65.3, August 2018

YouTube Beauty Tutorials as Technical Communication

By Felicia Chong


Purpose: With the increasing popularity of YouTube beauty videos, this study extends previous research on YouTube instructional videos by investigating the common characteristics of the 10 most-reviewed makeup and hair tutorials to determine their similarity to or differences from good instructional videos.

Method: Using a deductive coding method, I analyzed the 10 most-viewed beauty tutorials based on Swarts’ (2012) best practices for creating instructional videos and Mackiewicz’s (2010) assertion categories of expertise.

Results: A majority of the videos followed best practices, such as including an introduction, beginning with a “promise” or a clear objective, incorporating verbal instruction, being strategically redundant, and using a combination of text annotations, audio, and/or still images to complement the video. However, a lack of confidence and quality in most of the videos suggest that the creators did not rehearse their scripts, nor did they use the recording and editing tools effectively. None of the creators seems to provide any reassurance to the viewers or promote a sense of their self-efficacy. In terms of asserting their credibility, the majority of the creators did not make any explicit assertions about their relevant role, product-specific experience, or familiarity with related and relevant products.

Conclusion: Although best practices, such as having a clear objective and using verbal instructions, should be followed, instructional video designers should also consider additional factors, such as truthfulness and accuracy, accessibility, kairos, addressivity, personal narratives, and humor.

Keywords: assertions of expertise, beauty, instructional video, makeup tutorials, YouTube

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Popular YouTube beauty tutorials do not follow all the best practices for “good” instructional videos. For example, mistakes could be considered assets of authenticity in instructional videos.
  • Popular instructional videos do not necessarily have a massive following or a large number of subscribers. Small channels are capable of producing popular videos.
  • Factors such as truthfulness and accuracy, accessibility, kairos, addressivity, personal narratives, and humor could play an important role in the effectiveness and popularity of YouTube instructional videos.


With the advent of Web 2.0 technology, there is now an abundance of user-generated online instructions posted on websites and platforms; such as WikiHow, eHow, Instructables, and YouTube; which are created by both amateurs and experts. These instructional videos are more appealing and “seductive” than written manuals because they are more “informal,” “frequently entertaining,” and “deliberately encouraging, sending assurances that the viewers can easily apply the lessons” (Swarts, 2012, p. 196). Morain and Swarts (2012) and Selber (2010) argued that these instructional videos are quickly emerging as a new form of technical communication, where “nearly everyone on the Internet is a technical communicator—or at least has the potential to be one” (Selber, 2010, pp. 98–99).

Thus, in the last five years, online instruction as a genre has received increased attention in technical communication scholarship. In addition to our literature on conceptualizing, analyzing, and assessing instructional videos (e.g., Morain & Swarts, 2012; Selber, 2012; ten Hove and van der Meij, 2015; van Ittersum, 2014), we have best practices and guidelines on creating instructional videos (e.g., Pflugfelder, 2013; Swarts, 2012; van der Meij & van der Meij, 2013); even textbooks such as Markel’s Technical Communication (2015) are including strategies on creating instructional videos.

However, there remains insufficient research in the field that focuses on information delivery and presentation of ethos in popular YouTube beauty videos. For example, what makes these beauty videos popular? What makes these videos “good” instructional videos? Do the creators follow our best practices and guidelines on creating instructional videos? How are they different from technical communication instructional videos such as software training? This study aims to extend previous research on YouTube instructional videos by exploring these questions.

It is important to note that this study does not intend to provide a “how-to” guide for creating YouTube beauty videos, nor does it claim that beauty videos should serve as models for instructional or training videos. Rather, the goal of this study is to examine popular YouTube beauty tutorials and explore what technical communicators can learn about information delivery and presentation of ethos that could be potentially useful in creating instructional or training videos.

In this article, I begin by defining YouTube beauty videos and their popularity. Then, I describe an exploratory qualitative study I conducted in 2017 to analyze the 10 most-viewed beauty tutorials, followed by results and discussion. In the conclusion, I discuss implications and strategies for technical communication scholars and practitioners.

YouTube Beauty Videos

Women are the primary content creators of beauty tutorials on YouTube, the leading video-on-demand platform that is widely used by over a billion users (“YouTube for press,” n.d.). According to a study conducted by Pixability, a company that specializes in measuring YouTube statistics for advertisements and marketing, YouTube’s 1.8 million beauty videos have accumulated over 45.3 billion total views (Pixability, 2015). Tutorials, defined as “detailed videos that walk a viewer step-by-step through how to create a specific look” (Pixability, 2015, p. 32), make up 45%, which is the majority of all YouTube beauty videos.

The content creators, also known as YouTubers or influencers, are providing beauty tutorials focusing on hair, full-face makeup, nails, and skincare. Most of them are not professional makeup artists by training or by trade. They often establish their YouTube channels as college students who rely on their own user knowledge of makeup and hair. As evidenced by millions of channel views and subscribers, these creators are now recognized broadly as “beauty gurus,” whose knowledge and skills are highly valued (e.g., their popularity far outweighs the videos that are produced by cosmetics companies). They have not only attained celebrity status (Ault, 2014), but many have also become YouTube employees through YouTube’s Partner Program and many of them have become collaborators with major cosmetics brands, such as CoverGirl and Lancôme; some creators have even created their own makeup lines (Glamour, 2013). Although their success suggests that they may be experts in creating popular YouTube videos, it is important to note that most of them are not professionally trained or working as makeup artists or experts.

