Do you know MrBeast? His real name is Jimmy Donaldson and his YouTube channel has 217M subscribers. His latest video, which I’m posting below, has 86,434,314 views since debuting five days ago.
The video also has a ‘live read’ and product demonstration (at 11 minutes, 10 seconds) featuring Shopify and Kanga Coolers. It’s an old-school advertising technique inside a new-school production.
In the credits on YouTube, MrBeast also links to a host of other brands that appear in the video, including , , , , , , , , and
The narrative is also interrupted twice by ads served by YouTube. The content itself and the way it makes money from advertising are nothing new here, yet this ad-supported reality-tinged game show is reportedly the highest-earning channel on YouTube, with a reported income of $54 million in 2021.
At 25, Donaldson oversees a fast-growing empire that may be worth more than $1 billion, reports CNN. Furthermore, MrBeast now operates from a $10 million studio complex near Greenville, NC with 100 acres of land and multiple warehouses for shooting videos.
What is MrBeast’s magic sauce?
According to Ted Gioia, a.k.a. The Honest Broker on Substack, MrBeast is “taking the exact same formula used by huge corporations (essentially reality TV concepts) and doing it much better.” Gioia also notes that “he now picks up more new viewers in a single month than major cable networks have in total after decades.”
Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times got to the heart of matters in her 2021 profile:
In 2018, he mastered the format that would make him a star: stunt philanthropy. Mr. Donaldson filmed himself giving away thousands of dollars in cash to random people, including his Uber driver or people experiencing homelessness, capturing their shock and joy in the process. The money initially came mostly from brand sponsorships.
One way to make popular content is to help people see themselves in the story. Good stories get people to relate to the characters and sympathize with their struggles. But a great story is one where you see yourself in the struggle.
MrBeast’s formula works well because people can easily identify with the people willing to endure whatever MrBeast asks of them for the cold hard cash he’s offering. At the same time, Donaldson’s character is aspirational. “I think Mr. Beast inspires all of Gen Z,” Josh Richards, a TikTok creator in Los Angeles told Lorenz in 2021. “He’s giving a lot of kids a new path to take, to teach these young kids how to be entrepreneurial, not just to get a lot of views or become famous.”
One lesson that people of all ages and occupations might pick up is GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.
We love to compete for cash prizes
MrBeast is a media phenomenon with a large and interested audience. The New York Times ran additional features on Donaldson and his enterprise in 2022 and 2023 (as his YouTube channel’s subscriptions continued to climb). Last June, Times writer Max Read wrote:
Donaldson has built a YouTube empire on this kind of quasi-philanthropy, in which he crafts spectacles around surprise cash giveaways (“Giving a Random Homeless Man $10,000”), contests with expensive prizes (“Last to Leave $800,000 Island Keeps It”) and other lavish, if not particularly sensible, gifts (“Tipping Waitresses With Real Gold Bars”). The phenomenal popularity of these videos has made him a superstar by any measure and cemented his reputation as a secular saint among the YouTube faithful, but it has also left him open to the criticism that his generosity is more calculated than heartfelt — another audience-development strategy alongside the garish thumbnails and finely tuned video titles.
Lots of people and companies give to charities and support community initiatives because it’s “good business” and the right thing to do. For critics of MrBeast, I think there’s a stronger case to be made about the exploitation and humiliation of cast members. People will do anything for money and other people will line up to watch. Donaldson uses this core understanding (of human nature) to advance his interests. Just like all the successful corporations that fund his videos, the entire advertising industry, and most of the media industry do every day.
Only the rapid-fire production and ease of worldwide distribution are new. The storylines are tried-and-true along with the brand integrations and advertising support that makes them possible. In other words, innovation is not what’s driving MrBeast’s popularity. He worked hard to figure out the formula for viral success on YouTube, and now he’s benefitting from that labor.
It’s worth noting that millions of people have also worked hard to figure out the formula for viral success on YouTube and Tik-Tok, et al. Yet, the people who don’t figure things out, who don’t get lucky, and who don’t ‘go viral’ are never part of the story. While it’s true that we might learn more from those who fail than those who succeed, we’re not wired or patient enough to process that data. Instead, we want the winning formula and we want it now.