The Power of Influence: in conversation with Justin Tse

    Justin Tse is CEO of Feature Media and a tech, lifestyle and home content creator. His constant experimentation and focus on data has curated many brand partnerships and a substantial following.

    Justin Tse sits on the stairs in his condo.
    Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet

    In 2012, Justin Tse launched his Youtube channel and joined a niche of creators changing the face of digital marketing. From his afterschool hobby of reviewing tech accessories, he built a media company with a combined following of over 1.4 million. Now, at 24, he has a decade of experience producing YouTube videos and has worked with brands such as Amazon, Google, BMW and Dyson.

    Tse is an influencer, though he prefers to say he runs a media company, as he feels it better represents the full skill set of his team. He began filming YouTube videos when he was 12. Working with the limited budget of a preteen, he reviewed iPhone cases, eventually working his way up to phones once he could afford them. Since then, he’s expanded his content to cover home and lifestyle topics as well as tech. Desk set-up videos exploded in popularity during the pandemic and Tse has been doing a renovation series featuring his company Feature Media’s downtown office and his downtown condo transformation.

    This year Tse is launching a digital course, covering the business side of YouTube.

    “A lot of YouTubers are sole proprietors,” says Tse. “So we talk about how to grow your channel, but also how to negotiate with brands, how to approach them, how to know your value, and, on top of that, how to form a corporation and hire full-time employees and stay organized as a company.”

    What is influencer marketing?

    Influencer marketing is essentially a transaction between brand and creator, whether monetary or through product. A brand selects a creator in a given field to test, endorse or represent the product, often in the same category as the product they are trying to sell. It is seen as effective because it is often more organic than traditional advertising methods. Influencer marketing often offers a high reward for the creator, lower production and promotion costs for the brand, higher sales growth and brand following.

    What can influencers offer that traditional advertising can’t?

    The way a YouTube channel is unique is that we’re offering production and promotion. So we’re filming high-quality videos that the brands can license themselves, where in the past they would hire freelance videographers. But at the same time, there’s also the platform of a combined following of one and a half million that we’re distributing the content to. Not only are people seeing a product and learning about it, but they can also directly purchase the product after watching the YouTube video. And that leads to brands getting a good ROI. Companies are moving away from TV ads because TV ads are known to be very, very expensive. And when working with influencers, a lot of times I think brands are seeing that the conversions are higher, and they’re getting a better value. And the individual creator is getting paid a lot more than a TV ad where there are so many people involved that the budget gets spread out to 50 or 100 people. Whereas with a creator, you’re working directly with one person who creates and distributes everything. It’s a much more streamlined, efficient process.

    How important is the relationship between influencer and audience?

    The relationship between the influencer and the audience is the most critical aspect of any social media creator. Creators that build trust through passion, inspiration and content integrity — while remaining innovative — are often the most successful. As a creator, the most significant long-term challenge is longevity and relevancy. It takes a balance of engaging with the current audience while focusing on the creative ideas side of reaching a broader fan base to thrive in those areas.

    Influencers sometimes get a bad rep. Do you feel that’s justified?

    People think influencers don’t do anything all day, and in some cases, I’m sure that is true. When we mention that we’re a media company, we always get comments on YouTube that are like “You’re not a media company; this is not a business.” Whereas I feel that there are more aspects of a small business in a YouTube channel than in a small business sometimes. As a sole creator, for a while, I was doing all the accounting, all the filming, all the scripting, all the outreach, all the graphics, shooting all the photos, consulting, doing all the phone calls on my own.

    What do your revenue streams look like?

    The main one is sponsorships. They account for 90 per cent. There’s also the YouTube ad revenue, which is from people watching the videos. We consider that passive income and don’t exactly check it as there’s not too much control over it, aside from getting more views on the video. There are affiliate links. Whenever a sale is converted, some companies will give a percentage or a flat rate. And we also do content licensing, where if a company did a sponsorship and they want to reuse the content they might purchase licensing to display it. Event coverage is also a stream that occasionally happens.

    You started as a high schooler with no budget. What was the initial climb like?

    When I first started, there was a lot of cold emailing. Every Sunday I would buy a magazine that covered tech. Whichever companies were in the magazine were likely into marketing, even if it wasn’t influencer marketing specifically — I’d find the PR reps and send a hundred emails. Not having a large following, I would only get one or two responses out of the whole bunch, but I kept trying. Eventually, a company told me that if I could hit 1,000 subscribers and a certain number of views, they’d send me something. So I just got back to work. When I finally hit those numbers, I went back to them and that kick-started the whole process of working with companies.

    How has the content of your videos shifted over the years?

    You have to find ways to innovate, to keep yourself excited. It used to be that we weren’t known for anything. I knew I wasn’t the best at phone reviews or laptop reviews. I wasn’t specifically skilled — I didn’t know how to code, and I wasn’t the best video editor. I was like “We’re mediocre at everything, but not good at anything.” So we started doing desk set-ups and people liked them. And then I started doing interiors and binding them to tech. Most people in tech aren’t really tasteful, so we pushed interior design, desktops and fashion lifestyle … these are things that I enjoy but also have the backbone of tech.

    You own a clothing store. What is the importance of a digital presence for a brick-and-mortar store?

    I think online presence adds validation. With Victoria, tourists do power the economy, especially for a downtown location like lower Johnson [where Tse’s store, Dangerfield Clothing – co-owned with Alex Davies – is located]. If somebody likes the product, and they’re only here once, you want to have a place where they can connect and communicate and still get that in-store experience from wherever they are.

    What advice do you have for businesses entering the digital space?

    What I’ve seen a lot of companies do is hire interns or seek advice from people who actively engage on those platforms. Staying consistent is also a big thing. A lot of companies might post updates once or twice, and then they might forget to for a long time. If we go to the page and check “what’s the newest food item on the menu” and it hasn’t been updated, we’re less likely to go and check there for current information.

    A lot of times with anything creative, people feel they need to practice their craft more or do more research. In the beginning, nobody’s going to be happy with the work that they’re producing, but even though it might be a bit scary to post things that are not exactly the best work, the act of doing it is going to lead to perfection much faster than sitting down and trying to work on something behind the scenes. Also, be very honest with data from a business standpoint. In social media, there’s a lot of feedback. Look at the data, see what works, what doesn’t. Try new things. You can’t be stubborn nowadays, because all these systems are changing so quickly. I used to be very uptight about the content. I spent too much time looking over videos. Now, I try new things a lot faster than I would have back in the day. In this fast-moving world, done is better than perfect.

    How do you choose which platforms to engage on?

    You have to know your market. A younger audience is going to like video content, maybe more short-form, whereas an older generation, maybe newsletters. Pick a few platforms, more than three can be overwhelming. For a company, Facebook and Instagram are already enough. Facebook would be for people my parents’ age and beyond, and Instagram would be for the younger generation. Our generation doesn’t often go on websites unless we have to. We’ve seen a lot of successful companies in Victoria use Instagram.

    How important is understanding the algorithms of these platforms?

    I think it’s extremely important. I used to be someone who would follow the norm where we complain about the algorithm, and how the algorithms are ruining our content and ruining our potential. But at the end of the day, YouTube’s a free platform. People can either complain, or they can learn to use it to their advantage. So in the last year, we’ve looked at the metrics of titles and thumbnails and what percentage of people are clicking. We also pay a lot of attention to watch time, which is how much time people spend on a video, and we take those data points and correlate them to how many views the video is getting. For very creative people, a lot of times it’s difficult to change your content to suit an algorithm, but as a business, it’s most effective to curate based on the data.