The Justin Biebers of Minecraft Are Rewriting the Marketing Playbook

By March 3, 2014 Blogs, News No Comments

 

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BY SETH PORGES
Mashable SpotlightThis piece is part of Mashable Spotlight, which presents in-depth looks at the people, concepts and issues shaping our digital world.
On a large screen in a conference room at Salesforce.com’s San Francisco office, the face of an adolescent girl appears. Like an affectless Wizard of Oz, her floating head manages to mumble “Hi,” but is otherwise wordless. She’s dialed in at the behest of her father, an executive at the cloud computing company. He insists she’s a huge fan of YouTubesupergroup TeamCrafted, who just happen to be in the house.One by one, the YouTubers pop in front of the camera to talk to her. They smile, wave and videobomb each other, playfully scooting their office chairs around in the background.

The girl looks on. Quiet.

“Do you even know who we are?” asks Adam, a 21-year-old with scruffy hair and a patchy beard known on YouTube as SkyDoesMinecraft. Perhaps there was a mistake.

“I watch you all every day!” she suddenly screams through her shock. “Me and my friends make huge statues of you guys in our Minecraft worlds!”

“They do it to get our attention,” 19-year-old Mitch, or TheBajanCanadian, as the Internet knows him, tells me.

TeamCrafted YouTube

 

TeamCrafted members take a meeting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, Calif.

IMAGE: WES ROWE

A few minutes later, someone pulls up the girl’s Twitter page on his phone. Within 24 hours, she will post 19 separate messages about her brief chat with TeamCrafted, four of which will include a single screenshot of the boys smiling at her.

“Amazing night talking to some of my idols!” reads one. Another: “Today had to be one of the best days of my life no doubt about it.”

Matt Michelsen, CEO of social engagement platform Backplane and one half of the husband-wife duo that acts as the group’s managers, hopes they can tap TeamCrafted’s unconventional yet bursting stardom. He hopes it could allow big brands to grab the attention of increasingly fragmented, distracted young fans. He hopes it can forge a replicable model for digital marketing, maybe even a new form of fame altogether.

 

 

Minecraft is a platform as much as it is a game. It’s a sandbox that provides players with LEGO-like digital building blocks to construct any object, building or landscape their imaginations can conjure. This is SimCity with fewer rules, and more chances to collaborate and chat with friends.

In the fast-churn world of video games, it has also been out for an eternity. The first version ofMinecraft was released in 2009, and it finally left beta in 2011. Since then, the game has found its way from the PC to the Xbox 360, PS3, iOS and Android. And its popularity is unrelenting: Indie developer Mojang has sold more than 41.8 million copies and registered 100 million users. At the time of writing, it was the third best-selling video game of all time, sitting just above the original Super Mario Bros.

And to a certain subset of these millions of customers, the eight members of TeamCrafted — a confederacy of YouTubers who record videos that mostly just show themselves chatting and joking with each other while messing around in the game’s expansive virtual worlds — are bigger than, well, just about anything.

“They are this generation’s cartoons,” Michelsen says. 

“When I was growing up, we hadSuper Friends andThe Smurfs. Today, we have these YouTubers.”

“When I was growing up, we had Super Friends and The Smurfs. Today, we have these YouTubers.”

TeamCrafted may not be the absolute most popular gaming-geared YouTuber celebs out there (that distinction currently belongs to PewDiePie), but their numbers are staggering: Millions of YouTube subscribers. Each. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers. Each.

And the fans are obsessive. They’ve dedicated Twitter and Instagram accounts to worshipping the member they have the biggest crush on. They plead for follows and attention. They make team catchphrases trend on Twitter. Engaged is an understatement.

This is Justin Bieber, circa 2010. And there are eight of them.

“People think that these guys are the best Minecraft players in the world,” Michelsen says. “In reality, they are the best personalities and faces of Minecraft in the world.”

TeamCrafted members

 

The eight members of TeamCrafted.

IMAGE: MASHABLE ILLUSTRATION

Editor’s Note: One side effect of having millions of obsessive fans is the very real risk that one could show up at your home at any time. For privacy and safety reasons, few of the guys are public with their full names.

Observe network TV numbers, racked up with daily DIY content produced by individuals on home PCs — bedroom videos that revel in coded language and pixelated action virtually impenetrable to anybody not thoroughly steeped in the intricacies of the Minecraft world.

And it’s paying. YouTube analytics site SocialBlade estimates the top-earning member of TeamCrafted currently makes up to $5.3 million per year off of his YouTube channel alone.

“Ninety-five percent of gamers go to YouTube for their gaming information and entertainment,” says Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends. “And these are loyal fans from all over the world. Top gaming channels regularly reach millions of subscribers.”

Yet, despite their enormous reach amongst young, tech-savvy viewers, TeamCrafted has largely stayed under the mainstream radar. Let’s put it in social media terms: Some individual members have more than a half-million Twitter followers, but none currently has a verified account.

