How bloggers with selfie sticks became brand allies

Corey Vidal, the founder of Buffer Festival, shares some insights on Canadian brands working with YouTubers

In 2007 a young woman was turned down for a sales job at her local department store’s cosmetics counter, so she pulled up a chair in front of her computer and started making instructional makeup and skin care videos. That young woman was Michelle Phan, who now has her own line of makeupher own beauty product subscription serviceher own online content network, and over 1 billion views on her YouTube channel.

It used to be that the Internet ran on dogs on skateboards, then kids doing the darndest things in the back seats of cars as captured on their parents’ cellphones.

Now it’s the stars of YouTube keeping the wheels of the Internet well oiled. And it’s happening in ways that often baffle those over the age of 25 but succeed wildly in connecting with a generation for whom on-demand media with immediacy and that ineffable quality often referred to as “authenticity” trump the carefully constructed products of the broadcast world.

As a result, YouTube, once the warehouse of weird, has become an effective way for marketers to communicate with audiences. And it’s not happening by way of traditional commercials featuring celebrity spokespeople, but through original content created by YouTube celebrities (often called “YouTubers”) that is then creatively intercepted by brands.

Brands have the option of getting in on the action through active sponsorships or partnerships, or simply by buying ads that appear alongside the content that is anything but the usual broadcast fare: casual or comedic opinion pieces, lists of fascinating facts, product demos and reviews, and even the results of shopping hauls, recorded on cameras set up in kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

Media has gone peer to peer, and as a consequence we’re seeing phenomena such as consumer packaged goods giant Unilever having the number one hair care channel on YouTube, without actually creating any videos themselves. There’s also the fact that 97% of the beauty-related content viewed on YouTube is created not by the major cosmetics brands but by thousands of beauty bloggers around the world. Rather than try to re-engineer a wheel that isn’t broken, astute marketers have figured out that influencing rather than advertising can be better for both marketer and consumer.

For insights into this emerging industrialization of YouTube, I conducted a Q&A with Corey Vidal, Toronto-based YouTuber, founder of the online media production company Apprentice A and organizer of Buffer Festival, a three-day industry and fan event held annually in Toronto that celebrates the stars and up-and-comers of YouTube.

Leora Kornfeld: How have you seen the relationship of the world of YouTubers to the world of brands evolve over the last couple of years?

Corey Vidal: The relationship has evolved in a healthy way because more and more brands are working with creators, and more brands are creating content themselves. There’s a shift in the economy and a shift in traditional media as budgets for TV and print are moving towards digital. It started with brands and Google ads, but with larger budgets, brands can create content themselves with YouTubers, and more than that, create ads that people want to see. For example, with Google’s True View ads, you’re really engaging with the audience and that’s the best possible experience you can ask for. Viewers are watching your ad because they want to, not because they have to.

LK: In your experience how open are brands to letting the creators keep doing what they’re doing—that attracted audiences in the first place?

CV: Great question. I think this depends on the brand. We’re lucky in Canada to have wonderful sponsors and brands who get it. They understand how to work with YouTubers to engage with the audiences they want to target, while also allowing YouTubers to create the content. Every year this seems to increase, with more and more brands getting involved.

LK: If there are battles for creative control, do you see any increased leverage on the part of the YouTubers? As they developed their material and fan base on their own, it could be argued that they know best what their audience wants, not the brand.

CV: Absolutely. I think YouTubers know best what their audience wants. There are so many ways that brands can get involved within the content, whether it’s including product placement, or adding a “brought to you by” bumper. However, when it comes to actually creating the content, I think it’s important to trust the creator and work to find a win-win situation where the brand is represented in an effective way that also aligns with the YouTuber and the audience. That way, the fans will also love the video. Regardless of views, I care about the number of positive engagements—likes, comments and shares—alongside how many views. It’s a new way for brands to think. It’s not always about how many people see your video, but how many engaged with it, and in order to do this, it’s imperative to work with the creator and let them do what they do best.

LK: In the broadcast world, there was greater distance between fans and performers whereas on YouTube that distance has been all but erased. What are the unique challenges that are specific to working in the direct to fan/consumer space?

CV: The Internet provides the opportunity to allow audiences to get as close and personal as we’d like. There’s a huge benefit there if you’d like your fans to know you personally. What makes it unique is that you don’t need to go through managers or PR people; it’s as simple as a tweet or a video to share with the world. It wouldn’t be fair to say this is the way it should be for every celebrity. Of course some celebrities like to keep a distance but the difference is that now we have a choice, choice for the talent and for the audience. Talent and audiences can choose to connect directly and engage as intensely as they want. A generation ago, you had to watch what the studio wanted you to watch, and there wasn’t opportunity for the independent artist.

LK: Canada seems to have produced a disproportionate number of successful YouTubers; for example, Epic Meal TimeMatt SantoroNardwuarASAPScience, and Superwoman aka Lilly Singh, who was recently named to Forbes’ top 10 list of highest earning YouTubers. The common complaint was that Canadians were at a huge disadvantage—first, in getting noticed inside of Canada and second, getting noticed outside of Canada. What do you think has changed?

CV: Canadians per capita have an enormous viewership for YouTube, but it’s only been very recently that the Canadian creator has exploded. Many Canadian stars had previously moved to Los Angeles since companies there were better able to support them. Our media, our companies and our brands have only very recently changed and we’ll now see a celebration for creators we didn’t see before. This year is a huge year for YouTube in Canada. We saw a massive rise in companies supporting Canadian YouTube Creators. Kin Community owned by Corus, MUCH Digital StudiosCBC and Fullscreen, and Collective Digital Studio are all companies working with YouTube, and supporting Buffer Festival in some capacity this year. This is definitely the year of the Canadian Celebrity.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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