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Modern marketers increasingly seek out a boost of authenticity and reach from YouTubers. Their often-niche audiences are key to today’s marketing playbook. But as social media platforms grow more siloed, and content creation becomes more specific, choosing the right influencers to partner with is crucial – and complicated.
As the amount of content posted daily by users has rapidly increased, the browsing experience has grown more tailored and individualized. “The internet [or at least internet video] went from what felt like a single town square to a vast expanse of micro-communities organized around topics of interest, but also personalities,” said Zach Blume, co-founder and managing partner of digital content company Portal A. “The sheer amount of content that was being created — maybe that was enough for people to start breaking up into smaller groups and more specific groups.”
There is a unique opportunity in being able to reach a subset of people who care a lot about what a particular brand has to say, said Yuvay Meyers Ferguson, an associate professor at Howard University — especially to capture young Gen Z consumers. These digital natives have new expectations for authentic and genuine online interactions. As the largest growing consumer demographic, predicted to make up 27% of the workforce by 2025 according to Google, it’s vital for brands to capture this younger market. And a study by media agency Horizon Media showed the vast majority (91%) of Gen Z ages 18-25 said there is no “mainstream” pop culture.
“[Gen Z is] not just a monolithic group anymore,” said Maxine Gurevich, svp of cultural intelligence at Horizon Media’s WHY Group, a unit that explores cultural and societal behaviors. “And that fragmentation is getting much more intensified.”
Driving these cultural and social behavioral changes are social media influencers, also called creators, who often define the current trends within their niche digital communities. As the most-used platform for Gen Z, according to the Morning Consult, with 80% of the generation using the platform, YouTubers are key points of connection between brands and younger buyers. For retailers and DTC brands especially, YouTube partnerships can help create more seamless omnichannel experiences by bridging the gap between the digital world and physical stores with next-gen technology, like shoppable videos.
Glossy+ Research presents a list of influential beauty and fashion influencers who are making waves on YouTube to analyze their performance as brand partners, exploring both their strengths and weaknesses. This series first looks at YouTube brand partnerships and the types of influencers that best fit various marketing objectives. Look out for part two, where we will dive into wider trends we uncovered in the world of YouTube affiliate marketing.
The Glossy YouTube Influencer Index collects data from 13 influencers and their YouTube channels, scoring them across a set of key dimensions to create a total index average score. Each influencer is then given a deviation percentage from the index average to denote above- or below-average performance in specific dimensions.
Results are dependent upon the list of influencers and the time period of data collection, generating a snapshot of the influencer space at a specific moment in time. Glossy’s index collected YouTube data from 2022 (January 1, 2022 – January 1, 2023), with data collection occurring in February 2023.
The influencers were selected by Glossy’s editorial team, based on their reputation for exuding expertise as a “skinfluencer,” creating valuable long-form beauty content or turning out honest opinions that allow followers to make informed beauty purchasing decisions.
The index uses four main dimensions to measure an influencer’s performance. They are presented here in the order in which they impact our model, from least to most heavily weighted:
- Non-Sponsored Engagement: A measure of the influencer’s engagement compared to their average views on non-sponsored content to showcase the impact of the influencer’s non-sponsored content and the quality of their viewership. A high engagement ratio signals large-scale viewership and an influencer who resonates with their following.
- Sponsored Engagement: A measure of the influencer’s engagement compared to their average views on sponsored content. Sponsored engagement, similar to non-sponsored engagement, indicates whether and to what degree brand-sponsored influencer content generally resonates with the influencer’s viewership.
- Brand Prominence: Measures the presence of branded content, the type of branded content, and the synergy between the influencer and partner brands to determine the cases in which an influencer would make a good collaboration partner.
- Audience Impact: A measure of the influencer’s total reach last year. This dimension measures audience size and overall post activity.
The majority of the influencers, 12 of the total 13, were categorized as beauty influencers, with only one “other” category influencer based on the most common product category sponsored The “other” category included collaborations with food, gaming, technology and alcohol brands. Influencers that did not post any paid partnerships in 2022 were not categorized or scored among the sponsored dimension.
Along with the influencers, the YouTube videos themselves were categorized into two main groups: long-format videos and Shorts. Shorts were categorized as vertical video formats under 60 seconds in length. The index measured these two video formats separately for the non-sponsored engagement and the sponsored engagement dimensions to better assess the engagement of different video products.
In total 1,060 videos, 570 long-format videos and 490 Shorts, across 13 influencers were measured in the index.
Best for more engagement per dollar spent
Kait Gardner and Ramon Pagan
Kait Gardner (@StateofKait on YouTube; 20,500 subscribers) and Ramón Pagan (@GlowByRamon on YouTube; 55,200 subscribers) are the two top-ranking influencers in Glossy’s index for eliciting strong engagement from viewers on both non-sponsored and sponsored videos.
