Every time she goes shopping in her home city of Melbourne, Grace Mulgrew will be approached by two or three young fans, often asking shyly for a photograph. She doesn’t mind, says the father of this famous 11-year-old YouTube star. She likes knowing that her audience, even if they’re still in primary school, appreciates her work. After all, each of her videos, usually animated skits about the adventures of her Barbies, takes around 25 hours a week to produce, time that she fits in around her school commitments. Her father Greg spends an additional 15-25 hours on top of that editing her work.
Since 2012, when Grace first asked her father to upload a video of her playing with her dolls to YouTube, the channel ‘Grace’s World’ has notched up 963 million views. It has over a million subscribers around the world, has been featured in numerous international news stories and, last year, became so successful that Greg Mulgrew was able to quit his job as a computer programmer. “We're living a lifestyle that we wouldn't have had if we didn't have YouTube”, he tells Campaign in an interview from Mexico, where the family recently went on holiday.
Grace’s story is becoming increasingly common in Asia, so much so that there’s now a term for children like her: ‘kidfluencers’. Their rise is down to a shift in the world of children's entertainment away from TV programmes made and hosted by adults to digital content created by and starring kids, with YouTube more popular than any other as a host platform. “Family and learning is one of the fastest growing verticals within YouTube”, says Don Anderson, head of kids and learning partnerships at YouTube in APAC, who states that every market here is exhibiting growth. 68% of 6-14-year-olds in APAC now use YouTube, found a recent report by Asia-based advertising and content platform Totally Awesome, while a further 55% are on Facebook and 26% are using Instagram.
A father himself, to a seven- and a four-year-old, Anderson says his own small “focus group” has taught him one simple reason for the success of kidfluencers’ channels — children like to watch their own. “I think they learn from their own and they get excited to see their own peers producing content that appeals to them directly,” he says.
“It’s creative play, it’s creating stories with their parents, it’s lively, it’s authentic, it’s real, and I think what's kind of fun is to watch how they gravitate towards these devices and the cameras themselves. They want to be able to produce this content themselves.”
For all these reasons, brands, too, are getting in on the action. According to PWC’s ‘Kids Digital Advertising Report 2017’, the children’s digital advertising market could reach a value of US$1.2bn by 2019. Reaching kids directly where they are spending time online — not only on YouTube but across the spectrum of publishers, including games and online worlds such as Roblox and Minecraft and social platforms like PopJam and Musical.ly — is crucial. Kidfluencers, with their huge audiences, are a particularly attractive proposition because kids don’t only want to watch “their own”, they also want to copy them.
“Kids have a lot of influence on the household purchasing positions”, says Marcus Herrmann, COO of the Asia-based advertising and content platform Totally Awesome. “Toys, obviously, but also think of when families go eating out, they want to make sure their kid likes the food, so you choose a place your kid likes.” 64 percent of parents have bought something their child wanted because a YouTube, Instagram or Facebook celebrity advertised it, finds TotallyAwesome’s APAC Kids’ Digital Insights report.
Children also have a fair amount of their own ‘disposable income’ these days, this report says, with pocket money ranging from an average of $33 per month in India to $91 in Singapore. The older children get, the more likely they are to use their own money to buy things they have seen online. 44% of six-eight-year-olds have done this, compared to 59% of 12-14-year-olds - and the overall trend is up 7% year on year.
But while enticing kidfluencers to plug your brand could be simple as sending over a basket of toys and hoping for the best, as with adult KOLs, more can be gained from cultivating close partnerships. YouTube mainly acts as a consultant in this regard, helping families look for new opportunities or introducing brands to creators. “The [partnerships] that I think are most successful are the ones that are not just force feeding but being more authentic in the way they associate and work with the different creators,” says Anderson. “I think they allow that freedom to be able to interpret that particular brand or product or whatnot.”
Take Evan, for example, the 12-year-old Asian-American star of EvanTube, a phenomenally successful channel that’s has 3.2 billion views since Evan and his father Jared set it up in 2011 to showcase reviews, crafts and challenges. In 2016, the family partnered with the Hong Kong Tourism Board for their “I Never Knew” campaign, creating a video about their new experiences in the city, from Hong Kong Disneyland to a Hello Kitty restaurant. The video has had 6.4 million views to date. “It was very authentic, very real, but they made it clear that this content was being sponsored too. That's the other aspect: being very upfront with the fans,” says Anderson.
Grace Mulgrew is also a pro at these kinds of projects. Last year she became the Australasian ambassador for the toy brand Shopkins, and she’s been offered opportunities by everyone from Warner Brothers to American Girl. Her father Greg says that while he was initially wary about showing his daughter’s face on YouTube, collaborating with brands has largely been a good experience. “We were careful to only pick up on brands that were positive and had a good name for themselves, we weren't willing to just pick up with anyone,” he says. There have only been a couple of partnerships that the family has felt have not been worth the reward for time they’ve taken, he continues. “For Grace it's not about getting money and stuff like that or money for brand opportunities, it’s about building her name and her reputation. So we're happy to do that if she wants. It’s not a big deal for us if they are a good company.”
