First data, then vibe: How Viacom casts influencers in 90 percent of its campaigns.

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At first glance, there’s little that sets Shaun McBride—a charismatic former skateboarder who goes by the handle “Shonduras”—apart from the millions of other social media influencers enjoying the spoils of Internet fame. But in March, Viacom’s brand studio, Velocity, anointed McBride as a creative consultant, a move based largely on his Snapchat success.

McBride is among the many influencers the unit works with, mainly on campaigns, in a given year. His prominence shows how seriously Viacom takes its digital talent strategy: Velocity uses social media influencers in 90 percent of its campaigns, an approach that has evolved over years.

“A few years ago—the good old days—we could’ve put up a social post on certain platforms on behalf of an advertiser in the hopes of getting perhaps over 50 percent of those people to actually see it organically,” said Lydia Daly, SVP of Social Media and Branded Content Strategy for Viacom Velocity. “Now it could be as little as less than five percent meaning our distribution tactics have had to evolve.”

Influencers have become a cornerstone of the unit’s distribution strategy. And while McBride puts up big numbers on Snapchat and YouTube, Daly said much more goes into the casting of influencer partners than a sizeable following. To select the perfect influencer partner, Daly deploys a five-person team that combines old-school Hollywood casting techniques with new-fangled data science.

Part one: The reach

Of course, the numbers come first. “You’re looking at the numbers,” said Daly “and that helps you to whittle down from hundreds of thousands of potential influencers in the world to the 20 or so that might make sense for the campaign and make it onto our final talent proposal list.”

Those numbers go beyond cumulative subscriber counts to include average video views, breakdown of sponsored video views versus non-sponsored video views, growth trajectory over time, audience demographics, even the engagement metrics that indicate an influencer’s active subscriber base. Viacom guarantee campaign performance, so the Velocity brand studio is just as invested in accurately calculating a social influencer’s real reach as the brands that question the tactic’s value.

“You want active fans who are likely to remain active for a particular campaign,” said David Berzin, VP of data strategy, who leads a team of data scientists, including one doctor of mathematics and neuroscience, that collects and interprets influencers’ value. “The follower count is a lifetime number which is not necessarily relevant for a campaign you’re planning for next month.”

Then there’s the audience itself. “We have ways of looking deeply at the talent’s audience to find if it’s a good fit,” said Berzin. In some cases, Viacom looks for a perfect reflection of an audience they already have, say MTV’s core viewership. For other campaigns, they’re looking for a way to extend their reach into a new niche audience.

But in all cases, the numbers are just the beginning. “We don’t try to be prescriptive with the data.”

Part two: The vibe

Once the numbers are tallied, it’s up to Daly’s social talent casting and management team to work the talent. Here, casting relies—as it always has—on keeping up with trends in the marketplace and close relationships with talent agencies and managers. The team keeps a few different wish lists of talent: “interesting influencers in certain categories, those that fit well with Viacom’s brands and ones that are on our radar… that [are] kind of at a weird tipping point.”

And, of course, there’s chemistry. Daly’s team takes the lead, looking for charisma and personal spark while disqualifying influencers based on a client’s red flags: “There are certain clients that are extremely conservative—they would not want an influencer who has ever sworn in a video,” Daly said. Although that hasn’t stopped her talent team from passionately making the case to clients for creators they have faith in.

But even in evaluating personal chemistry, the data team plays a role. “We have a patent pending social data analysis tool that examines the fit between an advertiser, a content property and social talent,” Brezin said. “Consider it a set of customized set of ranked Venn diagrams that we create for each of our campaigns.” The data team will examine what kind of content the advertiser’s preferred audience watches along with traditional data like demographics.

Then there’s emotionality. Using natural language processing, the team can extract words and phrases and “bucket them into certain emotions. That basic fingerprint of emotionality gives you a good sense of how that audience typically reacts, and might react,” to a particular content strategy.

Part three: The relevance

The perfect influencer, according to Berzin and Daly, isn’t necessarily someone big, but someone who’s about to be big. “You really want to look for ebbs and flows, and talent that’s about to peak as opposed to an inflated follower count,” Berzin said. But Viacom is also looking for someone who’s relevant.

For Trojan’s campaign at last year’s MTV awards—designed to get millennials to wear condoms—the team wanted to propose Shannon Boodram, a YouTube sexologist at the top of their wish list. Though she didn’t have the tremendous follower count that advertisers crave, her sex-positive social presence was a perfect match for the campaign. And she seemed to be at a tipping point.

To help bolster her reach, they paired her with a comedic heartthrob,Josh Levya, said Daly. His 2 million strong subscriber base ensured Boodram’s on-brand message for Trojan cut through the social noise. The campaign for Trojan culminated in an appearance by Boodram and Leyva on the red carpet at Viacom’s MTV Video Music Awards–with Boodram wearing a dress of her own design made from Trojan condoms, naturally. The pairing resulted in an avalanche of positive press for Trojan and Boodram.

