You don't need a spending forecast to tell you that online video is gobbling up an increasingly larger share of today's advertising dollars. More advertisers are spending more money on video -- whether we're talking about pre-roll, branded YouTube channels, or integrations with existing content producers. But more money doesn't necessarily mean smart spending.
Right now, YouTube has two strong opportunities for brand advertisers. They can either partner with established YouTube stars, or they can go their own way and launch a brand channel. (Obviously, the two aren't mutually exclusive.)
But while most of us are familiar with the opportunities and challenges of those two options, we're less conversant with the nuances of YouTube's culture. In the face of that knowledge gap, only a handful of brands have truly prospered with video. Many brands, perhaps even the majority of brands, haven't had much success with video, and frankly, a lot of brands simply misunderstand platforms like YouTube, their audience, and the acts that have used YouTube to launch their careers.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend VidCon in Anaheim, California. While there were some good breakout sessions that were clearly aimed at marketing types, the real action was down on the floor, where fans lined up seeking autographs from their favorite YouTube stars.
Of course, "star" is a funny word in this context. Being big on YouTube doesn't make you a household name. For every pack of teenagers I saw gushing over their favorite YouTube star, there was a somewhat bewildered adult chaperon who would say things like, "Whose autograph do you want, and why are they famous?"
As a category, it's easy to dismiss YouTube stars as flukes -- amateurs who got lucky early with a weird gimmick or a cheap stunt. But YouTube stars have something all brands crave -- an audience. And they also have something else -- a solid understanding of what will and won't work on YouTube.
Watching the frenzy on the VidCon floor, as diehard fans rushed from one booth to the next, I couldn't help but think that the marketers in their breakout sessions upstairs were missing the real lesson. Yes, in some cases, these YouTube stars present a huge -- and relatively untapped -- opportunity for branded integrations. That's important for some advertisers. But let's put sponsorship opportunities aside for the moment, because there's something more fundamental that all marketers can learn from these YouTube stars. Each of them, in their own way, has broken some important ground in the Wild West that is YouTube. And if you're looking to take your brand's YouTube channel to the next level, it's worth studying the people who've already blazed that trail.
Ray William Johnson
YouTube is loaded with clip shows that showcase, satirize, and skewer the latest viral videos. But Ray William Johnson's "Equals Three" is easily the best in breed. The show has more than 5.5 million subscribers and a total views count that's quickly approaching 2 billion. Clearly, the man who describes himself as "an alcoholic garden gnome with a taste for comic books and hip-hop music" is doing something right.
But what sets Johnson apart from a crowded pack of imitators, and what lesson can marketers learn from this fast-talking viral video junkie?
From a marketing perspective, I like to think of Johnson as a curator, even though he produces two shows a week. As a curator, Johnson finds a mix of stunts gone bad and stupid human tricks that fit his brand. Curator brands do that too. But most brands stop at the point of sharing, which is exactly where Johnson starts his act.
Take a look at the episode below and pause at the 58-second mark.
The first segment of a kid face-planting in the snow after an ill-advised -- and poorly executed -- back flip is pretty standard fare on the web. Watching it, you can almost hear a collective chorus screaming, "Hashtag fail!" But Johnson takes an original angle, commenting at length on the cameraman's unflappable reaction.
As a curator, Johnson uses his attention to detail to find a unique angle for a video that, while certainly shareable, isn't all that noteworthy. Yes, viewers subscribe to "Equals Three" for a regular serving of these types of videos, but they keep coming back because they know that Johnson curates content with a certain style.
What's the lesson for brands? Don't just spotlight found content, make it your own.
Find something worth sharing (that we won't see elsewhere)
Now, watch the next segment, which features a street performer named Candyman.
Once again, Johnson offers his usual commentary. But what caught my eye was a little tidbit Johnson shares about the video of Candyman's performance. Turns out, it's not very popular -- "[it] got a whopping 162 views in 8 months," Johnson tells viewers. That pitiful view count might scare off most curators, but not Johnson, who knows that the video is cool, even if YouTube's algorithm thinks otherwise.
Johnson isn't afraid to share an unpopular video, and neither should brand curators. While nobody will yell at you for posting a viral hit, the fact of the matter is that everyone else is doing the same thing.
