Sarah Penna is the co-founder and head of talent management at Big Frame, a new breed of talent agency that represents YouTube celebrities and viral video stars.
By helping talented e-entertainers create must-see TV, Penna is leading the reinvention of online entertainment and making YouTube web series a compelling alternative to traditional cable TV shows.
YouTube superstar “Jenna Marbles" (née Mourey) who has the fifth most popular channel on the site and nearly 5 million subscribers, got her start with Penna, who boasts a stable of stars such as MysteryGuitarMan and Miss Glamorazzi who command enormous audiences on the video sharing site (Mourey is now represented by another talent agency). In her quest to uncover new talent and stay up-to-speed on eighty-odd Big Frame creators, Penna personally watches between one and 10 YouTube videos a day.
Penna is also proving that YouTube creators can make a mint off a platform best known for cat clips and home videos. Though Penna declined to specify how much Big Frame’s talent earns from advertising, brand deals, book contracts and merchandising, she notes, “For most of our talent, this is their full-time job.” The Independent recently estimated creators who attract around 5 million views per month can bring in “six-figure incomes,” and some YouTube stars are said to be worth millions.
For our “Life as…” series, Penna spoke with HuffPostTech about creating viral sensations, fighting for talent and how data drives the shows.
What are the attributes of a YouTube creator that scream “star” to you?
I try to figure out if this talent is someone that people are attracted to and who can have a lot of influence.
I look in the comments on the video to see how people are reacting. I’ll also send a video to people who are not in the YouTube world, like family and friends, and see what they think. If they’re like, “I get it! This is funny!” then I’ll know the creator can reach beyond the typical YouTube audience and it’s worth exploring. Starting a channel from scratch with someone who hasn’t been on YouTube is exceptional, though there have been a couple of people who have just had viral videos that we’ve made into YouTube talent.
What separates a so-so YouTube artist from a star?
Honestly, there’s no formula: That’s why companies that try to make viral videos don’t succeed. A viral video is born every day, but you can’t make a viral video, unless you buy a lot of views. Big viral videos are always accidental and you can’t capture what it is the internet will want to gravitate toward that day.
How do you help a YouTube creator go from unknown vlogger to viral sensation?
Jenna Marbles had only one YouTube viral video and wasn’t going to make any more until I called her and said, “You should make viral videos.” I flew her out here for a week, set her up with some YouTube talent, cleaned up her social media – she had four channels and five Twitter feeds -- and got her on a schedule -- she’s on a once-a-week schedule now [posting one video a week]. I told her to remind people to subscribe to her channel in each video and we planned out the next two months of content while she was here.
As soon as she started putting out content on a regular basis, asking people to subscribe to her videos, and showing up in bunch of other YouTube videos, it all coalesced to rocket her to the top where she is now. Some talent just have that thing that people are attracted to. Obviously her content is funny to lot of people.
How do you use analytics -- like video views or number of “likes” on a video -- to tweak the content a YouTuber creates for a channel?
The analytics team will look at comments, subscribers, views and so forth, and they’ll look at the top five videos and the themes addressed within them to see if those themes can be replicated. They’ll see if there’s a particular type of content that’s very catchy on a channel, then see if we can replicate that and try to help channels develop content around that.
For example, we have a small channel called Mars Rising and they sometimes do action videos, sometimes comedy, sometimes things that are very specifically targeted to the nerdy community, like LARPing (live action role-playing games). We looked at their videos and saw that action videos tend to do best, so we suggested they stay away from comedy and encouraged them to do more action videos.
What’s the most important difference in the way people watch video on YouTube as opposed to traditional cable TV?
Everything. YouTube has shorter-form content and it’s much more personality driven than content driven. When I’m on YouTube, I want to watch the personalities I like. When I turn on the TV, it’s because I like the show.
What are the YouTube creators’ goals? Internet domination? A traditional TV show?
Jenna Marbles could have done any show on any network at any point, but she turned them all down. For a lot of YouTube creators, their YouTube channel comes first and nothing gets in the way of the time they’re dedicating to the channel. They also have full creative control of their channel [which is more rare with a network show]. So there might be a conversation where I’m like, “This great deal, they talent will be so excited,” but the creator is like “no, because I know my audience will react in this way and I don’t want it to look like them like I’m selling out.”
How do you find new talent on YouTube?
A lot of times, our talent will recommend people. We also have a business-email people write into and we’re also always on the lookout for new talent. Some of my talent coordinators’ jobs are to actively look through YouTube and see what they can find, especially if we’re looking for a particular type of content like a cooking channel or a comedy channel.
How cutthroat is the competition over YouTube talent in the industry?
It’s extremely high. We’ve had instances where someone will reach out to us, and we’ll say “We’ll take a look at your channel,” then watch it and discuss it, and by the time we get back to them five days later, they’ve already decided to sign with someone else. Traditional agencies are getting into this space, too. People are talking about signing bonuses and that kind of stuff. It’s getting crazy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. See the rest of HuffPost's "Life As ..." series, which profiles tech world's unsung heroes, behind-the-scenes pioneers and unknown actors, here.