YouTube star Ryan Higa talks Lenovo partnership, authenticity

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Ryan Higa: YouTube star has teamed up with electronics group Lenovo.
Ryan Higa: YouTube star has teamed up with electronics group Lenovo.

An accidental digital sensation discusses how he's parlayed his fame on behalf of others' brands while staying true to his own

Ryan Higa says he became a YouTube star by accident. But now he's a pro at pleasing not only his audience but the brands he works with. He speaks to Campaign Asia-Pacific in an exclusive interview.

Ryan Higa posted his first videos on YouTube by mistake. "I thought it was like a file transfer or like a Dropbox kind of thing," he told Campaign Asia-Pacific

The YouTube star, who was born in Hawaii and lives in Las Vegas, actually made his early videos on VHS and loaded them up to the video-sharing site because he thought it was a way of saving them to show to extended family. But later, when he came back to the site, he saw there were thousands of views and lots of comments telling him to make more.

At first he couldn’t understand why his family had watched his silly skits so many times: "It didn’t make sense," he said.

But it did, because the whole world was watching.

People were attracted to Higa's authentic teen outlook and unabashed goofiness. If you haven’t watched the Nigahiga channel on YouTube, all you need to know is it’s honest, down-to-earth, silly comedy. It’s not complicated, and you’ll find yourself laughing even as you bemoan the level of corniness. His style is over the top, but in an endearing way.

Higa's authenticity plays into a theme that’s making its own journey through the marketing-communications industry. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how brands can be more authentic — extending even to celebrity endorsements, where concern about disingenuous recommendations from superstars has reached the point of proposed government regulations in some markets.

But it’s not just a matter of trying to avoid crass commercialism — audiences really do resent poorly executed product-placement-type promotions. People view such placements as deceitful and end up feeling resentful.

Higa explained the first time he worked on a commercial endeavor, he quickly learned that staying true to his own brand was essential.

H said: "I got a lot of negative feedback. At the time I didn’t know what a 'sell out' was, but that’s exactly what I did. And I learned that you just can’t do that."

That first commercial foray was for the movie "Pathology" with Milo Ventimiglia.

"I didn’t even care what they wanted," he recounted. "I was like, ‘Hell, yeah. They’re going to give me a bunch of money just for making a video about this?'" He was just a kid in high school, and the prospect of a big payday for doing something he was already doing just for fun seemed like a no-brainer.

The backlash from fans came quickly. In an era before social media, that kind of sentiment may have only simmered under the surface. But social’s mass reach means any negative feelings move far and fast. In Higa’s case the feedback appears right below his own content, so he learned immediately exactly what fans thought of the "forced" promotion.

"The great thing about YouTube is you are constantly getting feedback and constantly learning about your own content and how to improve," he said.

Higa reads most of the thousands of comments he gets with each new video. And while he cannot read every one, he stresses that comments are the best gauge he has for audience measurement. Other analytics, in his view, are secondary to what the audience is telling him directly.

Higa pays particular attention to the like-to-dislike ratio on YouTube, where viewers can click a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon.

You have to average it out a bit, he explained. Some hardcore fans will like whatever he posts and while gratifying, that sort of unconditional love isn’t particularly constructive. What he pays sharp attention to is when one person leaves a negative comment and then subsequent users give it a thumbs-up. The echo and amplifying aspect makes him take note.

There might be a lesson in there for brands too, as far as social listening and engagement goes.

But even if a video gets a greater proportion of dislikes than the norm, he said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was bad or the wrong direction. "It also could mean you’re reaching a new audience," he said. "Maybe it’s a new audience that doesn’t get your humor, but at least you’re reaching a new audience."

That can be a scary place for brand managers, and to be fair the old adage that "there’s no such thing as bad publicity" usually applies better to entertainers than any other type of public entities. But there’s still a branding takeaway. Getting in front of a new audience at all can sometimes be the best possible outcome.

For Lenovo, the Chinese electronics maker, Higa represented exactly that — an audience of Millennials who have the buying power that gadget-makers crave.

But for a brand best known for business computers in North America, where Higa’s main audience lives, the YouTuber also represented an entirely new audience that likely had never heard of the company with a legacy from IBM. In the video where Higa introduces Lenovo, one of his crew even mispronounces the name.

[The Campaign Asia-Pacific interview with Higa took place before the Superfish adware/spyware news that recently sparked uproar for Lenovo.] 

Speaking on Higa’s relationship with Lenovo, Rod Strother, the director of the brand’s Digital and Social Centre of Excellence in Singapore, said one of the best results for the tech firm’s placement in Higa’s videos was in those same comment conversations that Higa himself pays attention to.