Today we find them at what could be their inflection point, the moment big brands and tech titans take notice. It’s early February and TeamCrafted is about to make its Silicon Valley debut. On tap for the day are meetings with top executives at the Valley’s biggest offices: Facebook, Apple, Google, YouTube, HP, Salesforce.com.

TeamCrafted horseplay

 

TeamCrafted members horse around at the Cirque du Soleil theater in Las Vegas, Nev.

IMAGE: GUNNAR

During January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I find TeamCrafted at a Gunnar photo shoot in the empty Cirque du Soleil theater that would host Criss Angel’s “Believe” show later that night.

“Swag — that’s the word. These clothes are nice. I like them,” Ian tells me as he struts around the theater lobby wearing a pair of Gunnar computer glasses and a perfectly tailored suit.

Across the room, as if energized by his newly professional presentation, Ryan hits the floor for pushups. Jerome quickly lowers himself on Ryan’s back, causing the showboater to collapse to the floor in laughter.

A few feet away, Jennifer Michelsen smiles. “I am a mom, so it’s really difficult for me not to think of them in a similar way I do with my own kids.”

This is the husband-wife team, Matt and Jennifer Michelsen. The adults in the room. TeamCrafted’s mentors, signed managers and the folks trying to take them to the big time.

He runs Backplane, an online community platform best known for powering Lady Gaga’s LittleMonsters.com. She is cofounder of Gunnar Optiks, which makes computer glasses designed to protect eyes from long hours of staring at screens.

The pair hope that with TeamCrafted, they’ve hit upon a way for brands to grab a piece of the massive audiences that homegrown YouTube personalities can command. While kids tune in to YouTube and social media stars because they feel real and relatable, big brands have traditionally approached these personalities as they would any traditional media play. Slip in some ads or an awkward paid endorsement.

Nothing feels faker.

TeamCrafted Facebook

 

TeamCrafted member Jason browses the beverage selection at Facebook.

IMAGE: WES ROWE

The new model, which Gunnar is piloting with TeamCrafted:

Let the YouTubers be themselves while integrating the brand into their lives

Let the YouTubers be themselves while integrating the brand into their lives, their videos, their public appearances. Be their biggest advocates, mentor them, build out their online and offline communities, show them how to develop a real brand. Then when it comes time to collaborate, the whole thing will feel more natural.

On the surface, this may sound tame, similar to how A-list celebrities already operate. But applying the tactics long used to build musician, athlete and actor empires to YouTubers in a niche gaming vertical is uncharted territory. And big brands’ receptiveness to partnering with these YouTubers in the same way suggests TeamCrafted represents an entirely new type of celebrity — more accessible, more authentic and far more relatable than any Kardashian could ever hope to be.

“I remember the moment that I realized that they were true celebrities,” Matt says. “I was walking through the airport with Adam and I’ll never forget. This little kid comes running after us screaming. And then it happened with another kid. And another kid. It became very clear to me that these guys were a lot bigger than even we understood.”

The YouTubers’ primary platform also reaches audiences in a way that would be impossible with traditional celebrities. The team’s voluminous daily output provides a unique avenue for repeating points or name-dropping partners over and over (key for the information to sink into viewers’ brains). The crew is toying with possible deals that take advantage ofMinecraft’s unique quirks, such as custom in-game mods to integrate brands and products directly into gameplay videos.

TeamCrafted Gunnar

 

The members of TeamCrafted pose for a Gunnar photo shoot.

IMAGE: GUNNAR

For Gunnar, the partnership makes sense. Not only does TeamCrafted’s audience of gaming and Internet-interested viewers nicely align with its target demographics, but members of the group were already using the company’s products to shield their eyes during marathonMinecraft and YouTube editing sessions.

Last summer, Gunnar sent the YouTubers some products and, a few months later, individual members signed on as brand ambassadors. Sensing a larger opportunity, Jennifer Michelsen took them beyond their DIY roots, began adding structure to their brands, looks and personas. She polished them up, started dressing them in Rat Pack-inspired suits for photo shoots, and even created a style guide for how they were to present themselves at public appearances. Through it all, the members of TeamCrafted were rarely seen without a pair of Gunnars.

That’s when her husband, Matt Michelsen, came in. “Jennifer told me these guys had over-delivered for Gunnar, but still had a hard time reaching brands,” he says.

A connector colleagues jokingly refer to as a “tech arms dealer,” Matt Michelsen broke out his Rolodex and began introducing TeamCrafted to major companies and celebrities: Coke, 50 Cent, Lady Gaga and executives at some of the country’s biggest tech companies.

