Written by: Martin Behm
Social media is fundamentally transforming marketing through consumer-generated content and the all-powerful practice of electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM). Young vloggers, often referred to as YouTubers or creators, with vast numbers of dedicated followers, utilize their celebrity status and social media channels to spread marketing messages for products directed to even younger audiences. Though not all videos and images are sponsored, it is difficult to recognize which ones are, especially for gullible tweens ages eight to twelve. How ethical is this practice and what should we as marketers do about it?
1. Tweens are attached to social media
Social media is a remarkable phenomenon that influences how people behave and interact, even among very young consumers. Tweens today spend more than four and a half hours a day in front of screens. A quarter of that time (1:06 hours) is devoted to watching videos online and 27 minutes to other social media (Commonsensemedia.org, 2015). A lot of that time is spent watching video bloggers on YouTube and connecting to their other social media channels. Many tweens not only form strong bonds with their favorite vloggers but also develop a strong attachment to social media. The stronger the attachment is the more likely the individual is to support and advocate brand communication (Van Meter et al, 2015). For business it has both pros and cons. A single influencer can drive vast amounts of traffic to a website while that same person just as easily can damage a firms reputation over night. Instead of relying on YouTubers to say the right things, marketers seek to dictate the conversation trough monetary compensation. It is difficult for tweens to determine if a promotion is sponsored or made out of free will, especially since vloggers are seen as authentic and trustworthy role models. What tweens believe is consumer-to-consumer communication could in certain instances in fact be regarded as business-to-consumer advertising.
2. Tweens listen to vloggers
As tweens turn away from traditional marketer-to-consumer tools such as radio and television, marketers are getting desperate to get in on the action. But the web was created for social interaction, not to sell product, and marketers soon realized that their online presence often was not welcome. Attempts to join the conversations often seemed inauthentic, intrusive and out of place (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Instead, marketers have come to rely on electronic word-of-mouth. eWOM is defined as:
Any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004, p39).
Consumers have traditionally relied on marketer-generated sources, third-party endorsements and friends to find information about products. With social media, peer-to-peer exchange of product-related information through eWOM has expanded the scope. Word-of-mouth has many advantages over traditional advertising. It has higher credibility, is voluntary and consensual and enhances brand value when comments are favorable (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011). When people you know and trust tell you something you believe them. Since vloggers are regarded as friends and have vast amounts of subscribers they have tremendous word-of-mouth power. One positive comment about a product instantly generates thousands, if not millions, of impressions. And these impressions multiply when followers reinforce their perceptions. It is easy to see why vloggers are gaining so much attention by marketers these days.
3. Vloggers build better bonds
”Up to 90% of spend goes to advertising and retail promotions. Yet the single most powerful impetus to buy is often someone else’s advocacy.” (Edelman, 2010 p. 7). With the help of vloggers, marketers can reach young audiences through new touch points. Instead of focusing on brand awareness, vloggers help brands circumvent the earlier decision-journey stages and jump directly to brand advocacy. If the creator succeeds in driving a purchase, chances are consumers’ bond with the brand (Edelman, 2010). And bonding is what it is all about. Marketers try to capture consumers when they are young in order to increase the likelihood of brand loyalty into adulthood. The only other way to increase customers is to make the switch from another brand and that it usually more difficult than to grow them from birth. This concept is referred to as cradle-to-grave marketing and is practiced by more and more companies (Browne, 2016). It is likely that tweens will drink the same soft drink as his or her favorite vlogger today but do not be surprised if the car the vlogger is driving ends up in the driveway in the not so distant future.
4. Vloggers need to pay their bills
It takes hard work and dedication to become a successful vlogger. For many, like Tonjes with 300.000 subscribers, it is a full time job and sooner or later they need to capitalize on their investment to make a living (Dunn, 2015). There are two main ways of making money as a YouTuber. One is to join the YouTube Partner program and monetize on advertisement on and near the created content. The more views a video generate the higher the earnings (Support.google.com, 2016). The other way is to promote branded messages in the videos. This is where marketers enter the conversation. It is typically done through unboxing or haul videos were creators unwrap and showcase new purchases and demonstrate consumer goods. Other popular way to promote stuff is through tutorials, reviews and challenges. Besides YouTube the vloggers use other social media channels and often have personal blogs. On Instagram and Snapchat the creators upload pictures with a statement about a product and in some cases adds a hash tag. Products can be anything the creator fancies and fit the target audience. It is important that the product endorsements feel natural and authentic; otherwise they run the risk of alienating fans. According to Women's Wear Daily, a sponsored Instagram post with a top blogger can cost a brand anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000 (Baxter-Wright, 2016). Most vloggers never see that kind of cash, but they are willing to engage.
5. Social media advertising is easy as 1, 2, 3
It used to be complicated, time-consuming and risky to contract vloggers. Now it is both safe and easy. Specialized agents connect brands with the biggest stars in social media. All you have to do is login and create an advertising campaign in a few easy steps. Set the duration of the campaign, add instructions and a hash tag, upload an inspirational picture and choose target audience and reach. The number of followers you want to reach determines the price. You instantly see how much the campaign will costs and within 24-hours the campaign is live on Instagram (Splay.tv, 2016). To advertise on YouTube requires you to send the agent an email. According to Hoffman and Fodor (2010), short-term return on investment in social media is often hard to establish but with these tools you can impress your boss with predictable results. Of course you are never fully in control of the outcome but it does resemble the traditional advertising analogy of bowling more than social media pinball (Hennig-Thurau et al, 2013).
Why we need ethics and regulation
Now you understand why vloggers are the ultimate marketing tool for tweens. Being both a marketer and a parent myself, I still do we do not fully understand what my eleven year old daughter is exposed to on social networks. What might seem innocent at a glace can in reality be quite deceptive. Social media advertising to children is a relatively new phenomenon and clear and enforceable rules and regulation are commonly not yet in place. They are however much needed since children are particularly vulnerable to commercial messages due to their lack of experience. There are different suggestions on how to implement regulations. Either by clearly identifying advertising messages online, imposing higher age restrictions on social media or by prohibiting advertising to young children under the age of twelve all together. Whichever way we chose to precede it is important for marketers and vloggers alike to understand their exceptional power over children and act with values, morals and ethics. It is also important for parents to engage, monitor and explain the forces at work to their children. In Sweden, some restrictions are in place but The Swedish Market Court has convicted no one so far…
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