Popularity of YouTube Videos

Instruction sets have long been considered a prominent genre in technical communication. Scholars such as Connors (1982) and O’Hara (2001) argued that the field blossomed as a result of increased uses of military technologies during World War II. Since misusing military technologies could cause injuries and even deaths, there is naturally a strong need for clear and effective communication, coupled with emphasis on efficiency and accuracy in using complex systems (Johnson, Salvo, & Zoetewey, 2007).

With this history, it is unsurprising that technical communication scholars are concerned about producing clear, effective, and efficient instructional videos that are generally described as “good.” For example, Morain and Swarts (2012) and Swarts (2012) used the term “good” to refer to such videos and to distinguish them from “average” and “poor” videos. After analyzing YouTube videos, Swarts (2012) established that a “good” instructional video begins with an introduction that frames the lesson to be learned, spends more time demonstrating steps (doing and explaining) than either doing or explaining along, delivers content whose message is easy to locate and access, easy to understand and utilize, and is engaging and reassuring.

“Popularity” was not addressed as a characteristic in Swarts’ (2012) work. In fact, popularity is an under-explored feature of online instruction sets. Although ten Hove and van der Meij (2015) developed a formula for gauging YouTube popularity rating, their data set was based on a specific genre of YouTube videos that focused on declarative knowledge development. They observed that popular videos essentially scored higher, in terms of physical features (i.e., resolution, visuals, verbal and sound, and tempo), than average or unpopular videos. Although their work is certainly useful as a starting point for creating popular as well as good videos, it does not explicitly address the “good” rhetorical features of instructional videos that Swarts (2012) described in his study.

To what extent do “good” and “popular” overlap? Why is this important for technical communicators? First, popularity affects what viewers find and watch on YouTube. Since YouTube constantly changes its algorithms, it is difficult to find out how popularity is determined based on the little statistical information that is provided by YouTube (each YouTube video shows the number of “likes” and its total, lifetime views). At the time of writing, YouTube uses a thumbs-up (Like) or thumbs-down (Dislike) rating system and does not provide an official popular ranking for various categories such as beauty, sports, and music. Even if such official rankings were provided by YouTube, the numbers could change or fluctuate daily, even by the minute, due to the nature of this medium.

In addition, when viewers log in to their YouTube accounts, they are presented with a list of videos that are gaining popularity in the “Trending” tab on the homepage. YouTube claims that “Trending” videos are chosen based on “viewership data [and] the wisdom of top curators across the web” (“About YouTube trends”) and does not reveal its actual algorithms. When viewers search for specific videos using keywords, the results are presented in a seemingly random manner (i.e., not chronological, or based on total views, or the number of subscribers for that channel). Viewers then have to change the filters (e.g., upload date, type, duration, features) or the keywords to narrow down the results. In other words, a “good” instructional video does not necessarily show up at the top of the results list or on the “Trending” page.

Second, popular beauty videos are created by amateurs—not experts or companies. Out of the 20 most-viewed beauty videos of all time (Pixability, 2015), only four were created by hair and cosmetics companies such as Schwarzkopf (ranked 13), Pantene (ranked 17), Lancôme (ranked 18), and Dior (ranked 20). The rest of the top videos were mostly created by the young women whom I described earlier. Although, as rhetorically savvy technical communicators, we frequently employ ethos as one of our rhetorical strategies, the total views of top videos often exceed the number of subscribers for those channels, which means the viewers may not be motivated by their knowledge of the creators’ educational background and experience in beauty. This suggests that viewers are not necessarily watching these top beauty videos due to the creators’ professional appearance or expertise.

Beauty as Women’s Work and Technology

Since most of these beauty content creators are not professional makeup artists and purportedly do not work for cosmetics companies, they resemble the women Hallenbeck (2012) defined as “extrainstitutional technical writers,” amateurs who share their user practices on YouTube. If technical communication is defined as “the exchange of information that helps people interact with technology” (Gurak & Lannon, 2011, p. 3), and if these beauty content creators are considering YouTube as a workplace, where they engage in rhetorical discourse by communicating information about using (beauty) technology, then beauty tutorials are technical communication.

Although there is technical communication research that focuses on women’s work and technologies (e.g., Durack, 2004; Rohan, 2001; Tebeaux, 1997), beauty has rarely been discussed as a form of rhetorical and technical knowledge that requires attention in the field of technical communication. At first glance, beauty may resemble other women’s activities that Foss and Foss (1991) refer to, such as gardening, baking, and caregiving; which are often seen as non-rhetorical or insignificant communication in male-dominated society. Beauty may appear to belong to the “private” realm, where women “perform” beauty in the intimacy of their homes.

In a Forbes article, Sorvino (2017) estimated the global beauty industry to be worth $445 billion in sales. The various products and techniques used in the beauty industry, many of which were invented by women, certainly require inventions, technological skills, and competence with technology. In fact, applying makeup and braiding hair are “tactile” activities that are difficult to describe or learn from a book or a manual, but these beauty content creators manage to make tacit knowledge explicit without necessarily having the ethos of an “expert” (i.e., without all the trappings).

