If you’ve ever shared a filtered photo of your plate of noodles; seen a six-second Vine clip spread on Twitter; or wondered what a teenager is doing on Snapchat, you’ll know a bit about the popularity of these social mobile apps.
You may be more surprised to hear that some of their users are making good money from the photos and videos they share. In fact, an emerging wave of “social influencers” on these and other apps and services – from YouTube to Pinterest – are emerging as one of the advertising industry’s great hopes for reconnecting with the young people who are watching less and less live TV – and thus fewer traditional adverts.
It’s startling that someone who you have never heard of can earn tens of thousands for posting a promotional Instagram or Snapchat snap featuring a product or brand – and they can – but what is just as interesting is the way these apps are creating a new kind of star: a direct contrast to the reality-TV celebrities created and sustained by the mainstream media over the last decade.
There is a whole ecosystem building up around these new social stars: talent agencies who spot rising stars, sign them up, then help them make money from their audiences of tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Those audiences have been built follower by follower on social networks, but often remain unknown to traditional media – at least until they emerge, fully-formed with those audiences sending their books (Zoella), songs (Shawn Mendes) and mobile games (PewDiePie) to the top of the charts, causing a confused scramble to explain their popularity. “The social media stars of today: they are real, honest. Their sharings are often unedited, unpolished. They don’t always look perfect. What matters most is that this is real and authentic, and you get the feeling you are seeing the person ‘as they are’, warts and all,” says Natasha Courtenay-Smith, a digital strategist who has worked with several social stars.
She draws a comparison to the “very controlled, polished” traditional celebrity/fan relationship, where photos are airbrushed, voices are auto-tuned, and celebrities are only seen “when they have their ‘perform’ button on”. She says that contrasts with the new generation, who have been born on social media: “These content creators are often seen to be more similar, relatable and approachable in the eyes of the target audience than more mainstream A-list celebrities such as David Beckham and Beyoncé,” says Dr Hayley Cocker of Lancaster University Management School, who has studied celebrity identify myths.
While people have to admire the mainstream stars from a distance, Cocker says they feel “greater proximity to this new wave of online creators and, while their lifestyles also appear somewhat aspirational, they are also viewed as being more attainable.” This in turn makes them powerful influencers, if they are recommending products or brands. Is that their sole talent, though: being relatable? It’s no surprise that if you talk to the swelling ranks of social-talent agencies managing these stars, they’ll tell you there’s more to it. Which, of course, is what you would expect them to say. “People relate to them, especially the young audience. They’re looking for people going through the changes they’re going through, and who aren’t talking about it in a ‘let’s sit you down’ way like a parent, but more like a friend.
“The stars are being headhunted: there are talent agencies popping up to get anyone who has over 100,000 followers on a platform,” says Jason Barrett, who runs the agency Social Talent, which manages a range of these creators. Most of these social stars have profiles on all the main social networks, but several have specialities – as do the agencies representing them.
US firm Delmondo focuses on Snapchat, for example, while another, Dash Hudson, is more about Instagram. In the UK, Gleam Futures came to prominence with its roster of YouTube stars – Zoella included – but now sees them diversifying. “You could call them ‘social talent’. Except soon they’ll just be called ‘talent’,” says managing director Dominic Smales.
The point that all these agencies make is that these social stars are far from talentless: they didn’t luck into their large audiences within social apps. “For a large percentage of the people you would call influencers, they’ve just been creating great content because that’s what they love to do, and people gravitate towards them because of it,” says Thomas Rankin, chief executive of Dash Hudson.
“They understand the medium: how to respond to people and how to create a really interesting story,” says Nick Cicero, chief executive of Delmondo. “As humans in the world, as we are given new tools to create with, there are going to be people who master those tools.” These creators and their agencies also make it their jobs to understand which social apps are rising and falling, and how they differ from one another.
“Instagram is the rising star at the moment out of all of them: it’s still defining what it’s going to be, but if you’re going to invest in a platform right now, I’d say the best place to invest is Instagram,” says Bartlett. “It’s this fast-growing social network with great staying power and broad appeal. And with photos, it’s the most simple social network to take part in and maintain.”
