Hauling for Dollars: Is Customer-Created Video Good for You?


We’ve talked plenty on this site about the importance of creating a smart online video strategy, one that complements and advances your specific brand message and provides a roadmap toward the right style of video for your company.

But what about the video that you can’t affect? In particular, the hundreds of thousands of customer-generated videos now freely posted on YouTube and other sites that dole out brand opinions and product reviews to millions of passionately interested viewers.

How do you go about making that part of your video strategy?

That’s the marketing challenge many retail brands now find themselves navigating with the hugely influential “haul video” phenomenon: Customer-produced videos hosted by chatty, mostly female, teen shoppers providing blow-by-blow coverage of their most recent shopping hauls. It’s a trend that took off last year and has continued to grow and expand as new “haulers” join the fun.

Let’s be clear. This is a challenge most retailers would happily tackle given the astounding viewership of many of these homemade videos. Some, like those on YouTube from Blair Fowler (aka juicystar07) and her sister Elle Fowler (aka allthatglitters21) have more than 150 million views (no, that’s not a typo, folks), with more than 1.5 million subscribers between the two. And there are many, many other haulers out there. A quick search on YouTube shows more than 218,000 results for “haul video.”

The haul video formula works like this: After returning home from a shopping trip or receiving an online shipment from a favorite store like Forever 21, Beverly Lane, or Sephora, teen shoppers videotape themselves removing each fabulous find from the bag, explaining the vital benefits of a new lip gloss, a fun pair of flip flops, a stylish new dress or a sparkly necklace. The videos are uploaded to YouTube, often to user’s own personalized, highly trafficked channel where they are watched, shared and endlessly discussed.

No doubt that some adults may be wary of the notion of the mall teen with broadcast muscle. It’s easy to understand why some might judge some of these girls as materialistic or worse. But for a retailer with a teen target demographic, haul videos can mean magic—the kind of endorsement-driven viral marketing that brands salivate over but can’t buy using normal advertising channels.

Some haulers do receive compensation from the companies whose products they discuss, and they are required to disclose this to their audience. Companies like Bath & Body Works, American Eagle, JC Penney and others are actively courting various haul video stars for paid marketing projects, contests or giveaways as a way to attract new customers. The Fowler sisters, for their part, recently moved to Los Angeles to better expand their online video fashion empire, which now includes makeup, hair products, diet tips and other fashion accessories. But while some of the video kids may be getting paid, most are happily producing their video product reviews for free, all in the name of Internet entertainment and personal expression.

So what are the dangers of user-generated content?

While the haul video trend and other similarly intentioned customer-created videos have huge potential for growth, brands are advised to proceed cautiously. The upside of personal endorsements from key influencers in a particular niche may very well be too great to ignore, but there are some concerns when you turn your marketing over to the Wild West world of homemade video.

For one, haulers and other organically grown brand evangelists can accidentally spread wrong or incorrect information about the quality or prices of your products. From a larger brand strategy perspective, it’s possible that the varied, but unvetted group of content creators could present an inconsistent brand message, slowly eroding your hard-earned brand equity. Plus, the home-made, often uncensored, quality that is the key to the haul video’s believability factor can also be a turnoff; you can’t edit out something you don’t like in a video that isn’t yours.

Given the potential drawbacks, it makes sense to consider how to incorporate user-generated video into your larger marketing strategy. To that end, for many major retailers, user-generated video has become a key marketing component of a larger strategy.

Retailers capitalizing on the trend

JC Penney is one of the retail brands jumping on the haul video trend. This past fall, for its back to school campaign, JC Penney worked with a group of six budding haul video influencers. Penney’s provided gift cards ranging from $250 to $1,000 in exchange for a series of videos that were uploaded to the retailer’s YouTube channel, Facebook page, and on the retailer’s teen-focused website www.jcp.com/teen. As required, the young videographers each disclosed that they had received gift cards, but were allowed to buy whatever they wanted and were encouraged to be honest about their purchases. By all accounts, JC Penney views the campaign as a huge success. As another example, American Eagle, regularly points their Facebook and Twitter followers to selected haul videos online, weaving the video endorsements into their everyday marketing mix.

It’s too early to tell whether customer-created haul videos will remain a long-term factor for retail brands like Forever 21 or fade into passing fad status. But for the time being at least, haul videos seem to be sticking around. The videos are effective because they’re generally honest and believable. As more companies try to capitalize on the trend with marketing and ad budget support, savvy teens may begin to smell a marketing campaign instead of something cool and fun. If that’s the case, expect the videos to move on to other subjects.

Still, it’s clear that the lower barriers for entry to online video are empowering factors for both company and customer—and it’s hard to envision ever putting that genie back in the bottle. That means for brands and brand video managers, the key will be, as always, finding new ways to keep it real.


Rich Fahle is the founder of Astral Road Brand Media, a brand platform marketing agency for authors, artists and content creators of all types. He is the former Vice President of Content, Digital Outreach and Entertainment for Borders. Follow on Twittter @richfahle. More info at www.astralroad.com.