Monkey see, monkey do: the rise of influencers and the "How To" video

By
Elsie Bernaiche
,
Account Executive at ThoughtLeaders
August 4, 2020


It hit me as I was cooking dinner with Gordon Ramsey chattering at me through my laptop screen: the How To video may be the best thing ever invented in marketing. 


How To content is a part of our everyday lives: Facebook friends posting photos of their dying plants asking “what did I do wrong? Which of my friends are green thumbs?”; my sister asking which makeup artist has the best tutorial for doing cat eye eyeliner; my boyfriend searching “how to fix a leaky pipe” after calling his dad and having the guy next door come check it out… it struck me as I was following a recipe tutorial how much we actually depend on this content every single day.  


Humans love to learn, and it’s one of our evolutionary gifts that we copycat so often. The internet has connected more people today than ever before, and the amount of sheer information sharing happening is astounding. But one thing remains consistent: How To content remains at the core of what attracts us to influencers because it builds trust and connection and operates off our most basic human mechanisms. 


Stimulate the masses

Video as a format is just, simply put, more stimulating. Audio and visual sensory nerves are triggered by video content, and it’s proven to be more engaging than text/photo content or audio content alone: MIT did a study showing that humans can identify complex images in milliseconds, which could explain why humans love videos. It makes us feel wired! Nerve pathways in our brains are formed when we create feedback loops and constantly relay new information back to our processing centers, and videos can accomplish this at a rate that outpaces other media - at 30,000 frames per second, to be exact. 


Furthermore, marketing studies have shown that emotional influences drive consumer buying behaviors, and videos that elicit strong emotional responses (no matter negative or positive feelings) receive as much as 40% more shares, views, and engagement than videos that don’t necessarily pull at our heartstrings. 


‘Stick’ to the point

Here’s a stat that really blew my mind: “viewers retain 95 percent of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10 percent when they read it in text.” Video not only gets the emotive juices flowing, it establishes a more consistent, concrete understanding of your brand among audiences. Logos and jingles, although easy-to-recognize brand markers, are unidimensional. A video, on the other hand, tells a story and combines markers like familiar graphics, colors, and slogans to make sure customers will really remember your messaging. 


A mind playing tricks on itself

One of the other major reasons videos work more effectively is they feed into our mind’s strangest patterns. Let’s look at an example to explain how this one works:


Have you ever seen a quick clip for a new product, maybe a new face wash or lotion? Pretty soon, you start seeing the product everywhere: your friends talk about it, it’s on your TV, email spam, and Facebook recommendations section. It’s freaky, right?


Well, it’s actually a psych phenomenon. You can read more on natural selective attention here, but essentially it’s the mechanism that puts video content on a pedestal in our minds and memories. Our perceptions of the significance of stimuli in our environment influence the level of importance our nervous systems assign to future stimuli that fit the category: to put it another way, because video is so stimulating, the content we view tends to “stick” and we pay more attention to other things in our surroundings that recall the content from that video.


If you’ve ever felt plagued by an ad you saw online, it’s just a trick of the mind. A little something called confirmation bias makes it easy for us to believe we are right, that this product really is popping up everywhere. The thing is, our minds are subconsciously LOOKING for the product (among many other things we may have been stimulated by) in our surroundings, and when we do see another ad or someone talking about it, we are self-assured that it’s not just us, everyone else is paying attention to this product, too. 


People think they can ignore ads and other digital content - “I don’t buy based on what’s trending!” - but they absolutely do, and for this very reason. Every piece of content we watch, even though we selected it ourselves, feeds back into this loop of stimuli response and recall. 


The birth of the “How To” influencer

Video content has been a mainstream format for social media for years now: TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and others all raced to develop the best video editing/sharing features, and they’re still competing for the title of Best Livestreaming Platform in 2020. But the true birthplace of video influencer content is hands-down YouTube, with the first video going live in 2005. We can see from a search in our platform for “How To” content that videos for “how to ___” began appearing only 6 months after YouTube launched as a platform. 


