As brands try to connect with today's connected generation, they're turning to top digital video and social media stars to represent their companies.
"With an often sizable number of highly active fans, influencers can be a great way to deliver content to an engaged audience that might otherwise tune out conventionally branded content like display ads or pre-roll video," said Andrew Cunningham, social marketing lead at digital agency Huge. "Among teens, some influencers are even more recognizable than mainstream celebrities, so there's a serious appeal in getting that type of access and exposure."
Instead of just using traditional print or TV ad campaigns, brands are tapping these digital content creators to intertwine what they do best online with their products. The results are known as native advertising, or brand-sponsored content. It's one step beyond your typical product placement, because the item is often hidden in the background or just supplemental to the video.
"On the one end, a brand can simply sponsor someone's posts or blog, but working with influencers in their own voice is one thing that seems to work best, whether for a product review, usage, or demonstration," said Adam Shlachter, chief investment officer for digital agency DigitasLBi. "The key is authenticity; it shouldn't feel like a commercial at all."
Landon Ledford, co-founder of technology platform InstaHype, which connects online influencers with brands, said people with large social media presences not only speak in millennial and Gen Z terms, but they can turn around timely and cost-effective ad campaigns.
"(Millennials and Gen Z) have grown up in a time that has caused them to doubt the traditional systems, they don't trust mass media, and they have technology that puts all answers at their fingertips," he said. "When a brand can enlist a real person, to reach them on their turf online with a peer-to-peer message, this will lead to a purchase—much more important than the 'brand awareness' big agencies are selling—much more often than any mass media commercial or tagline."
Here's a few of today's top online talent and what they do, and the big names they are representing:
YouTube: 7.6 million; Twitter: 493,000
Freddie Wong's filmmaking chops came from studying at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, his digital production house RocketJump has became known for their gaming-inspired comedies, including the series "Video Game High School."
The 29-year-old explained that RocketJump, which was co-founded by Matt Arnold and Desmond "Dez" Dolly, focuses on action-based online videos, which range from short skits to TV length series.
"It's definitely content that our inner 16-year-old-boys-at-heart would enjoy," he said.
The YouTuber believes that audiences connect with RocketJump's content because they can laugh along with the team making fun of themselves or enjoy the outrageous stunts they pull off. Part of the appeal comes from well-developed story and character.
"What we've always tried to do is make it engaging and try to connect with someone on an emotional level," he said.
Brands that he's backed: Samsung Galaxy S; Electronic Arts' "Battlefield 3"; TV shows including ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and Comedy Central's "Key and Peele"; movies including Sony Pictures' "Pixels" and DreamWorks Studios' "Cowboys and Aliens."
(@tobuscus) YouTube: 6.3 million; Twitter: 1.27 million
Toby Turner, 30, started his YouTube career uploading videos where he would make comedy sketches and songs. However, he was surprised that people became addicted to his gaming channel where he would film himself playing various games.
What makes his gaming special? He acknowledges his appeal lies in not being good.
"Everyone else had to be talented, and they would give me a hard time," he said. "'This guy is not good at video games, why is he doing this?' Gradually over time, the people who were good were not the only people playing. A lot of people who sucked started playing video games and made that their career."
"I definitely don't try to be bad!" he added, laughing.
Turner believes part of what makes watching him fun is he edits his videos for maximum comedic value and without much space between jokes.
"it's appealing to the hyperactive generation," he said.
(@Cutegirlhairstyles) YouTube: 3.5 million; Instagram: 1.1 million
(@brooklynandbailey) YouTube: 1.6 million; Instagram: 814,000
Mindy McKnight started out sharing hairstyle tutorials online for other moms. Although she was not a hairstylist, she gained experience being the mother of six, including five girls. People would stop her on the street to ask her how she fixed her girls hair, so she decided to blog the process and take photos.
"We ran into a couple hairstyles that didn't transition well from pictures," McKnight said. "We were missing things in between the pictures. We took a couple videos and threw them up on this new space called YouTube, and it ended up being big."
Her daughters were often featured in the videos as the hair models, and their audience grew. When twins Brooklyn and Bailey turned 13, they spun off their own channel, which features the sisters doing challenges, showing off the latest fashion and dishing advice to their followers. They've even chronicled getting their wisdom teeth taken out.
"Basically a lifestyle, "grow up with us" teenage girls channel," said Bailey, now 15.
Brands that they've backed: (@cutegirlhairstyles) Subaru, Disney (@BrooklynandBailey) Zumba, Ubisoft's Just Dance, Nickelodeon, Disney
YouTube: 3.8 million; Twitter: 945,000
Glozell Green, 42, was a Los Angeles-based comedian when she decided to try out YouTube. She never thought she would find success online, to the point where she would get to interview President Barack Obama.
"I didn't believe it as first," she said. "He said his daughters are fans, and he knew who I was, so that was amazing."
GloZell's YouTube channel includes short comedy skits that give insight into her life through her own personal experiences or characters she makes up. She compared it to a modern day "The Carol Burnett Show" or "I Love Lucy."
She believes people tune in because watching YouTube clips makes people feel like they are having an intimate conversation with someone, even though they are behind a computer screen.
"I'm a middle aged woman," she said. "What are you doing inviting me to your birthday party!?"
Vine: 13.1 million; Instagram: 4 million
Andrew Bachelor, best known as King Bach, boils his comedic clips down to this basic premise: He makes cinematic shorts from his specific point of view. What results is racially charged, sometimes not-safe-for-work clips that poke fun at societal stereotypes.
"I make six second videos on a platform of over 40 million users—and I have the most followers," the 27-year-old said.
Bachelor studied film at the New York Film Academy but started uploading videos to online to practice. Since then, he's become the king of Vine, updating his account at about twice a week. While Vine clips may only be six seconds, each one takes him about 10 minutes to film and edit.
In his spare time, he works on his longer creative projects, including going on auditions and writing TV series, including an upcoming project with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from "Key and Peele."
"I do videos that people can relate to and share with their friends," he said.
Brands that he's backed: Disney, Jimmy Johns, Monster headphones.