How the YouTubers Union affects influencer marketing

A burly German man with an interest in slingshots and trade unionism is causing a digital revolution

If you went back in time a decade or so and asked your average preadolescent what they’d like to be when they grow up, you could expect a fairly standard cross section of replies. “Footballer” or “singer” would likely figure strongly.

Ask a similar question to the same demographic today, and you’ll find “YouTuber” has jumped up the rankings as the go-to career path for pre-teens.

Basil Brush and the Chuckle Brothers were the idols of yesterday’s children. Talking foxes have been replaced by Minecraft manchildren and the gregarious siblings schtick has been given a 2018 reboot.

Much like celebrities of bygone days, however, the glamorous veneer masks a grittier reality.

Many YouTubers with substantial subscriber bases are signed up to production companies who take on labour-intensive editing and scripting in exchange for a share of video revenues. But many more are running independent operations out of bedrooms and basements, working long into the night and eschewing the outside world to satiate their young audience.

The vast preponderance of teenagers are active across social media, with over 90% regularly using YouTube, according to eMarketer. But the more the very-young build up brands around themselves on the internet, the less conducive conditions are to sustaining such brands as a career choice.

Grievances boil over

2017’s “Adpocalypse” saw some YouTube creators lose over half their income as a consequence of advertisers’ apoplexy over appearing next to content they deemed extremist or inappropriate.

Reports are still emerging of video makers’ revenues ebbing as YouTube’s sensitivity levels rise to placate advertisers’ fears. Coupled with the stresses of trying to manage an intricate web of brand sponsorships and flogging merchandise, the relationship between YouTube and its users has changed irrevocably since its innocent beginnings as a video-sharing site. Smaller-scale creators are sinking beneath the tide.

Enter Joerg Sprave.

With nearly two million subscribers he’s built up an impressive following with his charmingly berserk videos about homemade slingshots and customised weaponry.

But he’s exactly the sort of creator that has suffered under recent changes – big enough to make a living off YouTube under his own steam, but too small to kick up much of a fuss if the moderators decide to crack the whip.

So kick up a fuss is exactly what Sprave has done. In March he set up the YouTubers Union in protest against the site’s content-suppressing, advertiser-appeasing ways. He’s since met with YouTube’s global director of monetisation and claims to have marshalled a user-base of tens of millions behind his cause. “I am firmly convinced that we have a chance to make a difference,” he told Motherboard.

The marketing perspective

A pessimist might suggest this is a trifling development in the face of the corporate titan that is YouTube (although given Sprave’s ability to eviscerate riot gear you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to inform him of that).

It certainly seems as though the YouTubers Union’s valiant efforts are being brushed off by the site, with Sprave urging a two week campaign of non-uploading following a slew of inconsequential meetings and messages.

But it’s an interesting phenomenon, and one marketers should bear in mind when trying to give brands a boost.

In addition to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have seen a boom in the number of influencers, large and small, using and profiting from their platforms. When these platforms stop being a hobby and become a way of making a living, influencers necessarily end up placing their fate at the mercy of brands with whom they associate. The power balance is skewed entirely in favour of the latter, but it’s the only choice for the former to stay afloat.

Sprave’s union is small scale now, but it’s part of a wider movement. He’s not the first to try and bring internet creatives together behind a common goal and he won’t be the last. Content creators, disregarded for so long as isolated and atomised by the businesses enjoying the fruits of their labour, are standing up for themselves.

The digital world is a hostile environment for fledgling worker groups. There’s no central point to unite and debate ideas, and coordinated action is near impossible.

But there are benefits to be reaped for these groups too from their considerable online presence. Communication is intense and ongoing, YouTube is singularly reliant on content creators carrying ads to make its platform viable and the creators themselves often have huge, loyal audiences they can rally to their cause. Should their hand be forced by collective action in future, brands may lament their failure to engage with influencers on ethical grounds now.

Are you treating your influencers as people or as a commodity? It’s a ruse many marketers have got away with so far, but it looks like times are changing.

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