If you follow any popular Web personalities and their online video channels, you might be surprised to learn they may be paid to have brand messaging worked right into the video. I interviewed a broker who matches brands with web celebrities (aka, "Webstars”) and places their clients' brand messages seamlessly into the celebrity's actual video creative for influencing potential customers.
The Hitviews Model: Matching Brands with Video Celebrities
For our ADD readers, here's the short-and-skinny: Hitviews provides brands with a advertising program to have their product or message placed directly in a Web celebrity's video; I said it right – in the actual video.
Here's how it works: Hitviews employs these "web celebrities" (i.e., personalities on the web like on YouTube who have a sizeable audience and targeted fan base), aka, "Webstars," who agree to include a brand's product or message directly within the context of their entertaining videos. The brand essentially becomes part of the show, with or without the audience's own awareness of the brand's paid sponsorship and placement. The earlier Hitviews press release, "Hitviews Tapped by FOX to Market 'Fringe' and 'Lie to Me'," provides a good idea of what they do, who they do it for, and their social video ad value proposition to brands.
Here's the 4-step plan that Hitviews advertises to brand prospects on their own Website:
- Deciding the message – Hitviess works with the brand to decide what message they want to communicate to the Webstars' audience (and their new customer prospects)
- Picking a Web celebrity – Hitviews works with the brand to select the most suitable Webstar to deliver the brand's message within their Web video (show). Hitviews says that a brand is matched with a Webstar that not only has a large fan base, but can provide the most targeted market to whatever that brand is selling.
- Partnering on the content – Hitviews works with both the brand and the Webstar to develop fresh, creative ideas that will both carry the brand's message and be a fit for the Webstar's online persona. The brand gets to approve the final videos as well as the distribution channels.
- Measuring the results – After a pre-agreed period of time from the initial launch, Hitviews then provides the brand with metric reports from the video that measure audience behavior. The focus of the metrics may be on what improves the awareness of the brand message and/or the brand itself, reputation, intent to purchase, and most importantly, sales.
The Special Lure for Brands of Web Video Celebrities
Hitviews does have a very impressive client list of 1st-tier brands who've employed their Webstars. Here are a few of the reasons why:
- Large and sustainable fan base. Hitviews says that "The stars we work with have a cumulative view count of over 3.1 billion views and a base of over 2.1 million 'fans' who have registered to see their star's latest video." Unlike viral video marketing, a Webstar already has a popular video show and a built-in audience, which makes it more promising and less risky for brands to budget adverting dollars for.
- Regular and unique video content. "Online video celebrities create short, interactive videos enjoyed by millions of people," says Hitviews, giving brands multiple opportunities to get their message out to a large fan base.
- The real lure of Webstars with brands comes down to purchasing influence. Hitviews' basic business premise is that web celebrities with their own video channels are the newest influencers of large audiences' media consumption and purchasing decisions.
Hitviews sells these Webstars to their brands with colorful language such as this:
Their fans will embrace products and ideas presented by online video celebrities they love.”
How's that for adoration? Well let's face it, a lot of times that's exactly true. Webstars are treated as influencers by their audience's consumption and purchasing habits, especially by those audiences who spend a good deal of time around Internet video and social media. When Webstars give a review, endorsement, or simply feature a brand in their video, then that brand may stand to enjoy a quick spike in sales.
Brand Goals With Paid Content Placement in Weblebrity Videos
A review of Hitviews' own client list shows many good examples of the type of online video campaigns they run. From what they have featured on their Website, they tend to fall around entertainment-style videos, which are certainly expected. Some are reviews for TV shows or movies; and some are for awareness of a new line of products, or new features to an existing product; and some done to bring more views to a brands' website or landing page. (I especially liked friend-of-ReelSEO Kevin Nalty's video for Logitech's Home Security Cameras and Reader's Digest RD.com website.) Some are even part of deals in place that brands have with other brands for guaranteeing a certain amount of video views in a specific amount of time, which of course is where Hitviews is hired to save the day for these brands.
Sometimes these Web celebrities even managing to do their creative video on the actual set of the show they're talking about, such as this example from web video celebrity WhatTheBuck doing a fun interview with the cast of the ABC Family show, "Melissa & Joey.”
Avoiding The "Ad" Designation with Brand Message Placement
Unlike pre-roll ads or overlay ads in videos, which are clearly designated advertisements, Hitviews says it's smarter for brands to pay to have their message directly in the actual show and avoid the dreaded "ad" label. After watching their video examples, I think they manage to operate out of a possible loophole in the FTC guidelines with disclosing paid sponsorships for new media content. I've simplified that part of their business formula down to this:
- Feature the brand message as part of the content itself (something which video has an advantage over text-only content in accomplishing).
- Have the Webstar interact with the brand's message/product/reps in an entertaining way.
- Have the Webstar avoid the appearance of an endorsement or outright opinion of the brand or brand message.
This Web Celebrity Video Brought to you By [Undisclosed]…
I'll give them credit for being crafty. But I have to wonder if this is still authentic and credible as they claim, or if it showcases a lack of transparency? That may comes down to whether audiences are actually aware of what's going on here; and I have to assume that brands still consider it in their best interest not to disclose a paid sponsorship if they don't feel they have to in this particular case.
