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How to Sell on YouTube, Without Showing a Video

WALL STREET JOURNAL – For Shelley Davis, the secret to promoting a business on YouTube isn’t making videos. It’s talking to customers.

Two years ago, Ms. Davis decided to set up a YouTube account to show videos about her hair-care company, Kinky-Curly Hair Products LLC. While poking around the site, she found that lots of African-American women had posted video blogs, or vlogs, about choosing natural hair over braids, perms or dreadlocks.

This was right up Ms. Davis’s alley, so she jumped into the comments sections of the vlogs, offering advice and answering questions about her products. The result: a surge of support.

Vloggers have posted more than 5,100 videos showing them trying out Kinky-Curly products, and Ms. Davis says the attention has helped boost sales by 40% and push her seven-year-old company into profitability, as well as land its products in Target and Whole Foods Market.

“YouTube has had the greatest influence on my company,” says the 39-year-old, who runs Kinky-Curly out of her Los Angeles apartment. “When dozens of different vloggers with their own unique hair types actually video themselves applying the product in the shower in one continuous take, it’s hard to dispute how it ends up looking.”

See comments from company reps for a hair-care firm, a camera maker and a knife company
Beyond Sales Pitches

Lots of small companies make an effort to engage with customers on Twitter or Facebook. But a growing number of them are also finding success by joining conversations on YouTube. Instead of just uploading commercials, they’re reaching out to the site’s communities and cultivating relationships with vloggers.

In the best cases, the vloggers turn into ambassadors who make videos about the products and talk them up in forums. Sometimes things go even further; Ms. Davis, for instance, recently hired a few vloggers to help her YouTube efforts and do in-store demos.

But getting to that point takes some work. Community members want nothing to do with forum members who clearly are only promoting their own interests. And missteps by a company can lead to heated arguments, which can quickly dominate YouTube discussions and spread to other forums. So, companies must establish a history of being helpful in discussions, says Kieran Healy, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University.

Consider Benchmade Knife Co. Company reps won’t start conversations on YouTube but will contribute to them, answering questions posted about their knives, commenting on vlog reviews and discussing anything else that has to do with the company.

It’s a big job for the five-man staff, since there are currently 3,980 YouTube videos by vloggers that review Benchmade knives. New comments are made around the clock by a world-wide audience, so employees often post replies from home after hours.

The company says the effort has brought significant sales increases, while giving vloggers a sense that Benchmade is listening to what they have to say.

“Being accessible promotes brand loyalty, and that really shows on forums,” says Rob Morrison, Benchmade’s director of marketing.

Benchmade also offers vloggers loaner knives for review, as well as discounts and glimpses into future product offerings.

“It’s cheaper and more convincing if a vlogger reviews a knife,” says Mr. Morrison. “To produce the same number of intricate 10- to 20-minute videos that [knife vlogger] Nutnfancy does for each product we make would be impossible to afford.”

Better Than an Ad

Woodman Labs Inc.’s GoPro, which makes a digital video camera for recording action sports, learned the hard way about the importance of the softer sell in discussions.

Initially, the Half Moon Bay, Calif., company tried to promote its camera, the Hero, on a mountain-bike forum, but the efforts ended up annoying some members, who would turn around and point out perceived shortcomings of the camera.

“We have learned that listening is as important as talking,” says Rick Loughery, who leads the social-media efforts at GoPro.

GoPro’s more laid-back approach on YouTube has brought strong results. Vloggers have produced 7,500 videos about the Hero, and more than 15% of GoPro’s total traffic and sales now comes from social media.

Listening to vloggers has also helped GoPro find new niches. For instance, the company learned through vlogs that people were mounting Hero cameras onto remote-controlled cars, boats, planes and helicopters—so GoPro created a kit designed specifically for those hobbyists.

“We would have never thought of that, but we’re all for it,” says Mr. Loughery, who’s studying up on the hobby so he’ll be able to knowledgeably communicate with the community.