Why you should care

Because who doesn’t like opening boxes to see what’s inside — especially when you get paid for it?

In 2015 Texas-based Samantha Foster uploaded her first unboxing video to her YouTube channel, the Pink Envelope. It wasn’t great — 15 seconds of hands rummaging through a shipment from Kiwi Crate, an online subscription service that sends projects and materials to STEM-minded kids. Currently, it has 96 views.

But Foster, the manager of a wedding photography business, was undeterred. Just three months later, the production values of her videos had improved so dramatically that companies were sending her a steady stream of products to open on camera. She decided to start charging for the service.

Unboxing videos have been around for more than a decade, but unlike other internet trends — remember Nyan Cat? — they’ve stood the test of time. A 2014 Google Trends report showed that unboxing-video views grew 57 percent over the previous year, and Google Trends shows the interest is global — searches have risen dramatically in every country surveyed.

Some influencer unboxers won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000.

Jason Nellis, Unboxed

The new wrinkle: The genre is so popular that it’s become an alternative career choice for Foster and a whole new breed of online influencers whose value is in on-camera reviews of products they open — whether self-purchased or provided by companies. As for e-commerce retailers, the authentic exposure helps them reach target audiences and grow organically.

By unboxing standards, Foster is a small-fry celebrity, with slightly more than 304,000 total views. She’s shy on the hard figures, but she probably makes $20,000 to $40,000 per year on her side hustle, according to data from the Altimeter Group’s Influencer 2.0 report on micro-influencers. “[Companies] with a great budget to market their products will make your month!” she tells OZY.

So, extrapolate from that baseline to niche K-pop album unboxer Tina Davidsson (18 million total views) and Lewis Hilsenteger of Unbox Therapy, who averages a million-plus views per video (1.6 billion total views). Other revenue streams include conferences and how-to guides.

Some of this growth can be attributed to the spike in online subscription box services, where people order everything from coffee to beauty products as monthly treats. There has been an 831 percent increase in visits to subscription box websites from 2014 to 2017, according to marketing company Hitwise, and the industry is projected to reach $94 billion in annual revenue by 2027. This growth creates a revenue opportunity for enterprising unboxers — Foster says companies fine-tune their products based on unboxers’ feedback, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes with website analysis.

This summer, unboxing got a venture-capitalist boost when Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Eric Feng announced that his incubated company Packagd would create and share unboxing videos targeted at millennial consumers. It’s home shopping for the new generation, piggybacking on the current hype. The company’s Series A round brought in $6 million; the first product, Unboxed, is an iOS app with a focus on unboxing hot tech — think the iPhone X and video games.

In a nondescript building in Redwood City, south of San Francisco, Unboxed employee Jason Nellis, 33, has been scripting, hosting and shooting daily unboxing videos since June. His studio consists of a small room with sound buffers stuck to the wall and a chest-high desk that’s soon to be swapped out for a comfier talk show–style sofa. So, why an app instead of YouTube? Nellis sees an app as an environment to control the experience. “When YouTube releases a product, it has to work for everyone, from moms to musicians — you can’t customize it very well,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to take that and build on top of it.” A fashion and beauty app is in the works for next year.

To understand the business better, Nellis has been hiring unboxers as consultants to trial, test and provide feedback on his shows. “Some influencer unboxers won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000,” he says. “We work with a number of them within certain price points.”

With so many unboxers focused on subscription box services, Michigan-based Michelle Lange created the Subscription Trade Association in May 2017 to focus on best practices. “Micro-influencers can make a business through this,” she says, citing the success of Liz Cadman, founder of My Subscription Addiction. Started as a hobby in 2011, the site gets more than 10 million views per month, and Cadman has her own app and online exchange. She is firm about not releasing ad revenue figures, but similar sites bring in $5,000 to $10,000 per month. “Boxes are happiness delivered year-round,” Lange says.

But ethics can get murky with unboxers who create paid-for reviews, a practice that prompted the Federal Trade Commission to require disclosure through #ad or #spon hashtags on sites. It’s the blogger conundrum: Many receive free items, but it’s not clear to viewers what’s an independent evaluation and what’s paid-for opinion. In the end, though, cred is key. “Their reputation is at stake,” Lange says. “If they give less-than-candid reviews, it will hurt them in the long run.”

For many unboxers, making a living is still a ways off. According to Robbie Kellman Baxter, author of The Membership Economy, most unboxers use the gig “as a source of discretionary income.” But she predicts long-term value in replenishment boxes that provide monthly essentials, from toothpaste to dog treats. Plus, it’s entertainment — “[unboxing videos] are a voyeuristic pleasure as something beautiful and interesting is unwrapped for you,” Kellman Baxter says.

And unboxers aren’t going away anytime soon, as they hone the lucrative role they’ve invented. “Unboxing influencers are critical to [the subscription industry’s] growth,” says Lange. “They provide targeting that was unheard of at a brand level.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article provided a single figure for My Subscription Addiction’s estimated monthly ad revenue. It has been changed to reflect a range of revenue from comparable sites.

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.