First data, then vibe: How Viacom casts influencers in 90 percent of its campaigns

At first glance, there’s little that sets Shaun McBride—a charismatic former skateboarder who goes by the handle “Shonduras”—apart from the millions of other social media influencers enjoying the spoils of Internet fame. But in March, Viacom’s brand studio, Velocity, anointed McBride as a creative consultant, a move based largely on his Snapchat success.

McBride is among the many influencers the unit works with, mainly on campaigns, in a given year. His prominence shows how seriously Viacom takes its digital talent strategy: Velocity uses social media influencers in 90 percent of its campaigns, an approach that has evolved over years.

“A few years ago—the good old days—we could’ve put up a social post on certain platforms on behalf of an advertiser in the hopes of getting perhaps over 50 percent of those people to actually see it organically,” said Lydia Daly, SVP of Social Media and Branded Content Strategy for Viacom Velocity. “Now it could be as little as less than five percent meaning our distribution tactics have had to evolve.”

Influencers have become a cornerstone of the unit’s distribution strategy. And while McBride puts up big numbers on Snapchat and YouTube, Daly said much more goes into the casting of influencer partners than a sizeable following. To select the perfect influencer partner, Daly deploys a five-person team that combines old-school Hollywood casting techniques with new-fangled data science.

Part one: The reach

Of course, the numbers come first. “You’re looking at the numbers,” said Daly “and that helps you to whittle down from hundreds of thousands of potential influencers in the world to the 20 or so that might make sense for the campaign and make it onto our final talent proposal list.”

Those numbers go beyond cumulative subscriber counts to include average video views, breakdown of sponsored video views versus non-sponsored video views, growth trajectory over time, audience demographics, even the engagement metrics that indicate an influencer’s active subscriber base. Viacom guarantee campaign performance, so the Velocity brand studio is just as invested in accurately calculating a social influencer’s real reach as the brands that question the tactic’s value.

“You want active fans who are likely to remain active for a particular campaign,” said David Berzin, VP of data strategy, who leads a team of data scientists, including one doctor of mathematics and neuroscience, that collects and interprets influencers’ value. “The follower count is a lifetime number which is not necessarily relevant for a campaign you’re planning for next month.”

Then there’s the audience itself. “We have ways of looking deeply at the talent’s audience to find if it’s a good fit,” said Berzin. In some cases, Viacom looks for a perfect reflection of an audience they already have, say MTV’s core viewership. For other campaigns, they’re looking for a way to extend their reach into a new niche audience.

But in all cases, the numbers are just the beginning. “We don’t try to be prescriptive with the data.”

Part two: The vibe

Once the numbers are tallied, it’s up to Daly’s social talent casting and management team to work the talent. Here, casting relies—as it always has—on keeping up with trends in the marketplace and close relationships with talent agencies and managers. The team keeps a few different wish lists of talent: “interesting influencers in certain categories, those that fit well with Viacom’s brands and ones that are on our radar… that [are] kind of at a weird tipping point.”

And, of course, there’s chemistry. Daly’s team takes the lead, looking for charisma and personal spark while disqualifying influencers based on a client’s red flags: “There are certain clients that are extremely conservative—they would not want an influencer who has ever sworn in a video,” Daly said. Although that hasn’t stopped her talent team from passionately making the case to clients for creators they have faith in.

But even in evaluating personal chemistry, the data team plays a role. “We have a patent pending social data analysis tool that examines the fit between an advertiser, a content property and social talent,” Brezin said. “Consider it a set of customized set of ranked Venn diagrams that we create for each of our campaigns.” The data team will examine what kind of content the advertiser’s preferred audience watches along with traditional data like demographics.

Then there’s emotionality. Using natural language processing, the team can extract words and phrases and “bucket them into certain emotions. That basic fingerprint of emotionality gives you a good sense of how that audience typically reacts, and might react,” to a particular content strategy.

Part three: The relevance

The perfect influencer, according to Berzin and Daly, isn’t necessarily someone big, but someone who’s about to be big. “You really want to look for ebbs and flows, and talent that’s about to peak as opposed to an inflated follower count,” Berzin said. But Viacom is also looking for someone who’s relevant.

For Trojan’s campaign at last year’s MTV awards—designed to get millennials to wear condoms—the team wanted to propose Shannon Boodram, a YouTube sexologist at the top of their wish list. Though she didn’t have the tremendous follower count that advertisers crave, her sex-positive social presence was a perfect match for the campaign. And she seemed to be at a tipping point.

To help bolster her reach, they paired her with a comedic heartthrob,Josh Levya, said Daly. His 2 million strong subscriber base ensured Boodram’s on-brand message for Trojan cut through the social noise. The campaign for Trojan culminated in an appearance by Boodram and Leyva on the red carpet at Viacom’s MTV Video Music Awards–with Boodram wearing a dress of her own design made from Trojan condoms, naturally. The pairing resulted in an avalanche of positive press for Trojan and Boodram.

“It just speaks to how Viacom can elevate the brand of the talent.” said Berzin, “It’s a two-way street.”

The Ultimate Influencer?

Velocity has garnered some ink for its deal with influencer-turned-consultant McBride, aka Shonduras. While it might seem like Viacom’s just hedging its bets by going with the Snapchat flavor of the month, it instead found in him a kind of ideal influencer: one with the right reach, vibe, authenticity, adaptability  and business savvy to be more than another distribution channel.

“There are some influencers who post content to social media that goes viral, then accidentally become famous and start doing branded content deals,” said Daly. “Shaun is not one of those.”

He’s a motivated businessman, interested not just in how to build his own platform success, but in the interplay of content between platforms. His experiments with content formats, actively tracks trending content and is tireless when it comes to engaging directly with his fans, all of which pays off handsomely in brainstorms.

“In Shaun, and other creators, we are always looking for people who can craft stories across platforms,” said Dr. Thomas De Napoli, Velocity’s senior director of content and platform strategy. “That’s what our studio aims to do, and Shaun makes sure we’re doing it in a way that means something to fans.”

Shaun has already made major contributions to creative strategy sessions both on the brand and channel side of Viacom and is increasingly becoming an in-demand contributor for such meetings.

And, according to Berzin, McBride is, in addition to a content creator, a born metrics geek. “We have data teams that crunch numbers all day, but he just observes the numbers and his insights are often directly in line with our prioritized metrics.  And, he has a unique point of view as a social talent that…is just invaluable to us.”

But, as Viacom has found time and time again, the ultimate influencers may not be the folks with the biggest Snapchat following, the most liked Facebook posts, or the most fire Tweets. The ultimate influencer is situational, empowered as much by timing and authenticity as by the brute force of numeric popularity.

Click here to read more about the future of media, marketing and entertainment.

More from Digiday

How CTV and DOOH are growing this political season for smaller agencies

Connected TV and digital out-of-home are playing a bigger role in upcoming elections and politics – especially for smaller agencies looking to place clients’ dollars.

CMO Strategies: Advertisers identify the top attributes on ad-supported streaming platforms

This is the third installment in Digiday’s multi-part series covering the top ad-supported streaming services and part of Digiday’s CMO Strategies series. In this report, we examine which ad attributes matter the most to marketers on streaming platforms.

In the marketing world, anime is following in the footsteps of gaming

As marketers look to take advantage of anime’s entry into the zeitgeist, they might be wise to observe the parallels between the evolution of anime as a marketing channel and the ways brands have learned to better leverage gaming in recent years.