THE BLOG

Why Charities Need to Understand the Zoella Phenomenon

04/12/2014 12:37 GMT | Updated 03/02/2015 10:59 GMT

If you're someone who has spent any time on YouTube over the past few months, it won't be long before you come across Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella. Now, with her multi-million pound partnership with YouTube you might even see her 'in real life' on billboards and bus stops too.

She is, along with her boyfriend Alfie (of Pointlessblog - together they are 'Zalfie'), her brother ThatcherJoe and her dear friends SprinkleofGlitter or Tyler Oakley, part of a new set of rapidly rising media stars of the digital age. Together they have over 20 million YouTube subscribers - that's comparable to the population of Australia.

Yet vlogging is mystifying an older generation (and 'older generation' can include people not yet in their 30s) in a way that's reminiscent of the impact of the Beatles or punk rock on bewildered parents of the 1960s and 70s. As The Independent said in October 2014 in an article headed 'Who is Zoe Sugg?':

"...who is she and why is she relevant? These are questions on many people's lips as they are forced to sit through an advert promoting her fashion and beauty channel before the YouTube video of their choice."

They might not be conventional celebrities, but these young YouTube stars are not a group any charity can afford to ignore if they want to engage young people online. It's something we take seriously at Mind - and why we're delighted to have invited Zoella to be our first ever digital ambassador, and very happy that she accepted.

Even before reaching out to Zoella, we've been consciously increasing the content we produce for Youtube. We at Mind need to be there for people who live with long-term mental health problems. Managing mental health can be a marathon, not a sprint - so our videos show people living with a mental health problem and how, with support and respect, they can not only survive, but thrive.

YouTube allows us to reach young people on their own turf, and this is so important, not least because tragically the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 20-34 is suicide.

It's also the type of platform that lets us to look beyond ourselves as a charity in terms of creativity. A year ago we were part of an incredibly inspiring user-lead fightback - the Asda #mentalpatient Twitter storm (discussed elsewhere on CharityComms by Mind's digital communications manager Chris Cox. That experience has gone on to shape our whole approach to digital content - we see the future of Mind's online communications as much about amplifying user generated content as making our own.

Our own discovery of Zoella came in 2012, before her national fame, when she uploaded her Dealing with Anxiety and Panic Attacks vlog, a follow up to earlier blog post on the topic in which she says:

"You are not alone, panic attacks are VERY common [...] Do not force yourself to go somewhere you don't feel comfortable, you and your health are far more important than keeping someone else happy."

That video was seen by over 2.5 million people. A little while later we discovered that Zoella expressed an interest in working with us in some way, and so started a conversation that eventually lead to the ambassadorial role.

On the day we announced Zoe as our new ambassador, we gained twice as many subscribers on YouTube, and got 4 times more followers on Twitter, than on an average day. Her video announcing her appointment has had the highest level of engagement any of our YouTube videos has had, ever. In November 2014 we got the strongest sign of her influence yet - she tweeted about our 'In our own words' video which resulted in one of the biggest web traffic spikes we've ever seen!

But the stats don't tell the human story - we are getting anecdotal evidence all the time about how Zoella's involvement is positively affecting people's lives. 19 year old Harley, one of the growing number of supporters who have sent us a #mentalhealthselfie told us that it was because of Zoella opening up about her anxiety and panic attacks that she decided to talk about hers.

Messages about sensitive subjects are infinitely more powerful when they come directly from people - this is the key to Zoella's success and why she fits so well with our approach. The voices of people with experience of mental problems, are at the core of everything Mind does.

She may have founded her career on 'superficial' pursuits like make-up tutorials, but what's different about Zoe is that she has authenticity. She doesn't pretend to have it all figured out and she talks to her fans as equals.

While this could be seen as risky - we cannot 'control' what she says or does, and wouldn't want to - her honesty and humanity are part of who she is online, and why we are proud to have her on our side.