The other issue is, would fans really care? There's an argument to be made that as fans find the videos to still be just as entertaining (or even more so with the funding of the brand), then are audiences really going to cry foul because they video they were watching and enjoying for entertainment purposes was actually the result of a paid sponsorship by the brand that was featured in the video.
So that's likely something where only the fans of these Webstars can really answer to. I'm not defending that, but I believe that fans follow Webstars because they're entertained by them more than they rely on them as expert consumer advocates. If a fan made a purchase or watched a show because their favorite Webstar told them about it and did an entertaining video around it; and they only found out later that the Webstar was paid to do a video by the brand itself (that was featured in it), would they feel cheated enough to change their mind? Which brings me to this important question…
What Does It Mean to Be "Transparent Enough?”
Truthfully, this isn't really about full transparency. It's about spending some of the Webstars' trust and credibility with their fan base, and still trying to appear "transparent enough.”
I had the opportunity to interview Hitviews' VP of Business Development Sam Levine who shared his own take on this. He made the argument that, despite there not being a direct announcement in our around the Webstar's video of the pay-for-placement arrangement with the brand, ther Webstars are "always transparent with how they portray themselves and the brand message in their videos.”
"[The Webstars] have to be transparent about it because it's a sponsored video. Now how that transparency shows up is... our lawyers have to be OK with it. Our lawyers have to say that it's transparent enough." Now the Webstars aren't going to, when the video opens up, have typed across their forehead, 'This video was paid for by [insert brand name here]." They're not going to do that. But the thing about the videos is that they're all very transparent in their own organic way. For example, if FOX was the sponsor of the video, then the Webstar might say something like, "Thanks FOX, for the clips," or "Thanks FOX for hooking me up with this stuff, I appreciate it," or "Hey, the Weinsteins let me come on the Red Carpet, they brought me out for this, thanks a lot, Weinsteins.”
Sam says that type of disclosure makes Webstars "unbelievably transparent. If you can't tell that it's a branded video, then you must not be watching the entire video, since the entire videos are about whatever the subject is; and with the links and what not, there's always links and thank you's and shout-outs, and what not to whoever is sponsoring the video, just in case it's not clear enough in the videos themselves." he says.
The credibility issue is just one part, however. The other is legal compliance, including with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has it's own guidelines on what qualifies as "sufficient disclosure" when there's material compensation involved. Sam says that Hitviews has that issue covered between themselves and their brand clients as well.
"Our legal has to sign off on it, the brand's legal has to sign off on it. So before a video actually launches, all the 'big scary lawyers' have to sign off on it that it's transparent enough with the FTC." Says Sam. "It has to be [compliant], otherwise it would just as well be a 30-second spot.”
As for the Webstars themselves, Sam explained that they would get their own lawyer to do the deals with Hitviews and protect their own interests, and make sure the paperwork is fine. "But once they're done with that, the Webstars don't look to the legal counsel for kind of what videos they should produce. They go by what their audience would like. They have to maintain their integrity, and relationship, and conversations with their audiences. They know their audiences better than anyone on the planet, and they do it so their audiences are happy with them and their content that they've made. It's up to us and the brand that they've done so transparent enough for the FTC." he said.
"The nice thing is that the Webstars know to be transparent enough about the whole thing." said Sam. "The big brands we work with understand their brand, they understand for the most part the business that they're in. So for the Webstars it becomes, how am I best served being transparent without alienating my audiences?”
What Do You Think?
Are paid sponsorships in the actual Web video content itself deserving of more transparency than what Hitviews swears by, or have they found a formula with "social video advertising" that audiences are OK with if they ever found out about it? (Or maybe I should give them more credit than I do here?)
- On one side of the argument, you have people who will argue that the fan base just likes being entertained and are aware enough about behind-the-scenes arrangements like this so they can continue to enjoy the video content regularly.
- On the other hand, the very reason that brands pay money to Webstars (and their marketing agents like Hitviews) is to have them influence their fan bases' purchasing decisions with compelling videos; and the brands control what the video creative will be and give final approval before going public.
Hitviews is not the only social video advertising agency that's been successful in brokering these brand-to-Webstar arrangements. The question I think as to whether this business and marketing model will be sustainable will come down to these 3 key things:
1) If the fan bases are truly aware (or will eventually be)
2) If it really matters to the fans, and;
3) More importantly I think, If more and more of this type of video activity may reach such a critical mass that the FTC feels prompted to give it more scrutiny, and see if it holds' up to their existing FTC standard on endorsements (or if they need to revise it altogether to provide something more definitive on what counts as "sufficient disclosure" in paid placements in videos.)
Ad agencies like Hitviews deserved to be recognized for the business opportunities they provide for matching brands with popular Web personalities, who can afford to put out creative and entertaining videos that their audiences love and share, and build communities around for fans to engage with them and each other in. Their business model has already been practiced by other companies targeting their own niche Webstars, and I expect it will grow as the video audience grows. It remains to be seen if they will draw the type of attention that will be altogether positive for them and their industry, or if a certain legal body challenges their own standard for being "transparent enough.”