Therefore, I argue that as technical communication scholars and practitioners, it is important for us to answer the calls of Durack (2004) and Korber (2000), who challenged us to expand our definition of technology so that we can include contributions of women and of Hallenbeck (2012) who urged us to investigate the cultural work of extraorganizational technical communication. Technical communication scholars and practitioners should pay attention to these extrainstitutional, user-generated tutorials because YouTube is essentially a “test bed” for our instructions. The feedback we receive from viewers, whether it is in the form of a comment, a like, or a view, points to user preference. Even Swarts (2012) concluded that “users know what they want” and encouraged us to “generate lots of highly specific content and let the users sort it out” (p. 205).

With these perspectives in mind, I conducted an exploratory qualitative study in 2017 on YouTube beauty tutorials that was guided by two main research questions:

RQ1. How do these popular beauty videos follow the best practices that Swarts (2012) developed? What are the common practices or characteristics of these videos?

RQ2. As most of the top beauty content creators are not professional makeup artists, how do they assert their expertise or establish their ethos, as described in Mackiewicz’s (2010) assertions of expertise?

The primary goal of this preliminary study is to lay the groundwork for investigating the characteristics of popular beauty tutorials and exploring their implications for creating effective instructional videos.


For this study, I followed the general framework for qualitative content analysis, where I identified the sample, developed a coding protocol, and analyzed the data. I selected and analyzed the 10 most-viewed beauty videos as of 2015. The total views are based on Pixability’s (2015) report, which is chosen as the criterion because “the number of times a video has been seen [signifies] its popularity” (ten Hove & van der Meij, 2015, p. 52). These videos, coincidentally, are tutorials, which most closely resemble the instructions genre in technical communication; they are an example of popular technical communication artifacts.

Table 1 below lists the 10 most-viewed videos ranging from 18 million to 49 million, as reported by Pixability (2015). I added the “purpose” column to show the content of the video and put the creators’ user names in parenthesis. All these videos were created by women, with the top two coming from the same creator or channel. Nine videos are makeup tutorials and one is a hair tutorial (“Waterfall Braid”). To avoid confusion, I refer to these women as “creators” instead of by their real names since some of them are still referred to by their user names. Initially, YouTube had required users to create a user name; but starting in 2012, users could display their real names (“Choosing how you are seen on YouTube,” 2012), which is why some channels are still showing user names while others are showing real names.

Table 1. Ten most-viewed beauty videos according to Pixability’s (2015) report

Rank Video Title Purpose Creator
1 Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look (2010) How to create Lady Gaga’s makeup look in the music video “Bad Romance” Michelle Phan
2 Lady Gaga Poker Face Tutorial (2009) How to create Lady Gaga’s makeup look in the music video “Poker Face” Michelle Phan
3 Acne Foundation Routine for Cystic, Scaring, Oil and Blackheads (2010) How to put foundation on a face that has cystic acne Cassandra Bankson (diamondsandheels14)
4 Waterfall Braid (Self) (2010) How to create waterfall braid on your own hair Mindy (Cutegirlhairstyles)
5 Angelina Jolie Makeup Transformation (2011) How to create a makeup look that resembles Angelina Jolie Promise Phan (dope2111)
6 Makeup Tutorial: How to Fake Abs (2008) How to create the look of fake abs using makeup Elessa Jade (pursebuzz)
7 Glitterati Lip Tattoo & Lip Word Tattoo (2011) How to put temporary lip tattoo sticker on your lips Kandee Johnson
8 Unzipped Zipper Face Makeup (2011) How to create a Halloween look using a zipper and makeup Cristal Rodriguez (cristalprostyler)
9 Anime Eyes with MAC (2011) How to create anime eyes using only MAC (cosmetics company) Farida Lam (itsthefa)
10 9 Different Eyeliner Looks (2013) How to create nine different eyeliner looks using a brush and gel eyeliner Lupe Netro (naturallybellexo)

As seen in Table 1, the content of these videos differs from the YouTube videos that have been analyzed in previous technical communication literature. For example, ten Hove and van der Meij (2015) analyzed YouTube videos that focus on factual and conceptual knowledge development (e.g., “Water-Liquid Awesome”), while Swarts (2012) focused on “how-to” videos in software development (e.g., “Movie Maker Video Editing Tutorial”). The four physical features (resolution, visuals, verbal and sound, and tempo) that ten Hove and van der Meij chose were measured quantitatively, while Swarts’ 14 best practices are more comprehensive and qualitative in nature in that he included both the physical and rhetorical features of the videos.

Therefore, in this preliminary study, I chose Swarts’ (2012) best practices as my coding categories, in which I looked at each video’s rhetorical structure (introduction, steps, conclusion) and its communication design features, which include its physical design (elements concerned with access, viewability, and timing), its cognitive design (elements concerned with accuracy, completeness, and pertinence), and its affective design (elements concerned with confidence, self-efficacy, and engagement).

In addition, I used Mackiewicz’s (2010) categories and types of assertions of expertise in online reviews as another reference for analyzing how beauty content creators, most of whom are not professional makeup artists, asserted their expertise in the videos. Mackiewicz noted that “whether consciously or unconsciously, readers of online reviews look for signs that reviewers have credibility” (p. 7). I argue that similar to readers of online reviews, YouTube viewers also look for signs of credibility, as I presume that these viewers are watching beauty tutorials, because they want to achieve the same looks. Although scholars such as Selber (2010), Swarts (2012), ten Hove and van der Meij (2015), and van der Meij and van der Meij (2013) have written extensively about various characteristics of online instructions, their work does not explicitly address the creator’s credibility or expertise. Hence, even though Mackiewicz’s study does not specifically focus on online tutorials, I found her categories to be relevant and adequate in analyzing these beauty videos.

