Social media has radically changed the balance of power between people and brands, because it enables peer recommendations to play a much greater role in purchasing decisions. According to a McKinsey study, marketing-inspired word of mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising, and these customers have a 37% higher retention rate. Given the prevalence of influencers in the growing millennial and Mom demographics, marketers are putting a lot of focus on this.
Very broadly, influencer marketing can be defined as any form of marketing that identifies and targets individuals as brand ambassadors. In the past, that mainly meant celebrities. Then, in came bloggers and vloggers. Today, there’s also a new wave of everyday people who can have just as big an impact because of the network of followers they’ve managed to build around them.
In a very simplified spectrum, the model looks like this:
More traditional celebrities are still very sought after for brand deals, and in some cases that could be the strongest option for a brand. adidas’ magic photobooth for the 2012 Olympics, part of its ‘Take The Stage’ campaign, was pure genius.
However, there’s no denying that, as a Variety study recently put it, “teenagers are more enamoured with YouTube stars than they are with the biggest celebrities in film, TV and music”. The rise of the web star as a very valid alternative to mainstream celebrities has been unstoppable. Born out of platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and, more recently, the likes of Snapchat, web stars have amassed huge followings on specialist subject matters such as gaming, fashion, beauty, food, cars and so on. The top five personalities who teens are most influenced by are all YouTube stars, such as Smosh and PewDiePie (the latter with a subscriber base of 39.9 million, the highest on YouTube).
Variety’s survey also found that YouTube stars “scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities across a range of characteristics considered to have the highest correlation to influencing purchases among teens”. The reasons behind this are fairly self-explanatory. They have built strong personal brands, offer their audience consistent content and keep conversations always open with active social presence. They grew their channels one subscriber at the time, often via very personal life stories and fun content, thus appearing approachable, relatable and trustworthy.
Boiling it down to one key differentiator, YouTubers have built a following rather than an audience.
I think the appeal of YouTube is that it’s a very personal relationship that people feel they form with their viewers. It’s a different kind of celebrity. Kids now trust their YouTube stars more than regular celebrities with endorsement.
Beckii Cruel, who became a pop star aged 14 on the back of her YouTube videos
As a consequence, if they make a video and talk about a product or service they like, their viewers are ready to listen, share and buy.
YouTubers and digital influencers are in general very aware and very protective of the precious relationship they have built with their following.
The quality of web stars’ content has also reached new highs and production values are no longer a worry when working with the most experienced digital creators.
As creator, you get to cater to what your audience want. So it’s not a passive experience, you get instant feedback from likes and comments, and you can respond and be influenced by that.
PJ Ligouri, YouTube channel KickthePJ
One example springs to mind. Toyota wanted to promote the new generation Aygo car as part of their pan-European ‘Go Fun Yourself’ campaign. They worked with top prankster MagicOfRahat, because his polished YouTube channel reflected the element of mischief in the Toyota campaign. The campaign video follows people’s reactions to a supposedly driverless car. It was so successful, with 4.6 million views, that the brand repurposed it as a 30-second video for use on their own web channels, which generated over 800,000 further views. Toyota then used it as a 30- second TV ad and a full-length cinema ad.
The real opportunity for brands is to start working with influencers in a more strategic way.
Alongside campaign and tactical partnerships with digital influencers, which usually take the shape of a co-produced video or series, I think that the real opportunity for brands is to start working with influencers in a more strategic way, giving consumers content that adds value to their lives and has a clear benefit for the influencer, while also adding value to the brand.
One of my favourite recent examples of this is from Smashbox Cosmetics, the make-up brand born out of a photo studio. Rather than throw money at web stars for product placement and reviews, Smashbox partnered with Collective Digital Studio and launched ‘Made at Smashbox’ in April 2015. The initiative offers digital influencers free access to Smashbox Studios – complete with professional lighting, cameras, make-up artists, stylists, production crews and more. All Smashbox asks for in return is a credit in the video caption.
This strategy works for all stakeholders: creators get professional videos and content creation advice; consumers get more great content from the web stars they love; and the brand taps into the reach and engagement of the influencers in an organic, authentic way.
A thorough selection process must consider more than just numbers
I won’t discuss in detail the power of the everyday people and brand advocates I mentioned earlier. However, it’s critical not to discount the combined influence of these influencers on their own groups of followers. While they may not have anywhere near the number of followers as Michelle Phan, many have built an enviable following that blindly trusts their opinion. This type of influencer/follower relationship scales extraordinarily fast and creates massive trends in the marketplace.
A note of caution that applies to all ends of the spectrum: brands still tend to identify influencers mainly by the number of followers on social platforms. This is important, however a thorough process of selection must also consider the influencer’s credibility and expertise on the subject matter, and their relationship with their followers – how engaged are they?
After everything is taken into consideration, if the match is right and the content strong, giving scale to that content should be simple enough, with the right content agency or partner in place.
This article by Vizeum’s Tia Castagno was originally published in the 2015 Global Edition of Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM), co-edited by Justin Kirby and Greta MacFarlane.