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Startup puts YouTubers at its center, and that changes everything

Startup puts YouTubers at its center, and that changes everything

July 31, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

If you were going to start a company with YouTubers, what would you want to do? 3BlackDot, which calls itself an "influencer-driven" entertainment startup, is putting them at the center of all of its efforts. That includes original game development, video production, and even marketing for other companies.

It's a strategy that mixes editorial content, advertising, and game production -- and it can be hard to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. Even after spending half an hour on the phone with its founders, I found it kind of hard to untangle.

What is clear is that they're convinced that YouTubers are the key to unlocking game audiences moving forward. Why? Their audiences are just that valuable.

3BlackDot was founded by ex-Machinima staffers Luke Stepleton and Angelo Pullen in partnership with YouTubers Adam "SeaNanners" Montoya and Tom "Syndicate" Cassell, who each have multiple millions of subscribers.

It has what it calls an "influencer collective" (so far, SeaNanners and Syndicate) at its core. The company also operates a studio that produces mobile and PC games "either including influencers in them or creatively directed by influencers," says Pullen. The first is Zombie Killer Squad, which is out on iOS and Android and includes both Montoya and Cassell as playable characters.

Zombie Killer Squad

But 3BlackDot also includes a marketing and brand agency to match advertisers with YouTubers, as well as a production company called PickAxe to create original video content destined for YouTube. SeaNanners and Syndicate, for their parts, will continue to operate their highly popular YouTube channels, in which they showcase games that interest them, and also create sponsored videos.

So what's promotional and what's not? In the end, it all is. And that's the point.

Promoted or not... Does it matter?

On the phone with Pullen and Stepleton, I was told that it would be easy to tell the sponsored from the unsponsored content.

"From a transparency standpoint, from an audience standpoint, we look at working with influencers and audience in an organic manner," Stepleton said. Transparency is "not an issue."

When content is sponsored, says Pullen, it's very clear. He volunteered an example: "Adam and Tom have done a brand integration for Disney Infinity. It's very clear when you watch the video, they're saying, 'Hey guys, Disney asked me to do this video.' It's clear they're working with the brand to market or promote."

So I tracked down both Syndicate's and SeaNanners' Disney Infinity videos. By my estimation, it was essentially impossible to tell they were sponsored, either from the content of the videos or from their text descriptions on YouTube -- so much so that I had to email back to 3BlackDot's PR and verify that these are sponsored videos (they are.)

In the SeaNanners' unfailingly positive take on the game, he merely says he was "invited to play this game early," a sentiment echoed by Syndicate in his own. There's nothing in either video's description on YouTube (Syndicate, SeaNanners) that makes it clear they were sponsored, either.

When I heard about the company's plans to do both promotional and non-promotional content, and thought about the tight integration of its marketing and production arms, I had to ask Pullen and Stepleton about it.

Pullen seemed to argue that this doesn't matter, telling Gamasutra, "In some instances, guys are being compensated for the work that they would already normally be doing. It comes down to the authenticity of it."

But it wasn't until we got off the phone that I tracked down those Disney Infinity videos -- and things went from abstract to concrete very quickly. This is the statement their PR rep forwarded on when I asked about it:

"We do not believe authenticity and compensation are mutually exclusive. Understanding that there is a fine line, we do not believe that authenticity is inherently jeopardized if people are compensated for their efforts. The promotion, marketing, and distribution we provide is for products we believe in. We would never put our audience at risk by working with products or services we cannot get behind. Authenticity is our absolute guiding principle. If and when necessary, paid promotions will be labeled as such. Transparency is key to maintaining an open and clear relationship between Influencers and their communities."

This is a very similar argument that other YouTubers (with poorly labeled promotional videos) have made, and the move to more clearly label them in the future is similar to what John "Totalbiscuit" Bain has recently strongly committed to doing, and also echoes comments made by Yogscast co-founder Lewis Brindley on a recent BBC podcast.

How these worlds collided

YouTubers are obviously feeling pressure to make the distinction between sponsored and non-sponsored content clearer. But 3BlackDot's strategy is predicated on the tightly interwoven nature of its personalities and what they stump for.

Pullen and Stepleton have spent the last four years at Machinima working with YouTubers and pulling them into the network's ecosystem. That's given them the perspective that "peer-to-peer marketing is the most powerful and effective way to reach the audiences of today and tomorrow," Stepleton says, for both "our own IP as well as for other people's brands and IP."

Pullen pointed out that with Montoya and Cassell promoting Zombie Killer Squad, the game hit one million installs in its first nine days. The company now has plans for a relaunch with two more YouTubers, as well as a "slate" of new IP under development.

"This huge shift you're seeing, we're all seeing happening because of the platforms and infrastructure of the internet," Stepleton says. "It's almost necessary to incorporate marketing and these different skillsets as we move forward. Things are flowing together because of this wonderful thing called the internet."

Whether it deliberately intends to or not, the company seems to be muddying the waters of what's "sponsored" or not. Its two goals are "the development of multiple IPs and PC and mobile games" and "identifying close partnerships with developers and publishers to help with their IPs and work with them to partner up," Pullen said. It's interesting to ponder how it'll handle doing both of these things in parallel, isn't it?

If that's the case, what becomes of the dividing line we've been used to before "this wonderful thing called the internet" allowed things to flow together? Pullen only begins to worry when paid YouTubers might produce content that is "completely out of line" from what their audience expects -- either with poor or mistargeted games.

It comes down to this, Pullen says: "Don't promote things that don't align with us but aren't good quality" and "build good quality, highly engaged games."

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