“It just speaks to how Viacom can elevate the brand of the talent.” said Berzin, “It’s a two-way street.”

The Ultimate Influencer?

Velocity has garnered some ink for its deal with influencer-turned-consultant McBride, aka Shonduras. While it might seem like Viacom’s just hedging its bets by going with the Snapchat flavor of the month, it instead found in him a kind of ideal influencer: one with the right reach, vibe, authenticity, adaptability  and business savvy to be more than another distribution channel.

“There are some influencers who post content to social media that goes viral, then accidentally become famous and start doing branded content deals,” said Daly. “Shaun is not one of those.”

He’s a motivated businessman, interested not just in how to build his own platform success, but in the interplay of content between platforms. His experiments with content formats, actively tracks trending content and is tireless when it comes to engaging directly with his fans, all of which pays off handsomely in brainstorms.

“In Shaun, and other creators, we are always looking for people who can craft stories across platforms,” said Dr. Thomas De Napoli, Velocity’s senior director of content and platform strategy. “That’s what our studio aims to do, and Shaun makes sure we’re doing it in a way that means something to fans.”

Shaun has already made major contributions to creative strategy sessions both on the brand and channel side of Viacom and is increasingly becoming an in-demand contributor for such meetings.

And, according to Berzin, McBride is, in addition to a content creator, a born metrics geek. “We have data teams that crunch numbers all day, but he just observes the numbers and his insights are often directly in line with our prioritized metrics.  And, he has a unique point of view as a social talent that…is just invaluable to us.”

But, as Viacom has found time and time again, the ultimate influencers may not be the folks with the biggest Snapchat following, the most liked Facebook posts, or the most fire Tweets. The ultimate influencer is situational, empowered as much by timing and authenticity as by the brute force of numeric popularity.

About Steve Jobs

I stopped by the new Apple store in Williamsburg Brooklyn today in search of answers.  First up was the quest for new large format display to plug my laptop in to when I’m fixed at home and need the extra space.  “We no longer sell them.  Here’s an LG display; this one’s great cause it has built in speakers”.  Then I checked out the new 15″ laptops, as large format wins since working ergonomics beat carrying ergonomics (?), “This one has an y processor, but ram is capped at y and costs x”, “This one costs 2x and is the right call”.  I asked why pick the more expensive one, and I believe the answers included better trackpad, speaker positions and a non-mobile processor.   Meanwhile, my latest iPhone crapped out and required a reboot.


About Steve Jobs.  This guy, from the little I’ve read – which does not include any official or unofficial biographies – was a maniac.  Criticism should start with his disregard for the human condition of his workers, then perhaps move to the heavy metals used in his manufacturing (yes, Apple’s push towards recyclability and other efforts were better than most).  But let’s focus on his management style – brutal, dominating, Amazon-esque and such.

All disclaimed, a question surfaces — was this a golden age for product?  Shit just worked and it was elegant as fuck.  Of course, my new phone takes photos with a gazillion more megapixels, but it does crash more than the dickens.  I can’t open my current iPhone without “Voice Assist” (I see you Siri) offering it’s mind-numbing help.  I can’t dock my laptop into my display without creating massive confusion during the next video conference.  The list goes on, but it all circles back to Steve.


Does a product owner need to be maniacal to be effective?  Did Steve need to be a dick to be great?  Did jr. developers and sr. accounts needs to be rolled under his tires for my iPhone to simply work properly when I asked it to?

My oldest friend worked in the kitchens of some of the world’s best restaurants, and commented that the culture there was abusive and awful.  I do not condone any of that, honestly, but I do recognize the context of ‘worlds best’.  Do 20 unhappy campers – who get to list Noma or Apple on their resume – undo the experience of thousands or hundred of millions of impressed customers?  Whats the balance?

Hard to say.  I’m now open to shop for non-Apple products, but I’m fairly sure the options are meh.

Social media & measuring where fans will go next.

David Berzin, Vice President, Social Data Strategy at Viacom Talks About Staying in Step with the Social Media Landscape

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David Berzin HeadshotV by Viacom: As marketers, how should we be thinking of social media right now?

David Berzin: We’re solving for two variables, really. We’re not just building out branded campaigns and monitoring fan response in the present – we’re also using the data we collect now to help us predict fan response in the future.

V: But social media can be extremely fickle. Is that a good or a bad thing for brands?

DB: I think it’s a good thing because it pushes us to work harder. With the evolving media landscape and its increasing audience and platform fragmentation, changing content consumption habits and new technologies have created challenges for the entire industry.  But that evolution has also created a host of new opportunities that continue to help us break new ground.

