Google is looking to bring some order to the chaos that is influencer marketing.
Specifically, YouTube, through its 2016 acquisition of FameBit, a firm that focuses on marketing involving influential people on social media, is connecting YouTube creators with brands and facilitating the creation of sponsored videos. The unit got a rare brush with fame last week: a shoutout on Google's otherwise low-key earnings call.
"Half of the creators that used FameBit in the first three months of 2018 doubled their YouTube revenue," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said during the call.
YouTube has historically shied away from this labor-intensive, service-oriented aspect of the business, leaving that to multichannel networks like Fullscreen or Maker Studios (which eventually sold to Disney), talent-rep firms, and a host of ad agencies, public-relations shops, and influencer-database startups.
But in the past few months, via FameBit, Google has increasingly been playing matchmaker for brands and YouTube talent. And unlike in the past, it's getting a cut of branded-content cash, which previously went straight into creators' pockets.
Among the many questions going forward: Is Google's getting more serious about brokering YouTube ad deals good or bad for other players in the space?
The idea behind FameBit is to create a digital marketplace that aspires to make influencer-brand deals as "programmatic" as possible.
Beau Avril, a veteran YouTube sales executive who's now FameBit's global head of business operations, said brands could log into a self-serve digital interface, post an opportunity for a sponsorship, and quickly connect with potentially thousands of interested creators.
Google takes a 10% cut of any deals that result. The company acts as facilitator, stewarding the execution of branded videos. But YouTube leaves the production to the creators.
The company said that in the first quarter of this year, most FameBit creator videos drove significantly more search traffic to the advertisers they partnered with — for example, the number of people searching for, say, "Keurig coffee makers" in a given hour would jump soon after a video sponsored by the brand was posted.
"Brands like the 'self-service' element to the platform," said Benjamin Arnold, a managing director at the agency We Are Social. "This is a really attractive selling point for them."
YouTube's ad-sales team has been selling FameBit deals as part of larger ad packages. FameBit also had a big presence at the web-video-industry event VidCon in June.
In its pitches to advertisers, YouTube is touting its unique ability to measure the impact of marketer-funded YouTube videos on everything from brand perception to Google search traffic.
"One of the most exciting pieces is the measurement side," Avril said. "We can we show brands what happens in search when creators talk about their products.
"The offering is pretty soup-to-nuts."
Recent examples of FameBit-driven deals include a series of influencer-produced videos for Canon and the peanut-butter brand Jif.
Gemma Stafford, who runs the 4-year-old Bigger Bolder Baking channel, has previously worked with advertisers directly and through multichannel networks. She has recently inked several brand partnerships using FameBit, including a video for the Google Home device, as well as a clip centered on oatmeal cookies and sponsored by Keurig.
"The fact that they align themselves with quality brands makes us want to work with them," Stafford said of FameBit.
There are umpteen ways that marketers can connect with digital creators. For a while, the YouTube ecosystem was dominated by multichannel networks like Maker Studios and Fullscreen.
More recently, there have been hundreds of influencer networks and tech firms promising deep databases of talent and close-to-automated deals. Not to mention ad agencies, PR firms, and brands themselves are looking to execute influencer initiatives.
"There are still eight ways to make these deals," said Eric Johnson, the founder and president of the digital ad agency Ignited.
Amid the fragmentation, influencer marketing has taken a beating for being not only tough to measure, but plagued by creators trying to inflate their numbers.
Unilever's chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, recently pledged to no longer work with influencers who pay to boost their follower counts.
"The whole industry is so messed up," said one digital-media insider.
So maybe Google can fix it?
Ironically, the recent brand-safety snafus in digital media — and on YouTube in particular — may help FameBit.
The thinking goes: Why work with a third party that may have partial data and indirect relationships with talent over a company like FameBit that is directly plugged into YouTube's tech and presumably knows which influencers are both prominent and safe?
In other words, FameBit comes across as being more legit since it's part of Google.
"It's really smart," said Nick Cicero, the founder of the social-analytics firm Delmondo. Finding the right influencers to work with "is still the biggest problem for brands."
Whenever Google enters a market in a serious way, some see it as a sign of validation, while others worry that their business is about to be trampled.
Some influencer-talent-rep firms said FameBit had helped steer deals their way. But they often wonder: Are they helping, or getting in the way?
"There is a disintermediation and consolidation coming to this market, no question," said Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, an influencer-tech platform.
That doesn't necessarily mean Google takes it all. For one, FameBit primarily works with YouTube, and brands want influencers on Instagram, Snapchat, and elsewhere.
"It's still too early to say the market has been radically upended by Google," said Mike Dossett, a vice president and associate director of digital strategy at the ad agency RPA. "But there's no question that as a whole, the space itself is finally arriving at a long-overdue turning point."
Dossett said that for influencer-brand deals, pricing and measurement tended to be all over the place, with an "overabundance of middlemen."
"Google's sheer market-shaping power and their stewardship of one of the leading creator environments has the potential to accelerate the long-awaited maturation of the influencer space," he said.
Several digital insiders were scratching their heads when Google bought FameBit. After all, the search giant is known for using data and tech to zap perfectly targeted ads to people on the web.
Creating branded videos, making clients happy, getting creative right — that's not typically the domain of a neutral tech platform. It's ad-agency-, production-company-type work.
It can be time-consuming, and some wonder whether the payoff is worth it. Is 10% of a handful of six-figure ad deals going to move the needle for YouTube?
"No matter how you look at it, these deals are hard to scale and have lower margins," said Gabe Gordon, a cofounder and managing partner of Reach Agency, which specializes in branded video content.
Sam Tsui, a digital creator who said he had worked with brands every which way on YouTube, recently produced a video for NBC to promote "The Voice" that was brokered through FameBit.
"There was nothing automated about it," he said. "It felt like other deals I've been a part of. There were drafts, approvals, etc."
Still, Tsui raved about the experience.
"YouTube's been really good about engaging and lifting up their creators," Tsui said. "So it's exciting to know that a player like FameBit has this sort of backing from and the association with YouTube."
Making creators feel lifted up may be exactly the point. Google has been vocal about protecting and respecting the YouTube creative community, particularly after taking some heat for abruptly shutting down ads on some channels, citing brand-safety issues.
More than a few in the YouTube ecosystem suspect the FameBit deal and the earnings-call mention were about making the influencer world feel loved.
For its part, YouTube emphasized that FameBit is about empowering its creators.
"We feel like when creators are super excited about working with brands, the content gets better," Avril said, adding that FameBit wasn't looking to lock up exclusive deals or squeeze out other players.
"We think a rising tide rises all boats," he said.