What Obama Taught Us About Brand Integration on YouTube

“It’s a complicated time for us to get information out, and this group can really advise us in terms of ‘how do we reach people?'”

– President Barack Obama, at the White House YouTuber Summit

Imagine that you need to reach a large audience, and imagine that you only have one month left to do it. Then, imagine that the audience you really need to reach consists of young adults who don’t really watch television anymore. How would you reach them?

More importantly, how would you reach them with a message that will resonate and convince them to take an action?

As President Obama recently revealed, if the answers to both those questions don’t involve YouTube, video marketing, and brand integration, then best of luck to you – you’re going to need it.

With the enrollment deadline for the Affordable Care Act set for March 31st, 2014, President Obama recently turned to the power of video to reach a wider audience, namely the young “invincibles” who are crucial to the success of his new healthcare plan. His foray into online video taught video marketers the value of brand integrations on YouTube, and why the success of those integrations must be based on finding the right influencers, trusting their creative voices, and understanding the passion behind their fans.

Lesson from the White House YouTuber Summit: Identify The Right Influencers

On February 27, 2014, the White House invited a number of top YouTube personalities to meet with the President. Here is the official video from the White House ‘s YouTube channel chronicling the event:

The immediate goal of this meeting was clearly laid out by Obama:

“For the next five weeks, get as many signed up as possible. We’ve got a short term agenda, and anything you guys can do, any suggestions you have, just let us know.”

And in terms of the long term goal, Obama was concerned with fully understanding the digital media landscape as it appears on YouTube and what is means for reaching younger audiences.  Moreover, he wanted these YouTuber influencers to show him, and future administrations, the way to do it. So, what can we learn from his experience?

First, identifying the right influencers to collaborate with is a crucial “step one” for any brand integration.

For example, the video above begins with an interaction between President Obama and Iman Crosson, an Obama impersonator known on YouTube as Alphacat. While Iman may seem like an obvious choice to invite to the summit, particularly given his parody video “Sign Up Like It’s Hot,” all of the YouTubers invited to The White House that day appear to have been carefully chosen based on their prior community organizing activities and ability to speak authentically about the relevant issues.

In other words, it seems pretty clear that The White House didn’t simply rank all of the YouTube stars by total viewership and hope for the best. Instead, they found voices that made the most sense for reaching their goals. So, there are many different roads to finding the audience you are trying to reach, and though some may look bigger than others, taking the time to consider the best route is crucial for achieving success.

The YouTubers in Attendence

After meeting the President, some of the YouTubers took to their own channels to speak directly to their fans about the experience.

Tyler Oakley

Prominently featured in the recent, must watch PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like”, Tyler Oakley is easily one of the biggest influencers on YouTube. Beyond his love for all things pop culture, Tyler has been involved in many social and charity actions.  He is most notable for his support of The Trevor Project, which works towards suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. In the White House’s official video above, Tyler made this important point for Obama’s target audience:

“I was thinking, even while I was talking with the President, I’m like oh my gosh, my friend and I, we’ve talked about how he doesn’t have health insurance. And like, this is the easiest solution ever. All you have to do is go online and do it.”

The Fine Bros

The Fine Bros are most well known for their “React” series of videos, in which they film people’s reactions to various videos and cultural trends of the moment. These videos cover such topics as gay marriage and multiracial families in America. The following quote from their “post-summit” meeting says a lot about the community of video lovers on YouTube, and it’s indicative of where the power lies in this new media landscape:

“It turns out that President Obama and his administration have figured out how important you guys are. Not us. You – the reality of this incredible community that has sprung up online that is so tapped into having real conversations about what’s going on in the world in a way that’s not been seen before ever.”

Hannah Hart

Hannah Hart is one of the most politically active of the YouTubers in attendance that day. This wasn’t the first appearance by Hannah on behalf of the new healthcare law. In January 2014, Hannah hosted a 6-hour livestream event for Covered California called “Tell a Friend – #GetCovered”. She excels at making her own story relatable to others, as seen in the official White House video above:

“As a YouTuber, I’m basically self-employed, meaning that I’m a small business owner and my small business is entertainment. So, because of that, I don’t have insurance coming from anywhere. I’m 27, I don’t qualify to be on my parent’s insurance. So I went to healthcare.gov, which redirected me to Covered California, and then I chose the plan that fit best for me.”

Nice Peter

Peter Shukoff, aka Nice Peter, is a YouTube comedian and musician, best known for his work on the “Epic Rap Battles of History” YouTube channel. Part educational, part ridiculousness, these rap battles include a match up between Obama and Mitt Romney. As someone that isn’t shy to express his honest opinions, Peter had this to say about the implications behind this integration with the White House:

“We can have an honest conversation. [The White House] didn’t tell me what to tell you. I’m telling you what I want to tell you, and they knew that. They knew that by bringing me there they were gonna have no control over what I was gonna say. …They just knew I would tell you, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Lastly, Nice Peter and Epic Rap Battles of History gave even more exposure for Healthcare.gov with their latest upload telling people about the enrollment deadline (starts at the 0:14 mark):

Lesson of “Between Two Ferns”: Trust the Creators

In case you missed it, this happened in the Oval Office last week. (It’s a video you really ought to see for yourself.)

