What Brands and Advertisers Have Learned from YouTubers

Twelve years after the launch of YouTube, social media creators are now part of a full-fledged industry. Over the years, corporations have learned a lot from YouTubers—not only about audiences, but also about ads.

YouTube has grown up. And, in many ways, it should be doing just that. The universal video platform is now a tween, having been ushered into the world in February 2005. Back then, there was little indication of what the site that allowed anyone anywhere to upload videos for free for the world to see would become a dozen years later.

Today, YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine (its owner Google is, of course, the largest). Over 1 billion hours of video are watched daily by over 1 billion users, and the site is home to millions of channels covering everything from comedy to cooking to homework help to makeup tutorials as well as to more random fare such as people unboxing mattresses bought on the internet.

When the 5th annual Buffer Festival was held recently in Toronto, heralded on its website as “a showcase of YouTube video premieres, celebrating artistic and innovative content from acclaimed digital creators,” it was clear that what was once a community run largely on niche interests and personal passions had become a full-fledged industry.

Nothing spoke to this shift more than the festival’s third Industry Day, attended by about 250 participants from the worlds of marketing, branding and advertising as well as talent agencies.

These worlds used to work from the top down, with a relatively small group of industry personnel determining what campaigns were going to look like, who was going to execute them, and how messaging was going to be very carefully managed. And then came the internet, which changed all of this. Not abruptly, mind you, but over time.

YouTubers: from amateurs to superstars

It’s been over 20 years since the first product review was posted on Amazon and over a decade since a group of people who would later come to be known as ‘YouTubers’ emerged, speaking directly to the camera.

They spoke their minds on topics that may have seemed trivial to many, but ended up commanding a staggering amount of viewer attention. So staggering that the professionals had no choice but to take note of what was clearly more than a fad.

Speaking to this shift from a command and control model of broadcast media to one that is participatory and often unpredictable, Sally Catto, CBC’s General Manager of Programming, had this to say at the opening of the festival’s Industry Day:

“[YouTube] has changed the entire landscape of media,” pointing to research indicating that YouTube megastars such as SmoshNigaHiga, and Markiplier are as if not more popular and trusted by today’s youth than mainstream celebrities[1] the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.

Advertising: from pre-roll ads to content marketing

How did this shift happen? In two steps. The first was when an organic community of creators successfully attracted so many viewers and so much viewing time that their videos could become a channel through which business takes place.

At first, this happened through the placement of ads on videos. That’s akin to the traditional advertising model of going where the eyeballs are.

But then came the next step, which was when businesses realized they were often better off speaking to viewers not through conventional ads, but through the work of the millions of creators who bring their own expertise to the videos they upload and who build their audiences not through a broadcast mechanism, but through a direct-to-fan relationship, from the ground up.

Understanding this shift is crucial because it marks the move from advertising that touts features and benefits to content that is entertaining and/or informative and that viewers choose to watch. Ads go from something most wanted to avoid at all cost to content that people watch, then rewatch, then comment on and share. Talk about a rearranging of definitions and sequences.

Case study: Marriott Hotels and its Two Bellmen series

The new model looks more like this: if you’re a hotel chain don’t talk about the quality of your mattresses or the attentiveness of your front desk staff. Those are features and benefits which are much less important today than they once were because such product attributes are easily found by people on their own in a search-at-your-fingertips world.

This is one reason why, since 2015, Marriott Hotels has taken a very different approach to its online marketing. In a bold move, the company set up its own content studio, placing its bets on attracting consumers’ attention not with interruptive ads but with high-production value content that incorporates the themes of the drama and adventure of travel without overtly touting their brand.

Speaking at Buffer Festival's Industry Day, David Beebe, head of Marriott Content Studio, pointed to its Two Bellmen series of videos, which range from 30 seconds to over 30 minutes in duration and have racked up millions of views.

The videos’ YouTube page introduces the series as follows: “Meet Gage and Christian. Gage is serious, focused and wholly committed to the Bellmen Way. He studies and trains for this job. Christian is, well, he’s in it for the fun. Together, they are the Two Bellmen and they do more than just carry your bags. They save the day, every day, through a stunning performance of parkour, dance and martial arts.”

The most watched of the Two Bellmen videos clocks in at 35 minutes and has been viewed over 9 million times.

Measuring content marketing: from likes to sentiments

But what good are millions of views of an entertaining series about swashbuckling bellmen for Marriott? One might well wonder if these views bring guests in the door and contribute to booking rooms.

In a panel at Industry Day titled “Risk, Resonance, Reward: Strengthening Your Voice Through Storytelling,” a group of executives from the worlds of branding, marketing and broadcasting was convened to discuss.

Influencer marketing success measurement metrics (U.S., 2016)

Source: Linqia; November 2016; 170 B2C marketers (via Statista)

Whitney Bell, Senior Brand Manager for Unilever’s Axe line of men’s grooming products, said she and her team do not measure by likes alone. Likes are nice, but there has to be more. Bell claimed that as a brand manager, she needs to look beyond the thumbs and evaluate factors such as the sentiments expressed about the brand which in turn can lead to insights about brand health and that these elements form part of the brand’s equity. That’s what leads to sales.

Another panellist, Mike McShane, Director of Business and Partnerships for Bell Media, talked about the delicate dance that must be done when working in tandem with YouTubers. There are brand guidelines, he reassured the audience, but one needs to learn to let go a little.

Figuring out how to stay true to the brand’s message and meaning may be more of an art than a science though. Everyone is chasing that elusive thing called ‘authenticity’ but, as McShane pointed out, the relationship between the brand and the YouTuber is sometimes about more than the creator using an iPhone to shoot something and then turning that over to the brand. Instead, some professionally shot pieces are often produced, with the creators then pushing those videos through their own networks.

[1] Since then, a new study has been published, giving a more nuanced portrait of the popularity of digital stars: http://variety.com/2016/digital/news/youtube-stars-traditional-celebrities-data-1201799487/

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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