Advertisers are leveraging YouTube celebrity. Sellout – or savvy?

By now, you probably know that Justin Bieber’s world domination started when he posted videos of his 13-year-old self singing into a webcam in his bedroom on YouTube.  Usher saw the videos, signed Bieber, and the rest is David Cassidy-esque history.  And Justin Bieber’s not the only one who started his career on YouTube.

That Fred guy even has a whole movie coming out.
2+ million views still counts as ‘under the radar’

If you’re not a big YouTube watcher, however, you may not know that YouTube has generated a whole lot of ‘celebrities’ – people who are famous on YouTube but who aren’t featured on the cover of People and Us magazine and aren’t household names.

People like LisaNova, ShayCarl and Smosh generate millions of views for their videos, have huge, loyal fan bases, and wield considerable influence (a shout-out from ShayCarl can generate tens of thousands of visitors to your YouTube page, for example).

So it’s not surprising that companies have started to engage these YouTube celebrities as ’spokespeople’, or commission them to do sponsored videos.

Sometimes these sponsorships seem to work out well for everyone – Rhett and Link’s spot for McDonalds was well-received.  However, other forays into sponsorship haven’t gone so well:  When LisaNova, Shaycarl and others were asked to promote a recent Kia-YouTube initiative, the cries of ’sellout’ were fast and furious (check out the comment section of this video).

The YouTube audience has no tolerance for mediocre material

Rhett and Link weren’t criticized (much) for their spot for McDonalds, while LisaNova et al got slammed for the Kia sponsorship.  Why?  The McDonalds spot was fun to watch, but the Kia spots were downright dull.

The audience is often more invested in their relationships with YouTube celebrities than they are with ‘mainstream’ celebrities, so they take it personally when the celebrity appears to be selling out by getting paid to do mediocre work.

The lesson for brands looking to leverage YouTube – or other online channel – celebrity?  Don’t try to control (or sanitize, or genericize) the creative.  These people know their audiences, because they’re interacting with them every day.  It’s best to just give them some general direction and then get out of their way.

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