While this chart only shows the top 5000 channels discussing this topic, we’re actually cataloging, as of July 22 2020, 15,603 YouTube channels that have run or are still putting out How To content. What’s really amazing is, YouTube has a dedicated “How To & Crafts” content category, but we are actually seeing the use of How To videos primarily in Gaming and General Knowledge these days, with Tech a close 3rd place. 


If we flip-flop from total mentions to total CHANNELS, we can see a slightly different array:


This means that the # of How To creators has slowed over the past 5 years while the # of content created has remained relatively linear. The total content for How To is concentrated in Gaming and General Knowledge, but the number of influencers on YouTube talking about How To topics are actually concentrated in Lifestyle and Technology. 


What does this mean? There are less gamers than lifestyle influencers making How To videos, but they’re making far more How To content than their lifestyle counterparts. 


But, Why “How To”?

We may have proven that video content is the best medium to pull your audience in and build lifelong relationships with your consumer base, but what is it specifically about a How To video that accomplishes all of the sneaky psych insights (say that 5 times fast…) listed above? 


Again, more psych. Humans are inherently social and we learn to mimicking from birth as an essential survival tool. Within one hour of birth, a baby has already moved their head to look at and register faces, especially of the person holding them. Within a few more hours, the infant will begin to orient in the direction of the mother’s voice. And by the end of only 8-24 hours, the baby can copy facial expressions from the mother - who in turn, also subconsciously copies and mimics her baby’s patterns! (A lot of psychology seems to be feedback loops, huh?)


Trust, as this article from HBR explains, is our most human survival instinct. We are remarkably keen to trust, given that so many of us say we don’t. We’re more likely to trust an individual that is similar to us in some way, for example. Psychology Today writes that, “those with more trust are less likely to lie, and appear more ethical, more attractive and even happier (see review in Rotter, 1980). Moreover, someone who is deemed trustworthy appears to epitomize a set of positive characteristics, including ability (skills and competencies), benevolence (the will to do good), and integrity (adhering to principles).” 


It makes sense that How To influencers can easily earn the trust of their audiences directly because of the type of content they create. As teachers divvying out skillsets to online viewers, these influencers appear able (I can do this!), benevolent (and I want to help you do it, too!), and, therefore, trustworthy. 


The first of their kind

There are tons of YouTube channels literally titled “How To ___”. 


Additional channels that identify as “How To” content creators include: 

Watchmojo.com: 4416 results in Gaming (although they are definitely more in entertainment and music!)

Howcast: 4063 results in General Knowledge

BCC Trolling: 3890 results in Gaming


But where did this all start? Sorting by date, we can see a few Ask a Ninja and Arcade Matt making a few How To videos for various topics, but the first real channel to formalize tutorial content was the BBQ Guys:


In this same search, I loved seeing a few “how to write a blog post” and “how to make a podcast” videos as early as 2006-07:

Interestingly 29 of 39 total “how to make a podcast” videos have been created since 2019. 16 of these videos are sponsored by brands like Masterclass, Squarespace, and Skillshare (Skillshare is actually sponsoring 14 of these videos!), and for good reason: these platforms deliver value based on the unique value of How To content. 
Branded How To Content and Brand Trends

Monetization of How To content wasn’t far off these early years - in 2008 we see DadLabs (one of the first YouTube channels to secure major brand sponsorships in their videos) already making How To content that baby brands jumped after:


DadLabs actually looks like they took a decent part of the market share at that time, given that between 2008-2012, only 112 YouTubers were making sponsored How To content. However, fast forward 5 years and in 2019 alone we saw 3090 sponsored content creators on YouTube, collectively making tens of thousands of videos that year. 


In the past 5 years, there have been a few very clear titans running the race in sponsoring How To content: Skillshare and Squarespace.