After the first video, Strother said, the comments contained genuine questions about the highlighted product, Lenovo’s Yoga tablet computer. But the best part in his estimation were the answers, which also came organically came from the viewing crowd.

"That blew us away," Strother said enthusiastically, admitting he and other executives were a bit nervous before seeing the results because they simply didn’t know what to expect.

What Lenovo ended up achieving was a crowdsourced band of brand ambassadors spreading product word of mouth. He finds that information coming from YouTube commenters was accurate, or at least accurate enough, and even gave links.

The virtual word of mouth carries a certain amount of objectivity because it’s not Lenovo saying the device has this feature or that feature. The organic support is priceless. Well, not exactly priceless — but it can’t be bought directly.  

Some brand managers have commented, off the record, to Campaign Asia-Pacific in the past that key opinion leaders (KOLs), such as Higa, can represent a far greater value to a company than a superstar celebrity might. Star power can buy you notice, but it’s unlikely to get you engagement on a meaningful level.

The value of social-media personalities is that their popularity generally derives from the engagement they have already cultivated with a fan base. Often fans will be fans because of the engagement in the first place. A brand that plays into it well and trusts KOLs to work on their own terms can get considerable brand mileage out of the relationship.

But do brands usually have a good sense of the audience they are trying to reach via a YouTube or Vine star? Higa says most YouTubers have very good relationships with the audience "because we are literally learning from them every week."

Every YouTuber has his or her own relationship with their fan base.

Higa said: "It’s not the same. I can’t tell you how to make something for Michelle Phan and her fans, incorporating Mac products [the cosmetics brand] into her content. But she couldn’t tell me how to incorporate Wonderful Pistachios into my content."

So while there isn’t a set playbook, the lack of one is also an advantage. The door is wide open for brands to work with KOLs like Higa in a variety of ways. The 24-year-old’s main advice, which he also stressed during his appearance at the Campaign Asia-Pacific Media360Summit, is simply not to tell your KOLs what to say or do. Let them do that part. It’s the expertise you are hiring them for in the first place.

Strother also was adamant on that front. He gave a bit of background on the brand’s work with Higa, explaining that the placement into videos only came about after an event where Higa spoke in front of a group of executives at an Asia forum.

They were so impressed with what he had to say about potential social-media partnerships that they moved to sign him up right away. And from the very beginning Strother says he’s made every effort not to limit or try to guide what Higa would say or do with the product. There’s a certain amount of trust you have to have, and belief that the person you are working with is going to do the right thing," Strother said.

"The one thing you don’t want to do," Higa said, "is try to sneak it by them [the fans]. That’s the worst thing you could possibly do, is try to pretend you are not doing something like an ad. That’s my strongest belief. If it doesn’t change your content, then it's okay. As long as your content is still something you would normally do and you are not saying things that the brand forced you to say."

Higa also stressed that Lenovo was a good fit for him because the company wanted to build more awareness with millennials, which he considers his core audience. Separately he mentioned that the age group following him is also moving up as he ages himself.

"[Lenovo] came to me and said, ‘What do you want to do?' In the past, years ago, that would never happen," he said. 

What impressed him most in the relationship is how the company started with the attitude of collaboration and fitting into his world rather than the other way around, which was the past century’s norm.

Strother said Lenovo only knew broadly what Higa was going to do. Even Higa’s cast and crew were not entirely clued into the game plan. Higa has two channels on YouTube, one where he shows scripted skits, and another that’s more ad-libbed. He knew Lenovo would be sending product, but he wasn’t sure when and he used that as an opportunity to unveil it along with other items that fans mail in on the unscripted channel.

He also knew which feature the company wanted to promote, but didn’t write anything out for it. He simply let his friends play with the tablet so that whatever transpired was natural.

Strother also pointed out that there’s more a brand can do besides just hoping for good results. After Higa’s first video aired, Strother said, Lenovo made a 15-second teaser out of it, put some paid media behind it and got another 1.2 million views. He was also galvanized by what he called the "long tail" of working with a name like Higa. The video views keep building organically (and the brand mentions along with them), which gives the marketing investment a kind of longevity that traditional paid media typically lacks.

Strother said Lenovo was very pleased with how the partnership came out and believes the video has the kind of authenticity the company was looking for.

"That’s another thing that’s great with working with them," said Higa. "They’re not afraid to take a risk in terms of their being overly protective of their brand. They were open enough that they could make some fun of themselves, and that’s exactly what I do."

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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