Written By Anna Tekutova
YouTube is the largest video hosting service featuring user generated content (Chenail, R.J., 2011). Created in 2005, today it is the third most visited web-site (Bullas, n.d.). It generates 800 million unique visitors every month. (YouTube, 2013).
The phenomenon of YouTube haul videos was noticed by researchers, journalists and companies that produce and sell cosmetics, clothes, and accessories a few years ago. Haul video is a video of about 10 minutes long in which vloggers talk about recent purchases of clothes or make-up (Jeffries, 2011). Today YouTube`s search engine gives over 800`000 results for the haul request, and some of those videos have hit over million views (see image 1). Popular vloggers reach the status of beauty gurus, and the whole phenomenon is known as the YouTube beauty community.
This paper discusses the opportunities and challenges that the phenomenon of the YouTube beauty community unveils for marketers.
With the development of user-generated content through social media, business strategies and communications with consumers have dramatically changed (O`Brien, 2011). In The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2001), the authors suggest that consumers today are “getting smarter, more informed, more organized”; they receive more and better information from each other than from companies. They even know more about the different products than manufacturers. Moreover, they willingly share their knowledge and opinions with each other through multiple on-line channels. As a result of unlimited and free access to this information (O`Brien, 2011), the balance of power has shifted from companies to consumers (Bernoff & Li, 2008). And in these conditions the existence of “active and productive consumer is becoming a reality” (Füller, Mühlbacher, Matzler & Jawecki, 2010). Cova and Dalli (2009) considered different research streams that study the active role of consumer on the market. One of them, consumer communities or tribes, will be discussed in this paper.
Though we have stepped into the era of extreme individualism, the polar phenomenon is also visible – people are “increasingly gathering together in multiple and ephemeral groups” (Cova & Cova, 2001), which have much more influence on them and their behavior than any formal institutions.
Community was one of the central constructs in social studies since the 19th century (Muniz & O`Guinn, 2001). In consumer research, this term is not new either (Cova & Cova, 2001). A consumer community can be defined as a “group of people who have a common interest in a specific activity or object and who create a parallel social universe (subculture) ripe with its own myths, values, rituals, vocabulary, and hierarchy” (Cova and Dalli, 2009), whereas the members of tribes are not only consumers, “they are also advocates” of the brand, product or idea (Cova & Cova, 2001).
The development of technology caused significant social changes; “[not] only are people retribalizing, they are `e-tribalizing`” (Kozinets, 1999). Millions of people participate in online communities (Rheingold, 1993), based on “a wide range of cultural and subcultural interests and social affiliations”, including consumption activities (Kozinets, 1999). Author defines virtual community as “a group of people who share social interaction, social ties, and a common ‘space’” (cyberspace). For some people, the variety and richness of virtual communities becomes extremely attractive, and to some extent may replace real life in terms of self-realization, communications, socialization, etc. (Seraj, 2012).
The following section discusses challenges and opportunities that there are for marketers, using the example of the YouTube beauty community.
Online communities become one of the most effective tools in the new Internet world. Properly organized and managed, these communities can provide a lot of value to their members (Rothaermel & Sugiyama, 2001). Cova and Dalli (2009) suggest that, what previously was just a teenage hobby, has now turned into a serious business. Mehrotra, YouTube Product Management Director (cited in Noll, 2010), says that some of the beauty and fashion related videos capture audiences that can be compared with the major cable channels. For example, Michelle Phan, the number one beauty guru, has over 3 million subscribers, and her videos have been watched over 700 million times (VidStatsX, 2013). Therefore, YouTube supports the most talented vloggers, offering them partnership. Some of the partners earn “six figures and really are supporting a living off of YouTube” (Noll, 2010). But the great opportunities (along with the challenges) lie waiting not only for vloggers, but also for the cosmetic companies, clothing retailers, online stores, and so forth.
One of the main issues for the marketers is the fact that communities are difficult to identify and measure (Cova and Cova, 2001). Muniz and O`Guinn (2001) distinguish three essential conditions of a community existence (see Table 1).
Table 1. Essential conditions of community existence: example of the YouTube Beauty community
These above presented conditions allow us to legitimate the existence of the Beauty community phenomenon.
YouTube and other media-sharing communities are open, unregulated, and dynamic spaces, which present a problem of content control and reliability (Kim & Ahmad, 2013). Pho, Saustrup and Tambo (2012) mention three characteristics of trust in virtual communities – competence, benevolence (sense of community) and integrity (perception that the content provider is honest and trustworthy). YouTube allows its users to rate videos, so the number of subscribers and likes can serve as an important index of trust. Receiving a certain amount of followers, a beauty vlogger achieves the status of guru, which can de facto say a lot about her competence. Besides this, all communications within the community are open, and all members have access to the same “knowledge base”, which increases the level of credibility and willingness to participate in the life of the community. For the companies that want to cooperate with the beauty community, this means a higher degree of trust in the vlogger`s recommendations and reviews. (Pho, Saustrup & Tambo, 2012). But what makes them so attractive for viewers? Mainly, it is the video format itself – “homey girl-to-girl” video (Bamieh, 2010). The main audience of these videos is girls in their teenage years. Most of them are seeking for approval from their environment. However, very few of these girls can afford to buy designer items in order to look like their idols. But they can look like Blair (Juicystar07) or Bethany (Macbarbie07). “To the average teen, her seal of approval might carry even more weight than Anna Wintour's” (Meltzer, 2010). That is why, for example, when Elle (AllThatGlitters21) and Blair showed a Guess bag in their video, it was immediately sold out in all of the online stores (Ellison, 2011).