Of 3170 videos from 902 channels Skillshare is sponsoring, 1768 videos from 638 channels mention “How To” and provide an instructional video on some topic. The content spans across tech, lifestyle, and entertainment, but of these 1768 sponsored How To videos, Skillshare has focused on Tech, Crafts, and Entertainment content creators. Here’s the breakdown of who they are sponsoring to make How To content:

81 Lifestyle YouTubers

143 Tech creators

95 Crafts influencers

67 Gamers

88 Entertainment channels


Similarly, nearly 10% of Squarespace’s sponsored How To” content is in Lifestyle. Here’s one such great example:


Nonetheless, the depth of content that both Squarespace and Skillshare are backing goes beyond an obvious strategy. Every type of content creator appealing to every type of audience has been sponsored by Squarespace or Skillshare at some point, so they’re not necessarily targeting any one type of How To: fashion, diet, construction (and demolition), dancing, social skills, repairs and DIY, nothing is off-limits in terms of what seems to be driving revenue for these brands. 


Together they’ve sponsored 899 channels, and we can see by measuring how often and recently they returned to any YouTuber exactly which creators are driving ROI. Our platform can easily plug in a few brands and save a list of mutual content creators that fit our criteria (YouTube, How To video). Check it out:


Hovering over the Mentions count, we can see total mentions of Skillshare and Squarespace, plus the keyword “How To”. The Last Mentioned reflects how recently either of the brands was mentioned on that channel. These content creators mention “How To” in just about as many videos as they are being sponsored by these brands, in many cases. Does that mean that Skillshare and Squarespace are driving the How To content on these channels? Or perhaps this could mean that the brands selected these creators because they already had a ton of How To content out there.


We can easily take a look by jumping into the activity between the brands and each individual YouTuber by clicking on the Mentions count:


Clicking on the 497 total mentions for Keep Productive, we see they actually have produced a total 899 videos on their channel. “How To” is mentioned in 309 of these videos, and Skillshare/Squarespace are sponsoring 155 of these videos collectively. The sponsorship relationships began in 2018 for Keep Productive, but they have been making How To content since 2015. It’s clear that while they partnered with brands on plenty of How To videos, Keep Productive was already a master at it by the time brands sought them out. 


Similarly, with Mariana’s Study Corner, we have 224 total videos from the channel, with 165 of them featuring “How To”. How To videos have been a common theme on this YouTube channel since 2015, but Squarespace and Skillshare didn’t jump on the opportunity to sponsor this channel until late 2017. They’ve since sponsored 40 total videos on this channel, 30 of them featuring How To content. The content creator needs to already have excelled at engaging audiences with How To content in order to win a sponsorship with these types of brands, it appears, and the brands want to capitalize on that foundation by partnering on more How To content: it’s, again, that positive feedback loop!


This doesn’t work exclusively for learning platforms like Masterclass, Skillshare, and Squarespace. Food delivery and meal prep services Hellofresh and Blue Apron have sponsored 450+ videos from 200+ YouTubers featuring How To content. Manscaped has sponsored 297 How To videos from a variety of YouTube personalities in Gaming and Entertainment to get at their core consumer base of young and affluent single men. Here are some examples that tick all the boxes for How To content: knowledgeable experts helping audiences with unique topics.


Manscaped is positioned as a trusted solution that the influencer/channel host is recommending as part of their How To instructional - the promise being that you can improve your life. It’s genius and leverages all the psych tactics we’ve mentioned that sell so well. 


Conclusions

How To content is a foundational element of digital media and is only continuing to gain traction. For many communities that lack traditional resources, this content is vital for learning and gaining new skills. We’ve seen just how much traffic has been driven to online learning, certifications, and alternatives to university as the COVID pandemic eats into the typical academic calendar. How To content is about more than the individual, it’s a reflection of altruism in our modern digital society. It’s part of our basic evolutionary building blocks (according to all those psych feedback loops I was referring to earlier) that we continue to seek out social opportunities to observe, copy, and learn from each other. 


If you are a brand, there is most likely already a content creator talking about your industry or business niche on YouTube. And it’s well worth your investment to back a few How To videos given the massive attraction (and support they give) to audiences around the globe.