The deductive coding process was iterative: After reviewing the descriptions for best practices, I watched the 10 videos once without coding to make sure I understood the content. Then, during the first pass of coding, I coded the videos according to the best practices. During the second pass of coding, I re-watched the videos to make sure the codes were accurately assigned. Similarly, I reviewed Mackiewicz’s (2010) assertion categories before watching the videos during the third pass of coding.


RQ1. How do these popular beauty videos follow the best practices that Swarts (2012) developed? What are the common practices or characteristics of these videos?

Table 2 shows coding results based on Swarts’ (2012) best practices. It is important to emphasize that “most of the features that Swarts discussed hinged on interpretation” (ten Hove & van der Meij, 2015, p. 50). Therefore, I discuss the significance of the results in terms of “commonly followed best practices” and “deviations from best practices” in subsequent paragraphs.

Table 2. Coding results for the 10 most-viewed beauty videos based on Swart’s (2012) best practices

Swarts’ Best Practices Top 10 Beauty Videos
#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9 #10 Total
Make the rhetorical structure of the video visible and persistent x x x x x 5
Test the timing of the audio/video to ensure ease of following x x x x x x x x x 9
Use the recording and editing tools well x 1
Record in HD or near HD quality x 1
Consider how modes of communication complement one another x x x x x x 6
Get it right the first time x x x x x x x x x x 10
Start with an overall structure, a goal, and a set of objectives x x x x x x x x 8
Think in cinematographic terms x x x x x x x x x x 10
Use strategic redundancy x x x x x x 6
Rehearse the script x x x 3
User test a sample of audio for engagement x x x x x x x x x 9
Recognize that your credibility is being scrutinized x x x x x x 6
Seduce the viewer x x x x x x x x 8
Reassure the viewer 0
Total 11 11 8 8 9 8 10 9 2 11

Commonly Followed “Best Practices”

Swarts (2012) recommended starting the instructional video with stating “an overall structure, a goal, and a set of objectives” (p. 203) and argued that introduction is important to frame the video. Eight of the 10 reviewed videos (80%) included a verbal introduction. The other two videos (20%) began without any explanation or overview of the instructional goals:

  • In “Angelina Jolie Makeup Transformation,” the creator began the video by showing a short clip of the finished look and the text “Angelina Jolie Tutorial” on the screen; then, she proceeded with the first step by saying, “First, apply a light-tone liquid foundation…”
  • In “Anime Eyes with MAC,” the creator did not include any verbal instructions; she began the video by showing a short clip of the finished look and proceeded with showing the first product used in her makeup look.

Good videos “almost always started with a statement about what viewers would learn or accomplish” to “seduce the viewer” (Swarts, 2012, p. 204). In eight out of the 10 videos (80%), the creators began with a “promise.” For example, they introduced their videos with phrases such as “This tutorial will show you how to replicate her style” (“Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance Look”), “I am going to show you how to get these crazy googly, Lady Gaga eyes” (“Lady Gaga’s Poker Face Tutorial”), and “This is how you will dazzle up with some lip jewels” (“Glitterati Lip Tattoo”).

In terms of cinematographic quality, all 10 videos (100%) were filmed in a home setting, such as a bedroom, living room, or bathroom. All creators (100%) used medium shots (showing the creators from waist-up or shoulder-up). All nine makeup videos used close-up shots for the products used so that viewers can see the details (e.g., product name, color, number); all nine makeup videos used multiple shots and slide transitions, and they were filmed with a stationary mounted camera. The hair tutorial video (“Waterfall Braid”) was a long take (i.e., an uninterrupted shot) from a hand-held camera. This was the only video where another person (other than the creator) was holding the camera and recording the footage.

When it comes to providing verbal instructions, Swarts (2012) advised that “audio should slightly precede the video” (p. 202). Verbal instruction was used in nine videos (90%): Six videos (60%) used live talk or narration, and three (30%) used voice-over (i.e., recorded after the video was filmed) to describe the steps. “Anime Eyes with MAC” was the only video that included only background music and no verbal instruction.

Six videos (60%) used a combination of text annotations, audio, and/or still images to complement the video. These were also the same six videos that used strategic redundancy. The most basic form of these two qualities can be seen in “Unzipped Zipper Face,” where the creator overlaid the list of necessary products on the screen as she explained the products. She also used strategic redundancy when repeating the words “a smidge” to emphasize that one only needs to use a little bit of fake blood to create the look of bruised skin around the zipper. Similarly, in “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator combined verbal and written instructions by putting the text “hold it on there for a little bit” on the screen as she said those words and held the lip tattoos to her lips. The more advanced version of these qualities can be seen in “9 Different Eyeliner Looks”: The creator used a “picture-in-picture” video effect, where she overlaid the video clip of the finished eyeliner look on the video clip where she was creating that look. This enables viewers to see the finished look and the demonstration at the same time.

Deviations from “Best Practices”

Since the videos were posted between 2008 and 2013, the majority of the videos were lacking in visual quality (i.e., not recorded in HD, not recorded or edited well). These are the most significant examples:

  • In “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the persistent hum stemming from the creator’s microphone affects the clarity of her voice.
  • In “Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look,” the poorly lit, yellow lighting in the room affects the accuracy and brightness of the colors used in the makeup look.
  • In “Waterfall Braid,” the shaky hand-held camera recording was not ideal in that the viewers cannot clearly see the braiding process.

