Not every influencer wants to sell their soul for a skinny tea

We go behind the scenes at London's first ever VidCon to unpick the marketing potential of the new wave of influencers.

"Making wisdom go viral." It would be easy to dismiss this lofty ambition as unadulterated marketing bullshit. In fact, the chief marketing officer of a major brand did exactly that when entrepreneur and storyteller Jay Shetty pitched his creative vision for a film entitled Before You Feel Pressure – WATCH THIS!. The CMO simply didn’t get its potential as a piece of branded content and wouldn’t sign off on it.

Shetty made the film regardless and it went on to become the most-watched video on Facebook last year, with more than 300 million people viewing, sharing and commenting on it. By communicating a universal cultural truth, the film gracefully encourages the audience to reject the conventional pressure to reach certain milestones – marriage, career goals or buying a house – by a certain age.

It was a moment in time that, while far more culturally significant than 2012’s most-watched YouTube video Charlie Bit My Finger (in which a baby bites his toddler brother’s finger), has garnered remarkably little attention in the mainstream press. Shetty has flown out from his home in Los Angeles to the 100-acre abyss that is London’s ExCeL to share his story at the first ever VidCon London. He is a global phenomenon, with more than 20 million followers and over four billion views on social media. But like many of the featured "creators" gracing the stages over four days of the expo, Shetty is one of the most famous people you may never have heard of. For when it comes to "influencer marketing", it is difficult to know what really counts.

Insta-Sham

VidCon was launched a decade ago by YouTubers and brothers Hank and John Green. They originally held it in the basement of an LA hotel with just over a thousand creators and fans. The annual LA event now sells out more than 30,000 tickets and its acquisition by Viacom in 2018 cemented its transition from fledgling creator fan-hub to corporate extravaganza.

The organisers claim almost 13,000 people visited the UK show over four days. By splitting the streams into community, creator and industry tracks, ticket prices started at £35 for fans and aspiring creators seeking meet and greets with their favourite stars, and went up to £700 for industry execs. The VidCon team struggle to pin the event down to just one thing: "It’s a party, it’s a mixer, it’s a conference, it’s an expo and it’s so much more."

While the industry track has a distinctly corporate feel, it is clear that keeping the "community" edge was key to Jim Louderback, the energetic chief executive of VidCon. He explains: "There are no gatekeepers in online community. Nobody gave them a column in a magazine, a spot in a movie. They had no followers, no fans, they built their audience by directly connecting with them. It was conversation and community and that’s why they come to VidCon to connect with that community."

We are speaking at the start of the four-day event, and the vast expo hall is still being built. Facebook and Instagram’s creators’ lounge is doling out vegan-ham sandwiches as creators and executives take pictures in a chair that appears to be suspended mid-air. Squishies abound.

Louderback says launching in London is a reflection of the capital’s role as the "epicentre in Europe for online creators, as well as being the centre of the media and ad business". He adds that while eight or nine years ago you had traditional media on one side looking down their nose at online video creators saying it’s all user-generated content, animals and crying babies, today traditional media channels and celebrities are jumping into online video. Notably the biggest noise from London Fashion Week – which is another pit stop for VidCon influencers such as Patrick Starrr (see below) – has come not from the collections but the fact that Victoria Beckham is launching a YouTube channel.

Influencer is a toxic term

Louderback’s passion for the creator community is clear. As he explains: "Inside every creator beats the heart of the artist. They are passionate about reaching audiences." A fact that he believes should fuel advertisers to collaborate with creators over the long term to truly connect with their communities.

But this is London, where not only are conference audiences uncomfortable with whooping at new product announcements from the likes of Facebook and Instagram, but influencer marketing has become a toxic term. Of course not every influencer wants to "sell their soul for a skinny tea" but waves of negative media coverage has placed the industry under the microscope for all the wrong reasons.

Notably the word influence is nowhere to be seen at the majority of panel discussions at VidCon, an exception being a panel that roundly dismisses the term as insulting to creators. James Hancock, co-founder of talent management company Free Focus, says that influencer marketing is a phrase that came from marketing companies wanting to label, name or pigeonhole and does not reflect the reality of the creator ecosystem.

Hancock added that traditional media brands have struggled to understand the difference between a reality star, an individual whose only channel of influence is Instagram, a sports personality and a creator or entertainer. This, he said, is a state of play that means a former Love Island contestant has become the shorthand for what constitutes an influencer in media coverage: "It’s a little bit insulting to say to a creator that they are an influencer. They create more than just influence."

