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Predicting the death of the influencer

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One of the biggest YouTuber festivals arrives in the UK next month and ahead of the launch, Jim Louderback, the company's CEO, offers his predictions for the year ahead...

There’s a lot happening in the world of online video, social platforms and the future of media – all of which we’ll be exploring during the industry tracks at VidCon London in February, the US in July and Australia in September. As we get going with the start of the year, here's what'll be most significant in 2019.

1. The Death of the 'influencer'

If you’ve ever signed a celebrity spokesperson, you’re probably familiar with the “morals clause”, whereby the contract can be cancelled if the star gets caught doing something widely deemed "immoral". Those clauses are rarely triggered in the influencer age, as we continue to see the top ones make poor decisions (to put it lightly) while the views, subscribers and dollars keep flowing. Max Read wrote about this extensively recently in New York magazine in a piece entitled Why YouTube’s Biggest Star Can’t Be Cancelled.

This will change in 2019 as we continue to realise that the behaviour of influencers who seek blinding adoration and the trappings of fame and fortune at any cost is actually damaging to brands, kids, society and pretty much everyone else. In 12 months we’ll be focused more on creators who have a healthy relationship with their audience – from Nas Daily to Hank and John Green. True creators have a trusted, almost peer-like relationship with their audiences, one built on mutual respect and shared values.

In addition to better matching creators to brands, 2019 will also bring a better understanding of the difference between using influencers and creators as spokespeople for advertising, as opposed to drafting on the media channels created and operated by those creators. 

Contracting with Ali-A or Patrick Starrr to act as a spokesperson in an advertisement that runs on MTV or Eurosport is entirely different to embedding a sponsorship message into a video posted on their YouTube or Instagram channels. In the former case, you control the messaging - and perhaps an influencer would be acceptable. In the latter you’ll want to focus on creators, because they’re likely to be far more successful and on-point if you select the right ones.

2. Monetisation becomes key factor for online video business

The last few years have played out like the first few of the online video revolution – a dramatic focus on building viewers, subscribers and scale at all costs. In 2018, this culminated in a series of big and small businesses that look great on paper but can’t seem to turn a profit. 

Combine this with a dwindling number of outlets willing to pay for video products and a revenue picture that hasn’t developed across popular social video platforms. In 2019, creators and production companies will turn their focus on creative ways to get more money from actual viewers rather than intermediaries. Many of the tactics used won’t necessarily be brand new but a hybrid of approaches including subscription/tip-jar service Patron, direct-to-consumer merch offerings from Amazon and others, live touring and direct content sales. Plus, an expanded focus on government funding and international opportunities will challenge creators and their teams to build a pastiche of revenue sources to make up for the windfall that didn’t come in 2018.

This is a good thing, as we’ll see more robust businesses emerge in 2019 with diverse revenue sources weighted towards direct to consumer that will insulate these survivors from the algorithmic spasms of the top social video platforms. In fact, I expect the successful ones to look more like Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club than media companies. But not everyone will survive.

3. Pressure grows on top online video platforms as governments (finally) get involved

As smart businesses work to diversify their revenue away from over-reliance on just one source, the biggest social video platforms will come under increasing scrutiny around the world. The new US Congress will engage more deeply, Europe will continue to turn up the heat and the international conversation will turn from the golden age of the internet to the (rightfully) scary and out of control place it has become.

However, we can’t expect the government to get it right on its own. Voice of reason (and VidCon advisory board member) Jeff Jarvis explains why in his latest post about Facebook’s latest kerfuffle over data sharing with Netflix and Spotify.

Sometimes it’s OK for an API to share messages between services if there’s real value and the user agrees. That’s a nuance most digitally deficient lawmakers will have trouble grokking. We’ll be exploring what this means at every VidCon this year, from GDPR and Article 13 in London to how this plays out in the US, Australia, Asia and beyond.

4. AR and MR bottom out on the trough of despair

Today mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) are getting hyped up as meshing the digital and physical world, but it's proving way more challenging than expected. Pokémon Go remains the only real success in the mixed reality space so far. Expect more failures and flameouts in the AR and MR world in 2019, while quietly virtual reality (VR) makes real strides.

I’m a big believer in immersive technologies and smart spaces, and bullish on the long-term success of AR, MR and VR. But this year will be a retrenchment for the former two and quiet progress for the latter. Don’t miss Nielsen’s Harry Brisson as he helps to bring clarity to this rapidly changing landscape at VidCon in London and the US.

5. New video platforms emerge

This one’s a lay up. We will continue to see innovation in the online video platform space as new platforms emerge to fill in the gaps left by the entrenched players. LinkedIn will continue to grow and figure out what it wants to be, TikTok will build its audience around the world, Pinterest will continue to up its video game, Twitch will accelerate beyond game streaming and start-ups including Firework and others will try to muscle into the discussion. All of these and more will be on display at VidCon in 2019.

6. Hand wringing increases over stream fraud, but major players do nothing

I feel like a broken record on this one. Nearly nine years ago I wrote in Ad Age that stream fraud was twice as prevalent as click fraud, but nothing’s changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Max Read, again, nails the state of stream fraud today in his latest New York Magazine piece, saying that 2018 was “the year the internet passed the inversion.” Fake views, followers, subscribers, likes and shares will continue to get called out, yet little will be done. Why? Because even though the 'viewers' are fake, the money is real.

Advertisers have been conditioned to this unfortunate reality, expressed by John Wanamaker more than 100 years ago in lamenting that: “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” But you can do something. There are many strategies to identify plumped up accounts, fake viewers and outright

VidCon London takes place at Excel London on 14-17 February. Click here to find out more and buy tickets.

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