In a world where advertising pretty much forms part of the landscape and buyers have developed incredibly selective consumption filters, companies are having to devise new strategies to get their products noticed by their target audience.
Sometimes the company’s voice, loud as it may be, falls deaf on the ears of these modern consumers. But what if large corporations were to enlist the help of even louder voices to get their own message across?
With sponsored content becoming more commonplace among our feeds, I pose the following question: are social influencers giving up their artistic integrity for corporate greed, or are brand deals a lucrative business model that we should get used to?
The Power of Stories
The word “storytelling” has become a buzzword in modern vocabulary. A powerful tool for content creators, stories are known to influence people’s emotions and sway their loyalty and consumer habits. (Sarto, 2016)
Digital storytelling is a natural byproduct of the digital revolution; a beautiful merging of narrative and technology which enables creators to express themselves and connect with their audience like never before (M. Rossiter, P.Garcia 2010). Characterised by its accessibility, the power to both create and share stories has never been more readily available to aspiring creators.
Not What, but Who
While it’s true that anyone with internet access can speak online, that doesn’t mean the reach is the same. Online, some speak louder than others (Taylor, 2014). Enter Social Influencers; creators with a particularly large outreach within the digital landscape, with some of them amassing millions of followers who will consume their content daily. These large figures of the internet have successfully grown their channels by building an organic relationship with their audience through sharing snippets of their day-to-day life or by simulating a conversation as they build a table, apply makeup or play a game.
And why is this content successful? Because it is an authentic story, one that comes from a voice that it is easily relatable. It is in our nature to enjoy stories as they appeal to our curiosity and our nosiness. There is a thrill in listening to similar experiences to the ones you have had, to delve into someone else’s dirty laundry, to see love stories unfold, etc. Captivating stories are entertaining for everyone, even asocial people. (Sarto, 2016)
A More Selective Audience
With unlimited Information at our fingertips thanks to technological advancements, a new audience has developed; one that is much more selective in what it consumes and is well informed, actively seeking and clicking and not allowing corporate executives to dictate their media consumption (Taylor, 2014). They want more than just data or basic promotion, and it is this particular mindset that makes story-based marketing more appealing to them.
YouTube lifts the barrier between the content creator and the viewer giving an impression of authenticity and providing a more direct platform for creators to connect with their audiences (Ellis, 2018). Scan the comment section of any medium-to-large YouTuber and it will not be difficult to find comments where the fans refer to them as friends, even though they have never met in real life.
This is an active, reactive audience that is used to interaction and to having a degree of input in the content that they are consuming, much more so since the rise of Patreon where they can actively support the creators they idolise directly.
A New Medium
Keeping in mind that the goal of a business is to sell their product and that they are contending with a very tough audience, how can companies go about building trusting relationships with their potential clientele? (Sarto, 2016) Knowing that audiences tend to react positively to stories and campaigns with a more human touch to them, companies have started turning to social influencers in order to promote their products using their voice and pre-established relationship with their audience.
YouTubers who have shared their lives with their subscribers for several years and hundreds or in some case, thousands of videos can feel more familiar to some audiences than real life (Ellis, 2018). Having a social influencer interweave a promotion into their content and share their opinion of the product with their audience can easily come across as a friend’s recommendation to try something out when executed properly.
Some creators will organically include the brand deal into their usual content, a much more effective strategy as soon the products becomes a staple of their everyday story. Others take a moment out of the video to actively talk about the sponsor, an interlude in the usual flow of the content that is not always as well received.
Sponsorship works much like the YouTube Partnership Program in 2007: uploaders who work with YouTube are remunerated through the splitting of ad revenue; YouTube, in turn, boosts the popularity of partnered videos through its systems (van Dijck, 2013). Only here, companies pay the creator to promote the product and, should the sales be done by using their promo code or their custom link, then the creator gets a portion of the profit.
Hit and Miss
The occasional sponsored videos are well received by the viewers or shrugged off as part of the influencers income strategy. If the promotion is aligned with the theme of the channel, it is better received, but it is also common to find comments from audience members saying they will be unsubscribing and accusing the creator of ‘selling out’, particularly on channels where the brand-deals have been out of character or where there have been too many sponsored videos.
Much like how the original release of the Partnership Program was met with scepticism and critics about whether it was commercialising the content rather than promoting creativity (van Dijck, 2013), sponsored videos are met with unhappiness and accusations of selling out to bigger brands.
To be continued…
I focused mainly on YouTube for this article, but many of the points mentioned apply to other social media platforms. I am interested in your opinion. Do you think social influencers are giving up their artistic integrity for corporate greed?
Ellis, L., (2018) YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FJEtCvb2Kw
Rossiter, M. Garcia, P., (2010) Digital Storytelling: A New Player on the Narrative Field https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ace.370
Sarto, W., (2016) The Viral Power of Storytelling in Content Marketing https://www.jeffbullas.com/viral-power-storytelling-content-marketing/
Taylor, A., (2014) The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London
van Dijck, J., (2013) The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media Oxford University Press, New York