Building communities

For the Merrell twins, identical twin sisters born in Kansas City Missouri whose YouTube videos have garnered 774 million views, influence is little more than a by-product of the community they are building. Less focused on individual endorsement deals, the family team are building their creative output and community for the long term. The twins moved to LA aged 16 to pursue a career in acting, and have come to VidCon with their father Paul, a video producer.

This is the family’s fifth VidCon and, over the years, the Merrells have undergone a significant shift in lifestyle. "As a family, we have had to rethink our everyday life. We have to be really intentional about not tagging locations or fans will turn up at the doorstep," he explains.

Paul, who built a career in video production before he began working with his daughters, says that if he had started out at their age, there is no question that he would have been a YouTuber: "There is no gatekeeper and that is liberating. As a father, one of the coolest things is to listen to them when they say this is not the way we do things or direct things. It fundamentally changes the way you think about content production."

From a commercial perspective, Paul believes that brands need to start by understanding the community the twins connect with: "Find people you can trust and trust them to create audience-connecting content. Brands and agencies want to take the traditional mindset of marketing and apply it to a new model. That won’t work. The goal is to produce things that are Netflix quality – the business model is evolving and our goal is monetisation."

Veronica Merrell says that the intimacy of their relationship with their audience is key for the twins: "It’s like a friendship. Friends support friends. When we are sad or when we are happy, they send us stuff like memes or videos. It’s cool they know exactly what we like. It’s a legit friendship." Her sister Vanessa agrees, but says that boundaries are crucial: "Privacy is about being selective about how much of things you share. You can go back through my Instagram account and you won’t see any pictures of my ex-boyfriend. Social media doesn’t validate love and friendship for me. It is more important to keep some things to myself."

Friends with benefits

Of course, the "friendship" between creators and their communities can come with significant benefits: commercial revenue, brand partnerships and merchandising deals etc. But it’s not an easy route to riches; creators make less than commercial television companies do per ad and have fewer ads per minute of content. It is a crowded marketplace.

Yet there is little question that traditional broadcasters are feeling the heat as YouTube gobbles up not just attention, but intimacy. Data from YouTube shows that four in 10 millennial subscribers say their favourite creator understands them better than their friends. While 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate to YouTube creators more than traditional celebrities.

The narrative that younger people are defecting to YouTube is also reflected in the latest Ofcom figures. Among four- to 15-year-olds, the hours of conventional or linear television viewed last year – that is, television watched at the time it was being broadcast – fell by 11% in 12 months. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, the decline was 15%, the biggest year-on-year drop ever recorded.

The new wave of connected creativity

In the midst of these competing pressures, it is easy to see why a growing number of traditional broadcasters are hoping to learn from the "University of YouTube" at VidCon. For Elle Mills, whose ElleOfTheMills channel has 1.6 million followers, being at VidCon is the culmination of a childhood dream. Having grown-up watching YouTubers such as David Dobrik and Grace Helbig, Mills was voted "most likely to be a YouTuber" in her high-school yearbook. "I watched videos of them at these conventions, I made videos about VidCon. They care about the creator and the content and there are workshops for people who are aspiring creators. This is the dream spot for me," she says.

Mills is the antithesis of the "detestable freeloader" stereotype that has typically been flung at influencers and online creators from mainstream media. She has signed just three brand deals in her lifetime and has documented everything from coming out as bisexual to mental breakdown.

Unflinchingly honest and unforgiving about both her passion for and the pressure of being an online creator, she explains: "I’ve always been so stressed about YouTube. I used to have set goals to grow my audience. I had them stuck up on my bedroom walls. It motivated me but at the same time it’s not good to be under so much pressure." For Mills, creativity means expressing a part of yourself and taking pride in the fact you came up with a concept, and aren’t just piggybacking on to someone else’s idea.

Having grown-up with YouTube, she believes we are now in the midst of a different wave of creativity: "In the past there was a more singular type of creator – it was very raw, very personal, a lot of vlogging. Today it’s even more diverse. It is about creative styles and concepts; there are animators, educators, bloggers. YouTube is saturated so to stand out you have to do something, you have to be creative."

The end of privacy

Mills points to Shane Dawson’s new series of YouTube documentaries, which have become appointment television for more than a billion people, as an example of that new wave of creativity. Last year Dawson ran a three-part documentary on Tanacon, a meet-and-greet and expo event set up by YouTuber Tana Mongeau in direct competition with VidCon. The event was shut down following safety concerns and riot hazards. Dawson’s series has pulled in almost 50 million views. Even when YouTube culture implodes, it makes for compelling viewing.