V: So what does that evolution look like in terms of social platforms and shifting behaviors in audiences?

DB: Well, considering we have the youngest demos of any major television company, we need to be nimble. Then add in the fact that 20 percent of all Millennials are now mobile-only, the growth of live social video and the impact Snapchat is having on the entertainment industry, and you begin to see all these layered nuances.

We know marketers want to reach their fans beyond linear with a scale and breadth of touch points. Our Echo campaigns do just that. To compliment that, we recently launched 3.0 version of the Echo Social Graph (ESG) – our proprietary cross-social measurement tool that helps marketers capture the true reach of our social-by-design campaigns.

The goal is to capture more social platforms than ever before with new insights on emotion, audience and social talent.  ESG data also feeds in to our campaign design and projection toolsets, giving our creative teams data-driven insights to really help inform their artistic decisions.

V: What are you trying to capture beyond page views and interactions?

DB: (laughs) Pretty much as wide and deep as you can get. The Echo Social Graph is a constantly evolving platform that, at its core, reaches outside of the traditional television footprint.  It’s a measurement of social that more accurately reflects how our fans interact with our content.  Think about it – traditionally, marketers have been limited to transacting on sampled Nielsen ratings that measure TV campaigns in isolation, without really seeing their extended reach and impact across emerging platforms.  And when you’re working with social data, where platforms emerge and evolve at lightning speed, flexibility is key. The ESG is basically able to capture all of the new interactions so that all of our fans’ snaps, loops, dubs and lip sync videos are measured.

V: That’s a lot of data – how do you derive real meaning from that?

DB:  Well, here’s a perfect example. We just did a campaign with Trojan for the 2016 MTV VMA Awards that focused on normalizing the idea of condom use. Snapchat proved to be a huge win for us – we ended up more than doubling the impressions we anticipated delivering. That’s a great key learning about where our most engaged audiences are and how Snapchat is an integral partner for live programming and branded content.

V: Do you have a sense of what marketers are asking for next?

DB: More and more, they’re really interested in identifying social influencers. It’s all about finding a good fit between talent, our advertisers and our brands.  That’s why we developed a Social Talent Search platform that we use to leverage the data on top-tier and long-tail social influencers, as well as calculated metrics that allow our casting teams at Viacom to find the perfect talent for each campaign.

V: Is there one thing you’d like to measure that nobody’s attempted yet?

DB: I’d love to dig a lot deeper into the measurement of intra-network referrals within social media networks.  For example, what actions drove users to follow, share or otherwise engage with our content on social media.  We have some visibility into this for paid campaigns, but not enough for organic activities. It’s these kind of challenges that make us constantly think about “what’s next” vs. “what’s been done before.”

Viacom’s social media “echo-system.”

At Viacom we’re hard at work at new tools to create, predict and measure our social media campaigns.

“Viacom’s data-driven ad sales unit Vantage is upping the volume on its Echo social media product.

Now, with version 3.0 of Echo, the company is offering marketing clients what it is calling an entire “Echosystem” of tools. Those tools will help create social media campaigns, predict how many people they will reach, optimize them while they are in the market, and provide a thorough analysis when they’re over…”

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We’re hiring @ Viacom Data Strategy!

We’ve got two brand new openings in my Social Media Data Strategy group.  Recommendations greatly appreciated and I’m happy to answer any questions.

Director, Data Aggregation Product Development

Your job is to connect, map and drive insights from a growing universe of internal and external data sets that drive key business decisions for senior Viacom leadership.  You’ll manage the roadmap, development, quality assurance and executive / brand / market-facing reporting products that emerge from Viacom’s data ecosystem.  In partnership with executive management, lead researchers, data scientists and a kaleidoscope of internal and external platforms – ranging from Nielsen to Adobe to Facebook to Rentrak to internal platforms – you’ll modernize and weaponize critical data sets and drive clear business value. link

Sr. Manager, Social Media Data Product Development

Your job is to design, deliver and iterate ground breaking, data-driven social media data products that increase engagement and revenues for Viacom’s brands and advertisers.  You will dig deep in the users, influencers, brands, ad products and APIs of mature and emerging social networks – Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, SnapChat, Twitter – and steer how Viacom interacts and drives clear business value on these platforms.  You will partner with integrated marketing teams, data scientists and developers to create unique experiences in the market that delight and drive revenues. link

Viacom Viewprint

My colleagues on the Viacom Data Strategy team recently added intelligence to another link within the integrated marketing campaign chain – data-driven campaign design.  We’re blending first party behavioral, attitudinal, and social data to create the best content campaigns for our advertisers.  Learn more about the Viacom Viewprint here: