTok – she’s the top creator from Canada and among the top 25 on the platform.
Building audiences – and keeping them
The path to online comedy success is not always straightforward. Ms. Kwon took to YouTube when she had to temporarily shut down her Vancouver restaurant in 2020.
“It was about telling stories,” she recalls. She began sharing tales of her past life as a flight attendant (Ms. Kwon has had numerous jobs in finance, hospitality and small business).
“Being a flight attendant was part of my life, so I shared those stories. They resonated with everyone, which I did not expect,” says Ms. Kwon, who also posts comical videos on flying tips.
“Sometimes, it’s relatability over anything else,” says Joe Gagliese, co-founder and co-CEO of Viral Nation, an agency that represents influencers via its Viral Nation Talent arm. “I think the people who grow the most audience online are people that others can relate to the most.”
Ms. Collins is similarly unsure why her social media content took off, but she says she did commit to learning about and understanding the platforms early on, then posted frequently and regularly.
“That first year, I had no strategy, I was just consistent,” she says. “I started making five or more TikToks a day for over a year.” She began making lip sync videos, then pivoted to comedic skits.
Dr. Veresiu says successful online comics maintain the same persona between their channels and their offline work. She says Lilly Singh’s two-season NBC late-night talk show struggled partly because she got away from her usual material, which often involved poking fun at Ms. Singh’s South Asian community and upbringing.
For online comics, keeping the audience happy also means keeping any sponsored videos on brand. Ms. Collins says she’s turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in product endorsements. “I didn’t get into this to do promotions for brands in every other video,” she says.
Ms. Kwon says carefully chooses products for her branded videos. “Everyone I partner with sells products I use,” she says. “I have to be me.”
Consistency is also about being present online all the time. That pressure can wear on these content creators. “It’s not easy, making videos every single week. You get writer’s block a lot,” says Ms. Nolke.
Running a business while learning on the job
Ms. Nolke, Ms. Kwon and Ms. Collins are essentially small business owners who have learned how to run things as they built their audience base. Mr. Gagliese says the instant fame that comes to some online personalities can be challenging to navigate and monetize.
“You can be in your house and suddenly you’ve got a million followers. Then, it’s like, what do I do now?” he says. “In general, most influencers don’t know what they’re doing, which is a problem.”
For Ms. Nolke, learning on the job has been a must. “I told my mother this [is] my master’s degree,” she says. Lessons learned have included signing with a shifty management company. “The contract was horrible,” she says. The company did nothing for her yet took a generous cut, and it was difficult to extricate herself from the agreement, she says.
Ms. Gagliese says this is unfortunately a common phenomenon in the online influencer space – there are always bad actors ready to exploit new talent. “It’s the same in sports, the same in Hollywood,” he says.
Ms. Nolke says she has no regrets, having learned from the experience. She now surrounds herself with a team she trusts and reads her contracts carefully. She’s taken advice from her parents, who are accountants, and incorporated her company. She pays herself regularly, saves for the future and increasingly hires people to assist her so she can focus on content.
Growing the brand
Another worry for YouTube and TikTok comics is staying relevant in the ephemeral world of online fame.
“Everything passes,” notes Ms. Collins. “I’ve seen it happen with YouTube – the people I used to follow when I was younger, they’re all gone now.”
Mr. Gagliese says the risk of irrelevance is real for creators who experienced overnight success. “Those who found success through hard work, dedication and time generally have a much longer success horizon,” he says.
For many, building their careers beyond digital is a goal. Ms. Nolke has landed parts on series such as Workin’ Moms and Murdoch Mysteries as well as a writing job and recurring role on CBC’s Run the Burbs. She’s now writing an original series.
Though her acting agent used to dissuade her from promoting her social media success, “I feel like the stigma about YouTube is changing,” says Ms. Nolke. “Now, the idea is, if she’s made it on YouTube, she must be good.”
Ms. Collins has similar expansion plans for the future. “I want to keep evolving my content,” she says. “I don’t think anyone in this can succeed by just doing the same thing all the time.” She’s been collaborating with other creators and is working on a podcast. She’s written episodes of a 30-minute show, but is not sure what she’ll do with it – she wants to retain creative control.
For her part, Ms. Kwon also wants to keep growing as a creator and performer, but says she’s firm about staying true to her values as she moves into other pursuits.
“It’s stressful to think about the future,” she says. “But I’ll just keep doing what I do and keep doing what makes me laugh. I hope I never lose that – that’s how everything started.”
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