Barrett agrees that Instagram has lots of potential, but points to the way Snapchat has emerged as a complement to many social networks for the young creators. “Snapchat is a kind of raw version of their life: it’s kind of like a no-holds-barred, behind-the-scenes bit of content. If they’re going to a shoot or getting ready to do a YouTube film that they’ve been preparing, they’ll talk about it on Snapchat before it happens,” he says. “It’s a much more intimate sort of platform, and that’s how people are using it and how they think of it: almost like sending a text message to a friend.”
These intimate relationships are capable of generating decent incomes for the social stars: certainly enough to live on, although when you ask their agencies how much, it’s a classic piece-of-string-length question, depending on the size of their audience, the scale of the brand paying them, and the complexity of the campaign or content they’ll be working on. “A good Snapchat influencer can make anywhere from $10,000 per campaign to somewhere in the six-figure range for a larger campaign, depending on the scale of the brand, the complexity of the campaign, and the deliverables,” says Cicero.
Meanwhile, Barrett talks about a notional campaign where a car company selects three YouTube vloggers to send on a road-trip in its new model. “With two or three vloggers, it would depend on who they are, what their audience is, what their content is like, and the production values,” he says. “You could do something like that for £1,000 or for £100,000.” Bartlett stresses the distinction between different social apps and networks when it comes to generating a living income for creators. “YouTubers with 100,000 subscribers on YouTube can quite easily live off that. If you have millions of YouTube subscribers you can conceivably make £500,000 to £1m a year if you’re doing all the right things,” he says.
“But 100,000 followers on Twitter? You can’t live off that; 100,000 followers on Instagram? It’s a struggle. But whatever has gotten you those 100,000 followers on Instagram is probably something you can live off, whether it’s modelling, photography or art.”
Why do brands want to work with these social stars? At one level, it’s simple: they have large, highly-engaged followings in exactly the demographic group – young, affluent millennials – that the advertising industry is chasing beyond the traditional 30-second TV commercial.
“Brands are being told every day by their agencies that they need to be more in the storytelling space. And these creators, these influencers, they’re professionals doing it every day, from makeup tutorials to gaming tutorials,” says Barrett. “The results have got to be of equal benefit to the audience, to the brand, and also to the content creator. It just doesn’t work if it is just someone holding up a KitKat and saying ‘Buy a KitKat!’. There is enough of that going on already… Brands are desperate for shares and likes, and for follows and retweets, but a lot of them miss the opportunity to really engage with people.”
In this world, the creators call the shots, in theory. Every agency says a similar line about the need for creative control because the creator understands their followers much better than the brand does. “They know their audience, they know their own voice, and I’d say 95 to 99% of the time they’ll know the best way to communicate the product to the people who watch their channel. It makes so much sense to let them have creative control,” says Bartlett.
“Yes, the brand has parameters they can give you: guidelines to try and colour within. But the creator knows what resonates with the audience best. It’s essential that the brand is willing to give up creative control,” adds Cicero. “It’s a collaboration, not a set of instructions,” says Rankin.
Smales is the most sceptical on the subject of brands and social stars, perhaps because his most popular clients are finding ways to sell their own products rather than promote those of other companies. “We do like working with brand partners that get it, but these guys are entertainment talent: they’re not poster-children for brands,” he says. “Next year, I hope we do fewer brand deals, not more.” What about that future? There’s an opportunity for the stars of Instagram, Snapchat and Vine to follow YouTubers into the mainstream media, from book publishing and record label deals to films and TV shows.
However, Cocker notes that many social stars are understanding the power of their own personal brands can be used to launch their own products, rather than simply promote those of companies. PewDiePie has released his own mobile game that topped the app-store charts, while Michelle Phan founded a makeup-delivery company called Ipsy which recently raised $100m of funding. “There has been a definite trend towards these content creators starting to build a celebrity brand similar to more mainstream celebrities – brand Beckham for instance – releasing books, merchandise, clothing lines and makeup ranges,” she says.
That applies to TV as well, with YouTube remaining a final destination for many social stars, rather than just a step towards what the TV industry still thinks of as “proper” television. Or even films. “We are seeing the talent that we represent being able to transcend those traditional boundaries. New generations will be just as accepting of going to a movie theatre and watching a Joe Sugg film as they will catching up with his latest video on YouTube,” says Smales, of one British YouTuber on his books.
