Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beauty & the blog (or how a quirky girl is beating the brands at their own game)

For centuries we had more or less a singular notion of female beauty, based largely on Western Anglo-Saxon features and symmetry. Some have even mathematically mapped the configuration of facial beauty.

As per the diagram above, what we see as beauty has a geometric structure, and it turns out, formula. To adhere to the ideal you should have no more than x number of inches between your eyes, y inches between nose and mouth, cheeks should conform to some sort of Pi R squared formula, etc. And after all the calculations a standard of beauty was produced that was widely circulated, and then accepted by most as ‘the’ standard. As media forms proliferated – first print, then television and film – the standards of beauty didn’t change all that much. Yes, things slowly expanded to include more ethnicities and nationalities, but generally mainstream beauty had a definition that was shared across continents for decades, if not centuries.

And then we entered the fast lane. As it has done with so many things, the Internet has enabled a broadening of standards and definitions of beauty. This is primarily because those who previously did not have a voice in the conversation – namely those who did not fit into the pre-ordained categories – were now able to have a voice, and a publishing platform. It started with websites and then expanded to blogs, YouTube channels, and proliferated rapidly and voluminously with Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram accounts.

How large is this cohort of which I speak? I can’t seem to find a tally of the number of beauty blogs on the Internet, but I think a safe estimate would be tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands worldwide. There is data that indicates that onYouTube, beauty-related channels represent 15 billion cumulative views, growing at rate of around 750 million to 800 million views per month, putting such video channels in the ranks of some of the most popular ones out there.

Several things are interesting about these statistics. For one thing, brands (e.g. Revlon, L’Oreal, etc) account for around 3% of these views. And that is not for lack of trying. These companies spend not trifling resources and dollars creating videos expressly for disemmination online, but on average, such videos receive views in the thousands.

As an example, the screen shot below is taken from L’Oreal’s YouTube channel for its U.S. based business, and was grabbed in mid July 2014. It shows the range of videos, and the view count, for videos uploaded over the past two months.

Click to enlarge

Some quick math: That’s 39,221 views, across ten videos, for an average of 3,922 views for each one. And some more quick math: if beauty-related videos are being watched at a rate of 800 million views per month and L’Oreal, one of the world’s largest cosmetic firms, is pulling in just a few thousand views per video on average, then the bulk of the views are probably coming from somewhere else.

But this is not an unsolved mystery. The overwhelming majority, as in 97% + of the views, are coming from videos created by an army of bloggers and vloggers, many of which are 1-person shows, operating from their couch or bedroom, with a camera that probably cost less than $20. No scripts, no directors, no budgets. Just talking to camera about their purchases, their finds, and tips and tricks. A portion of these bloggers have sponsorship deals with cosmetic companies, which means they get sent products to use and review (and are required to disclose as such when that’s the case). There are an elite few who are stars in the field, such as Michelle Phan, featured in this earlier blog post, but for the most part beauty bloggers are as various as shades of nail polish and most are unknown except among their cadre of devoted followers.

As readers of this blog will know, I have a particular interest in the unusual and off-center, the things that can and/or do first get exposure, and then a following, on the self-serve audio, video, and text platforms that are now part of our everyday online experience. This is a new phenomenon because previously these people could not get into the system, let alone have the chance to find their audience. Hence my interest in tracking the journey from the margins to niches and then sometimes to thriving niches, and once in a while beyond that to large scale success.

I have turned the blog spotlight on such people in the past and today, another person of interest: 20-something Texan Bunny Meyer. She blogs under the name Grav3yard Girl and in no way does she conform to the industry’s definitions of beauty, grace, and artifice. Bunny presents herself unglamorously more often than she does glamorously, and though I haven’t been a teenage girl in a good many years I have to say she’s the one that probably would have been the most fun to hang out with in high school.


Being a good ol’ southern girl she confesses a love for Chick-Fil-A, alligators, and sweet tea. Her fans are called the Swamp Family and she even has her own Swamp Family line of t-shirts and accessories on Etsy.