Cultural commentators have long described YouTubers to be a "new breed of celebrity", but increasingly it is established celebrities such as Beckham who are following in the footsteps of YouTube creators. As we approach the end of the decade, online video creators are redefining celebrity in their own image. It is these video creators – from Shetty to the Merrells to Mills – who are driving creator culture, as opposed to the former reality TV stars who have become synonymous with influencer marketing.

In the grey basement of ExCeL in the lull before Facebook launches its new creator tools, a man turns to ask me to take his picture with his phone; he is setting up his Instagram account. Having seen an ad for VidCon at a bus stop at Willesden Green, he’s come to find out how to make money online from social media. He hands me his phone excitedly after I’ve taken his picture, because he thinks he has his first follower, but it turns out that it’s just the fact that he is automatically following Instagram.

It’s difficult to know who is winning when it comes to influencer marketing and there is no question that for some in the traditional media the cultural environment in which they find themselves may well be deeply unsettling. But as Shetty explains, social media is merely the vessel – a bottle – and it is up to the influencers and creators to ensure that it is filled with water, not poison. "There are so many great creators out there, search them out – there are so many talented people," Shetty says. A decade on from the inaugural VidCon and creators and consumers alike are actively seeking out the good from social media creators. The onus is on marketers not to be consumed by fears of the bad – driven by one-dimensional and outdated stereotypes of influence.


Patrick Starrr: riding the new wave of influence

If the history of beauty marketing was based on hiding your flaws, its future resides in celebrating individuality and self-expression.

YouTube sensation Patrick Starrr (pictured right) is at the forefront of this new wave of beauty marketing, having amassed more than 4.2 million subscribers with his "make-up is a one-size-fits-all" mantra.

"To be beautiful is to be vulnerable," the softly spoken and thoughtful Starrr explains. "We are showcasing self-worth and self-awareness. It is not about covering up, it is about being yourself."

Starrr, who has flown into London for VidCon and to take over YouTube’s Instagram account to celebrate the launch of Victoria Beckham’s new YouTube channel, is one of the leaders of this new wave of influence.

If in the past fame was based on scarcity, highly curated images and world-famous models that barely spoke a word, Starrr’s ascendancy is reflective of a new intimacy between unfiltered, honest creators and communities. Make-up artists – talent that has historically been firmly behind the camera – have been the key protagonists in this new era of influence.

"We are entering a new wave of marketing," Starrr says. "There is a real power in being relatable – and with social media, Instagram and Periscope, we are able to break down the fourth wall and connect. The traditional celebrity was based on curation and being removed. But transparency and vulnerability are what truly connects today."

It is an approach that has fuelled Starrr’s rapid ascent, from a MAC make-up artist to signing a partnership deal with the brand in 2016. Starrr, who started the YouTube channel in 2014, has a steady stream of celebrities lining up to appear; a Kim Kardashian West make-up tutorial racked up 14 million views.

"There is value in long-term partnerships [between brands and creators]. It is like a relationship. It needs to be organic, trusted and true," Starrr explains. "I learned very early on that there was no blueprint for a turban-wearing man in make-up. The key is to construct, create and critique with other creators. This is why I encourage the creators at VidCon to find others going through the same."

Starrr is acutely aware of the trust placed in him by those who watch, follow and subscribe to the channel: "By simply existing online as myself for the LGBT+ community that matters, I am showcasing diversity."

Growing up, Starrr had to "create the mould for myself". Inspired by the way in which Tyra Banks used her modelling career as a launchpad into entertainment, Starrr is aware of the need to create space for others. In a recent video transforming into the record-breaking Instagram egg, Starrr revealed the personal challenge of baldness. It was a moment of honesty that resulted in a wave of comments from people across the world who have been affected by hair loss.

It would be easy to dismiss make-up as frivolous – but it is clear among Starrr’s vast community that its impact as a tool for self-expression and self-acceptance is profound. Stripped of the control afforded by the fourth wall, Starrr is aware that burn-out has fast become part of the history of YouTube stardom: "I have days where I shut my phone off and I just live."

For the next generation of creators, Starrr believes there is still no blueprint for success: "The key is to get out and be social, make friends. A lot of kids are so social on their phones but not in real life. You can be so talkative with your fingers, but you have to get your head up if you want to really create."

As we approach the end of the decade, creators such as Starrr have successfully turned the beauty industry on its head. Not just by using the intimacy afforded by social media to encourage consumers to buy something new, but giving them the courage to show their true selves.

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