How Wattpad Became the Hottest New Influencer Marketing Platform

When you think about what an influencer looks like, it’s easy to draw an image of Instagram stars with their white walls, succulents, and perfect outfits, lounging around listening to vinyl on a Monday afternoon. Or maybe you think about the 17-year-old Vine kid pranking his friends at a 7-11. If not that, then you’re envisioning a beautiful girl teaching her 1.2 million YouTube subscribers about a new way for them to contour their faces.

Somewhere down the list, you eventually get to writers. But what you really mean is a blogger. People don’t look at fiction writers as social media influencers. At least, not until Wattpad came along.

The origin story

Alan Lau and Ivan Yuen weren’t necessarily prolific readers a few years ago, but they both had a passion for writing. In 2006, they founded Wattpad, a digital writing forum, to capitalize on the increasingly ubiquitous behavior of writing and reading on mobile devices.

The tipping point began about five years ago, when the first Wattpad communities began to form in the UK. Shortly after, the excitement over mobile storytelling spread to communities in the U.S. Before long, Wattpad was adding over 100,000 users a day who were writing and reading everything from chick lit to historical fiction.

Wattpad started as the app that made reading on a mobile device easy. Then it carved a path in content marketing, capitalizing on its audience of 40 million. Brand Stories launched last summer, letting brands work with influencers on the platform. That was just the beginning.

A few weeks ago, Wattpad introduced Wattpad Studios, a program that lets brands use the platform as a content hub. Companies can work with Wattpad Stars (the site’s most popular writers), track data through Wattpad Insights, and even adapt their stories for television through Wattpad Presents.

With this move, Wattpad has essentially become the atomic unit for the world of fiction.

The draw

Wattpad’s widespread appeal hasn’t grown by accident. Major brands like Coca-Cola, GE, and Sony, to name a few, are investing in fiction because they get access to a unique and engaged group of consumers.

The site’s diverse library offers something for everyone—there’s an entire genre dedicated to werewolf literature. And the mobile-first mentality makes reading and creating seamless between devices. You can start writing on your laptop and finish during your commute to work.

Additionally—this is particularly important—most of the stories on Wattpad are serialized, which promotes binging and lets fans, who can comment and reach out to the author directly, almost become part of the storytelling process.

Take Anna Todd, for instance. In 2013, she was working at the makeup counter of ULTA Beauty when she started writing serial fan fiction about One Direction’s Harry Styles on Wattpad, primarily using her phone. The series quickly went viral, and Todd posted a new chapter every day with the help of feedback from devoted readers. The resulting novel, After, has become an international bestseller, and is being made into a major motion picture by Paramount.

It’s crucial that the influencers and brands have a natural fit. Writers should like the brand and be comfortable sharing branded writing with their fans. Part of being commissioned for brand stories is the promise that writers will use their social influence to amplify the content to increase reach. Todd, for instance, has written successful short stories for AT&T about texting and driving.

“One of the greatest parts of my day is shocking our authors with news that a brand or studio wants to work with them,” said Aron Levitz, who heads Wattpad Studios. “A majority of writers aren’t here to make money; they just want a creative outlet. The look on their faces is priceless when a brand wants to make a writer’s dreams come true.”

Thus far, the collaborations have yielded very strong results. According to Wattpad, readers spend 60 minutes with some branded stories, double the time they commit to regular stories.

The business of storytelling

“All brands have an ethos, or mantra,” Levitz said. “When a brand is starting a campaign with us, we like to ask, ‘What’s most important for your brand right now?'”

However, that approach doesn’t mean brands have total control over what gets published. Companies can sponsor a curated reading list or commission a writer to work on a branded story, but that’s particularly interesting about Wattpad is the freedom it gives its creators, which is unusual in the world of influencer marketing. Part of this has to do with the nature of fiction—the influencers aren’t just plugging a product; they’re telling stories.

To promote the recent release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sony connected with two of platform’s biggest stars—one a romance writer, the other a popular zombie author—to develop a new story to promote the film. Sony supported the campaign with visuals like trailers and GIFs, but other than that, the writers were given free rein. The end product, a five-part story titled After + Zombies, was read over 200,000 times.

“Wattpad is a great spoke to push content out,” Levitz said. “But, it’s also a great destination to send a brand’s social audience for more relevant content they’ll enjoy.”

Thus far, Coca-Cola has probably been the most successful brand on Wattpad. Before last holiday season, Coca-Cola worked with Partnered, a service that connects brands and technology, to identify the best place to unveil its “Naughty or Nice” campaign. When the research came back, Wattpad seemed to be the obvious solution.

“The essence of experimentation is ultimately not to have defined expectations but strong gut feelings,” said Bachir Zeroual, Coca-Cola’s head of marketing ventures. “From everything we saw on Wattpad, we decided to take the risk and learn from it.”

Over three weeks, Coca-Cola sponsored 18 stories as well as special letters to Santa from the most popular fictional characters on Wattpad. In the letters, the characters indicated whether they had been naughty or nice that year. The stories have been read millions of times, and the letters alone generated more than 10 million minutes of attention time. The campaign was ultimately nominated for two Digiday Content Marketing Awards.

“It was initially quite hard to imagine that we would lose all control of our brand story and leave it to the hands and minds of Wattpad’s top writers,” Zeroual said, “but that is exactly … why it worked.”

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