The Next Influencer Wave and How to Find It

If you saw Forbes’ second annual list of the highest-paid YouTube stars, you know that big name digital influencers are bringing in big money. That means that if your brand is looking to reach the millennial and Gen Z viewers who rabidly consume the content they produce, it won’t come cheap. A brand activation featuring a single YouTube video amplified with posts on the creator’s other social channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) might earn a Forbes list-caliber digital star as much as $200K.

But an open checkbook won’t necessarily be enough to attract this upper echelon of creators, because not only are they swimming in cash, they’re drowning in opportunities, so credibility and oversaturation – not income – are now their primary concerns.

Within any significant influencer group (moms, cooking channels, tech reviewers, gamers, etc.) there are a top 5 to 10 channels that have become “name brands,” meaning they’ve not only cultivated a devoted audience, they’ve crossed over to mainstream recognition – at least within digital entertainment and marketing circles. They’ve been featured in industry press, sat on VidCon panels, appeared on “Ellen” or some in some other way elevated their exposure beyond their core fan base. The bottom line is, if you’re an informed digital marketing professional, you’ve heard of them, and so have your peers at every major agency and brand across the nation (maybe globally).

Every month, the big name creators and their reps field dozens of lucrative offers to make a branded video, a sponsored livestream or a personal appearance. They could run a major brand activation every week if they wanted to. But they don’t want to. For one, their fans would stop watching them because all they’re producing is ads. Also, the sponsor activations take more time and energy. They can’t just turn on the camera and post what they want. They have to review creative briefs, go through rounds of collaboration and review, make extra edits, etc. So they don’t just chase the highest paycheck. They pursue a select number of partnerships that best promote their brand and advance their career. And sometimes a great opportunity comes along and they’re unable took take advantage, because their schedule is already booked for the next six months.

So what’s brand to do?

Our advice: Look for the next wave.

The social universe is a dynamic talent pool teeming with highly successful creators who just haven’t gotten the recognition … yet. Brands and agencies often see it as a failure if they don’t get big name influencers like Forbes list topper Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie, who earned an estimated $15 million in 2016) or UnBoxTherapy or Dude Perfect for their campaigns. But there are scores of up-and-coming, under-the-radar stars who can serve as effective substitutes for their starrier counterparts.

These influencers produce comparably high-quality content and reach similar real-time audiences as their “name brand” counterparts, but they’re generally more available and eager to make their own names as marketing superstars.

For instance, instead of pursuing Colleen Ballinger (better known as Miranda Sings), who ranks #9 on the Forbes list with an estimated $5 million in 2016 earnings, a brand could use a lesser known influencer with comparable demographics, such as Ariel Martin (a.k.a. Baby Ariel), a 16-year-old Floridian who rose to fame on the app in 2015 and has gone on to build a large following across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

With more than 7.45 million subscribers and a billion views on YouTube, Ballinger might seem like she’d be eminently more effective as a brand ambassador than Martin, who has under 2 million subscribers and just north of 104 million views. But view counts and subscriber numbers are accrued over the life of a channel, so they are not necessarily representative of an influencers’ current popularity and reach.

That’s why ZEFR has developed a proprietary method for determining an influencer’s trending engagement, which tabulates thousands of real-time data points – including the recent number of views, likes, comments and shares – and corrects them for outlier posts, such as paid promotions or a video that got an atypically high number of views because it got shared on Reddit. By this measurement, Martin has a higher engagement rank, in the 97th percentile, compared to Ballinger, whose engagement is in the 96th percentile.

There’s no denying that Ballinger is the bigger star. She’s inspired imitators, staged successful concert tours, ridden shotgun with Jerry Seinfeld and even scored her own Netflix series, “Haters Back Off.” But in today’s rapidly-evolving social media space, the transformation from nobody to celebrity can happen in the blink of an eye. By aligning themselves with a “next wave” influencer like Martin, brands not only get a powerful but cost-effective brand ambassador, they demonstrate that they are authentic and ahead of the curve.

Ballinger and Martin are not isolated examples. For virtually every big name digital influencer who’s scored a loving AdWeek feature or a segment on “Entertainment Tonight,” there is a “next wave” alternative with comparable demographic and trending engagement. A brand interested in well-established comedy duo Rhett & Link (tied with Ballinger on the Forbes list with $5 million in 2016 earnings), could instead choose Coyote Peterson, whose YouTube channel Brave Wilderness, featuring up-close animal encounters went from just 588,000 subscribers in March 2016 to more than 5 million in January 2017. Both have engagement rankings in the 99th percentile. Or instead of vlogger Tyler Oakley (#5 on Forbes’ list with $6 million in 2016 earnings), who has an engagement rank in the 96th percentile, a brand could work with Thomas Sanders, who has an engagement rank of 94.

The “next wave” concept might be easy for traditionally-minded marketers to ignore. After all, nobody ever got fired for landing a big star to headline a campaign. But up-and-coming creators have an enthusiasm and freshness that has its own undeniable value. And, in the authenticity-obsessed social media space, they represent a value that goes way beyond mere dollars, because they make brands look like forward-thinking trend-makers instead of trend-chasers.

To learn more ZEFR’s approach to identifying influencers and find the next-wave influencer that’s right for your campaign, contact ZEFR at