Emily Tan
Feb 25, 2014

YouTube gurus: The millennial media channel

Commanding millions of followers, these key online influencers are ‘human media’.

YouTube celebrities at Singapore FanFest
YouTube celebrities at Singapore FanFest

NigaHiga, Macbarbie07, Hikakin and Wah Banana. Recognise these names? To millions of young fans across Asia, they are friends, mentors and celebrities, capable of drawing screaming teenaged crowds to live events such as the YouTube FanFest in Singapore last year and Social Media Matters in Hong Kong. 

While the world’s biggest internet stars live in the West—NigaHiga, for example, is an American Japanese YouTube celebrity with more than 11 million subscribers worldwide—Asia is starting to grow its own circle of influencers. Hikakin, a Japanese beatboxer, left his supermarket job for a YouTube career and has over 1 million subscribers, with more than 225 million views. Two Canadians living in Korea, Simon and Martina, head a YouTube channel, Eatyourkimchi, where videos they’ve made about Korean culture are steadily gaining popularity with more than 125 million views to date. 

But what sets these personalities apart from the usual brand of celebrity is their level of interaction with fans, who adore them, and their control over the content they produce. Think of these new stars as more accessible versions of lionised media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart. With millennials moving away from traditional media and greeting celebrity endorsements with greater cynicism, these online video gurus provide channels brands can use to reach the digital-native generation. 

“Marketers and agencies alike are beginning to recognise the value of partnering with online video personalities such as YouTube stars. There are two main factors driving this trend: first, these creators bring audiences of loyal, passionate fans whom brands can reach by working with the creators,” says Marek Dawidowicz, APAC partner marketing lead at YouTube.

While user-generated content has driven YouTube since day one, the platform’s partner programme jump-started the video guru phenomenon after launching in 2009. It shares a cut of advertising revenue with the user generating a video, once the content or creator starts to gain a substantial following. 

Havas media China CIO Eduardo Mapa describes YouTube’s approach as turning these talents into ‘inventory’. “It’s like buying programmes on a TV station.”

But the most successful brand and talent partnerships are not advertising-oriented, but content-focused. For example, the partnership between L’Oréal and online beauty guru Michelle Phan

Now YouTube’s top beauty guru, L’Oréal first signed Phan as an ambassador for Lancôme in 2010. The resulting videos averaged 10 times the viewership of the next most-viewed beauty channel and last August, L’Oréal worked with Phan to launch her own 250-product makeup line: em michelle phan. 

But while working with online video talent is a familiar concept in the West, this phenomenon has only started to gain traction in Asia (where super-bloggers have reigned supreme) in the past year or so. However, there is a difference between bloggers and video gurus, says Goodstuph founder Pat Law, who likens it to comparing a broadsheet newspaper with TV. 

“While blogs may garner higher traffic, even super-bloggers usually have pretty low engagement rates in terms of comments and shares, whereas YouTube personalities’ videos can have a much higher engagement rate,” says OMG Asia-Pacific chief innovation officer Guy Hearn. “Wah Banana, for instance, attracts over a hundred comments per video, while top super-blogger Xiaxue barely has any, even though her blog attracts about 50,000 readers per day.”

In China, where the government has banned YouTube, there hasn’t been a strong grassroots movement of user-generated content (UGC), so brands and content agencies are attempting to jumpstart the trend on the back of the partnership programmes Youku Tudou and Tencent Video have recently launched. 

Numerous brands in China have invited vloggers to create videos for their brands, often using their influence to promote the talent rather than vice versa, says Havas Media Shanghai executive partner Evelyn Wang. 

Last year, advertising against UGC in China leapt 130 per cent, says Scott Pollack, executive vice-president and managing director of TMG Originals China. “While the gross number [about 1 billion yuan] is a small number against the full pie of advertising, it clearly demonstrates that advertisers are willing. What’s missing is the mass of UGC you have in markets outside China.”

When looking to tap into the sphere of influence these personalities command, brands in Asia are keen to work with video gurus beyond running pre-roll ads, says Dawidowicz. But when so much appeal lies in the content’s authenticity, brands have to tread lightly or risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. “Creators know their audiences better than anyone and every successful YouTube creator has spent months, if not years, building their following, learning about their viewers’ likes and dislikes, and figuring out what their fans respond to.”

Law advises brands to remember the human factor when tapping into ‘humans as media’. “The only thing predictable about humans is their unpredictability. A brand must be ready for that potential vulnerability.”

But it would not do for brands and advertisers to underestimate the young adults and teenagers who run these channels. Budding Malaysian YouTube partner Ho Ming Han who, with his brother and friends, manages comedy channel dmingthing, says they are careful when working with brands to avoid the perception of ‘selling out’. 

“Brands don’t care what happens to your channel once their campaign is over, but for a channel owner, selling out could mean you lose the reason you have viewers.”

At 21, Ming (as he prefers to be known) is an advertising sophisticate. He understands his content, his viewers and discusses brand tie-ups and online advertising with the expertise of a media sales director. “We have worked with agencies such as Leo Burnett, Mindshare and GroupM, but we really prefer to work directly with brands, which we cherry pick. We only want to work with the nice ones, who trust us to produce content we know will appeal to our audiences.” Brands the team has worked with include Genting, local fashion brand Kitschen and Honda Civic. 

“Brands are now flocking to work with these stars, and they’re seeing results,” says Dawidowicz. 

Marina Bay Sands in Singapore collaborated with musical team Kurt Schneider and Sam Tsui to produce a music video that is nearing 1.5 million views. “Many of Kurt and Sam’s fans live in the Asia-Pacific region in places like Hong Kong and Malaysia, which send many tourists, and potential Marina Bay Sands customers, to Singapore each year.”

See also: From Crazy Russian Hacker, with love


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