If your brand's goal is to curate content for your subscribers, posting a viral hit can actually be counterproductive because chances are your viewers have already seen it a dozen other places. Part of what puts Johnson at the top of the heap is the fact that he finds great content you haven't seen and won't see elsewhere. That is a valuable service, and it's certainly one that any brand can provide.
Can we hire Johnson?
It's hard to say. Johnson has been pretty adamant about not working with advertisers, and I certainly haven't seen anything that he's done with brands. As his YouTube page says, "Please note that I am NOT interested in doing commercial brand deals or product endorsements. I make YouTube videos because I love performing and entertaining, not because I care to make money."
Of course, it's a little hard to take all of that seriously when you consider just how many pre-roll ads Johnson has served. Also, his YouTube page lists 3 Arts Entertainment, a highly regarded Hollywood management company, as his representation. So while Johnson may be in it for the love of entertainment, my guess is his manager has other ideas. Maybe his brand isn't available for advertisers, or maybe he just hasn't gotten the right offer.
Mashable called her the most popular woman on YouTube. She has 3.5 million subscribers and more than 600 million views on her YouTube channel. But if you're over 25, you probably haven't heard of Jenna Marbles, a foul-mouthed Boston blonde who rants about mundane topics like what she's learned from watching kid shows and how she broke her hand (seriously, that one has more than 4 million views).
If you're not a fan of Jenna's crude brand of humor, it's easy to hate her. But if you love her, you really love her. Her autograph line at VidCon was easily double that of any other YouTube star, and it was packed with teenage girls who idolize Jenna the same way previous generations might have worshiped pop stars. And no, that's not hyperbole when you have 1.3 million friends on Facebook.
Brands haven't exactly beaten down Jenna's door. On the one hand, that's not surprising given the language that she uses. Then again, there are plenty of foul-mouthed men making money on YouTube. And didn't the success of "Bridesmaids" prove that there's a market for raunchy female comedy?
For an advertiser that is looking to reach young women and isn't too concerned about content, Jenna is a potential goldmine. When she held a contest to give away her used Nintendo 64 (no official brand participation there), the video announcing the winner got more than 700,000 views; the video announcing that the contest had closed got more than 360,000 views! Those numbers are pretty small for Jenna, but they'd certainly turn heads for any branded contest.
Jenna Marbles has repeatedly said she doesn't know why the f*%k she's successful. (Seriously, that's how she speaks). Aside from posting consistently, she says she's clueless about why her audience can't get enough of her.
But I'll venture a guess -- authenticity.
Jenna Marbles is nothing if not authentic. She doesn't fake her topics, and she doesn't fake the angles she takes. She speaks in a frank, conversational style. Her setup looks like a confessional camera from MTV's "The Real World," but unlike that reality franchise, her comments don't feel scripted or contrived.
Yet, her videos have more jump cuts than a Jean-Luc Godard film. And there's the lesson: Authenticity can still be highly produced. Brands that have the ability to speak candidly (either through a brand voice of the voices of employees) can foster a natural connection with users. But they don't have to speak in canned, rehearsed ways. And they don't have to stick to big topics, because, as Jenna proves, often times it's the mundane issues that catch eyeballs on YouTube. And those mundane topics can often resonate beyond a producer's expectations precisely because audiences find them authentic.
Nathan Barnatt is a character. Well, actually Barnatt is many characters. Here's a small sampling.
There's his signature character, Keith Apicary, a scrawny geek who just loves video games way too much.
There's the out-of-control chef he did for a Carls Jr ad.
And there's Trale Lewous, a clueless pitchman who "makes commercials for companies that don't ask for them."
Barnatt isn't a secret in the marketing community. In fact, Barnatt has done work for a number of brands, including Kia and Warner Bros. He's even a spokesman for Skittles, although he pronounces the brand as "skit-tells."
But while advertisers have certainly figured a number of ways to deploy Barnatt's talents, his success illustrates the growing importance of character-based advertising. (Yes, I'm looking at you Old Spice, and you too Dos Equis.)