The notion of trust is extremely important in this context. Viewers need to trust the vloggers and their independent and honest opinion, and not see them as paid advertisers (Bamieh, 2010). “In one way it's really positive that girls can become trusted authorities amongst one another. But when you bring money into it, and when you're pushing a product, then your authenticity is at risk”, adds Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief of Jezebel.com, a trend tracking website (cited in Marketplace.org, 2010).
Here marketers meet another challenge. The existence of communities consisting of passionate and “expert” consumers leads to a balance shift in the consumer-company relationship. Companies can lose partial control over their brand, “which is replaced by the power of a consumer tribe wishing to re-appropriate this brand” (Cova and Dalli, 2009). Bernoff and Li (2008) suggest that sometimes companies should allow this loss of control. It will help people bond together. Instead of trying to control, companies should learn how to manage these communications, in order to fully benefit from them. The more social platforms help to generate connections between participants, the greater the feedback in terms of eWOM and brand awareness will be (Seraj, 2012). Thus, the major axiom of tribal marketing is that consumers in many cases search for those products and services that help them feel connection with other people. The tribal marketing strategy should primarily focus on the strengthening of links between community members, and the greater a contribution a product or service can make in terms of bonding people, the greater its “linking value” is. (Cova & Cova, 2001). Marketers should not strive to control information and communications, but rather use this information wisely “in order to build solid, long-lasting relationships with products or brands” (Kozinets, 1999).
The YouTube beauty community uncovers another opportunity for marketers – it is a great source of insights about what and how people consume. Barwise and Meehan (2010) suggest that, of course, such social platforms can be used to sell products, but “their real value… lies in learning about customers”.
But that is not all, being opinion leaders, beauty gurus can contribute to the development and success of new products, not only in terms of access to markets, but also in terms of functional characteristics of products (Cova and Dalli, 2009). The online communities dedicated to consumption-related topics can serve as a source of information for market research (Kim, Choi, Qualls & Han, 2008). For example, Products I regret buying videos became popular a few years ago. This is a tag video in which a beauty vlogger talks about products that disappointed her the most and why. “I opened this [eye liner] and it smelled so bad that I wanted to cry… I love Elf, I love a lot of their products, they are only a dollar… But… can you not make it smell better???... It would be a very good product, if it did not smell so bad” (Juicystar07, 2010). Füller et al (2010) proposed that consumers who are highly involved with certain products or categories tend to pay much more attention to various marketing stimuli, thus, they are more likely being “information seekers, innovators, or opinion leaders. Often, they possess specific skills and mastery”. When consumers feel that they are competent enough to influence product development and improvement, they tend to feel more empowered to do so and usually they make more valuable contributions. Thus, companies must take them more seriously.
Looking at virtual communities from the branding perspective, one can say that YouTube and other user generated content sites can help companies to build strong brand equity in a relatively short period of time (Christodoulides, 2009). These community sites help consumers “to shape the meaning of the brand they love, making the relationship more relevant for themselves” (Cova & Pace, 2006). Online consumer communities may play a significant role in increasing of brand loyalty, sales and market penetration, WOM generation and the stimulation of interest towards the brand, product or service (Kim et al, 2008). To exemplify this point of view I would like to mention another YouTube tag – YouTube made me do it or Because of YouTube. “So basically the tag is about things that I have seen on YouTube, you know the beauty gurus and stuff… like you had to have, and they just made it out to be amazing. And so YouTube made me do it… I have so many things that YouTube, or watching these videos, enticed me to buy”, says vlogger Sara Dunstan (Sardun1, 2009).
There has been said a lot in the literature about the potential of online consumption communities. However, to fully leverage this potential is a challenging task (Balasubramanian & Mahajan, 2001). One of the major issues for marketers is that online communities are relatively unstable marketing mediums (Kozinets, 1999). This is especially true when dealing with communities whose main target group are teenagers. The teenage habits and preferences are highly changeable. “[So] retailers and marketing teams should capitalize on the hype but not to over invest in it” (Bamieh, 2010).
Another major challenge lies in the fact that today`s consumers are far smarter, savvy and wired than before, and they tend to develop their own perspective on brands, which may significantly differ from the brand image companies try to project (Christodoulides, 2009). However, attempts to control them may lead to the opposite effect. The YouTube beauty community is built on trust in the competence and honesty of beauty gurus. In the beginning, they tried to set themselves against the market forces. But when the benefits from cooperation with companies have become evident, vloggers started resembling “paid advertisers” and to some extent lost their credibility.
Marketers should remember that the best tactics when reaching out to these communities is to use a “light touch” (Kozinets, 1999). Companies do not have to control the information and communication within the community, but instead try to use this wisely in order to benefit from it. The main goal of a marketing strategy should not be to increase the product sales (which is quite often a pleasant side effect, when the strategy is properly executed), but to build strong, long-lasting relationships with the community.
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List of images
Image 1 alt_text Top YouTube beauty gurus
Table 1 alt_text Essential conditions of community existence