Michelle Phan gives tips for beauty content success

Michelle Phan started out as a YouTube creator in 2007.
Michelle Phan started out as a YouTube creator in 2007.

Part Two of a series from Asia on beauty content creation discusses the relationship between creators and brands with the YouTube star and skin care line SK-II

TOKYO — For the second part of our two-part series on beauty content creation, influencer and entrepreneur Michelle Phan and SK-II representative Colin D’Silva discuss their collaboration on the recent "Beauty Bound Asia" contest and the relationship between content creators and brands.

The P&G skin care brand partnered with YouTube to sponsor the contest, a search to find Asia’s most promising beauty content creator that concluded on Saturday. Phan, who started out as a creator herself in 2007, led the judging. D’Silva, SK-II’s associate director of global communications, said the brand sponsored the contest to build stronger connections with the region’s community of influencers and help aspiring beauty content creators.

The contest received 1,600 video submissions from 11 cities, an "overwhelming response," D’Silva said. The brand, he said, is committed to working with creators in an "authentic" way. It is essential to reaching today’s consumers, who find most of their information online. "Years ago, we targeted people in a very traditional way," he said. "Now we work with a lot of digital influencers to engage on social media. Consumers don't want a brand talking to them."

SK-II selects the influencers it works with, in part, by conversations with consumers. The content creators must already be "engaged in the brand," D’Silva said. "They have to believe in the brand to be able to talk about it credibly."

Colin D'Silva at Google's Tokyo offices.

Once SK-II enters into a co-creation partnership with the influencer, the brand team makes sure the creator is well versed in the brand and technology, but lets them to do what they do best. "There are some basic elements we want the creator to understand and communicate, but we do give them all the freedom they want," he said. "It’s them talking about the brand as they see it, unscripted. It’s an opportunity for them to be free, which makes the end result more credible."

Brands, agreed Phan, should give creators they work with total freedom, and serve to support rather than direct the talent. Now a brand owner herself (her company, Ipsy, recently bought the rights to her makeup brand, which was previously owned by L’Oréal), Phan shared her thoughts on what constitutes successful content from the perspective of both creator and brand.

How has the world of beauty content creation changed since you started out?
Being an influencer has become so hard. When I started on YouTube, I could count on my hands the number of influencers that existed. Today there are thousands, from all walks of life all, over the world. When you have that many people on one platform, how do you find content that really speaks to you? That’s why having a contest like this is so important. It’s one of the first of its kind, and you’re going to see more brands doing something like this. Because you have so much content, having a network that curates great content is something that people are going to want. But in general, now that everyone has more and more access to cameras and free editing programs, more and more content is being uploaded every second, and that’s why it’s so hard to stand out.

How does something like Beauty Bound help?
The most useful thing about this contest will be the money, because [as a creator] you need money. A full-time YouTuber or influencer is a one-man or one-woman studio. They produce their own content, edit it, distribute it — doing that on a regular basis is a full-time job, so you need to have some sort of income. In terms of tools, just having a really good camera can help push your production values. That’s the key driver to distinguishing yourself from everybody else because people are going to want to watch quality videos. Now that anyone can upload a video online, they’re going to look for quality.

Doesn’t that go against the idea that creators shouldn’t try to be too polished?
True, but how can you over-produce something when you’re doing it yourself? You can have something that’s over-produced when you have a team of 50 people working on a commercial, but when you have something that’s overly produced and you did it yourself, that’s badass. So that’s going to be the key difference in future — where people are going to see something that’s well produced by one person or a small skeleton team that’s very nimble, compared to a big production company that absolutely does feel a little too refined.

Does all good content have certain characteristics in common?
There are probably other people who’ve answered this by saying, ‘these are the key things’ and list it out, but that’s such BS. Think about it: style changes, it evolves. If you’re to watch a comedy show from 30 years ago, the style was different from today's. The same applies with beauty. So I can’t give points on how to be successful. It changes by region: some prefer more comedy, others care more about production. … But the fundamental foundation to becoming an amazing creator is to have a strong sense of storytelling, to be thoughtful in every way. What I mean by that is, thoughtful in how you engage with your community, because that’s the key difference between digital influencers and TV influencers.

