Alisha Marie should have been riding high last May. A month earlier, the YouTube star celebrated the 10-year anniversary of her main channel, which at the time had more than seven million subscribers. Instead she was running on empty.
Over the course of the previous decade, Marie’s YouTube channel had grown from a high school hobby into a lucrative livelihood that enabled the 25-year-old to afford to buy her own house. But in building that business, Marie had burnt herself out. Taking a day off was not an option because she felt she needed to be constantly producing the videos that paid her bills. She pushed herself to attend industry events because of the networking opportunities that could lead to a brand deal that might spawn a long-term partnership and sustainable income. But by May 2018 she had pushed herself too hard.
“I realized I did the one thing I never thought I would do, which was just chasing views and uploading videos that I wasn’t even proud of,” says Marie.
In her moment of panic, Marie decided to take what would become a two-month break from YouTube. During her hiatus, she reflected on her business and the fact that, while she was her own boss, she could not be her only employee. “I quickly realized I can’t keep doing all of this by myself, especially if I want to do bigger projects,” says Marie, who hired an assistant and a production assistant to go along with her manager.
As a YouTube star, “you’re the CEO, but you’re also the social media department, the production company, the editor. You’re literally doing so many jobs that it does become a 24/7 operation,” says Rafi Fine, president of Fine Brothers Entertainment, the media company that grew from the YouTube channel that he started with his brother Benny in 2007 and that now consists of more than 80 employees.
YouTube stars have found themselves the bosses of media companies that originated as hobbies. Over the past few years, the stresses of managing those businesses has led many top YouTube stars — including Marie, PewDiePie, Liza Koshy, Lilly Singh, Grace Helbig and David Dobrik — to take breaks to tend to their own well-being as well as their businesses’. However, for these YouTube stars, deciding to put things on pause can be terrifying because there is no guarantee that their businesses will be able to pick back up where they left off. Their fans’ attention may have shifted. Platforms’ algorithms may no longer favor their content. And marketers may have moved on to work with other YouTube stars.
YouTube star burnout is not an issue that has popped up on many marketers’ radars, according to brand and agency execs. Many marketers remain new to influencer marketing and are concerned with understanding how to work with YouTube stars and looking for red flags like profanity and other offensive content, not whether a YouTube star is struggling with anxiety or depression.
“Do brands ever check on the welfare of influencers? The truth is, if you’re using an influencer for reach and a campaign-style relationship, typically no,” says Buck Wise, svp of marketing partnerships at Wunderman. However YouTube stars, and increasingly marketers, are seeking out long-term business relationships, in which case brands would ask about a YouTube star’s well-being, he says.
While YouTube stars may worry that raising the issue could jeopardize a brand deal, it’s more likely to have the opposite effect. “Now, content is so much more about true, raw life and experiences that people go through. I think brands would be more attracted to somebody who has gone through something so publicly,” says Wise.
Mobile gaming company Seriously has been investing in influencer marketing for four years. In that time, the brand has experienced multiple instances where a YouTube star’s manager privately communicated that the star is dealing with anxiety or other mental-health issues and needs to delay a deal. It’s never been a problem, says Phil Hickey, evp of brand and digital at Seriously. “We agree to talk later and start building a relationship of trust with that influencer, and then we usually do something with them down the road,” he says.
When Marie took her break last year, she risked a brand deal. She had signed a contract to promote a brand on her main YouTube channel but had not done so yet. She informed the brand about what was going on. Fortunately, the brand was understanding and said they could revisit the deal later. But, after her hiatus, Marie realized that the deal was not a good fit for her or the brand. The brand agreed and left the door open to working with her in the future. “It goes to show how after the break I was able to think more clearly,” says Marie, who, now with a team around her, has launched a podcast and a merchandise line.