In comparison with the other nine videos, “9 Different Eyeliner Looks,” posted in 2013 (i.e., the newest video), is the only video that adequately followed these two best practices.

The rhetorical structure of five videos (50%) was clear in that the viewer could see text, titles, or black frames that indicate where the creator is in the process of putting on makeup or braiding hair. The creators of the remaining five videos (50%) might assume that their viewers would watch the video in its entirety, since they did not provide any means for viewers to skim the content.

Swarts (2012) stressed that confidence is important, as “a lack of seriousness, halting delivery, trailing off at the end of sentences, and monotonous delivery can easily lead a viewer to question just how knowledgeable the narrator is” (p. 204). The top two videos (“Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance Look” and “Lady Gaga Pocker Face Tutorial”) are the most polished in that the creator seemed to read from a script, the slides with text were timed perfectly, and the transitions between clips were smooth. However, the other eight creators sounded casual, at times monotonous and even unprofessional, which I will further elaborate below.

Although Swarts (2012) recommended that creators rehearse their script to “speak more confidently, flawlessly . . . to inspire trust and motivation” (p. 204), it was clear that only the three videos that used voice-over narration sounded well-rehearsed. In the six videos that included live talk or narration, the creators did not edit out their verbal mistakes to make their scripts sound flawless. For example, in “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator mispronounced words like “soon” (which she corrected immediately) and rephrased an awkward sentence without removing it from the clip. In “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator sounded monotone and frequently used filler words like “ummm” and “uhh” and “blah blah blah,” which are defined by Merriam Webster as “a sound, word, or phrase used to fill pauses in speaking” (“Filler”), or casual language like “my bad,” “duh,” and “whatever,” or even foul language.

Furthermore, the tone of the creator did not always exude confidence. In “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator sounded upbeat for the most part, but she specifically addressed her lack of self-confidence due to acne, and how baring her face in front of the camera made her feel extremely insecure and self-conscious. It was clear that she was uncomfortable, to the point where she seemed teary-eyed. She also apologized when some of her footage disappeared from the clip because her camera battery died. In “9 Different Eyeliner Looks,” the creator apologized that her eyes were irritated (since she had to apply and remove eyeliner to her eyes many times to film the video), and that she hoped her viewers did not mind that she did not talk “that much” in the video.

The timing and pacing of the videos also vary. In “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator spent almost 20% of video time at the beginning sharing her experience with acne before getting into the steps of putting on foundation: In an almost 11-minute video, she did not show her first product until after two minutes and 18 seconds. This is a stark contrast when compared to “Angelina Jolie Makeup Transformation” and “Anime Eyes with MAC,” the two videos that I described earlier, which did not include any verbal introduction and jumped right into the tutorials. Nine videos (90%) showed clips in real time; in “Anime Eyes with MAC,” the creator used the “speed-up” function, which implies that she might be more concerned about the length of the video and less on the ease of viewers following her steps.

“Getting it right the first time” (Swarts, 2012, p. 203) is a best practice that is difficult to determine in these videos. Makeup and hair are not an exact “science” in that there are multiple approaches and techniques to creating the same look. In most videos, viewers do not know what to expect until the steps are completed, even though they may have already seen the “finished look” at the beginning of the videos. “Mistakes,” such as repetition, do occur in these videos. For example, in “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator repeated the same verbal instructions on how to remove the lip tattoos in two different, back-to-back clips. In “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator repeated multiple times that she is a “female,” so she would have makeup that she could use to cover up the zipper (while “Mike,” the person she created the video for, may not have makeup at the ready). Creators of “Glitterati Lip Tattoo” and “How to Fake Abs” included bloopers (or outtakes) at the end of their videos to show viewers where or how they have “messed up” during filming, which suggests that they see these clips as assets rather than mistakes.

Finally, none of the videos seems to reassure the viewers or promote their sense of self-efficacy. There were no “soothing reassurances” (Swarts, 2012, p. 204) to encourage the viewers that they can complete the makeup look or create the braid.

RQ2. As most of the top beauty content creators are not professional makeup artists, how do they assert their expertise or establish their ethos, as described in Mackiewicz’s (2010) assertions of expertise?

During the last pass of coding, I identified instances where creators described or displayed their expertise based on Mackiewicz’s (2010) assertion categories and subcategories listed below:

  • Assertions of product-specific experience
  • Regular experience with using the product
  • Testing of the product
  • Assertions of familiarity with related and relevant products
  • Familiarity or ownership of previous versions of the specific product under review
  • Familiarity or ownership of comparable product model
  • Familiarity with the brand and brand’s products
  • Assertions of a relevant role
    • Received or receiving formal training or education relevant to the product
  • Relevant experience from a hobby
  • Employment in a profession relevant to the product
  • Association with someone who has expertise relevant to the product
  • Conducted research on the product

Although all nine creators may appear to have regular experience using the products they showed in the videos, only three creators made explicit assertions about their product-specific experience or their familiarity with related and relevant products:

  • In “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator provided mini reviews of the primer and foundations she used (e.g., why she preferred using them, how long she had been using the products).
  • In “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator included clips from a previous video showing her wearing the same lip tattoo in a different design and described her experience wearing them (e.g., the longevity of the lip tattoo on her lips) and removing them from her lips.
  • In “Waterfall Braid,” the creator indicated that she was familiar with the braiding technique by stating that she had created the braid on another person’s hair.