For brands looking to advertise to a loyal audience more likely to tune in and seek out an influencer’s recommendations, audience size may not be the most important metric. Instead, this group better guarantees attention from its specific audience.
Although they have the smallest subscriber base out of the selected group of influencers, their proportion of average views to their subscriber count was very high compared to other larger influencers – and that extended to all types of video formats and sponsored content. For instance, Gardner and Pagan’s average viewership makes up 38% and 23% of their total subscribers respectively, compared to the index average of 6% without these two influencers.
Those who do watch their videos are highly motivated to take the extra step and engage with their videos through likes and comments. While Gardner and Pagan’s videos received the lowest average number of views, they received the highest engagement scores across non-sponsored and sponsored content. For brands, this means that while they may have a lower raw number of engagements, there are indications that their loyal subscriber audiences are more likely to engage, and a smaller audience and higher engagement rates could translate to more engagements per dollar spent.
Gardner received the highest score of 10 for both non-sponsored and sponsored engagement. Pagan received a score of 9.1 for non-sponsored engagement and 9.2 for sponsored engagement, the second highest scores among the group. The audiences of these influencers interact with sponsored content at similar levels as with non-sponsored videos. Both received nearly equal scores on both engagement dimensions.
Gardner and Pagan have followings of consumers who trust their expertise and advice. Therefore, they most commonly post reviews and favorites or best-of videos. They’re very transparent throughout these videos and in the description text as to whether or not a product recommendation is sponsored. This has helped them establish credibility with their audiences as channels of honest and reliable information.
Unlike other platforms that prioritize short-form sponsored content that can feel more like an ad, such as Instagram and TikTok, YouTube’s longer-form style facilitates sponsored content that reads as more robust and more valuable to the audience. When comparing the influencer’s average number of total likes and comments received on sponsored videos to the average number of views received last year, Gardner’s audience left nearly four times more comments on her videos than the other influencers included in the index — Gardner at 1.9% vs. the index average at 0.5%.
This is really useful for brands looking to create natural touch points with their audience across platforms. Paid content can feel authentic on YouTube, and these influencers work well to create that more organic integration for their audiences.
Best for reliable and established brand partnerships
Alexandra Anele, James Welsh, Stephanie Ledda and Ava Lee
For brands interested in experienced partners who have a hand in content creation and a guarantee of getting raw views and engagement, look to these influencers with an established recipe for presenting sponsored content on their channels.
Alexandra Anele (@AlexandraAnele on YouTube; 1.2 million subscribers), James Welsh (@JamesWelsh on YouTube; 1.5 million subscribers), Stephanie Ledda (@SMLx0 on YouTube; 1.1 million subscribers) and Ava Lee (@GlowWithAva on YouTube; 386,000 subscribers) have large regular audiences and esteemed reputations for being beauty connoisseurs.
Branded content has a significant presence on these influencers’ platforms, so they’re well-versed in the affiliate marketing game. With high audience impact and brand prominence scores, the group has more experience working with brands and knows what type of sponsored content resonates with their audience.
Looking at the amount of sponsored content posted on their channels last year, Anele had the highest rate of sponsored videos to non-sponsored videos. Of those posted, 89% included a product advertisement or brand sponsorship. Similar to Anele, a majority of Ledda’s videos (78%) included a sponsorship.
Anele, Lee and Welsh received the highest combined audience reach and brand prominence scores compared to all influencers included in the index. Ledda received a 7.1 score for brand prominence, among the highest in the group. Even with a few million fewer followers than mega-influencers like Hyram Yarbro, Tati Westbrook and Alisha Marie, these influencers achieved equally high scores.
With good engagement and a high number of brand partnerships, veteran influencers are great options for brands looking for more involved partners in the sponsorship space. Aside from Kait Gardner and Ramon Pagan, this group of influencers had some of the most active audiences, based on likes and comments. Ledda received a score of 7.5 for non-sponsored engagement and a 4.5 for sponsored engagement. Welsh received scores of 6.1 for non-sponsored engagement and 5.5 for sponsored engagement. Anele and Lee received sponsored engagement scores of 6.1 and 3.4, respectively, higher than their non-sponsored engagement scores.
Influencers in this category have built large followings while maintaining transparent marketing practices that have worked to gain audience trust. For instance, James Welsh includes cartoon icons that carry clear and consistent meanings in every video:
- Present box – Gifted item: Product was sent as a gift, no money exchange or obligation to post.
- Megaphone – Sponsored item: Brand paid influencer for the item to appear in the video.
- Chain link – Sponsored affiliate link: The link used for the sponsored item is tracked by the brand, and the influencer makes a small percentage of that sale.
- Dollar bill – Self-bought by influencer: Product was paid for by the influencer with no attachment to the brand.