As of the beginning of 2014, the group officially signed to the Michelsens’ Gotham Alpha management company. Since then, the TeamCrafted empire continues to expand. There are t-shirts, private Minecraft servers where fans can play along with their idols, phone calls with TV producers and merchandise manufacturers. In March, there’s a live fan event in Los Angeles billed as “An Evening With TeamCrafted.”

Matt Michelsen is also using his company to build a fan site to better monitor and engage their audience. The idea is to use the specific lessons it learned from working with Lady Gaga in order to build a network instrumental in transforming TeamCrafted into a multidimensional brand with value beyond YouTube videos.

“We’d done deals with other companies, but it was always, ‘In this one video do this one thing and shout-out our product,’” Jerome says. “With Gunnar and these guys, it’s different:

We’re using the product in our lives over the course of many videos

We’re using the product in our lives over the course of many videos.”

“Yes, we have seen a lift in search, traffic and ultimately sales, but it is the immeasurable and rapid brand awareness that is so unique,” Jennifer says.

TeamCrafted Google

 

TeamCrafted takes on the Google slide.

IMAGE: WES ROWE

The white rental van passes through Palo Alto on the way to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus. Matt Michelsen points out the window.

“Over there is Stanford,” he says.

“People who are smarter than us,” Ryan says.

“I’d say we’re smart at reading what people want to see,” Adam says.

As the team hops from one Silicon Valley campus to the next, they gravitate toward the sorts of theme park-like office perks the Valley is known for. The ball pits, the slides.

“How long do you think it would take for us to set every single high score here?” Ryan says as they step into Facebook’s buzzing, beeping video arcade.

At each stop, Matt urges the kids to check out the company stores. “I’m buying t-shirts for everybody!” he says, as the kids load up on souvenirs.

TeamCrafted YouTube

 

TeamCrafted at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, Calif.

IMAGE: WES ROWE

The group eventually finds its way to YouTube’s Bruno offices, where they are met by Rodrigo Velloso, the company’s director of gaming.

Velloso leads them past a sign that reads “Employees Only,” into a conference room already occupied by several other YouTube employees.

“I assume you know a lot about what they do?” Matt asks.

The YouTube employees nod their heads.

“The most valuable thing is that they understand that you are humans,” Matt Michelsen says to his team as they sit down. “Right now, this probably feels like the Death Star to you.”

“What’s your biggest question?” Velloso says. “I don’t want us to be the Death Star. How can we stop being the Death Star?”

One by one, the kids ask about optimizing their videos, best practices. Sophisticated questions aimed to unearth as many details as they can about YouTube’s mysterious black box algorithms, which determine the videos that rise to the top of users’ searches and feeds.

Just like the group’s new big brands partnerships — which emphasize subtlety over shoehorned endorsements — TeamCrafted’s growth strategy has been under the radar thus far. Many of the top content producers on YouTube come armed with consultants and know-how for optimizing the site and its algorithms. These guys? They’re figuring it out as they go along.

“After doing it every single day for four years, there’s nothing that just kinda slips by you,” Ryan says. “You can just tell.”

TeamCrafted Google

 

TeamCrafted member Jerome eats and texts in the Google cafeteria in Mountain View, Calif.

IMAGE: WES ROWE

The day’s meetings are finally over. As we roll down the 101 from San Francisco to Palo Alto, the guys open up about their new lives. There are old friends who see them as ATMs. New friends who see them as a means to an end. Family members who guilt them into paying their rent, buying them presents, lending them money.

It becomes clear just why they like each other so much. Yes, they have a video game obsession in common, but the members of TeamCrafted also look at each other as a rare respite of trust. An oasis of friendship unplagued by greed or ulterior motives.

All of them began making videos as a hobby. At first, it was nothing more than a fun way to connect with likeminded gamers, and maybe experience the dopamine rush of a few encouraging comments along the way.

“When I started, my goal was to get 100 subscribers,” Jerome says. “Back then, YouTube’s partners program wasn’t even available to gamers.”

None of them came from money, and most grew up in the sort of suburban or exurban towns where ambition and success are something only seen on TV. Adam worked at a Subway. Ryan delivered pizzas. Mitch landscaped, washed cars, tutored and kept time at a hockey rink.

“That’s why I enjoy hanging out with TeamCrafted — they understand what it’s like,” Adam says. “When you see us do a video, that’s when we open up. That’s when we’re ourselves.”

“I think we’ve all seen the most success when we stopped doing things for ourselves, and started doing what’s best for the team,” Jerome says.

Of course, games and platforms come and go, and nobody in TeamCrafted believesMinecraft will be around forever. But The Rock began as a wrestler, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was once just a bodybuilder. TeamCrafted’s hope is that what they’re building has life beyond the pixelated building blocks of Minecraft. That their brand can ultimately transcend the game and make them stars in their own right.

“I won’t be making other types of videos in the near future, but once Minecraft starts to fade…” Jerome says.

“Adapt or die,” Mitch says.

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