A bushy bearded man wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and a Patriots beanie introduces himself as YoAnty. His plan is to ‘unbox’ a pair of Brooks running shoes for his 71,582 YouTube subscribers. The shoes were a gift from Kaleb, a YoAntyKicks fan who happens to work at Finish Line. As I watched two questions ran through my head: how did unboxing become a content trend and is it useful to marketers?
This was my first unboxing experience – the beginning of a mission to figure how videos of people opening products racked up more than one billion views in 2014. Back in November, YouTube Insights reported that unboxing video views had grown 57 percent over the past year, and uploads had climbed by more than 50 percent. One in five consumers had actually watched an unboxing video, according to a Google Consumer Survey.
YouTube’s report went on to explain that unboxings fuel anticipation and provide useful product information, which is all good for brands. But why is unboxing so oddly popular? From a content marketing perspective, what makes YoAnty and his fellow unboxers worth watching? In a nutshell, unboxing has a social and emotional edge that typical product information doesn’t deliver. Rather than copying unboxers, content marketers should encourage and support them.
The Elements of An Unboxing
YoAnty began his unboxing by inspecting the outside of the shoebox, noting the designs and reading the information on the outside. He then looked inside of the box and discovered a fan letter from Kaleb expressing his respect for YoAnty and his hope that he, too, could one day have a popular YouTube channel (YoAntyKicks has over 6 million views). YoAnty removed the shoes from the box, discussed their design qualities and attributes, and then promised to report back after testing them in the gym. More specifically, YoAnty said, “When I break these out, I’m going to go ham, son!”
YoAnty may have his own shtick, but he’s one of many celeb unboxers who share a common method. It is a performance in which a consumer removes a product from its packaging, interacts with it for the first time and provides commentary on the experience. Some unboxers try to crack jokes or perform in character while others offer analytical reviews and detailed setup guides.
Regardless of its style, the unboxing provides a discussion topic for the viewers. There was a sincerity in YoAnty’s performance, a clear passion for sneakers and a kindness that helped me understand why fans gifted shoes and watched the channel. For YouTube, the comment section was shockingly civil. Instead of trolling each other, most people just talked about gym shoes. What I initially expected to be a weird, materialistic ritual was really a social experience for people with common interests.
The Power of an Unboxing
I would argue that unboxings rack up views because they tap into some deep wants and desires. We can break down the power of unboxing into four components:
- Trust – Like any citizen reviewer, the unboxer is unaffiliated with the product and therefore inspires trust. However, compared to an anonymous Amazon reviewer, unboxers are more transparent and personal. You can often see their faces, their homes and the neighborhoods where they live. Their past unboxings are available for all to see. And if their goal is to build a fan base and earn ad revenue from YouTube, they are incentivized to provide a quality, objective experience.
- Emotion – Because we can usually see and hear the unboxers, we share in their emotions. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, author Jonathan Gottschall talks about the power of mirror neurons, which trigger “when we observe someone else performing an action or experiencing an emotion” (p. 60). When we see someone smile, we’re compelled to smile too. Sure, an actor in an advertisement can inspire emotion, but we know the actor is selling to us. When we watch an unboxer, their excitement over a product is both contagious and genuine.
- Validation – Unboxings can provide confidence in a purchase, especially when we’re buying for another person. Let’s say you’re trying to buy a birthday gift for a 7-year-old boy who likes cars and trucks. You think a drivable fire engine could be an awesome gift, so you do some research and discover a YouTube video from Gabe and Garrett with over 35 million views. The two boys unbox, assemble and play with a fire engine. You see a huge smile as one of them drives around, turns on the siren and tests the fire hose. Their experience validates your gift idea.
- Understanding – Personally, I’m in the market for a new Bluetooth headset, and the manufacturers all use the same buzzwords and make the same promises. It’s very difficult to distinguish one headset from another. Unboxers, on the other hand, describe their experience using a headset. For example, on unboxer said, “I was driving in a car with my windows rolled down, speaking with people, and they were under the assumption I was speaking on a house phone.” Keeping in mind the trust, emotion and validation the unboxer already provides, that’s one heck of an endorsement. It provided more information about the headset than anything I read on the manufacturer’s website.
User-Generated Versus Branded Unboxing
Unboxing began as a user-generated phenomenon, but today, some brands are creating their own versions. While branded unboxings may trigger an emotional response or provide useful information, it’s much harder to produce Trust and Validation when you sell the product.
Rather than trying to mimic unboxers, content marketers may be better off collecting, repurposing and promoting user-generated unboxings. Ask unboxers for permission to feature their videos on social media and your website. Re-post and share unboxing clips that speak well of your product. Think of unboxers as social influencers who should be thanked and supported.
Let’s keep citizen unboxing what it is – a quirky, authentic and useful performance for consumers who want to understand and discuss products. Encourage unboxers, learn from their success and let them ‘go ham’, son.