This level of transparency is highly valued, especially among younger viewers who value a broad range of authentic content, made popular via TikTok, according to marketers. Rather than Google search, Gen Zers tend to use social media like YouTube, TikTok, Discord, Telegram and Twitch for discovery. They rely on influencers who make it easy to find product recommendations and affiliate links.
According to Horizon Media, 64% of Gen Z consumers also want personalized experiences from brands. Therefore, brands may do well to allow influencers to create content that follows the natural flow of their channel and fits their style and audience expectations.
This influencer group most commonly posts informational videos, like tutorials, to their channels. Forty percent of their videos fall into the tutorial or tips category, compared to all other influencers in this index who only posted these types of videos 24% of the time. Because their audience considers them trusted beauty experts and seeks out these in-depth product application tutorials and tips, these influencers can be a strong tool for brands to build familiarity and customer loyalty.
Best for bringing widespread attention to a brand
Tati Westbrook, Alisha Marie, Jeffree Star, Hyram Yarbro and Liah Yoo
With millions subscribed to their channels, these mega-influencers are optimal partners for brands looking to increase awareness and build a more broad-based and mainstream reputation.
Partnerships with these mega influencers bring wider social awareness to a product or brand, especially for small or new brands, though cost can be higher. As seen by the large volume of average views, comments and likes these creators earn on their videos, they bring a lot of attention to a product or brand name.
Looking at the engagement scores as compared to smaller channels, larger swaths of their larger audience are much more passive when it comes to engagement. Compared to the smaller, but more engaged influencers, the mega influencers appear to have lower engagement rates. But when viewing their total engagement count compared to the smaller channels, they far outpace other influencer groups in raw results – earning four times more views and comments, and nearly three times the amount of likes on average, as seen in the chart below. Their strength lies in the pure numbers and reach, even if that engagement ends up coming from a smaller proportion of their gigantic subscribed audiences.
Another challenge for advertisers is the “For You” page algorithm, which is unable to guarantee brands that their own videos will appear on users’ screens. But these mega-influencers can often escape the limitations of the algorithm funneling certain videos to viewers due to their popularity and high average viewership. YouTube is more likely to push these “viral-worthy” videos – which often include sponsored content.
Recently, Instagram made changes to its algorithm, seemingly to keep up with TikTok, ranking content on the platform based on users’ past video interactions and video interests to decide what content shows up, and in what order. “I know a lot of you are skeptical of ranking,” said Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri in a video posted on his Instagram. “But it really does help us make sure that Instagram is more valuable to each and every person who uses the platform.”
But others feel differently and are turning their attention to platforms like YouTube. “TikTok’s algorithm has driven users to explore new content via the ‘For You’ page, rather than solely invest [screen time and attention] in a handful of influencers,” said Jesse Rubinstein, founder of social media production agency Hello There Collective, in early January of this year. “[This] is starkly dissimilar from influencer interactions on YouTube.”
Offering a bit more control for brands, YouTube’s algorithm only drives 70% of the recommendations users see. The other 30% is driven by trending and well-performing videos.
Unlike TikTok or Instagram, which rely on an algorithm to constantly pull an endless stream of short-form content in front of a user while scrolling, YouTube’s algorithm also measures video performance using watch time to promote large influencers and search relevance. Popular channels, especially with large subscriber numbers, can still break the noise of the algorithm and end up on the homepage. Educational or informational videos are easy to find and filter by relevance.
For instance, even if a user has never looked up videos on gardening techniques, a viral video on microgreen farming could still appear on their homepage. Even if a user hits ‘dislike’ or ‘not interested’ on all gardening videos they encounter, the potential for viral videos on the subject to appear is not zero. Similarly, these mega-influencers attract views with their household names and can often break through the algorithm to create viral moments across audience interests, embodying a YouTube tagline: “Make videos your audience wants to watch, and the algorithm will reward you.”
Glossy+ Research sat down with Hyram Yarbro, founder of Selfless by Hyram, (@Hyram on YouTube; 4.55 million subscribers) to chat about creating sponsored content to attract audience interest. “Typically, brands will be really open to the video concepts that I suggest,” he said. “But I always want to make sure that they’re in line as well, and that it works with the general nature and topics that I already cover on my channel.”
Brands likely do well leaning into the expertise of these influencers to leverage the type of video content and voice that best resonates with their audience. “I have noticed that when brands are more open-minded to the concepts that I was already planning to post and organically cover — those tend to be the best-performing videos,” Yarbro said, when asked which types of sponsored content get the most engagement. “That’s opposed to when brands have a more specific topic that they want me to focus on; there is less engagement on those videos, because I’m able to recognize that my audience wasn’t necessarily requesting that video, or I wasn’t able to gauge beforehand how interested people were going to be in the topic.”
