Digital Influencers Rule at Advertising Week Panel

Left to right: Joe Penna, "MysteryGuitarMan" on YouTube; iJustine, Web celeb; Jason Harris, Mekanism ; Ivy Ross, GAP; Jill Fletcher, Virgin America

Companies’ use of digital influencers to generate buzz has become increasingly popular and has created more media options. On day four of Advertising Week, Jason Harris, president of Mekanism production studio, moderated a panel that included video celebrities Joe Penna, known as MysteryGuitarMan on YouTube, iJustine and corporate panelists Ivy Ross, CMO at clothing retailer  GAP and Jill Fletcher, social media manager at Virgin America.

The corporate panelists agreed on the importance of selecting Web influencers who are culturally relevant to the brand or category and have a large fan base. Both iJustine and Joe Penna have one million followers or more. They take their fan base quite seriously, and are careful to ensure that their corporate involvement does not compromise their status among their audience.

iJustine, who does an average of one branded video per month, said her filter for a project is, “Would I use the product and recommend it to my followers?” In working with her clients, such as Mattel’s video Barbie doll, she finds out first if their objectives are to increase awareness or sell products, and she is cautious not to oversell.

Joe Penna said, “YouTube has evolved, especially in the past year, and now it has more professional content.” In the “Desert Duel” video he did for Garnier hair gel, he drives a 1976 Cadillac in the desert. He said the client’s involvement leads to a larger budget. This allows him to produce higher quality videos, which his fans appreciate.

GAP’s use of celebrities has changed with the times, according to Ivy Ross. “GAP has a history of using celebrities, and now they have become cultural entrepreneurs who are online.” She cited the upcoming Gap Style video, slated for the holiday season. The video’s theme is giving, and it features digital celebrities, such as foursquare’s co-founders, all wearing Gap clothing. The company plans to post the video on Facebook and to leverage it among each of the Web celebrities’ own audiences.

Virgin America’s experience with digital influencers occurred because the three-year-old airline “initially struggled to get off the ground,” according to Jill Fletcher. Fletcher said that when the airline introduced new service to Toronto, they enlisted the services of digital influencers.

Both corporate panelists acknowledged that using digital celebrities entails giving up some control over the outcome.  Still, Ross said, “having some imperfections makes the video more real.”

These projects must also demonstrate results. Ross reported that GAP projects using digital influencers need to show ROI. She said the return is cumulative across video, online, and billboard. Fletcher explained that Virgin America tracks results including bookings, Web metrics, press coverage, and buzz. Over time, she predicted budgets will increase along with the success of these efforts.