The Eyes Have It

YouTube has become a breeding ground for teen stars, but what can marketers learn from these examples?

Fewer than three years after Justin Bieber and his mother posted his first video, Bieber finds himself in the same circles as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, who both had help from the Disney Channel to propel their stardom.

Soulja Boy Tell 'Em is another well-documented YouTube phenomenon, but his rise took a different path. Bieber was discovered by an entertainment industry marketing executive and courted as a rising star by Usher. Soulja Boy started by producing an independent album featuring Crank That. After the music video was posted, hundreds of remixes -- featuring everyone from Blink 182's Travis Barker to Dora the Explorer -- accelerated the star's newfound fame.

Savannah Outen started with a talent show video similar to Bieber. She hasn't hit the Billboard Top 100 yet, but her first single made it onto Disney's Top 30 Countdown. More importantly, she has more than 200,000 actively engaged subscribers to her YouTube channel. Outen is tapping into the aspirations of her teen female fans, who post their own performances and submit overwhelming positive comments to all her videos.



In the same way Outen appeals to female teens, Korean touch tapping guitarist Zack Kim draws in male teenagers with Guitar Hero aspirations. Perfect renditions of Super Mario and other theme songs have drawn more than 68 million people to view his videos.

Looking at these examples, we may be tempted to point at talent or content as the key to YouTube success. But there are still mountains of good videos on YouTube that never attract mass audiences. Something more needs to happen.

Unilever's Dove started the Dove Evolution movement from scratch. It started with commissioned research on the link between what women learn about beauty and their self-esteem. This fueled the Dove Self Esteem Fund and efforts to reach two target audiences: young women and their female role models.

Dove Evolution was born out of this effort, supported by a $2.5 million ad during the 2006 Super Bowl, emails sent to nearly a half million influencers, and an extensive online media plan. They exceeded their original goals for the campaign, but then again, they put a lot of money behind the effort.

Singer-songwriter Bryant Oden didn't have a Unilever-sized budget when he launched But fewer than two years after launching his first song, "The Duck Song," his songs have more than 15 million views on YouTube and" The Duck Song" is a hit on the iTunes children's list.

"I had no idea how to create a video after I finished the song. I just typed the lyrics and put it up," Oden shared about the original video. However, he runs another site, InnocentEnglish -- where he featured the video -- and that was generating about 20,000 views per day.

It didn't take off until 15-year old filmmaker Forrest Whaley, who already had 28,000 subscribers, saw the original and posted his animated version. At least part of Whaley's success to that point was his ability to tie into popular YouTube search terms with his Lego character short films.

Searches for "Batman," "Spiderman," or "Indiana Jones" all feature his videos on the first page. With "The Duck Song," he tapped into new search terms like "funny song" and "best song ever."

Whaley's teenage fan base gave the song momentum within an unexpected demographic. According to YouTube audience reports, the video is popular with both male and female 13 to 17 year olds, and high school age teens are posting videos of themselves singing along.

Contrast these successes with LG's Give It a Ponder campaign and keys to building momentum among teens on YouTube become even clearer:

  • Search: Terms like "texting funny" don't register LG's videos on the first page. Compare Dove Evolution, which is displayed prominently for "beauty" and "makeup," or the prominent search results Whaley gets for his videos.
  • Influencers: "The Duck Song" took off because teens carried the message from the start. LG features James Lipton telling teens about the dangers of texting. They succeed in being funny, but Lipton appeals to middle-aged men, not teens.

LG's videos can also come off as condescending. Dove Evolution avoids this by telling the story without words or a spokesperson, thereby equipping its initial audience, the female role models of its intended teen audience, with something that would truly resonate with teens.

  • Media Support: "The Duck Song" and Dove Evolution both benefited from well-placed media. The later was carefully planned, while the former was simply convenience.

LG drove much of its 700,000 YouTube views through media exposure from Adweek, the Huffington Post, Gizmodo, and Sports Illustrated, which helps explain the 25-54 year old males audience profile for Give It a Ponder videos.

As marketers, reaching teens on YouTube means tapping into currents that are already flowing, but it's not always obvious where those are. As Oden shared with me in closing, "It always surprises me seeing comments about 'The Duck Song' being the favorite song at a middle school. Cool is not what it used to be. Random and unique are the big things now."

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