As of Q4 2017, YouTube now has 1.5 billion monthly active users (MAUs). Viewers across the globe flock to the site each day to view content from their favorite YouTube creators (also know as YouTubers or YouTube influencers). Today’s 20 most popular YouTubers have more than 430 million subscribers combined, eclipsing America’s population by more than 100 million.
Prior to the rise and popularity of social media and success of influencer marketing, advertisers worked with traditional celebrities (those who got their fame from TV, acting, or modeling) to reach audiences and illicit sales. As audience and demographic/generational time spent differences have shifted (i.e. the decline of TV vs. rise of time spent on social and mobile devices), brands like Apple are now finding that YouTubers outperform celebrities and sometimes by a long shot.
Though YouTube itself launched in 2005, YouTubers or YouTube influencers didn’t become a cornerstone of the platform immediately. As YouTube experienced massive growth and adoption in the following years as the internet’s premier destination for uploading and hosting videos, certain channels (and oftentimes the personalities behind these channels) began building sizable audiences in the form of subscribers, fans, and commentators.
These channels and online video personalities were essentially the very first YouTubers or YouTube influencers.
Today, YouTubers rival or exceed traditional celebrities in fame, recognition, and influence with many YouTube influencers penning New York Times’ bestseller books, starring in TV shows and movies, creating successful startup businesses, and going on sold-out world tours. 75% of children aspire to be YouTubers over traditional career paths including doctor, nurse, lawyer. Studies have found that YouTubers impact culture (7-in-10 people agree) and inform the thinking of future generations.
While many YouTube influencer channels may be centered around popular content categories or types (e.g. gaming, beauty, automotive, tech), a lot of YouTubers also vlog or are “daily vloggers.” Daily vlogging involves filming various (oftentimes general or lifestyle) aspects of a YouTuber’s daily life and then sharing these vlogs (video blogs) that provide an inside or behind-the-scenes look with their fans and followers. Many top YouTube stars, like Casey Neistat, became famous or known for their two years or longer vlogging sprees.
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On YouTube, arguably no one matches the fame of Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie). The Swedish gamer maintains 62 million subscribers, more than anyone else on the platform. He’s best known for his let’s play gaming videos and commentary videos. His influence hasn’t gone noticed by advertisers or brands; the 28-year-old earns a reported $12 million each year.
Another extremely popular YouTube influencer is Jenna Mourey of the channel JennaMarbles. Mourey started her comedy channel in 2010 and in the span of eight years has amassed upwards of 18 million loyal subscribers. Unlike PewDiePie, she specializes in skits and parodies of all types.
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In contrast to influencers, celebrities achieve public acclaim through traditional entertainment avenues such as TV, movies, and modeling. Increasingly, the lines between influencer and celebrity are blurring.
Many of today’s most successful YouTubers function like celebrities and occupy positions originally reserved for the conventionally famous. Take, for instance, an event like New York Fashion Week which used to include the fashion press, luxury designers, models, and celebrities. Influencers who maintain dedicated, fashion-centric audiences are increasingly occupying the front rows at these events.
On the other hand, celebrities, especially those who are digitally savvy and have a sense of social trends, have been quick to build YouTube and online presences of their own. Supermodel Karlie Kloss is one such example. In 2015, the 25-year-old started her lifestyle YouTube channel, Klossy. In the time since she’s amassed close to one million subscribers.
As a cultural phenomenon, YouTubers have introduced an entirely new form of digital entertainment. Instead of watching a scripted TV show or movie, audiences turn online to watch a video made by and often starring an individual. In conjunction with the rise of social media, YouTubers have demonstrated that the creation of a “personal brand” on social media is not only economically viable but in certain cases a way to earn millions.
The popularity of YouTubers is undeniable and as the following statistics suggest, the public has even demonstrated a preference for YouTube influencers over celebrities.
The public’s growing preference for YouTubers has also resulted in tangible marketing results. Popular YouTuber Liza Koshy partnered with Beats By Dre, a brand well known for its celebrity and professional athlete endorsements, to create several video advertisements. According to an Apple representative, the video ads featuring Koshy received 4x as many clicks as comparable Beats By Dre ad spots featuring figures like Tom Brady.
Koshy maintains a devoted audience of over 14 million on YouTube alone who appreciate the comedic skits and characters that she’s developed for her comedy channel. Notably, the ad spots for Beats By Dre feature Koshy assuming the role of both herself and the characters her YouTube audience has grown to love.
The effectiveness of influencers over celebrities isn’t a phenomenon limited to YouTube. In the past year, brands have chosen to partner with influencers as opposed to celebrities across social media. A report found that in 2017, 80% of the top 15 beauty brand collaborations were with influencers and only 20% were with celebrities.
Although influencers have proven to be incredibly powerful collaborators for brands, the reach and audience size of celebrities is undeniable. A celebrity like Selena Gomez (@selenagomez) can give a brand access to more than 136 million people. Nevertheless, as the distinction between influencers and celebrities continues to blur more and more YouTubers are developing audiences comparable to the reach of celebrities. In some cases, YouTubers even exceed the reach of celebrities depending on the campaign or number of influencers involved.
To date, the disadvantages of marketing with YouTubers appears to be relatively minimal. Influencer marketing is still a developing industry and as such strategies and tactics to maximize the impact of influencer partnerships haven’t been fully optimized. Only in a small number of cases have brands encountered problems working with controversial YouTubers like Logan Paul. Overwhelmingly though, influencers like Paul are the exception not the rule.
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Celebrities do give marketers access to enormous audiences, however, the price of a single celebrity endorsement can exhaust a brand’s entire budget. Beyoncé reportedly charges $1 million for a single sponsored Instagram post. The pricing of celebrities puts this type of marketing well out of reach for most brands. In addition to cost, the visibility of celebrities can backfire. If a celebrity makes a mistake on social media, especially in the context of a brand, that mistake is on display for the entire world to see.
The public’s preference for YouTubers and the demonstrated effectiveness of influencer campaigns over celebrity endorsements speak to the changing marketing landscape. The audience size and reach of celebrities still offer value to advertising campaigns. However, the authenticity and reliability of influencers are extremely attractive to consumers, particularly Millennials and Gen Z.