Perhaps a better title for today’s South by Southwest session “Who Wants to be a YouTube Ad Millionaire?” would have been “Who Doesn’t Want to be a YouTube Ad Millionaire?” After all, for many YouTubers, connecting with a brand that will pay you big bucks—even if it’s well short of a million dollars—remains the holy grail of online video success. The SXSW panel, sponsored by MediaPost, dug beyond the hype to look at the reality of what’s possible when brands and YouTube celebrities work together.
Brands come to YouTube influencers for three things, the panelists agreed: reach, authenticity, and, of course, the content itself.
“Reach is very important, because we want to reach people organically,” said Farrah Bezner, marketing director at Mondelēz International, who oversaw the “Breaking Out” series in which Andrea Russett, Christian Collins, and other young YouTubers promoted Sour Patch Kids. “But the right match is equally important. If they wouldn’t eat Sour Patch Kids on a regular day, they’re probably not the best fit for our product. “
The series of short videos has racked up almost 9 million views, Bezner said. While view counts remain the most important metric for brands looking to evaluate the success of a campaign, Bezner noted that other things, including likes, positive comments, and “cultural relevance” are equally important. Mondelēz ran surveys to find out how teenagers felt about Sour Patch Kids after the “Breaking Out” series concluded.
For brands, working with YouTube influencers can be a challenge since most of them are young and not accustomed to working in an environment where they have to take direction and feedback on their content, and where their videos have to go through an approval and scheduling process.
“We had to work hard at having them understand that this kind of content is different, and they can’t just put it out as soon as it’s done,” Bezner said. “They have to go through the process.”
Mark Fortner, managing partner and head of innovation for branded content at marketing agency MediaCom, said that poor experiences with YouTubers soured some brands.
“The space grew so much more quickly than the infrastructure to support it,” Fortner said. “A lot of brands were burned very early on because it was such a difficult process to work with the talent, and so they’re hesitant to dip their toes back in the water.”
For that reason, MediaCom tends to work more with what Fortner called YouTube “entities” such as SoulPancake, which have more of a traditional media infrastructure while still telling “real stories from real people.”
So why work with YouTubers rather than traditional celebrity spokespeople?
“YouTube influencers create a relationship with their fans very similar to a friendship,” said Chris Landa, director of talent development for Machinima . “If they say go see this movie or buy this product, it’s like a friend telling them to do it. Word of mouth is a lot stronger with YouTube celebrities than with athletes, actors, or other traditional celebrities.”
Ironically, given the panel’s title, none of the speakers addressed in any detail what sort of revenue lift they or the brands they work with have seen from YouTube influencer videos.
“It’s almost impossible to figure out how much a video will actually help sell things,” Fortner said.
So while some YouTubers might be getting rich from working with brands, the value proposition for the brand can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.