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YouTube stars reveal the secrets of their success to marketers

The phenomenal success of YouTube stars like Zoella has caught many brands off guard. As online video replaces TV in the hearts and minds of so many of their customers, what role should they be playing in this new media environment?

A new documentary, The Creators, premiered this week by The Drum, for the first time goes behind the scenes to discover how YouTube creators like Zoella achieve such huge success.

Held at The Curzon Soho cinema, the screening was attended by an invited audience of over 250 marketers and agency executives keen to discover how brands can work with YouTube creators to drive both impact and reach.

10 years ago three former PayPal employees created a video-sharing website on which users could upload, share and view videos. That small site, YouTube, now has in excess of one billion users.

Little wonder, then, that agencies and brands are increasingly looking at how to use the channel and how to utilise the mostly home-grown talent that populates this virtual world. As Alex Holder, Anomaly London executive creative director, says: “For any brands talking to young people, YouTube needs to be part of the answer.”

She believes there are three ways in: pre-roll videos, connecting with YouTube creators or emulating what those creators do to build such as loyal audience.

Holder was speaking at the London premiere of The Creators, a documentary starring the UK’s highest profile YouTuber Zoella, along with Niki ‘n’ Sammy and TomSka. Directed by Oscar nominated film director Nanette Burstein, it was commissioned by YouTube and produced by Anomaly.

A panel discussion following the screening, on its lessons for brands, featured YouTubers TomSka and twins Niki and Sammy, alongside Aman Matharu, PepsiCo digital marketing manager, Burstein and Holder.

The 30-minute film offers a behind-the-scenes view of how these young stars appeal to their youth audiences and develop incredibly intimate relationships with their fans. The ensuing panel discussion delved deeper into how marketers and brands can capitalise on this very unique appeal and explore the role that brands can have today on YouTube.

Thomas Ridgewell, AKA TomSka, a YouTuber with more than 3 million subscribers, suggests there is plenty of scope for brand involvement – and parallels with the creators themselves. He says: “The thing about YouTube is that every video is essentially an advert anyway. It’s not much of a leap to go from ‘Look at my video’ to ‘Look at this PepsiMax’.”

The connection, though, has to be real because YouTubers’ success lives and dies on their relevancy and authenticity. Sammy, one half of British up-and-comers Niki and Sammy, who have attracted over 110,000 subscribers in just a year and a half, says: “YouTubers know their audience very well. If there’s a brand looking to work for us we won’t endorse something we don’t believe in. There’s a lot of trust there and brands that fit can capitalise on that. If brands sit well with us they’ll sit well with our audience as well.”

To this thought a note of caution: “The problem with some brand deals is that they’ve had too much input at the expense of the creators,” says Sammy.

For brands, then, this sense of authenticity and democracy should be key. Matharu says: “Everyone is trying to crack social media, aiming for that Oreo [Superbowl] moment. But it’s difficult and I’d say impossible unless you’re totally authentic.”

As the film demonstrates, producing regular video content is crucial - creators are fanatical about regular uploads - and building a video content calendar Matharu believes is vitally important.

He takes pride in brands’ roles in supporting independent content creators. PepsiMax, for one, invests in original online content. “YouTube is not just about pre-roll advertising. The eyeballs are there but if you’re going to take it seriously it should be as a content and publishing brand,” he adds.

Burstein suggests that the credibility of these new YouTube celebrities is core to the success of such commercial deals. “They’re not selling out and you can’t undercut that,” she says, believing that the old media “dinosaurs” are suddenly seeing the relevance of this burgeoning entertainment stream.

“What people really respond to is charisma. You either have that thing where people want to think you’re their best friend - or you don’t.” The most effective way for brands to gain of bit of that charisma halo is to find a way to work with the YouTube creators, learning from how they behave on the channel.

As Holder adds: “Zoella is now a big celebrity, but she’s built her audience one by one. She’s the most democratic celebrity ever.”

PepsiCo's head of marketing Sebastian Micozzi recently spoke to The Drum about its toughest content marketing lessons to date.

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