Cracking the Code on Sponsored Videos

A Special Deep-Dive Issue

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Sponsored videos have become an important marketing tool as the popularity of influencers has grown.

In this special deep-dive issue, my interview with a business scientist who says she’s cracked the code for marketers.

Table of Contents

Lee Chen is a professor of marketing at Suffolk University in Boston. She and her colleagues recently published a paper in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science called “What drives digital engagement with sponsored videos? An investigation of video influencers’ authenticity management strategies.”

Consumer Perceptions of Sponsored Videos

Tod: Are sponsored videos received more positively or negatively by consumers, in terms of their willingness to engage with them?

Dr. Chen: Positively. But originally, we hypothesized a negative effect. We thought that clearly disclosing the sponsorship would hurt digital engagement. But our analysis shows the opposite.

Tod: Why do you think that is?

Dr. Chen: There is a change of consumer perception and attitudes towards sponsored videos. Several years ago, influencer marketing and sponsored content was still a new phenomenon. [Consumers] were not familiar with sponsorships. Therefore, they expected that influencers to only produce organic content.

So that was the expectation. But nowadays, influencer marketing is very popular, it develops really fast, and sponsored videos also become very common. Tey watch these sponsor videos on YouTube on different video sharing platforms. So now they gradually came to understand what the collaboration is.

They know that influencers need to make a living so that they can produce high quality content. So they are becoming more understanding and acceptable

But at the same time, there is this moral responsibility they expect. They expect influencers to clearly disclose sponsorships.

When and How to Disclose

Tod: Did your results differ when the platform was the one doing the disclosing, instead of it being baked into the video’s content? I'm thinking the little label that says sponsored post?

Dr. Chen: Yes. Our study indicates that when you combine both type of post types of disclosure, you will have higher digital engagement.

International Platforms

Tod: The data set, as you mentioned, came from Bilibili. I like to think that I'm pretty up to speed on apps. But this one was new to me. It's a Chinese app, I think, can you describe it?

Dr. Chen: It is a video sharing platform in China. And it's getting really popular in China, in recent years, especially among younger people. It's like YouTube. Everybody can register and post their videos. But I think they are much more popular among younger people in China.

Tod Maffin: How do you think your results would be different if you'd have tested on a more global app like TikTok, or Instagram or YouTube?

Dr. Chen: In our sample, the average video length is seven minutes. So we studied medium to long sponsored videos. And we think as long as the video is in similar context, our findings should be generalized to to to other platforms like YouTube.

But TikTok is different. Videos on TikTok are usually less than a minute, that will be a different context. Because in shorter videos, the amount of information you can include and the structure and the format may be very different. So our findings may not be directly transferable to this short video context. But in other platforms like YouTube, we do believe the findings can be generalized.

Tod: I know that scientists do not like talking about their gut feelings — they prefer data and things that can be proven, but I'm going to ask you for your gut feel on how you think the results would be on TikTok.

Dr. Chen: I think some of them may have similar impact. For example, disclosure could be similarly positive for the brand. But in terms of customization, and subjective endorsement, it may be different. Because in a one minute video, you can't customize the video for the brand, right? Video customization and the type of endorsement may be may have different effects effects.

Higher Video Customization Can Hurt You Results

Tod: What do you mean by video customization, and how does that affect things?

Dr. Chen: At the lower customization level are “shout-out” videos — influencersonly mention the brand names where the product for several seconds. They just acknowledge the sponsorship.

On the higher level of customization are dedicated videos — they produce a video specifically for the brand. For example, a reveal video. In the entire video, they talk about the product, the brand, the functions, the performance, so the entire video is specifically for the brand.

We found that higher level of customization will negatively impact digital engagement.

Tod: I've heard that, just sort of anecdotally, from marketers as well that on TikTok — it's almost the ones that are just sort of thrown together that seems more authentic.

When Should Your Brand Be Mentioned?

Tod: What about when the brand is mentioned early on in the video, versus at the end of the video? Is there a difference there in your findings?

Dr. Chen: Yes. Based on our findings, it's better to place the brand or talk about branding information at a later stage in your video. You can disclose sponsorship, but talk about the brand in the later part of your video — that will be better for your engagement.

Keep Your Influencer Away From Their Opinions

Tod: What about influencers? Subjective endorsements, like sharing personal experiences or opinions about the sponsored product?

Dr. Chen: That's another interesting finding. There are two types of information you can provide. One is subjective information, meaning that you talk about your own opinion, your own experience, your own thoughts about the brand. The other is objective. You focus on the facts about the product.

In our study, we find that subjective endorsement, meaning that you talk about your own experience your own thoughts about the brand, or negatively impacted digital engagement.

Tod: Oh, interesting. That surprises me.

Dr. Chen: That also surprised us a little bit. For example, I'm endorsing a snack, and I'm telling you, it's really delicious. You really should try it. That's my subjective opinion. But it's hard to verify. As viewers, they just don't know. They don't know whether it tastes good or not. It's just that influencer’s own opinion.

But objective information is verifiable. For example, this snack is made from organic ingredients, then I can easily verify the information.

But subjective endorsement is not. So if it cannot be verified, then viewers may become a little bit suspicious. And they may feel right, they may doubt and that's why we think explains why the negative influence would appear.

What is the “Perfect” Sponsored Video?

Tod: So the perfect influencer video then that a brand could commission would be — if I have this right — low production values, there's not a lot of customization. The brand itself is not mentioned until the very end or close to the end. And the influencer stays away from their personal opinions about it. Is that a fair estimation of kind of the perfect video as per your findings?

Dr. Chen: I wouldn't say it's a perfect video, but in terms of the digital engagement you can get that would be better.

The Most Surprising Findings

Tod: What surprised you the most out of your results?

Dr. Chen: I would say disclosure. In practice, most influencers and sponsoring brands are reluctant to clearly disclose this sponsorship for this collaboration, but we find the opposite.


Tod: So bottom line, how should marketers change how they work with influencers in light of your findings?

Dr. Chen: First of all, it's okay to disclose your sponsorship. Don't feel reluctant to clearly disclose to disclose the sponsorship or the collaboration. It's completely fine. Consumers understands, and they also appreciate that you feel clearly tell them that this is sponsored.

And for brand information, move it to the later part of the video. You still can talk about the brand, but at the beginning, it's better to have the influencers’ own organic content, and then maybe talk about the brand later.

Finally, the subjective endorsement for influencers. Or it's pretty common for them to talk about their own opinions and experiences, but be careful. It's okay to talk a little bit, but don't have influencers emphasize their own opinion or experience too much. Talk about the facts about the brands.

Tod: It is fascinating research. I'm delighted you could share it with us. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Chen: Thank you for having me.

Li Chen is a professor of marketing at Suffolk University in Boston. Her paper is called What Drives Digital Engagement with Sponsored Videos, an Investigation of Video Influencers’ Authenticity Management Strategies. It's in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

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