To best perform under the YouTube algorithm, it’s best to use strong keywords, attract with a creative thumbnail and nurture a relationship with an audience. Many of these mega-influencers are brand owners themselves. They’re well-versed in creating sponsored content and attracting an audience by promoting videos featured on one platform across their others using trendy buzzwords, allowing audiences to easily search and find their videos.
The large-reach influencer group most often posted sponsored videos with keywords in the title like “best of” and “favorites” – like “Best Drugstore Makeup of 2022” or “The Best Moisturizers for Oily Skin of 2022” – 60% of the time compared to other groups who did so 26% of the time. This allows their audience to seek out these videos when looking for specific product recommendations and promotes long-format videos including brand partnerships. Compared to the other influencer groups in the index, they were less inclined to post reviews and tutorials during the period studied.
Best for unpaid, informative collaborations
Caroline Hirons and Rose Siard
Caroline Hirons (@CarolineHirons01 on YouTube; 255,000 subscribers) and Rose Siard (@makeupbyrosexoxo on YouTube; 81,500 subscribers) are both beauty educators and veterans in the industry. As trained aestheticians and makeup artists, their focus is on relaying beauty information, including valuable technical knowledge that can be helpful in the highly saturated and often bewildering beauty market. Compared to fashion, beauty, including makeup application techniques and skin-care treatments, often has a larger learning curve for new consumers.
Important to note, the index collected data from videos posted in 2022. Hirons and Siard both posted very few times during the collection period, at three and four videos respectively. Because of this, their scores – especially for audience reach – were much lower than the rest of the group. Glossy’s model takes into consideration this low posting rate, as resulting engagement can be sporadic.
Nonetheless, these types of influencers are important to consider, as platform algorithms focus on individualized user experiences and niche interests. For marketers, these influencers can provide an opportunity to hone in on specific audiences and speak directly to them. “[Platforms are] focusing much more on the intimate interaction side, personal connections with more of that community feel,” said Jason Cotrina-Vasquez, global head of social at Reprise, a performance marketing agency. “It’s a bit of a race of who can build the most engaged communities.”
Additionally, Hirons and Siard didn’t use their platforms for traditional promotional content. Hirons hosted brand owners Jonathan Van Ness, founder of JVN Hair, and Georgie Cleeve, founder of Oskia, on her platform, but it was clear in the video descriptions that the videos were not sponsored and for informational purposes only. For instance, in the video with Van Ness, Hirons wrote, “Not an ad. Twas my pleasure!”
This year, Hirons has already hosted creators of various skincare brands on her channel like Joanna Vargas, Renee Rouleau, Vicky Tsai – founder of Tatcha, and Jordan Samuel. Rather than offering traditional product advertising through reviews or tutorials, she provides a platform for entrepreneurs to share their brand mission and educate viewers.
Siard only posted YouTube Shorts during the collection period. It was not clear if these videos were sponsored, because no clear ad placements were made and no affiliate links were included. Glossy+ Research did not consider these videos as brand partnerships. These Shorts were also posted on her TikTok account, which has over 1.3 million followers and 25.8 million likes and more frequent posts from the creator.
For Siard, videos under 60 seconds have received more engagement and grown a large audience base. However, over the past two months, she has posted more frequent long-form videos on YouTube including full masterclasses and makeup tutorials. The first smokey-eye master class she posted after her year-long hiatus was viewed 11 thousand times by viewers who had eagerly anticipated her return.
Influencers like Siard are using short-form content to build a following and engage with their audience. Condensing videos into bite-size pieces creates opportunities to attract viewers and subscribers to the long-form video from which they’re often cut. This is not only helpful to creators who can record and edit these more casual-style videos, but also for brands that are able to avoid expensive video production costs.
Although these influencers didn’t post sponsored content last year, this should not stop brands from courting them for future brand partnerships. The benefit of partnering with influencers like these is the expert “stamp of approval” they can provide for brands and the access to a niche community in a fragmented social space. An alternative to a sponsored video with these influencers is unpaid collaborations, such as the earlier mentioned example with JVN Hair. These types of collaborations mutually benefit each participant, but they do give the influencer much more freedom – and potentially the brand less control.
Working directly with influencers in niche communities helps brands identify what resonates with their audiences. The “look, tone and feel” of the content a particular niche audience wants to see is important to match, explained Katy Tenerovich, head of social at Carmichael Lynch, a marketing communications firm. “If you identify what that niche passion point is for your audience, then it’s actually a lot easier to talk to them [in a way that may lead them to] convert,” she said.
To best collaborate with these types of influencers, it benefits brands to allow them to speak to their audience in the manner most natural to them. For Hirons and Siard, expertise-backed in-depth tutorials and interviews with brand founders are the way to go.