Inside a cavernous soundstage on the Universal Studios lot, a new kind of production was underway on the set of the NBC comedy “Superstore.”
Five social media sensations — including Vine star Splack — were recently crafting 30-second videos to post on their social media channels ahead of the comedy’s second season return. Each made sure to mention “Superstore,” which centers on employees of a big-box retailer, and its Sept. 22 premiere.
As networks and studios struggle to reach young audiences in an increasingly fragmented media marketplace, many have turned to so-called influencers — online stars whose value is measured by the size of their Internet followings — as a means of generating awareness.
Advertisers are seizing on the tactic in an era of commercial-skipping and ad-blockers. Word of mouth in the digital age means messages travel faster by way of social media. The majority of consumers worldwide — or 66%, according to a 2015 Nielsen survey — trust online recommendations from online stars such as Splack.
His video focused on an ex-girlfriend who is trying to show off her new boyfriend while the social star works his shift as an employee of the show’s fictional retailer, Cloud 9.
“I tried to think of things that were trending and relatable,” said Jean “Splack” Robert, 30. “You can never go wrong with relationships.”
The video has nabbed more than 690,000 views on Instagram and more than 300 comments. And when “Superstore” premiered, it did so to higher ratings than the Season One finale.
Part of what makes influencers powerful is that their followers feel they have a deeper, more intimate connection to them.
— Rachel Fletcher, supervisor of digital strategy for RPA
Studio and network executives say they work with influencers to build brand awareness and buzz in a more intimate way through the friend-like connections consumers feel toward the online personalities they follow.
“Part of what makes influencers powerful is that their followers feel they have a deeper, more intimate connection to them — understandable when you think of how many of them started out broadcasting from their own living room,” said Rachel Fletcher, supervisor of digital strategy for advertising and marketing agency RPA.
Media and entertainment companies including Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal and Sony Pictures Entertainment have developed strategies to connect their projects with influencers.
“I believe this is the very beginning,” said Eric Galen, an attorney who focuses on the digital space and represents Jack & Jack, a pop duo with a big online following. “We are going to see increasingly more money spent by advertisers and studios on these kinds of activations and social media promotions.”
Influencers typically have thousands of followers on social media and online content platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Vine and Snapchat. At the upper echelon, they count many millions of people who tune in daily to watch them. Some make a spectacle of their daily routine, sharing videos of their trips to the grocery store or dinner dates. Others have built careers on performances — making comedy sketches, reviewing video games, performing magic tricks and teaching cooking lessons, among other pursuits.
When in the employ of studios, their efforts can be as a simple as tweeting about a film or more involved endeavors like the marketing push for “Superstore."
Entertainment companies declined to discuss how much they pay influencers. But several experts said their pay ranges from a few thousand dollars to several million. Some simply receive gift baskets instead of compensation.
Over the last year or so, some entertainment companies have begun to cast influencers in their TV and film projects. The strategy is a bit of a gamble: It’s a nascent business model, and questions remain about the effectiveness of using these personalities to boost a show’s ratings — or help open a movie.
Just how much influence the influencers have is hard to measure. TV ratings and box-office returns do not reveal what prompted a viewer to tune in — leading some entertainment companies to read the tea leaves of “likes” and “favorites.”
What if we went a step further and put someone in the movie, but what if we animate them and their personality?
— Andre Fonseca, vice president of digital marketing at
Walt Disney Studios
“Superstore,” for example, experienced a ratings uptick for its premiere, bringing in 5.45 million viewers, up 16% from the first season finale. Its influencer-centric digital marketing plan also included an NBC-produced video short that played off the premiere plot — which finds store employees on strike — and featured the five social media stars serving as Cloud 9 strikebreakers. The videos produced for the campaign garnered 3.1 million cumulative views, as well as over 200,000 social media engagements.
“One of the reasons we go with influencers is because we can look at the likes, shares, comments around those videos,” said Jared Goldsmith, senior vice president of marketing strategy and digital at NBC. “In terms of how it translates back directly to ratings or video views — it’s not easy to quantify.”
What is clear is that these personalities aren’t necessarily getting the work because of their acting chops, but often because of their Internet followings.
In early 2015, about a year before Disney was set to release “Zootopia,” studio executives discussed the possibility of adding an influencer to the animated movie’s voice cast.
“What if we went a step further and put someone in the movie, but what if we animate them and their personality?” said Andre Fonseca, vice president of digital marketing at Walt Disney Studios, recalling discussions at the time.
Disney ultimately cast Zach King, a social media star who performs magic tricks, in a small lupine role in the film (he voiced Muzzled Wolf). Disney also created an animated clip that showed King's character performing the sort of illusion that the social star is known for — jumping through the bars of a jail cell. King posted the clip, which showed both he and his animated character performing the feat, to his Instagram account. It was viewed 7.6 million times and generated more than 8,000 comments.
“Zootopia,” released in March, has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
“Our main [return on investment] metric on an influencer program is reach and awareness. Just taking that number from Instagram, that was a very, very strong return on investment,” Fonseca said. “How we view it is, his audience is mostly in the 13-24 wheelhouse, and for an animated film, that is a tricky demographic to reach — and reach effectively.”
Fonseca said that this sort of effort is already being considered for future Disney films.
Fans are definitely aware when they’re being baited with promotional posts. It has to be something that is natural and fits with the persona of the creator.
— Zach King
Universal Pictures also inserted influencers into the 2015 hit “Pitch Perfect 2” — and expects to continue doing so in future projects. When it came time to cast the comedy, Universal tapped Pentatonix, an a cappella group with a strong social media following.
“That was suggested from the marketing side,” said Doug Neil, executive vice president of digital marketing for Universal Pictures. “We saw the value of having a really strong online music sensation in the film because of their large following.”
Pentatonix and its individual members promoted the film on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, generating more than 250,000 engagements. “Pitch Perfect 2,” released in May 2015, grossed $288 million worldwide.
Television, meanwhile, for years has been at the forefront of looking to the digital space for talent or ideas that could translate on the small screen. (In 2010, for example, CBS debuted “$#*! My Dad Says,” which was based on a Twitter feed.) Now, TV’s pioneering efforts include influencers.
When CBS’ “The Amazing Race” entered its 28th season, it looked to stave off viewership declines by stocking up its cast with influencers from YouTube, Vine and Instagram, including Cole LaBrant, Cameron Benson and King of “Zootopia."
“Our viewers look to these online personalities as their friends,” said Adam Bonnett, executive vice president of original programming at Disney Channels Worldwide. “These digital personalities are part of the fabric of the everyday lives of our audience.”
Yet as social media stars consider whether to take on gigs promoting movies and TV shows, there’s an important consideration for both parties: the authenticity of a campaign.
“Fans are definitely aware when they’re being baited with promotional posts,” King said. “It has to be something that is natural and fits with the persona of the creator.”