How brands can work with YouTubers

If you’re going to work with YouTubers like Tyler Oakley (below), be prepared to adapt your processes – and set aside your prejudices, says Poke’s Nick Farnhill.
Illustrations by Denise Nestor

What is it with YouTubers? From the prescient Wired front cover of 2013 heralding their impact on entertainment to the public selection of Zoella and Alfie Deyes as Madame Tussauds waxworks, YouTubers and vLoggers continue to permeate mainstream culture. As a result, brands want to befriend them in the hope that their sparkle will rub off on their product, channel or image and, importantly, win them millions of millennial eyeballs. How dare these relative upstarts suddenly monopolise the limelight and put our trusted ‘analogue’ stars in the shade?

To dismiss YouTubers as narcissistic chancers who have struck lucky is doing them a huge disservice. As James Corden recently commented, “Your Tyler Oakleys, Jenna Marbles and Grace Helbigs would have fronted MTV Total Requests Live 15 years ago and been brilliant at it”.

What I have seen is how these individuals display a tireless Protestant work ethic. You don’t just stumble across a million subs – you work for them. They diligently create and upload their material to a self-imposed schedule every day, week and month in their quest to become habitual viewing for a growing audience. In their down-time, they are virtual glad handing and pressing flesh as much as possible to build the connections and networks that will help accelerate those all important and highly valuable subs.

This is the reality that is often overlooked. Many who observe this new world of online video feel that success must have just landed in their laps. That might have been true for the first upload, but the ones who are still trucking have been strategic and diligent. As an industry, we have to acknowledge that just because YouTube and online video is a form and style that many may not be comfortable with, it doesn’t make it second-class – just look at some of the views!

This diligence and commitment to making the very best content possible must be understood by agencies and brands looking to partner and co-produce work with these new screen stars. Without this respect and genuine creative collaboration, it will be challenging to achieve the results desired. Of course there are the vlogging divas (much like ‘mainstream’ ones!) that fame, influence and cash have polluted, but as with any collaboration, you soon gravitate toward those that are open, participative and share common values.

An illustration of youtuber Alfie Deyes by Denise Nestor
Alfie Deyes. Illustration by Denise Nestor

So with this in mind, I believe there are several key principles that should always be adopted when working with successful YouTube stars. Applying these principles will make for better work and ideally a relationship that grows and grows.

Consider what they have on their plates. They are often solo studios – self-shooting, self-producing, self-directing content machines. They have demanding audiences eager to engage with their heroes and the production schedules required are therefore intensive and complex. Any distraction or call on their time has an opportunity cost that the YouTuber will quickly take into consideration. Cash isn’t always the answer, so what alternatives can be agreed? Could media activity help drive a new audience to the YouTuber’s channel and drive all-important subs? Could they be offered an experience that despite their fame they wouldn’t normally be able to enjoy? Appreciating that their priority is their audiences and not your product placement helps kick off a project on a solid footing.

This naturally leads onto production considerations. I’ve made the point now I hope – these guys are busy. They’re not just sitting around waiting for an agency to come along and offer something. Considering this will result in a shoot sheet that works for all. Recently on the production of the Wembley Cup for EE, we shifted our entire daily production schedule to begin at 12pm as opposed to 9am. We quickly realised the majority of the guys we were working with stayed up till 5am editing their own material and playing FIFA so anything pre-noon was absolutely non-negotiable!

BELOW: One of the videos from the campaign that the Wembley campaign ran in collaboration with EE. 28 YouTube content creators were brought together for ‘the most epic YouTube footballing showdown in history’.

As with any partnership and creative process, trust is critical. The driving reason for any agency or brand to work with a YouTube star is access to their audience. But remember it’s their audience. They entertained, shared, listened, supported and grew this audience and know it better than anyone. No social listening data or insights will offer anything they don’t know. Trust them when they say what works and what doesn’t. Sharing the responsibility of creative direction and working closely from project kick-off will really help here. Co-develop ideas and share in presenting them to those ultimately signing-off. Start and maintain this journey together, listening and learning as you go.

I’m not certain where the three-minute recommendation originated, possibly from YouTube themselves in the days of poor data speeds, but this has certainly moved on. Mid-to-long-form content works well with fans wanting more and gives a narrative the space and time it deserves. A core segment of the YouTube audience will cite that they don’t watch TV, but they’ll gladly put their feet up to an evening staring at the ‘box’. Use this to create richer and immersive material that allows for character development and potentially multiple storylines.

An illustration of youtuber Zoella by Denise Nestor
YouTuber Zoella, illustration by Denise Nestor

YouTube has changed everything. Original online content is appearing all the time and the talented individuals responsible for much of it have an instinctive feel for this new medium and the audiences that use it. Craft, tried and tested production techniques and skilful storytelling will always remain, but those who are both behind and in front of the camera are changing. Change with them.

Nick Farnhill is CEO of Poke, pokelondon.com. He tweets @nickfarnhill

Lead image is an illustration of Tyler Oakley by Denise Nestor, www.denisenestorillustration.com

This is an article from the Social Media Issue of Creative Review, out now. Buy your copy here

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