To goose tourism, California turns to YouTube stars

The state of California wants more tourists and believes AwesomenessTV and a couple of prominent YouTube stars can help make it happen.

Golden State tourism board Visit California and AwesomenessTV, a teen-focused digital media company owned by DreamWorks Animation and Hearst, are behind a new branded Web series called “First Times with Jenn & Jack,” which will follow YouTubers Jenn McAllister and Jack Baran as they visit some of the state’s iconic locations and document their first time trying new activities such as skydiving, riding jet packs and spelunking. Launched on Aug. 8, it marks the first time Visit California has worked with YouTubers.

Using actual celebrities is not a new concept for travel advertising — California itself has previously aired TV ads starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, David Beckham and Rob Lowe, among others. However, kids aren’t watching Clint Eastwood movies; they’re into content made by their favorite YouTubers.

“We’re really keen to showcase the state to a younger audience,” said Jennifer Sweeney, director of PR for Visit California. “It’s a hard target to reach, and this [series] will be a good entry point.”

Spanning 11 episodes, “First Times” will air on AwesomenessTV’s flagship YouTube channel, which has more than 2.8 million subscribers and averages 45.6 million views per month. According to data from YouTube analytics platform OpenSlate, 66 percent of the channel’s audience is between the ages of 13 and 24. (For McAllister and Baran’s top channels, the number of viewers who are between 13 and 24 is 61 percent and 71 percent, respectively.)

That reach plus the creative, which rests on the charm McAllister and Baran as they do things they’ve always wanted to try, was a big draw for Visit California. “It’s a really good fit for our ‘Dream Big’ brand positioning,” said Sweeney. “California is a place where you can make your dreams come true, and that is the concept behind ‘First Times,’ which shows activities that other visitors can also enjoy.”

Kids’ influence in family decision-making also played a key role in creating the series. According to a Nickelodeon study cited by Sweeney, 56 percent of respondents (which included both kids and parents) said kids either make decisions or decide with parents on where to go for vacation.

“First Times” is part of a broader initiative by Visit California in Web video that started with the launch of its Dream365TV channel in 2014. Available on Visit California’s site and YouTube, the channel offers an array of videos meant to provide an “inspirational” window into California. “We have worked with artists, chefs, musicians and regular people who find their dreams in California,” said Sweeney. “This new program is adding to the full breadth of ways we try and reach our audience.”

The goal is clear, get more people to consider California as a vacation spot. What’s less clear is how much YouTubers and Web series can boost an already multibillion-dollar industry such as travel. In 2014, travel and tourism expenditures in California totaled $117.5 billion, accounting for $9.3 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to Visit California. That was up from 2013, when it did roughly $110 billion in total expenditures and $7.1 billion in state and local tax revenues, said Sweeney.

Visit California is just excited to work with YouTubers, though, and will explore future opportunities with YouTube stars after assessing how “First Times” performs. “We were looking to do this — working with digital influencers is a major part of our marketing plan,” said Sweeney. “This helps us reach all of these followers we normally wouldn’t reach in the same way.”

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