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In a 2014 survey among U.S. teens, Variety found that Daniel Radcliffe—lead actor in Harry Potter, the second-highest grossing film series of all time—ranked as the 15th most influential celebrity. The top 5 most influential celebrities on Variety’s final ranking were all YouTube stars.
Everyone knows that the world is moving online, that social media is replacing TV, and that social media stars are gaining massive visibility. But few have analyzed the driving forces behind these developments. This post uncovers the 5 reasons why social media influencers are skyrocketing in popularity and becoming the new modern day celebrities.
1. Influencers seem more relatable than a Celebrity
The enormous popularity of influencers can be explained in one sentence: People listen to people they trust, and people trust relatable people. YouTube stars are more popular than movie stars because they’re relatable in ways that traditional celebrities aren’t.
Traditional celebrities are removed from their audiences. Whether they’re on a stage or a movie screen, celebrities present carefully constructed personas from behind glass walls. As a result, many people admire celebrities. Many people idolize them. But no one can relate to them.
Social media influencers can’t get close enough to their audiences. Whether they’re living in a college dorm or in their mom’s basement, influencers present themselves as they are. As a result, many people like influencers. Many people respect them. And anyone can relate to them.
Unlike fan-to-celebrity relationships, fan-to-influencer relationships go both ways. While celebrities talk to their fans, influencers talk with their fans. A fan contacting a celebrity can’t hope for more than a form letter in response. A fan contacting an influencer can typically expect to get a personalized social media-based reply. Dedicated fans can even show up to regular events and talk with influencers one on one. Vine influencer Alx James comments that “on social media, I’m able to show my [6 million] fans that I’m a real person too, just like them.”
By actively engaging with fans, social media influencers offer a relationship to their fans that traditional celebrities can’t.
This relationship pays off. A study by DEFY Media found that while 63% of millennials ages 13-24 would try a product recommended by an influencer, just 48% would try a product recommended by a movie star. People listen to people they trust, and people trust relatable people. While YouTube stars are relatable, traditional celebrities aren’t. As YouTube global head of content Robert Kyncl puts it, “TV is one way. YouTube talks back.”
2. Influencers own their channels
Authenticity is central to trust, and it’s hard to be authentic when each and every element of your public image is managed by an agent. Traditional celebrities are constantly at the mercy of producers, TV channels, and radio hosts. The more successful a celebrity is, the more she needs to collaborate with networks and studios to get her content out to the public. As a result, a celebrity’s authenticity is slowly screened out and sterilized by layers after layers of image-obsessed gatekeepers.
Influencers fully own their channels and answer to no gatekeepers. They don’t need anyone’s approval to publish a new YouTube video or reply to a tweet, meaning that their authenticity is delivered straight to their trusting audiences.
Full channel ownership enables influencers to post whatever they want, whenever they want. This enables them to constantly connect with their followers in a genuine two-way relationship.
3. Social media is replacing TV
Influencers distribute content through social media, and social media use is on the rise. According to a study by Nielsen, U.S. adults in Q2 2015 spent 1 hour and 17 minutes less on watching TV and listening to radio each week than they did in Q2 2014. Over the same time period, smartphone app/web usage rose by 1 hour and 10 minutes each week. Over 35% of that time is spent exclusively on social networks, and therefore on social media. This signals a shift away from TV and radio’s one-way channels of communication and towards the interactive, two-way connections that influencers provide.
Social media use will only continue to rise with the next generation. 10% of American teens regularly use social media, along with a full 15% of tweens. Accompanying the rise in social media use is a drop in reading—only 13% of American teens read regularly, as do just 11% of American tweens.
All of these numbers go to show that one-way entertainment is dropping in popularity. Movies have been the only exception to this rule, with a 4.6% rise in box office revenues between 2014 and 2015 (from Jan 1-Nov 20 of both years). Even so, annual revenues over the last five years peaked in 2012, and movie revenue data doesn’t take into account potential rises in movie budgets and costs.
The sun is setting on one-way entertainment. Two-way entertainment is quickly rising to take its place.
4. Influencers appeal to niche audiences
Traditional celebrities create content that’s distributed on a massive scale. But in the process of trying to appeal to everyone, celebrities sacrifice the opportunity to connect on a deep level with specific audiences. Influencers take the opposite approach. By targeting their content to a specific niche, influencers maximize their ability to truly connect with their target audience.
While there are many mainstream celebrities, there are few mainstream influencers. And that’s a good thing.
While the influencer PewDiePie has the number one channel on YouTube, his gaming-focused content isn’t for everyone. But he has a deep influence on the 40 million subscribers who hang on to his every word. Similarly, while beauty influencer Michelle Phan creates YouTube content for a very specific audience, her advice has a powerful impact on her 8 million subscribers.
Some influencers target audiences that are niche to an extreme. 130,000 people subscribe to Jesse the Reader’s YouTube channel on fantasy and science fiction books. 87,000 people follow Plant Based Pixie’s vegan food Instagram account. These are fan bases of thousands, not millions. But when Jesse recommends a new book or Pixie recommends a new brand of food, those thousands of fans will respond with both their comments and their wallets.
Specificity leads to relatability. Relatability leads to influence. And influence pays.
It takes a huge amount of time, risk, and money to create a traditional celebrity in the media. 10 years ago, anyone looking to reach an audience without an agency’s backing was out of luck. But today, social media influencers don’t need much more than a camera and a laptop to start releasing compelling content online. By creating, editing, and producing all of his content, an influencer becomes a quick and efficient one man show.
In an extremely competitive online environment with incredibly low barriers to entry, only the best and most relatable content creators survive to become influencers. Those influencers survive not by spending a massive amount of capital, but by authentically being themselves. The result is a highly appealing and adaptable class of social media celebrities that require no investment from an agency or company to create.
As the last point, traditional celebrities fade over time, taking down fan bases and huge amounts of upfront investment with them. But there are always new potential influencers ready to cater and adapt to a specific audience or niche. For every successful influencer, there are a thousand fans ready to try becoming influencers themselves. And thanks to the low barriers to entry of social media, they can.
There’s no doubt that influencers are the new modern day celebrities.
Influencers are authentic, relatable, and trustworthy to their audiences. And audiences listen to people they trust. As a result, marketers are rushing to promote their products through influencers, many of whom make millions each year. This trend shows no sign of slowing, as a full 60% of marketers plan to boost their influencer marketing spend over the coming months.
Trust leads to relatability. Relatability leads to influence. And influence pays.
For more on influencer marketing, read 10 Reasons To Launch An Influencer Marketing Campaign Today.