Outside well-developed Australia, Thailand is another market seeing good activity between creators and brands. “The family creators there are in many ways so entrepreneurial,” says Anderson. “There’s that very gung ho, go get it and have fun doing it type market.” HeHaa TV is particularly popular channel, with close to 2 million subscribers. The child stars in it have worked with the likes of Disney and Marvel on parody videos to promote Ant Man and Star Wars films, to great effect.
Kidfluencers in China, meanwhile, are growing huge audiences on different platforms. “Many child actors from TV leverage their exposure to create large online followings,” says Elijah Whaley, CMO of Parklu, the China influencer marketing platform, in an email interview. “The most popular platforms for child KOLs are Weibo, Meipai, and Douyin. Due to its ease of use and fun blend of music and short-video, Douyin (抖音) has become a particularly popular social media platform with children. You'll find child KOLs creating a lot of dance and funny videos on Douyin.” Brands are working with these children too. One example is Anquier [安淇尔], an 11-year-old girl whose nickname is ‘little apple’. She stars in a popular TV show, has 1.3M followers on Weibo and 128K on Meipai and frequently partners with sports fashion brands like Fila.
So lucrative is this market that some platforms, like Totally Awesome, have set themselves up specifically to guide both child creators (as long as they are over six) and brands in Asia on getting the most out of their partnerships. Navigating safety regulations is, of course, key — particularly in stricter markets like Australia. “Before we decide to work with a kidfluencer we would make sure that his or her whole channel is kid-safe, so there's no inappropriate content, then we would step in on a very strict onboarding process where we train them and give them best practices and what is allowed in kids’ communications,” says Herrmann.
A Totally Awesome team will then work with brand and influencer on concepts and ideas, which tend to divide into three levels, says Herrmann. ‘Unboxing’ or product reviews are the most straightforward; the next level is about creating engagement. Take PopJam, TotallyAwesome social media app. “The kidfluencers not only play with PopJam in the video but often they launch a challenge. They’ll say ‘hey, join me on PopJam and draw the craziest fruit’, for example. The followers sign up, download it, follow that channel and then create something. So you have user generated content, where there is a lot of interaction and engagement.” The last level involves kidfluencers inviting their followers to events and engaging with them in real life.
Herrmann expects to see brand-creator partnerships growing as part of brands’ marketing mix in Asia for at least the next two or three years. But is there a dark side to the whole kidfluencer movement? While their channels are primarily about fun, admits Herrmann, fame is now more of a driver for the creators than it used to be. Children used to answer ‘policeman’, or ‘firefighter’ in surveys about what they want to do when they grow up. Now ‘YouTube star’ is pretty high on the list, he says.
Not every parent likes the commercial nature of working with brands. The father of Kan and Aki, two popular Japanese sisters (see box, below), says he has decided his family will not accept one-sided sponsorship for their videos, but will occasionally consider whether they can collaborate without any money changing hands. In a recent link-up with the Japanese manga series "Pri-pri Chi-chan", he says, his daughters performed a dance on stage and got the opportunity to interact with actual fans in person, benefiting both sides.
Presenting such a public profile also inevitably exposes children to the nastier side of the internet. Greg Mulgrew says Grace gets her share of bad comments under her videos, even though they try and filter them out. “It makes you feel like ‘why are we even doing this?’” he admits. “We've had to get thick skin a little bit and ignore the bad comments and know that it’s coming from jealousy or something else.” YouTube has also now developed technology that allows owners to filter bad language before it is published.
In general, however, Don Anderson hasn’t seen much behaviour around brand partnerships that he finds worrying. “The parents always put their children first,” he says. “The ones I have spoken to about this are very selective. If it doesn't work for their audience, if it doesn't work for their child or them as a whole obviously, they're not going to do it.”
How to get the most out of kidfluencer collaborations
1. Choose carefully
The “critical” first step is for brands to take care to choose creators whose approach resonates with them and the product message they are trying to communicate, advises Anderson.
2. Be open to ideas
“When you get into that conversation, make it a conversation, rather than just ‘hey we want you to do this.’ Start with that general outreach, get to know you,” says Anderson. “Listen to the potential ideas that might come back and be quite open to that.” Brands need to remember that they are trying to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily owned outright by them, it is bound to the creator, so they should respect those boundaries and be open to ideas around that.
3. Play the long game
“Quite often there is no immediate purchase,” says Marcus Herrmann. “When brands work with us and with kidfluencers, most of the times it's for awareness, brand building, the image, and then the purchase comes much later, whether money from a smaller ticket item or influence on the parents later down the road.”
“I think brands will probably become a little more... not necessarily sophisticated but understand the nuances a bit better and probably let a little bit more go when they work with the creators,” predicts Anderson. “It's an iterative process. I think agencies and brands have to work on this together and the feedback that I get from creators often is that it takes time. It takes a lot of education.”
Three Asian kidfluencers to watch
Kanna and Akira are two sisters from a Japanese family. Their father started ‘Kan & Aki’s Channel’ in 2010, when his eldest daughter was four and became interested in channels like RRCherryPie, which features miniature food kits, and her father’s own YouTube channel, kougeisha. Kan and Aki now have two more little sisters who also feature in the videos, which are largely about play, and get overall views of over 4.3 billion. They introduced ‘live’ videos in 2016.
CKN Toys, Australia