The effectiveness of influencer marketing is a topic that remains up for debate: a study out of Rakuten Marketing recently found that 86% of marketers admit they aren’t entirely sure how influencer fees are calculated, while 38% said they cannot tell whether a particular campaign drives sales.
Even so, Universal Orlando Resort claims that an influencer partnership it recently enacted has helped it get the coveted attention of Gen Z, an audience it prioritizes since the theme park behemoth caters to tweens and teens.
Speaking at SXSW, the company’s SVP of marketing communication and content development Donna Mirus Bates explained why giving its influencer partners complete creative control has helped it appear more “authentic” to younger audiences.
Last year, the company asked 17 influencers - including musicl.ly star Baby Ariel and creator Weston Koury - to create videos about their experiences at Universal Orlando Resort. According to Bates, the 28 videos that were ultimately produced resulted in 40 million impressions for the brand. The program was considered such a success internally that it’s been brought back for a second phase this year.
During the talk, Bates said much of the influencer marketing initiative’s success to date can be attributed to Universal Orlando’s hands-off approach. For instance, for the first phase of the campaign, creators weren’t given any scripts or asked to promote any particular product or attraction — instead, they had free rein to create videos about whatever they enjoyed most about the park in their own signature style.
Bates said convincing the higher-ups at Universal Orlando that this was a good idea was no easy feat since it required putting the trust of the brand’s messaging into the hands of teenagers.
“That was the hardest part - just getting all of the powers that be comfortable with us saying, ‘we’re going to give a 16-year-old a camera and see what happens.’ It was a big leap of faith for us,” she said.
Part of the reason this strategy was attractive for Bates is because she knew the influencers would be able to say things about the park that Universal Orlando wishes it could say. For example, she said the influencers would be able to get away with calling the park “effing cool” or saying it’s better than rival Disney.
“We wanted them to say the things that we didn’t think we could say about ourselves,” she said.
While all content was vetted through branded content agency A2G before it went live, Bates said the brand tried to interfere with the videos as little as possible, even if it meant posting content that made her uncomfortable or wasn't exactly on-brand. For example, she said that there was much internal debate over whether or not they should let Koury post a clip in which he kicks a baby doll.
“There were definitely some videos that made us go, ‘oh my gosh.’ The content itself wasn’t always entirely comfortable for us, but we’re not trying to reach 45-year-old white marketing executives. We’re trying to reach real kids, so we just kind of let it go,” she said.
Considering Universal Orlando has so many licensing partners, a few of which include The Simpsons, Harry Potter and Transformers, Bates said that the vetting process for content is often cumbersome since it has to be approved by so many different parties. Fearing that some of the influencer videos wouldn’t be approved by all of the licensing partners, Bates said that her team skirted some of the typical protocols to ensure content could get pushed through, a tactic that she admitted “made legal very uncomfortable.”
“We actually made a choice to not share every one of these videos,” she said. “We had to really commit to a very nimble vetting process that is not normal for us, because we knew that would be the only way to make it work.”
Since the videos fall somewhere in between user-generated and brand-driven content, she said her team leveraged that murky middle to get away with a more lax approval process.
“We chose to sort of ride that gray in the middle, and so far it hasn’t come back to bite us in the butt,” she said.
So far the brand has been impressed with the results the videos have yielded, particularly the ones created by 17-year-old Baby Ariel, who was recently named one of the ’25 Most Influential People on the Internet’ by Time Magazine.
A video that she posted about her favorite roller coasters at Universal Orlando currently has nearly two million views on YouTube, while another featuring a day she spent at Universal’s Volcano Bay water park has more than 600,000. An Instagram video she posted of herself on a water slide at Volcano Bay has more than six million views, the most she’s ever received on one post.
Speaking at the SXSW panel, Baby Ariel said she thinks her content has done well because her fans know she actually likes Universal Orlando. As a Florida native who’s taken many trips to the park, she said her followers know she has a true affinity for the brand and can see that in her posts, even if they are aware that the videos are sponsored.
“One thing about this generation is that when they watch videos, they can see what’s real and what’s not real,” she said. “When I do my social media, my number one thing is just to authentic and real.”