Funny or Die Obama Youtube Interview

That video marks just one of a handful of other video collaborations between Funny or Die and the White House for the Healthcare.gov push. In fact, Rachel Goldenberg, a director for Funny or Die, was one of the guests at the YouTuber White House Summit. While criticized by some as “un-Presidential”, the “Between Two Ferns” episode’s resounding success in reaching younger audiences seems readily apparent.

As reported in The Wrap, President Obama got an early hint at this success from his daughter, saying “Malia was so excited,’ Obama continued. ‘She had seen all the previous episodes, so I figured it was going to reach our target audience, which is a lot of young people, and it turns out we’ve had close to 15 million hits.'”

AdWeek praised the integration as “Healthcare.gov’s Millennial Outreach Masterstroke”, and explained, “Funny or Die has always supported integrated marketing, and it works because the writers bring their A games to paid content. So the short, which is basically Obama shilling for Healthcare.gov, is still an excellent episode of the show.”

Early traffic reports confirmed the intended boost for Healthcare.gov:

This brand integration worked because it remained true to the style that made “Between Two Ferns” what it is. By giving the fans what they come to expect from Zach Galifianakis, a video that might have otherwise come off as nothing more than a “plug” by another “lame politician” instead created a level of authenticity that the YouTube generation craves. Building such authenticity through brand integrations can only start from one place, and that’s a place of trust – trust in the creators, and trust in the audience. The best evidence for the trust that Obama displayed comes from the director of the “Between Two Ferns” episode, Scott Aukerman.  Aukerman did an interview with Slate about the process, and this quote from him speaks volumes:

“We kept expecting there to be more conditions or people trying to lean on us to make it more what they wanted it to be. It was very strange. Zach and I kept looking at each other to say, ‘They’re eventually going to try to control us.’ But, no, they trusted us, they said, ‘We’re trusting Funny or Die a lot here.’ They’re so blown away by the video that I think it worked out for them. It proves that when you let creative people do their thing, you’ll get something good out of it.”

The Numbers Don’t Lie: What Good Integration and Collaboration Looks Like

In terms of expanding the reach of the White House’s message via the YouTuber Summit meeting, the five YouTuber videos embedded above combined for almost 2 million views at the moment, compared with the White House’s video which has well under 400 K views. That’s five times more exposure than the official While House channel. The effect becomes even more obvious when looking at the level of social engagement these YouTuber videos generated, with a total of  over 20 K comments, and nearly 185 K likes on the five YouTuber videos, compared with just 1,300 comments and 13 K likes on the official White House video. The key lesson here is less about the expanded reach itself and more about what made that reach possible in the first place. If you look at how the YouTube personalities talk to their fans, it’s clear that they are talking to a community of peers.

These digital influencers are sure to emphasize that the success of their channels isn’t really about them – it’s about their fans. The meaningful take away from The White House Summit was that President Obama was interested in connecting with the audience first and foremost. It was focused squarely on the audience, not the “star power” in front of the camera. It was important for him, and it is important for brands, to see YouTubers as both online and offline community organizers, gaining fans in their own right by being fans themselves. Once you view YouTube through the lens of the fans, it’s total scope and power begin to come into view.

For some more perspective on the power of the YouTube fan community, consider the increase in views on Obamacare related content after this meeting: obama youtube brand integration

And, pulling back even further to measure the full scope of earned media surrounding the President’s health plan, here are the total figures for all YouTube videos containing “Obamacare” in the title: obama brand integration 2

Key Takeaways for Brand Integration

Let’s recap.

1) Find the Right Influencers – Integration inevitably involves “collaboration.” In order to collaborate effectively, there has to be some meeting of minds at the outset for it to make sense. The size of an influencers’ audience is only one factor to consider. Take the time to fully understand their background and how they built the platform they stand on, then ask whether that platform has room for you and your message.

2) Trust the Creators – Too often, there is fear and hesitation among brands and agencies about losing control of their message. But, if you’ve taken the time to pick the right people to work with, the way they engage and speak about your product will support your cause and be much more authentic than anything you could produce in house. It’s simply a matter of trusting the process.

3) Pay Attention to the Resonance – Influencers amplify the message, and it’s important to not just pay attention to what the influencers are saying, but also what their audiences are saying. Whether that discussion is happening in the comment section, or in video uploads of their own, the earned media generated from the integration must be measured in order to see the true scope of its impact.

If the President can rock YouTube as well as he did, then brands and agencies shouldn’t be far behind. Moreover, if the White House is willing to loosen up its grip on an otherwise carefully crafted political message for the sake of inspiring a wider action, so can your brand.


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