Most of the time we see Bunny looking like this:

or this:

or this:

and only occasionally do we see her looking like this:

The likes of  Scarlett Johansson or Anne Hathaway might indulge in the occassional less than optimal selfie...but as a career habit? Nuh uh. When we see celebrities stripped of makeup or in unflattering poses it tends to be because one of those front racked at the supermarket tabloids snapped them when they weren’t looking, not because they chose to present themselves that way. For Bunny Meyer it’s a big part of her personal brand.

So, not only does Bunny break the beauty and fashion world rules of putting only your best, most fixed up face forward, she also breaks the conventions of YouTube. Her videos are long – most are in the 15 minute range -- whereas most vloggers’ videos run maybe 3 to 4 minutes.  And there’s really something strangely compelling about her videos. She definitely overflows with personality but tell me if you don’t get pulled into listening her to talk about thrift shopping and her recent assaults by retail personnel. 

If she’d had a producer I’m sure s/he would have counselled Bunny to make shorter videos and to pull back the spazziness a few notches, and maybe not do extended monologues about her interest in the paranormal and possible encounters with alien beings. A producer would likely have told her it was off topic and therefore bound to alienate (no pun intended) viewers.

…And that advice would have been a mistake. The result of Bunny doing things Bunny’s way: 3.2 million subscribers and 282 million views as of mid July 2014. She is currently getting a million views a day / 30 million views monthly and is the 750th most popular channel on YouTube according to view count, and 150th for subscriber count. You can see how her channel has grown in popularity in the chart below. Bunny started posting to YouTube at the end of 2010, had a slow 2011, but she kept going, and by 2012 was netting a few million views a month which turned into 10 million views a month by mid 2013 and 30 million views a month by mid 2014.

In total, Bunny has close to 700 videos on her channel and is posting news ones at a rate of 4 to 5 per week, which, which is an ambitious production schedule, and I don’t know if she has assistance with editing or running what is now a small media empire. In other words Bunny is producing about an hour of new video content each week, which, in a TV world would cost in the hundreds of thousands to million range, and involve a crew of a few dozen people. Even if Bunny now has a helper I think it’s safe to say that her costs are considerably lower. Depending on the ad rates she is receiving on YouTube (it varies greatly from channel to channel) she is probably making somewhere between $1000-$5000/day in advertising revenue (of which approximately 45% usually goes to YouTube).

Bunny’s is a career built primarily on two platforms: YouTube, where has a legion of over 3 million followers, and Instagram, where she has close to a million followers. Her numbers on Facebook and Twitter are considerably smaller, about half a million and 250,000 respectively. But that makes perfect sense. Facebook and Twitter are, increasingly, where people’s parents hang out. And brands. Bunny and her followers are about a rejection of the way things are ‘supposed’ to be done and an embracing,  not a covering up of, imperfection, and the weirdo within.

As one of her fans put it :

“…not too long ago I discovered Grav3yardgirl, or Bunny Meyer, and she's one of the most positive internet personalities out there and is SUCH a great role model for girls. I really love how she has odd facial features (not necessarily ugly, but deemed ugly by many people), and she owns the absolute shit out of them and flaunts her confidence. They're what make her unique, and the fact that she's confident despite the nasty comments from other people, makes her all the more beautiful.”
A big part of Bunny’s success online is exactly that; i.e. the way her fans relate to her. Not as someone shaped by managers and agents, not as a product of industry, but as an individual, created by no one other than herself. In earlier times she would not have been able to reach a million people a day operating either largely or entirely on her own, but this is a new world. And it is now competing head to head with the old world. Where things go from here will be interesting to see. Will she continue operating independently as a YouTuber? With the kind of numbers she has I would think this is certainly an option. Will she get offered sponsorship or endorsement deals? I'd be surprised if that hasn't already happened. Will she get cast in a TV show, or her own line of makeup or clothing? All possible. With the hard work of amassing the audience already done, someone like Bunny Meyer, should she be interested, brings the huge value of a built-in audience and a cool-but-not-in-the-usual-way sensibility to any company or product she chooses to work with. But the bigger win is to us, in that 'we the people' kind of way, because Bunny has been successful in adding some elasticity to notions of beauty and cool, which for too long have been unnecessarily rigid and limiting.

Related Posts:

YouTubers in 2015: The appeal of the Annoying Orange and A King of Trivia & a girl-next-door beauty blogger