YouTube: Where characters are really, really welcome
Simply put: Characters resonate particularly well on YouTube. For one thing, character sketches are designed to work in less than five minutes, so they're a natural fit for short-form video. When done well, they're also worth sharing, not just because they're funny, but because they're outlandish. Or, put another way, there's an "OMG" factor to character sketches that dovetails nicely with social media.
But the real takeaway for brands considering a character-driven approach is that good characters are the essential building blocks of a good story. So, if your brand is talking about marketing as content, and good content as good storytelling, it's worth backing up for a second and asking if you have a solid character to form the basis of that story. The character doesn't have to be funny; it just has to be strong enough to tell an emotional story that resonates.
Sometimes good lessons come from strange places. Reply girls -- the collective name for otherwise unknown women who dawn low-cut clothing and reply to popular videos -- aren't YouTube stars by any conventional definition. Really, they're more like a phenomenon. But they provide some useful lessons -- and no, one of those lessons isn't that sex sells.
First, a little background: While there are countless reply girls, there is the reply girl. Her name is Alejandra Gaitan. Here's a snippet from a Gawker profile that pretty much tells you what you need to know:
Gaitan is more or less the first of an increasing number of young women to devote an entire YouTube channel to expertly-tagged videos of herself in somewhat revealing clothing, 'reviewing' popular YouTube shows and viral videos and counting on the prominently-featured cleavage in her video's thumbnail to bring her, and her advertisers, an enormous audience.
As for her popularity, Gaitan's channel has a relatively small number of subscribers (just over 9,000) and a rather large amount of views (closing in on 24 million). In other words, she has a lot of reach, but not a ton of engagement.
Here's one of Gaitan's more popular videos. It's a reply to the popular "Shit girls say" meme. The production quality, I'm sure you'll notice, is nonexistent. But what's really interesting is just how many dislikes the video has compared to the total views. The inverse relationship between likes and reach is at the heart of the reply girl shtick.
So what are the marketing takeaways here, you're probably wondering?
Replies matter in social media
To be clear, reply girls game the system by exploiting a preference for reply videos in YouTube's algorithm. YouTube says it's addressing the flaw in its algorithm, but news reports point out that the fix -- like pretty much everything else having to do with Google-owned algorithms -- is a secret. So, where does that leaves us?
Well, it's certainly possible that YouTube can find a way to bury the reply girls. But given the emphasis on social, it's hard to see YouTube killing off reply videos en masse. If anything, the popularity of the reply girls should be a call-to-action for all brands on YouTube to respond directly to other YouTube users. For one thing, it's clearly a good way to expand reach, but it's also inherently social because, well, you're speaking with an audience instead of talking at them.
Now, I know you probably aren't going to run to your boss and say, "We should do what the reply girls did." Fair enough. But here's a question: Is the following iteration of Old Spice's campaign really all that different from the reply girls? (And yes, I'm well aware that Old Spice did it first.)
Thumbnails matter (probably) more than you think
One of the overlooked -- or perhaps easily disregarded -- aspects of the reply girls is their reliance on thumbnails. Yes, I know their thumbnails were particularly provocative. But ask yourself this: How often do we really discuss thumbnails? Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever even written the word thumbnail here at iMedia. But that seems like a big oversight. The image the user sees in the thumbnail must be a factor in whether or not they choose to watch the video. Sure, users often find these videos through their social networks, so the quality of the relationship between the sharer and the viewer is always going to be significant, but once you get a user onto your brand's YouTube page, their decision to watch the next video is all about the headline copy (something I do hear people talking about) and the thumbnail (a factor that is almost never discussed).
This isn't an exhaustive list of what brand marketers can learn from YouTube stars. Heck, this isn't even an exhaustive list of YouTube stars. We've looked at four. VidStasX, which tracks YouTube content producers, counts more than 500 acts.
If your team is responsible for building your brand's YouTube presence, I'd encourage you to monitor and analyze some of the most relevant producers. For all intents and purposes, the amateurs looking to go pro on YouTube are the research and development department of online video. Their successes and failures are free, highly relevant lessons for today's marketers. And if you read this article and wondered why I didn't write about your favorite YouTube star, I can only say, please take the opportunity to share your two cents in the comments section.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet."Orange vector Star" image via Shutterstck.
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