Lastly, I would have to say authenticity is what really sells and I know people throw this word around a lot but I’ve been saying it for eight years…It really comes from personality — it boils down to the actual person and how they speak to their audience. You can have thousands of niche markets — and the idea of "niche" has changed. It used to mean "small." Today, it can mean millions of followers. So I think that’s going to be part of the evolution too. There’s going to be a growth in niche markets that’s going to be very meaningful.

Michelle Phan at Google's Tokyo offices.

How would you advise a creator to approach working with a brand for the first time?
The first thing to think is, do you love this brand — would you use it even if they didn’t approach you? You can totally tell if someone is faking a review or promotion because they were paid. It takes one comment, someone to call them out, and everyone will read it. Second is to be realistic with the brands. If the brand gives you a laundry list of things to do, just say: "My audience will know I’m trying to sell them something. Trust in me; I know how to promote something where they feel it’s authentic, because it is authentic. But if you give me a script, it’s not going to feel authentic." So really it’s a case of re-educating the brand. Brands today need influencers more than ever.

It’s [also] crucial for the influencer to do their job too to make sure the product works well. If that product is not working well and they’re still promoting it, they’re not doing their job as an influencer. So there’s a sense of responsibility they hold. They can really lose their credibility by promoting something that’s not good, and credibility is something you can’t buy back online.

What should brands look for in an influencer?
It doesn’t boil down to the number of followers an influencer has. Brands should look at the amount of engagement they have. If this person has 100,000 followers and they get 200 to 300 comments on one post, they have more engagement than average. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to get these influencers. There might be a YouTuber with 5 million subscribers who charges an arm and a leg, and as a brand without that much marketing money, instead of giving it all to that one person, you can divide it up and find up-and-coming influencers. Support them, because they need the money more.

Should brands always take a back seat?
I wouldn’t say "always." I would say 90% of the time. The other 10%, be the resource. The creator should have the resources to create whatever content they want. Instead of telling them what to do, they should provide a bigger production budget to make the video better. But I do think it’s important to have a sense of direction for the creators. Let’s say I’m a brand that’s selling water that helps give you better skin. My brand objective is to show the results. I want you to show your audience that this is effective. Here are some ideas on how you can do that — so you can do it like a 30-day challenge, before-and-after pictures…I show examples but don’t dictate. I think that’s important. The director is essentially the creator. Let them lead, be a little bit more hands-off, but be there to support on the sidelines.

You have your own brand, Ipsy [which recently raised $100 million in funding]. How did you build it and what is your vision for the company?
When we started three years ago, it was essentially a beauty subscription program — a sampling service where we work with brands and curate great products for our beauty junkies who subscribe. Today we ship out 1.5 million bags every month, and we did pretty much zero [traditional] marketing. All of our marketing dollars went straight into content and influencers. We decided not to do any traditional advertising because I knew — because I was a creator — that more and more people would prefer to watch these beauty videos than a commercial. There’s a study that shows 87% of women trust beauty influencers over celebrity endorsement. That just shows you this is going to be a growing market.

At Ipsy, we have a subscription program that basically pays for our overhead. We’ve also invested in a free studio space called Ipsy OS [in Santa Monica] that’s free to use for any beauty creators who are part of our [free] membership. They come in, shoot whatever videos they want and can monetize them. We don’t touch their monetization: we realize that if we provide resources to the community, they will also help Ipsy because if you think about it, our company was built by our community. Imagine in the next five years, if we were to have an Ipsy OS in Asia…The $100 million we just raised, we are investing into the studio and events. We have an event called "Generation Beauty" [which brings influencers and brands together in a similar way to YouTube’s FanFests –Ed.]

Then there’s product development. That’s the one thing I can share with any influencer: having a brand partnership is instrumental when you’re growing, but if you want to have something sustainable, you should have your own brand. It doesn’t mean you need to make $100 million a year; it’s about making enough money that’s meaningful for you.

Do you have concrete plans to expand into Asia?
I’m very interested in the Southeast Asian market. It’s massive and a lot of people say it’s emerging but I already feel it’s emerged. People are so plugged in online, they’re fast learners — but the problem is that they need infrastructure. It’s not like LA. We have a studio there but there are hundreds of studios in LA. I’d rather go to places where there’s not enough infrastructure set up and go and build it with the community and have it free for them to use.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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