The revolution will be YouTubed

Meet the YouTubers: They'll be determining your Internet future. 

Internet Culture

Published Sep 16, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 2:16 pm CDT

Content is king. This should come as no surprise: The staggering power of the millennial, both as creator and consumer, is finally being recognized in the mainstream. For those of us on the inside, this is a movement long in the making, the wellspring of which can be traced to YouTube.

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Since its purchase by Google in 2006, YouTube has grown into one of the most important brands at the search giant; analysts at Variety estimated YouTube’s 2013 revenue at $5.6 billion.

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Since the acquisition, the focus for the video platform has turned not just toward determining better ways to monetize, but also educating brands about what the YouTube landscape looks like in 2014 and beyond, both from a platform and programming perspective. Brands want to be affiliated with high quality video, and YouTube is able to deliver on a level of scalability and reach never before seen, credited with over 100 hours of video uploaded to the video giant per minute.

To cut through the noise, advertisers have looked to multi-channel networks—which represent many of the top creators (“talent”) on YouTube—and industry events, which have long drawn insiders and fans in the know. The truth of the matter is, with its scalability, opportunity for fan engagement, and exponential channel growth, YouTube is the best place to build a fan base. That fan base can carry you through to additional mediums to build your brand, with the platform at the core of that strategy.

Case in point: VidCon, the flagship industry event held annually in Anaheim, drew just over 1,400 attendees in 2010, its inaugural year. This summer, in its fourth year, it sold more than 18,000 tickets for three days of industry and executive keynotes, YouTube creator Q&As, and meet-and-greets with some of the biggest stars on YouTube. While fans constitute a large portion of attendees, an ever-growing portion of burgeoning ticket sales goes to companies seeking to gain an improved understanding of this new digital landscape and how to best tap into its massive marketing power.

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Even without a deep familiarity with the space, it would take the average person only minutes at an event like VidCon to witness the massive star power of the mostly adolescent and young adults known interchangeably as creators, influencers and, most colloquially, “YouTubers.” Constituting the lifeblood of the video platform, these digital superstars harness both massive reach and proven staying power with millions of subscribers (and hundreds of millions of video views) steadily amassed over the course of years.

YouTubers’ long-standing presence on the platform has resulted in hyper-loyal fans that look to their favorite creators for everything from life advice to product recommendations. Underscoring the strength of that relationship is that YouTubers are fast eclipsing mainstream celebs. A survey commissioned by Variety in July found that five of the most influential figures among Americans ages 13 to 18 are YouTube creators, outranking celebrities more well-known via traditional mediums, such as the Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence. The highest-ranking figure was Smosh, the online comedy team of Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla, both 26.

Not surprisingly, advertisers are increasingly looking to tap into that.

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74 percent of consumers rely on social media to inform purchase decisions and 90 percent of consumers trust peer product recommendations. YouTube serves as a touch-point for driving both consumer product awareness and purchase intent. Traditionally, brands would look to weave product placement organically into video formats already popular on the site; for beauty brands, for example, that could mean makeup tutorials, “Getting Ready” routines, and “look-books.”

As the video platform and creators mature in tandem, and companies gain a better understanding of best practices in the space, advertising and marketing strategies have become increasingly sophisticated as well. One piece of that is Google Preferred, unveiled by new YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki in April 2014. The program allows brands to target the top 1 percent or 5 percent of video content on YouTube across categories like beauty and food, “spotlighting more distinctive programming than the lower-brow comedy and video-gaming content that dominates the site’s overall leaderboard.”

YouTube also encourages companies to move beyond pre-roll and on-page advertising to develop series and subscriber bases of their own. Recently, StyleHaul partnered with L’Oreal Paris U.S.A. to do just that on a program titled “Destination Beauty,” which launched during this year’s Emmy Awards. The 12-month program consists of a combination of premium videos, influencer videos living on L’Oreal Paris’ Destination Beauty YouTube channel, and influencer videos on their channels. The videos drive between the various pages, allowing for an organic cross-pollination of fans, who bring with them video views and channel subscriptions.

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Another key to the program is that the content feels relatable. Instead of using professional makeup artists and models, the brand selected recognizable YouTube beauty gurus like Dulce Candy, Evelina Barry, Beauty By Lee, and Aspyn Ovard to film the tutorials. On the Destination Beauty landing page, a back-to-school routine sits next to a simple hair tutorial based on a popular TV show, which sits next to a “Red Carpet” makeup tutorial, with all looks solely created with L’Oreal products available at drugstores nationwide.

Speaking in simple terms, it is that accessibility factor that constitutes the keys to the content kingdom. Creators know this. Authenticity is paramount in the world of YouTube, where even diehard fans can be turned off if videos appear to be too heavily sponsored. A carefully managed brand relationship can be a boon for creators, as well: Successful campaigns have been known to later lead to book deals, movie parts and plum gigs on reality TV competitions.

In tracking the 24-hour job as an Internet celeb, Variety said it well:

That cross-platform presence underscores an increasing shift to digital from traditional and controlled forms of marketing. The rise of social and digital platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and Vine are diluting more traditional models, and increasingly put the consumer at the helm.

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This shift is set to gain momentum in coming years. According to an infographic released by AdWeek in July, 78 percent of respondents agreed that marketing will undergo radical changes in the next five years, with majority budget allocations moving to digital and mobile spends.

Maintaining a close bond with fans—core to the livelihoods of digital stars—is a nonstop requirement, and one that spans multiple social media. British fashion and beauty blogger Zoe Sugg, whose YouTube handle is Zoella, said she spends several hours every day checking comments and feedback on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and her blog.

This is particularly important when you consider the decreasing reliance of millennials on traditional media like TV (the Hollywood Reporter notes that 5 percent of cable customers aged 24-34 plan to cancel their pay TV subscriptions). According to the study:

The amount of people who say they can’t live without their TV remains steady at 57 percent, but among 18-to-34-year-olds, TV as the primary medium for entertainment is down 40 percent to 21 percent. Those who say they can’t live without their smartphones is up sharply in the last three years—from 22 percent to 50 percent.

The next frontier for YouTube will be to redirect an ever-growing portion of the $212 billion global TV advertising market to online video. “I believe to my core that the next generation of media businesses will look more like Michelle Phan and Phil DeFranco,” said Bing Chen, YouTube’s former creator development lead, to Fast Company earlier this year.

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YouTube agrees—and is starting to spread that awareness beyond its core userbase.

All of which suggests that even if you’re not yet familiar with these powerhouse digital influencers and don’t yet consume the majority of your digital media via YouTube, you will soon. And advertisers are well aware of that fact.

Photo via Miki Yoshihito/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 16, 2014, 11:30 am CDT