Selling Out on YouTube: vloggers weigh in on brand integration online

By Xiaochang Li | July 21, 2009

[This post will also appear on the C3 blog]

Recently, a string of prominent vloggers on YouTube have been having a conversation about advertising, product promotion, and the notion of ‘selling out’. This was triggered by their experiences with various companies who courted them to help promote their products amongst their viewers and community and generated a lot of great conversation around how to integrate brands into their videos.

The first video was one by UK vlogger Alex Day (nerimon), who called on vloggers to discuss the topic of “selling out” after turning down an offer from Sanyo for a free camera and 1000GBP (~1700 USD) in exchange for sticking a 15-second spot in one of his videos:

In it, Day makes the very compelling point “that advertising agencies think that putting commercial in the middle of stuff is how the world works. But on YouTube, it doesn’t work like that,” pointing out that he would much rather have made a whole video about him using the camera, in his own style, speaking to his viewers the way that he has always spoken to them, rather than inserting something he had nothing to do with in his videos for money.

Day then asked for other vloggers to share their opinions. There have been 29 video responses so far, among which are this video by AlanDistro (fallofautumndistro):

Alandistro elaborates on Day’s point, saying that it’s not that vloggers are or should be against bringing money into the equation altogether, but that they need to be allowed to do so in a way that respects the relationships they’ve built with their community:

“The people receiving these offers spent a lot of time building up their channels and their audiences, and I don’t think they’re going to accept just a couple of dollars to destroy that overnight . . . Until advertisers get their act together and realize this is a conversation, not me talking at you, they’re not going to find very many people to participate.”

Another vlogger, Kristina Horner (italktosnakes) responded explaining why she chose to work with Ford as part of their Fiesta Movement campaign:

In brief, the Fiesta Movement gave cars to a number of prominent vloggers to use as they liked, while occasionally going on themed “missions” and making videos about them. Horner points out that what makes the Fiesta Movement’s tactics different from the experience Day described is fundamentally that Ford is letting the vloggers do what vloggers do best, instead of trying to get them to do what mainstream media does. Rather than asking her to simply product place, they let her choose how to integrate the brand into her daily activities and her vlog in the way that she thought would be best-received by the community she’s a part of. As Horner explains:

“Instead of paying me some crazy lump sum and see how many times I would fit the words ‘Ford’ and ‘Fiesta’ into one of my videos, Ford has kind of adopted the model that our success is their success . . . Basically, the question, is which companies are doing it right, and which companies are doing is wrong, and when is it okay to say yes. And I do feel like it is okay to say yes if you don’t feel like you’re compromising what you’re personally trying to do on youtube with your videos.”

There are, I think, three major lessons to be learned from these insights:

1. You can’t stick an old model atop a new one

This is a point that I feel like I belabor to death, but it’s a mistake people keep making, so it’s a point worth remaking: communities and other groups and affinity spaces online have their own systems of value, with their own criteria for what is worthwhile and what isn’t. And more often than not, money isn’t the big headliner. So if you’re hoping to monetize or extract some form of value from their activities, you can’t just slap your revenue or promotional model atop their social system and hope for the best. It results in people feeling exploited, people feeling like someone has “sold out,” and general resentment because it asks that these communities compromise the things they value for the things advertisers think they should value. And at the end of the day, that isn’t good for anyone, because the relationship with your brand will be stronger if it’s associated with the things these communities already value.

2. Let your participants be intermediaries

One of the most telling statements in these videos is the idea that advertisers don’t seem to “get” how their communities work. This is always, always going to be true. In line with having to understand what these communities value, advertisers have to understand that their insight will never be as rich as the people in those communities. In much of our work over at the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3), we talk about the way fans work as grassroots intermediaries, helping act as translators and promoters of media they love to others, and this is true for other types of communities online too. These vloggers are a great example. They have put in enormous amounts of time and labor building relationships with their viewers and community — give them the tools and let them show you how best to sell your brand to that community.

3. Not all “conversations” are the same (or equally valuable)

It’s become somewhat of a tired truism that brands need to be in “conversation” with their consumers. And while keeping the lines of dialogue open is very important, brands have to consider whether or not their conversation style is to join into a discussion, or try to hijack the discussion, potentially interrupting a more valuable conversation. As several of the vloggers pointed out, they’ve built relationships with their community. That is, they’re already in a conversation and the worst thing a brand can do is try to disrupt that with their own message. If brands want in, they have to be prepared to talk about what these people care about, because no one likes the guy who comes over just to talk about himself.

What this ultimately means for brands is that the best way to integrate your brand into communities online and launch campaigns that depend on social media participation is to offer yourself as a resource and let the participants decide how to make you valuable. It feels risky, but people build a more lasting relationship with your brand if you let them use your brand as a means to build relationships with one another, in their own voices, on their own terms. And at the end of the day, when you’re talking about vloggers or fan producers or other people who are remixing, remaking, and creating in these new media spaces, consider what vlogger Alandistro points out: “You really can’t go wrong asking creative people to be creative.”

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