Out of the nine creators for the top 10 videos, only three are self-proclaimed professionally-trained makeup artist: Kandee Johnson, Elessa Jade “pursebuzz,” and Crystal Rodriguez “cristalprostyler.” However, none of the creators makes any assertions of their relevant role in those videos. In fact, at the time of writing, these women do not even state their role or experience in beauty on their “About” page on YouTube.


The results shown in Table 2 indicate the majority of these content creators follow Swarts’ (2012) best practices, such as including an introduction, beginning with a “promise” or a clear objective, incorporating verbal instruction, being strategically redundant, and using a combination of text annotations, audio, and/or still images to complement the video. However, they do not appear to aim for a slick, well-rehearsed, and effectively-edited production that is advocated by Swarts (p. 204).

In other words, a video does not necessarily need to be “good” to be popular, the way Swarts (2012) defined “good” instructional videos. More specifically, the creators do not necessarily present themselves or their knowledge confidently, rehearse their script, or edit out all their mistakes. Thus, the “seduction” (p. 204) of these videos may not lie in the professionalism of these creators; instead, these creators acted more like friends or sisters who share beauty tips in the comfort of their homes. For example, although filming at home may appear to be less professional, since professional makeup artists (such as Lisa Eldridge) film their beauty videos in a studio setting, these home-looking backgrounds do evoke a sense of coziness and “real-ness” that viewers can easily relate to.

Notably, the majority of these beauty content creators did not make explicit assertions of expertise, with only three out of the nine creators being explicit about their experience and familiarity using with the products they showed in the video. Mackiewicz (2010) pointed to the “waning authority and influence of professional expertise” (p. 21), as her study shows that reviewers who asserted their professional status or employment were not perceived as having more expertise compared to the other types of assertions. This is evident in the videos created by the three self-proclaimed makeup artists, as they did not describe or assert their role as experts in those videos. Even though three of these creators are self-proclaimed makeup artists, all eight creators appeared to be makeup enthusiasts who are passionate about sharing their interests rather than showing viewers the “correct way” to create a makeup look. In fact, in “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator repeatedly said that she changed her routine weekly, which implies that the foundation routine she showed is not the “only” way.

Michelle Phan’s channel and videos are a prime example of how YouTube content creators assert their expertise using different techniques from the reviewers that Mackiewicz (2010) analyzed. According to Mackiewicz, “the extent to which laypeople are taken seriously…depends on the extent to which they can construct…an expert and trustworthy persona and, thus, credibility” (p. 22). On this top 10 list, Michelle Phan’s channel has the most subscribers (about 8.9 million at the time of writing), but she did not explicitly assert her perceived expertise in her two videos. Phan, in fact, is famous for having the rags-to-riches story, where she created beauty videos as a design school student and became a successful entrepreneur and beauty mogul (Shoket, 2017). Mackiewicz added that “preconfigurations of credibility” (p. 8), or the status of the reviewer, could further promote the reviewer’s credibility. Thus, in this case, Phan’s life story, combined with her high number of subscribers, help construct a trustworthy persona that secures her ethos as a beauty guru.

Furthermore, I noticed additional patterns or concerns in these videos that were not addressed by Swarts (2012) and Mackiewicz (2010), on which I will elaborate below.

Personal Narratives

In his analysis of instructions on Instructables.com, van Ittersum (2014) found that “one of the most striking features . . . is the mixture of personal narrative with, or to the exclusion of, procedural discourse” (p. 235). Similarly, four of these top 10 videos (40%) included personal narratives:

  • In “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator described how she wore the American flag lip tattoo during a Fourth of July (i.e., America’s Independence Day) celebration and was constantly stopped and complimented by strangers on the street.
  • In “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator spent over two minutes at the beginning of a 11-minute video describing her struggle with acne.
  • In “Lady Gaga Poker Face Tutorial,” the creator stressed that “I am not trying to be Lady Gaga, nor do I think I look like her. I am just having fun replicating her style.”
  • In “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator shared how she would wear the makeup look differently for Halloween.


Humor, which could also be considered to include a “lack of seriousness” (referring to Swarts’ term, p. 204), was found in these beauty tutorials. For example, in “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator showed clips from a previous Fourth of July video that were supposed to be humorous, and she joked about how the lip tattoos imprinted with the word “single” could be used at divorce parties. Similarly, in “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator made a self-deprecating joke by putting text on the screen stating her overuse of the word “okay.”

It is worth noting that in recent years, humor is increasingly used in corporate-produced instructional videos, namely airline safety videos used by Virgin Airlines and Delta Airlines, to attract passengers’ attention (Seneviratne & Molesworth, 2015). It may be time for us to revisit Cohen’s 1992 article on how to “humorize to humanize” to (re)consider how humor may have a rightful place in the world of instructions and technical communication.


As one of the most widely used social media platforms, YouTube is the place where latest trends can be found. Thus, the popularity of these beauty videos could have been affected by the kairotic moments in which they were posted. The “Unzipped Zipper Face” video was posted in September 2011, a month before Halloween, which is celebrated on October 31 in many countries by children and adults dressing up in costumes of fright and fantasy. In fact, it is common for viewers to look for “Halloween makeup look” videos during that time of the year. The “Lady Gaga Poker Face Tutorial” video was posted in 2009, after the song “Poker Face” was released in 2008. Similarly, the “Lady Gaga Bad Romance Look” video was posted in 2010, after the song “Bad Romance” was released in 2009. The “Glitterati Lip Tattoo” video was posted in 2011, which is when the company that created the lip tattoos was founded.