“The trap that a lot of TV producers fall into is trying to make TV stars out of YouTube stars. What we’re trying to aim at is creating a new genre of content that is neither one nor the other,” he says.
Sugg and fellow social star Caspar Lee are releasing their first film in November, Joe & Caspar Hit the Road, through a partnership with BBC Worldwide that will see its distribution focusing on DVD and iTunes sales. “It’s the biggest pre-order this year on Amazon. Bigger than 50 Shades!” says Smales. Such comparisons with familiar franchises or brands in mainstreammedia are common, as a way to quickly get across the influence of the social stars. “Some of the guys we look after have bigger YouTube audiences than Dave or ITV2. We can’t compete with Downton Abbey on a Sunday night, but it’s getting close – and three to four years ago it was nowhere near,” says Barrett. Cicero says that what’s changing is the very definition of mainstream media. “The entertainment industry is changing. In one year’s time, television is just another app. Where creators are now saying ‘check me out on Vine or Snapchat’, in a year from now they’ll be saying ‘check me out on NBC’. Vine is an app you download, Snapchat is an app you download, but NBC is going to be just another app you download,” he says.
“They’re going to be signing these creators who have millions of followers, because they have these portable audiences. Would NBC rather hire a no-name actor or a YouTube star with 10 million followers on Twitter to push their audience to the NBC app on a Friday night?” Another common comparison is between the social influencers and the celebrities who have emerged from reality TV. Perhaps surprisingly, given the glamorous, extroverted personas of many of these social stars, they are often different in private. “I’ve met a lot of YouTubers who have these huge personas on YouTube and a huge personality, but then when you meet them in real life they just don’t talk. They’re really socially awkward and can’t even look you in the eye,” says Bartlett. “Social media is allowing them to create an edited reality.”
“They very much put themselves out there in the world. You’d think they have these great extroverted personalities. But they’re actually very quiet people, especially those who do still photography as their medium,” says Rankin. “They’re doing it because it’s a creative outlet, not because they want to get famous. They tend to be very quiet, reserved people who come from lots of different disciplines, and have happened into making this a career.”
Bartlett sees this as a point in the social stars’ favour, and the reason they attract so many followers, and thus brands. “These guys are the new entertainers, and they don’t get enough credit,” he says. “These are people who are entertaining and of value. Whereas in reality TV, you can walk into a house and come out the next day a star just for having an argument.”
As more social stars work with brands, so the debate about how they should disclose these relationships to their audiences has grown. Disclosure can be as simple as a hashtag like #ad or #spon (for sponsored) in a tweet or Instagram post, but clear standards have yet to emerge.
In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority is responsible for investigating complaints, as in the case of Nike in 2012 for sponsored tweets by footballers Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere (the complaint was upheld) and Snickers, the same year, for tweets by Rio Ferdinand and Katie Price (it was cleared).
In the US, in August, the Food and Drug Administration forced an Instagram post by Kim Kardashian promoting a morning-sickness treatment to be deleted, because it did not include information on the drug’s risks. “A brand has to ensure its marketing communications are ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ and its marketing communications are ‘obviously identifiable as such’ and these rules will likely apply to materials using the route creators on social platforms,” explains Andrew Joint, commercial technology partner at law firm Kemp Little.
“This of course means different things on different platforms – hashtags on twitter (#advert) to different labelling on Instagram or visual/audio on YouTube. It really is a question of common-sense and a general sniff test. The question is ‘Would someone know this is marketing material?’ and the answer needs to be ‘yes’.”
The social talent agencies are alive to the problems. “We’ve had to seek out advice because when we started we weren’t aware of the regulations. We’ve recently had to assign a compliancy officer to make sure everything we do is in line with the regulations,” says Social Chain’s Steve Bartlett.
“I think we are moving towards a world where there’s much more clarity around what is sponsored and what is not – and around what ‘sponsored’ actually means,” continues Dash Hudson’s Thomas Rankin “That’s because this is now becoming a significant component of the advertising and marketing business, and that’s a business that is regulated.”
“What’s missing outside regulation is really best practices. But we’re going to see those evolve. It’s hard to imagine people aren’t aware products are being placed. What is problematic is when it feels deceiving, and I think there are circumstances where that’s occurred.” SD
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010