A ban on YouTube adverts in Russia means creators have seen their earnings vanish.
Yan Lapotkov, known as ТОПЛЕС, told Insider his $500,000 annual revenue would be almost wiped out.
YouTubers want to move viewers onto platforms like VK and Telegram but experts say it won't be easy.
Russian YouTuber Yan Lapotkov can usually be found wearing t-shirts celebrating Western cultural icons like "Jaws" and the rapper Biggie Smalls, while making surreal videos for his 5.4 million subscribers.
But more recently, he's been urging his YouTube followers to follow him on other platforms like VK — a Russian site similar to Facebook with 72.5 million users — and Telegram, a WhatsApp-style messaging app.
That's because in early March, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued, YouTube paused advertising and other money-making features for Russian users.
Russian YouTubers, who mainly broadcast to a domestic audience, and some of whom command tens of millions of subscribers, have been left scrambling to make up the lost money.
Lapotkov earned 41.7 million Rubles ($576,500) in 2021, according to tax returns shared with Insider. He told Insider his YouTube channel had lost 99% of its revenue since the invasion.
His recent video, posted on March 14, urged viewers to join him on platforms like VK and Telegram, which aren't subject to Western bans and sanctions. He also opened a crypto wallet to ask for donations.
"We absolutely do not consider the situation to be fair. We want to live and work in a global and open world," Lapotkov told Insider, adding, "unfortunately, we can't change the global situation right now."
A huge emotional toll
Documents shared with Insider show Lapotkov and his team earned $33,400 from YouTube ads and a further $3,000 from ads on the site's $12 per month 'Premium' service in December last year alone.
Katya Adaricheva, the CEO of Lapotkov's YouTube channel, said the team was experiencing huge emotional fatigue after also losing commercial contracts due to the situation in Ukraine.
"Yan and the team cannot fully engage in the work, as a lot of time is spent reading the news and fighting with worries," she told Insider.
Lapotkov told Insider it would not be easy to replace the lost income by sending fans to platforms like VK and Telegram.
"The main problem is that these platforms cannot fully replace YouTube with its recommendation algorithms. VK and Telegram are perceived more as a newsfeed, a source of memes and a messenger," Lapotkov said.
Moving to new sites is 'essentially starting over'
"There's a lot of Russian influencers out there trying to move their audience from one platform to another, but there's friction there," said Lindsey Gamble, associate director of influencer innovation at influencer marketing agency Mavrck.
He told Insider that rebuilding a profitable following on alternative sites is incredibly challenging.
When moving users to new platforms, "you're essentially starting over, which is tough for anyone," Gamble said.
Analysis by Insider shows that some of the most popular Russian YouTubers hold a fraction of their YouTube reach on Russian sites like VK and Telegram. Lapotkov's Telegram followers number less than 10% of his YouTube subscribers.
Gamble said that even if audiences moved, other issues meant VK and Telegram were not as well equipped as Youtube to allow influencers to make revenue.
He said advertisers were more willing to spend money on YouTube ads thanks to the platform's reach, while, on average, Telegram users didn't typically subscribe to more than a dozen channels, he said.
Gamble also said VK only had a couple of monetization options, in contrast with YouTube, which offers a choice of around 10 ways to make money.
Other Russians who make money from social media told Insider they were uncertain they could build back their businesses on platforms other than YouTube and Instagram.
"VK is confusing to use and we get very few likes and interaction on our posts in comparison to what we got on Instagram," said Russian small business owner and Instagrammer Buliash Todaeva.
Diana Akhmadishina, a brand ambassador for Adidas Russia who has moved her business ventures onto VK, told Insider that "VK just isn't as cool anymore in Russia. It was popular when I was at school, but now fewer people are on it and it's harder to get newcomers interested in your account."
Lapotkov said he wasn't sure what the effect of media bans on Russian attitudes to Ukraine would be.
He said they might "provoke people to ask questions" but "whether it would lead to concrete action is unclear." He added: "So far, restrictions from companies only strengthen the propaganda thesis 'The whole world is hostile to us.'"
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