Addressivity is defined by Bakhtin (1986) as speech that is directed to a specific audience. Although the audience for a global social media platform like YouTube could be diverse and massive, the creators were intentional about addressing their intended audience in their videos, which I found in six (60%) videos:

  • In “Lady Gaga Poker Face Tutorial,” the creator said the “sexy silver eyes” that she was creating were requested by “so many” of her viewers.
  • In “Acne Foundation Routine,” the creator addressed her viewers as: “If you guys have acne, or even if you don’t have acne and you just want really pretty skin . . . I hope this helps you.”
  • In “Waterfall Braid,” the creator referred to “a ton of emails” that she had received because her viewers wanted to know if they could create the waterfall braid on their own hair (instead of having someone else braid their hair).
  • In “How to Fake Abs,” the creator began the video with questions such as “Is it your first time at the beach this year, and you don’t want to go out in your bathing suit because you are afraid of what others will think of you?” She was clearly targeting women who feel insecure about going to the beach or the pool because they do not have “abs.”
  • In “Glitterati Lip Tattoo,” the creator suggested different uses for the lip tattoos with words on them: “There is this one that says, ‘kiss,’ maybe good for [a] New Years’ [party]? Hey, maybe you are single and you want to announce it to the world?”
  • In “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator kept addressing a friend called “Mike,” as she repeatedly said, “You are a dude.” This suggests that she made the video specifically for her friend or family member to learn how to create this makeup look.

Interestingly, even though these creators addressed a specific audience in their videos, they did not appear to reassure the viewers or promote their sense of self-efficacy, which is one of Swarts’ (2012) best practices for creating instructional videos.

Community and Popularity

With the increasing popularity of YouTube beauty videos, there is a massive following for popular channels such as Michelle Phan’s. This culture is commonly known as the YouTube “beauty community,” in which many viewers subscribe to these channels not only to gain knowledge about beauty and to make friends but also to support the creators financially, as the highest paid creators could make up to $15 million a year for their YouTube videos (Berg, 2016).

Because Pixability ranked the 10 most-viewed beauty videos in 2015, it is difficult to gauge the number of subscribers for each channel during the time the videos gained popularity. Currently, the smallest channel (Farida “itsthefa” Lam) on the top 10 list has about 31,000 subscribers, while the largest channel (Michelle Phan) has 8.9 million subscribers. As I have alluded to in the introduction, the total views of these 10 most-viewed videos far exceeded the number of subscribers for these channels, which suggests that many of the viewers may not be subscribers; they could be watching the videos based on their interest in achieving those looks instead of their attachment to or support for the channels or their content creators. This implies that the quality of the videos or the interest viewers have for the videos could play a bigger role in gaining popularity than the “subscriber community” aspect of YouTube. In other words, it is possible for a video from a small channel or following, such as Lam’s “Anime Eyes with MAC” to gain immense popularity; currently, her video has more than 21 million total views—over 700 times more than her total number of subscribers.

Truthfulness and Accuracy

As technical communicators, we are obliged to be honest: The Society of Technical Communication includes “honesty” as one of our ethical principles and defines “honesty” as providing “truthful and accurate communications” (“Ethical Principles”). This emphasis on truthfulness and accuracy can be easily found in our literature. For example, I pointed out earlier that Swarts (2012) considered cognitive design, which is concerned with “accuracy, completeness, and pertinence” (p. 198), as one of the criteria in creating good instructional videos. In Todd’s (2014) discussion of lawsuits and litigations for product instructions and warnings, he urged technical communicators to ensure that “all facts in instruction manuals or on product warnings are accurately stated” (p. 416). Technical communication textbooks such as the Handbook of Technical Writing recommends having “manuals reviewed by your peers as well as by technical experts and other specialists to ensure that the manuals are helpful, accurate, and appropriate” (Alfred, Brusaw, & Oliu, 2015, p. 334). Similarly, in Technical Communication, Markel (2015) advised his readers to “revise, edit, and proofread all documents you write to make sure they are honest, clear, accurate, comprehensive, accessible, concise, professional in appearance, and correct” (p. 413), where he included three words (“honest,” “accurate,” and “correct”) on that list to highlight the importance of truthfulness and accuracy.

If accuracy is defined as “freedom from mistake or errors,” (“Accuracy”), then it would be difficult to determine the “accuracy” of makeup and hair tutorials. For example, there are no strict rules concerning the order in which one must apply makeup: One can choose to put on eyeshadows first or foundation first to achieve the same makeup look. Furthermore, the viewers of these YouTube beauty tutorials will likely have different face shapes, different skin tones or conditions, and different hair textures than the creators. Even if the viewers follow the exact instructions, the final look they create based on the tutorials may not be identical to the creators’, but this would not negate the accuracy of these tutorials.

However, in terms of truthfulness, care in execution should be highlighted when creating beauty videos that involve chemicals and hair tools. Cosmetic products containing ingredients such as fragrances and preservatives could cause adverse reactions, as there are increasing cases of allergic reactions to cosmetics (Alani, Davis, & Yiannias, 2013). Therefore, creators who recommend using cosmetic products in their videos should at least point viewers to the list of ingredients and any potential risks that they are aware of. For example, in “Unzipped Zipper Face,” the creator recommended using latex glue to attach the zipper to the face, which is an effective method; however, she failed to address latex allergies, which is a common medical problem (Poley & Slater, 2000). Furthermore, creators who use hot tools, such as hair curling or straightening irons, should describe proper handling techniques in their videos, as hair care product-related injuries such as thermal burns are on the rise (Qazi, Gerson, Christopher, Kessler, & Ida, 2001; Wilson Jones, Wong, & Potokar, 2008).

