Recording Artist: Stevens Student's Tech-Focused YouTube Channel Draws Millions of Viewers

11/26/2013

Because of its proximity to Manhattan, and views of that iconic skyline, northern New Jersey is a filmmaker’s delight.

But one of the more interesting sets in the region doesn’t command sweeping views of the cityscape. In fact, you often don’t see the outdoors at all.

That set is Marques Brownlee’s dorm room at Stevens. 

Brownlee, a junior majoring in Business and Technology at the Howe School, has a sizable following on YouTube among tech enthusiasts who appreciate his deep knowledge of the products he discusses, his understanding of what his audience wants to learn and his polished delivery.

And it’s a growing audience: One of his most recent videos, a review of the LG G Flex mobile phone, has attracted 2.7 million views so far — a testament to his knowledge of the subject matter and the training he’s received in his classes.

One of the key lessons has been in time management. Brownlee’s videos are time intensive — an in-depth product review might take a weekend to shoot, plus the time involved in testing the technology. Then, there’s class to consider.

“Balancing all the different obligations is something I’ve learned quite a bit about,” he said. “But a lot of the classes have tied into the topics I make videos about.”

Two classes that have really stood out within his Business and Technology major, he said, are his microeconomics course and a class in social network marketing, which have been “eye-opening, in terms of looking at companies and their behavior.”

Dr. Jeffrey Nickerson, an associate professor in the Howe School, teaches the Social Networks: A Marketing Perspective course, which he said puts a focus on analyzing how the content creation abilities of social media have changed relationships in business and marketing.

“We look at it from the perspective of how is it useful in marketing, understanding how it changes the way we do marketing today, and how it changes companies to have these available channels,” Nickerson said.

Brownlee is a great example of that, Nickerson said. In fact, he interviewed his student in front of the class, and gave Brownlee’s peers a chance to quiz him on his business, MKBHD.

“He’s what we want in our students — he’s somebody who has really good business savvy and also is technically deep,” Nickerson said of Brownlee. “He deeply understands the technologies that he’s dealing with, but he expresses them in ways that are perfect for the audience he’s trying to reach.”

An assist from Obama

If you’re looking to build your brand and get audience exposure, there are few better people to get you there than President Barack Obama.

In February, the president held a fireside chat through Google, which was promoting its Google Plus service. After soliciting questions from its user base, it was Brownlee — an early adopter of the service — who got his question played for the president.

Watch: Stevens student asks president about minimum wage increases

“It was luck of the draw, plus a solid amount of engagement on my part for three-plus years,” Brownlee said.

The exposure was nice, but what was even better, he said, was the legitimacy that video conveyed. When people look at tech blogs, it’s the written blogs that have the most credibility, he said.

“On YouTube, that’s less so the case,” he said. “But here, they can see, ‘He’s talking with the president, he’s reaching out to a lot of people.’ ”

The G Flex review is a good example of what Brownlee’s reviews are all about. His delivery focuses on the consumer, not a jargon-laced spec sheet, and he carefully examines the product’s “self-healing” claims by putting the phone through the paces in everyday settings, subjecting it to heat and cold, scratching it with keys, and mashing the curved body flat. At one point, to test its durability, he takes a knife to the back of the phone.

“I really don’t like intentionally scratching new devices,” he tells his audience in the video. “I did this for you guys, so thumbs up for that down below.” The “thumbs up” is a reference to whether a viewer likes a particular video on YouTube.

Overnight success

Brownlee’s breakthrough came early. He started posting videos in 2008 for an audience of a couple dozen subscribers, and his first hint that he was on to something came in January 2009, after posting a tutorial on setting up Apple’s Safari browser on Windows.

“Overnight, it got 3,000 views, or something like that,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, I guess people care about this kind of stuff.’ ”

He also engaged his followers by mining the comments on his channel.

“They would leave comments asking, ‘Hey, that was great; could you maybe make a video about this one thing I’m curious about?’ And so this audience kind of grew slowly … and eventually, when the audience gets large enough, software companies start to take notice.”

One company that took notice was Motorola. Brownlee said he was approached last summer by the company and offered an invitation to Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters for a hands-on review of the new Moto X phone with other bloggers and journalists.

He was the only YouTube blogger in attendance, he said: “It was cool to know that they actually watched my videos, and cared that I was there.”

The next question for Brownlee is what to do next. His company makes some money — he shares advertising revenue from his videos with Google, which owns the YouTube service — and he enjoys his work, as well.

“I have almost no idea what I want this to turn into. I just know I want to keep doing it,” he said.

His Stevens training is sure to help him figure it out further.

“He epitomizes what we want in our students — this technology depth with business savvy,” Nickerson said. “He really deeply understands the way social media works, and has acquired a lot of experience, and built on it here.”