Put your product directly into the hands of the people your audience wants to watch, and have those online stars create engaging videos that won’t get skipped. It’s something toy company WowWee did to spectacular effect last year. Success stories like this are the reason YouTube influencer marketing shows no signs of slowing down.
WowWee’s Fingerlings were the hot toy of the 2017 holiday season, but their genesis started a year-and-a-half before. Sydney Wiseman, a brand manager for the company, saw a post on a social media account showing a pygmy marmoset monkey clinging to a person’s finger. The adorable image went viral, and Wiseman saw potential for a toy. She shared the idea with Davin Sufer, WowWee’s CTO, as well as the research and development team, and the Fingerlings were born.
WowWee’s strength is that it can deliver interactive robots at a fair price. Its weakness, prior to this, is that its robots were only a hit with a niche audience. But with Fingerlings, WowWee found what it had been missing—a robotic toy with mass appeal. The line sold for $15 each, putting it in the impulse-purchase area. Fingerlings debuted with six adorable models in different colors (one lavender model was named Sydney for their creator), and from the start they were popular with both boys and girls. Fingerlings have 40 different actions and respond when touched or spoken to. Once in a while, they even fart. WowWee clearly knows its audience.
The original line debuted in August 2017, on a day the company called Fingerlings Friday. Sensing that it had something special to offer, the company planned a debut event that would get it noticed. These days, that means running a YouTube influencer campaign.
WowWee’s brand management team started by determining which influencers they wanted to work with, making a list that included Mackenzie Ziegler, JacyandKacy, and ForEverAndForAva. While these young celebs might be unknown to most people, they have enormous audiences online. As of this writing, Ziegler has 2.4 million YouTube subscribers, Jacy and Kacy have 2.5 million, and Everleigh and Ava have 1.1 million.
Simply working with a popular YouTube influencer isn’t enough, however. To really launch a product, companies need viewers to help spread the message. To do that, WowWee created a fun event for influencers and viewers alike to take part in. That event included banana piñatas.
“We really wanted to create shareability,” explains Tiffany Kayar, communications manager for WowWee. “So, to optimize that word-of-mouth and that shareability so that we could reach all these different core audiences, we didn’t just want kids to watch an unboxing and then say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s cool,’ or to watch a review and say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s neat,’ but we really wanted them to feel like they were a part of it. So we took the people that they look up to the most and gave them a very interactive experience: Instead of doing a traditional unboxing, we wanted to do a piñata ‘unbashing.’ So then that way it was kind of fun, it was cute, it was very within the line of how the brand look and feel is, and how the world of the Fingerlings that they’re in is definitely very silly and whimsical. We wanted audiences to feel like they could be a part of that, that silly world with the unbashing, and we had them share a picture to enter a contest to win their own banana piñata.”
Shopping for a YouTube Influencer
For Fingerlings Friday, WowWee worked with about 10 influencers, ranging from little kids to tweens. It threw in a few adults, as well, such as those on The Mommy and Gracie Show. WowWee doesn’t see working with influencers as a one-off event, so it tries to keep a relationship going with favorite creators. The company prefers to work with a YouTube influencer directly, rather than through an agency, and having an ongoing relationship means both sides learn and develop together. But WowWee also tries to keep it diverse and work with a range of agencies.
When starting a new campaign, WowWee first creates a brief that explains the concept and what the company is going for. This includes the context the company wants to create and the messaging it wants to put across. The team touches base with prospective partners and asks if they’re familiar with WowWee, and gets a feel for their channels and their passions. The finished campaign has to feel organic to each influencer’s channel, so finding a good match is crucial.
While working months ahead of time is the ideal, Kayar admits that she rarely has the luxury of that kind of time. Her team needs to stay flexible and respond to online trends.
Working with a YouTube influencer is a balancing act. The WowWee team members had to be careful to put across the key messages they wanted in the videos and the features they’d like shown. They wanted the videos to say where people could buy the toys and where they could look for more information. They provided imagery to use for inspiration, showing what their ideal campaigns would look like. But they also needed to respect the influencers’ own creativity and knowledge of their audience. The final videos were up to each channel. WowWee asked that they all debut on the same day, but left the actual posting time up to each creator. WowWee and their partners understand that promotional videos need to disclose that they’re paid ads, as per FTC guidelines. Besides working with YouTubers, WowWee also worked with Instagrammers and mommy bloggers on this launch.
While some brands will only work with the most popular influencers, WowWee works with creators at all levels, from those with hundreds of followers to those with millions. Doing so helps smaller creators develop their networks and build a relationship with the brand. It also helps build a more engaged following, Kayar believes.
Yes, influencers are paid—they don’t just do it for the toys. Creating a YouTube video that entertains an audience and communicates the spirit of a new product is work, and a popular YouTube influencer expects to be compensated. There isn’t an average price, since influencers are paid by their popularity. WowWee will pay a smaller YouTube influencer a couple thousand dollars, and up to a hundred thousand for a really popular one. That’s right, up to $100,000 for one video.
“I think it’s important to talk about those figures, because there is definitely a lot of, I would say, lack of transparency within the industry and I think it’s important for brands to talk about what they’re looking into and the different influencers that they’re working with, and to start to educate about the work that these creators are doing,” Kayar says. “A lot of the times, I’ll find that creatives are very undervalued in their space, and they really deserve the compensation for the amount of production that they’re putting in.”
Creating the Toy of the Season
When did WowWee realize it had something really special on its hands? Not from the start, but close. Once it had a working model and started showing it to toy retailers, it kept getting the same reaction: “Wow, this is something different. I’ve never seen something like this before. This is something special.”
While the team tried not to get too excited, they were aware they had a possible best-seller. But toy trends change quickly and the public is finicky, so there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Even Sydney Wiseman, the line’s creator, wasn’t absolutely certain until the day after Christmas. Once she and the rest of the team saw social media posts full of happy kids who had gotten Fingerlings, and when parents started writing online reviews saying how much their kids loved their new toys, they knew.
Fingerling Friday on YouTube was a big part of what propelled the toy in the right direction. While WowWee had worked with influencers before, it had never created a campaign this involved, with this level of detail. A week or two after the event, WowWee started getting positive feedback. The toys were selling out across the country.
WowWee saw positive comments and strong video engagement rates following its event, but the metric it really cared about was shareability: “That’s a term people confuse with virality, but it’s really the shareability of content and the shareability of feedback that gets to that optimal measure of information that you’re looking for,” Kayar explains. “When you have people tagging each other in things, when you have them sharing something on their own pages and on their own channels, when they’re forwarding things along with messages, things like that is when you know it’s something that people want other people to know about.”
And that’s how WowWee created the biggest toy success in its history.
The question is, can the company do it again?
The successor to Fingerlings isn’t cuddly—it’s scary. The company’s focus now is on Untamed Raptors, pocket-sized dinos that kids can tame or leave wild. To give them a strong send-off, WowWee once again turned to YouTube. May 18 was Ferocious Friday, where multiple influencers put out videos about their toothy new friends. So does WowWee have another hit on its hands? Wait until the day after Christmas to find out.
[This article appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “How YouTube Influencer Marketing Created the Toy of the Year”]