To find examples of “disclaimer language,” we could look to exercise videos such as Jillian Michaels’, which often include a statement like this: “You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs” (“Disclaimer”). Having such language in instructional videos allows us to be proactive in communicating risks and demonstrates empathy and concerns for our users.

Compliance with Standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Although Morain and Swarts (2012) listed “accessibility” as one of the physical design qualities of online tutorials, accessibility issues were defined as “how well the video helped viewers focus on the topic of instruction [or] what efforts were made through screencasting technique, voice-over, or postproduction editing to direct a viewer’s attention to the site of instructional action” (p. 9). As seen in Table 2, Swart’s (2012) 12 best practices do not explicitly address accessibility issues concerning requirements of the Americans with Disability Act or the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Thus, we could look to technical communication scholars such as Browning and Cagle (2017), Oswal and Meloncon (2014), and Youngblood (2012) for recommendations on making our Web content, such as online videos, (more) accessible to our students and to the public. Oswal and Meloncon (2014) encouraged instructors to “find out what offices on campus offer support to make courses accessible (e.g., does the campus have a resource that would help with adding caption or text transcripts for audio and video materials?)” (p. 286). For example, Texas Tech University’s Accessibility website offers best practices for instructional video use (“Accessible Instructional Video”). Youngblood (2012) suggested using screen reader tools and resources from WebAIM to introduce novice developers to accessibility issues. Although video captioning is important in creating access, Browning and Cagle (2017) argued that we should not treat accessibility “purely as a checklist of available modes of access”; instead, they recommended incorporating a “critical accessibility case study” into technical communication courses as a way of “complicating the question of design through contextualized discussions about access” (p. 453).


In brief, this analysis demonstrates that there could be additional factors that contributed to the popularity of these videos, such as personal narratives, humor, kairos, and addressivity. As Clark and Mayer (2008), quoted by Swarts (2012), have pointed out, online instruction is effective due to its “perceived humanity of the narrator” (p. 204). It is clear that these creators did not hesitate to demonstrate their personality or humanity by including personal narratives and humor by making mistakes in their videos, and they seemed to be aware of the timing of their videos and their intended audience.

This study not only reminds us to (re)consider practical issues such as truthfulness, accuracy, and accessibility when creating online tutorials, but it also brings to the surface extra challenges for technical communicators when creating and posting instructional videos on a platform like YouTube. In addition to the “pluralization of expert knowledge,” where “anyone can be an expert” (Mackiewicz, 2010, p. 22), we are faced with questions such as: What is the cost of following best practices? How useful would the instructional video be if it followed all the best practices but did not gain many views? Or, what about popular videos like these beauty tutorials that do not necessarily follow all the best practices? On YouTube, where popularity affects content algorithms and what viewers get to find and watch, how do we create “good” instructional videos that will reach a wide audience? I hope the findings from this study will compel technical communication scholars and practitioners to further explore these questions.


Due to the increasing popularity of YouTube beauty videos, I analyzed the 10 most-viewed beauty tutorials to improve our understanding of this genre of online instructional videos. Although this is a small sample size of videos, and the analysis is not intended to be comprehensive, it does shed light on how amateurs such as “beauty gurus” create popular instructional videos. The results show that sometimes the creators follow the best practices, and other times they deviate from them. A video does not have to be perfect, or even “good,” to be popular and well-received.

The majority of the beauty content creators included an introduction, began their videos with a “promise” or a clear objective, incorporated verbal instruction, were strategically redundant, and used a combination of text annotations, audio, and/or still images to complement the video. However, a lack of confidence and quality in most of the videos suggest that the creators did not rehearse their scripts nor did they use the recording and editing tools effectively. It also seems that none of them reassures the viewers or promotes their sense of self-efficacy. Furthermore, in terms of asserting their credibility, the majority of them did not make explicit assertions about their relevant role, product-specific experience, or familiarity with related and relevant products.

Although videos from large channels such as Michelle Phan’s could be the reason for their popularity, small channels’ productivity should not be overlooked as they are also capable of producing popular videos that achieve millions in total views. The study results suggest that there are additional factors that could improve the effectiveness and popularity of online tutorials. As rhetorically savvy technical communicators, we should be reminded that providing personal narratives and being authentic about our mistakes can engage viewers; being explicitly aware of our audience and paying attention to timing may be just as important as the content we are showing in instructional videos. Furthermore, we should consider truthfulness, accuracy, and accessibility issues when reaching the vast audience on YouTube.

In closing, it is worth emphasizing that this is an exploratory study on YouTube beauty videos; therefore, additional research, such as increasing the sample size to include more recent videos and interviewing the creators to gain their perspectives, could further improve our understanding of these instructional tutorials.


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About the Author

Felicia Chong is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University, Michigan. She has taught business writing, composition, digital media, editing, science writing, technical communication, and usability courses. Her current research interests include usability instruction, video tutorials, program recruitment, and feminism in social media. She can be reached at fchong@oakland.edu.

Manuscript received 24 July 2017, revised 15 October 2017; accepted 23 October 2017.