On Our 2nd Life’s tour bus, 15-year-old Trevor Moran’s mother, Nicole, pleads with her bundle of energy to sit down. But he’s got to direct that energy somewhere—so why not make it productive? She tells her baby-faced YouTube sensation he’s about to be interviewed for Invisalign, the brand of teeth straighteners that are an alternative to metal braces, and he busts out a toothy grin and bats his eyelashes.
“I use Invisalign!” he declares.
For the short video promotion, Moran will rake in something like $1,500. The kid is no stranger to having cameras in his face, considering he’s been a vlogger since the age of 10 and most recently has been living with a documentary crew following the vlogging supergroup Our 2nd Life, of which he is part, during its first headlining tour.
Between touring and endorsements, Moran and the five other boys who make up O2L—Ricky Dillon, Jc Caylen, Kian Lawley, Sam Pottorff and former member Connor Franta—stand to earn in the five to six figures for about four weeks on the road. That haul can grow if the vloggers manage to secure, say, a $1,000 to $2,000 sponsored Instagram photo or $40,000 to $50,000 for a customized branded video, according to insiders.
What makes these guys bankable to advertisers like Invisalign? The legions of loyal teen fans who not only follow them online but who also fill arenas just to catch a glimpse of them. Those fangirls (and a few fanboys)—the same demo that’s tuning out of traditional media like TV and magazines in favor of streaming video, social media and mobile devices—happily claw at a barrier 100 feet away to just snap a picture of O2L’s tour bus.
Making the Brand
The formula behind O2L and other “collab channels” like The Station (whose members founded Maker Studios, which was acquired in March by Disney for $500 million-plus) is simple: A group of YouTube publishers uploads videos to the same channel, guaranteeing regular updates. In O2L’s case, the guys pick a weekly theme, and each is assigned a day of the week. New videos on O2L’s main YouTube channel—which has grown to 2.3 million subscribers over the last two years—easily clear hundreds of thousands of views apiece. We’re not talking about high-quality video here; most footage features teens sitting alone in their bedrooms, answering fans’ questions about their lives—which emojis they prefer, for example—or blathering on about minutia like waiting for their Ikea furniture to be delivered. Popular clips involve crowd-sourced topics some parents may not want their kids to see—from reading erotic fan fiction about themselves to baking penis cakes. The Brady Bunch it ain’t.
But they are connecting, big time. Individually, each O2L member boasts more than 1 million followers on social media. The most popular, Franta, has 3 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, almost 2 million Instagram followers and 1.8 million followers on Twitter. And there’s a response from the audience. For example, Pottorff’s innocuous two-letter tweet on Aug. 2—“Hi”—was retweeted 2,000 times and favorited 10,000 times.
“They are highly entertaining and highly engaging,” explains Larry Shapiro, head of talent at Fullscreen, which manages O2L and most of the boys individually, except for Moran and Pottorff. To Shapiro, a former agent at Creative Artists Agency, the appeal of signing O2L lies in the kids’ natural charm, a far cry from manufactured boy bands. The idea to create the channel was hatched by the boys after they roomed together during VidCon in 2012. Lawley and Pottorff had been working on a collaborative channel and became friends with Dillon after admiring his vlogs. Dillon introduced them to Caylen and Moran, who he had discovered on YouTube. And Caylen knew Franta from another collaborative channel. (The group had a seventh member, Ricardo Ordieres, who left to pursue a radio career in April 2013.) “Connor just snuck in and was like, ‘Hey guys!’” Lawley jokes, mimicking Franta.
Shapiro notes that the O2L boys converse directly with their audience, creating a stronger fan connection than most teen heartthrobs. A quick good-night tweet is greeted with a swoon from millions of fans. They’ve become friends to fans as opposed to idols, Shapiro observes, adding that when they partner with companies, their campaigns feel more honest. “This distribution channel that brands are tapping into is a living, breathing organism,” he says.
Hitting the Road
Seeing great marketing potential, live entertainment company DigiTour Media tapped O2L to headline a 16-city tour from late May to late June, sponsored by Invisalign and Tattify. Along with supporting YouTube and Vine acts, the tour sold 25,000 tickets at an average of $50. The group also squeezed in main-stage appearances at DigiFests in New York and Toronto, festivals featuring online stars that sold 17,500 tickets total. Not only did fans turn out, but marketing execs from Disney and Delta came to check things out, too.
In 2010, Meridith Valiando Rojas and Christopher Rojas founded DigiTour Media, which claims to be the first group to send Internet stars on tour. An ex-A&R rep for Columbia Records, Valiando Rojas firmly believes that online celebrities are this generation’s rock stars. “That was my mission with my partner: How can we create what teens want in a festival?” Valiando Rojas says. “It’s all being sourced from social because that’s what teens want.”
The bigger payoff for acts like O2L may involve their hooking up with marketers and media outlets. MTV enlisted the group to create promos and be social media correspondents for its Movie Awards this past April. Tina Exarhos, MTV evp of marketing and multiplatform creative, says the boys were “one of the main forces” behind the online success of the event. “They’re rock stars in their own right, but they’re influencers like journalists in their own ways,” she says. “It’s different, for good or bad.”
O2L members have also struck individual deals with brands like AXE, Hulu, AT&T and Warby Parker. Coca-Cola used Franta for its #THISISAHH campaign in April.
“O2L are the right amount of edge and are contemporary with great values,” says Kelly Mullens Brown, president of marketing, strategy and communications at Ryan Seacrest Enterprises, which worked on the Coke campaign. “If you’re talking to kids, you want someone who talks to kids in their own language.”
Jim Venable, Align Technology’s group marketing manager for teen consumer marketing, says Web talent know best how to speak to young Invisalign users. “Social media was created by teens for teens,” he notes. “In order for us to resonate with them, we have to have permission to talk with them, and it has to be authentic and genuine. You just don’t do that in a recorded spot on TV.”