By Glenn Ginsburg
Somewhere between the “Mad Men”-esque glamour of the 1960s and today, advertising lost its shine. Both in the TV world and beyond, advertising is often associated with something that people endure in order to enjoy their desired activity and that inevitably interrupts the flow of their experience. Then we have the fact that advertising is frequently irrelevant. Despite great efforts to improve targeting — especially in the digital domain — there are many blanket methods in use serving ads to the masses that in reality only resonate with a fraction of people.
Now that advertising seems ubiquitous, from billboards and newspapers to music, social media and, of course, TV, consumers have reached saturation point and begun to take matters into their own hands. In August 2015, PageFair and Adobe released a report showing that ad blocking grew globally by a phenomenal 41% in the previous 12 months. Use of ad-blockers is surging as people become more frustrated with bombardment from all angles, especially when the ad content they’re being fed is at odds with the leisure activity it’s disrupting. The fact that Apple is now helping its customers escape ads with new content blocking extensions in iOS 9 should be a wake-up call for anyone in the business of selling that times must change.
For brands/advertisers/marketers this presents a conundrum, but also an incentive to go back to the drawing board and seek new ways to engage audiences. It means finding creative approaches that seamlessly integrate brand messages into content rather than interrupting the content with ads — in effect, becoming a part of the entertainment in its own right. While this may sound ambitious, a number of brands are already showing success with this form of “frictionless marketing,” the most successful of which leverages the power and personality of digital influencers to market their wares.
Take the collaboration between Toyota and YouTube comedy duo Rhett & Link, who partnered to promote the redesign of Toyota’s 2015 model Camry. This type of launch, being so common, rarely stirs up much attention, but the combination of wild stunts performed by playful internet entertainers allowed the brand to turn heads among a community that values high-octane, short-form content.
Although using influencers to promote products is not a groundbreaking new technique, its application today differs significantly from how brands have traditionally worked with celebrities. It also holds far greater potential given the interconnectedness between the digital influencer and their fans, evidenced by their ability to activate their audience through direct engagement.
Globally, people are now spending as much time watching online video as they are watching TV, and millennials are (unsurprisingly) at the forefront of this trend. Consumers aged 13–24 spend 11.3 hours weekly watching online video compared with 8.3 hours for regularly scheduled TV, and when it comes to short form content, YouTube rules the roost. YouTube alone boasts more than a billion users, and while the quantity of content it hosts is appealing, the quality of its content is even more important. YouTube is the birthplace and the home of a growing number of online celebrities who are achieving colossal fan bases and unrivalled levels of stardom among younger generations.
Along with this favorable market opportunity, the fact that online influencers usually fit neatly into a specific niche with a specific audience — the obvious ones being beauty, fashion, gaming, cooking, travel and music — is another alluring factor for many brands, presenting them with the easy option of tapping into existing communities rather than building them from scratch. Mountain Dew is a brand that has done this masterfully, using the YouTube king of gaming PewDiePie for campaigns such as its 2015 fan fiction contest. The drink’s association with gamers is widely accepted, but we can’t attribute this solely to PewDiePie’s efforts. It’s more a case of Mountain Dew taking advantage of gamers’ preexisting preference for the soft drink, and using the perfect influencer to build up even greater loyalty among this fan base.
However, great opportunity does not come without its challenges. Any venture into influencer marketing involves conducting considerable research and arming yourself with enough knowledge to ensure that your efforts run smoothly. Research to find the right influencer is key, but this means more than just finding a personality that suits your brand. There’s the process of calculating and predicting view rates, and exploring factors such as content formats, to make sure that branding can be integrated into influencer videos in an organic fashion.
Most importantly, marketers must be willing embrace a different kind of creative development cycle than they would be used to with traditional advertising techniques. Collaborating with online influencers involves accepting that the influencer has built their channel and their fan base with a particular style. For a brand to resonate with that influencer’s audience, the content created as part of influencer marketing campaign must fit that style, too. It does not mean that a marketer needs to cede its established brand voice but must recognize that the influencer will best at telling the story in a way that appeals to their audience with authenticity. Even President Barack Obama has recognized the value in handing over the reins, recently letting top YouTube stars fire questions at him, raising issues that are close to their hearts rather than specified by the president himself.
Universal Studios won hearts and minds with its promotion of “Jurassic World” earlier this year, throwing its lead actor Chris Pratt into the YouTube frame alongside various vloggers and pranksters with extensive appeal. Teaming up with the likes of Caspar and SA Wardega and sticking true to the style and format of each YouTuber allowed it to break into the all-important teen and millennial audience and achieve extraordinary reach among a demographic that lacked nostalgia for the original “Jurassic Park” franchise. This was a simple formula executed well — a formula that other brands can learn from and repeat.
There’s no doubt that the industry is shifting to make room for the influencer. In just a few years we’ve witnessed multi-channel networks (MCNs) springing up to harness the fame of YouTubers, and being snapped up by industry behemoths — Disney’s acquisition of Maker Studio in 2014 and and AT&T’s takeover of Fullscreen are just two examples. This is the start of a new phase of consolidation and power shifting, as traditional media dashes to grab a slice of an increasingly digital world. There is change on the horizon for video platforms, too, as they will need to find new ways to retain the personalities that have found fame on their websites and stop them from being tempted by new channels and routes towards monetization.
The coming years will undoubtedly see online personalities becoming more prevalent, especially as they migrate to new platforms beyond YouTube and reach consumers with new formats, and this means even more opportunities for brands to connect with audiences in new and exciting ways. The first-mover advantage applies here as it does anywhere, and taking innovative approaches to marketing today means avoiding playing catch-up later down the line when communities have already sworn allegiances.
Glenn Ginsburg is SVP of global partnerships at The QYOU, responsible for ensuring the quality of its web programming line-up, while adding to its existing partnerships with Fullscreen, Collecitve Digital, X-Treme Video, Scalelab, Jukin and Diagonal View. Prior to coming to QYOU, he was a principal at Alliance Content Marketing, working with top-tier brands to help them harness the power of YouTube influencers and develop viral PR campaigns that generated buzz online.