Understanding the Rise of the Digital Celebrity

PewDiePie. iJustine. Smosh.

They sound like the fall line-up on Nickelodeon, or trendy smart phone apps, or even Anime characters.  In reality, they’re a small sampling of the growing power and trend of digital celebrities, blossoming from the likes of YouTube, Vine, and even Instagram (only a matter of time before Twitch is added to that list).

The Micro-Celebrity

The New York Times came out with a great article earlier this week about the micro celebrity – individuals (or groups) who rise to fame by creating unique content on digital platforms (also known as Viners, YouTubers, and Instagrammers).  These micro-celebs are cementing their place in pop culture fame.


For example, Bethany Mota – a YouTuber with over 7 million subscribers – has crossed the pop culture divide and is now on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. And PewDiePie (aka Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg) reportedly pulls in over $4 million in ad sales alone, per year (much of which is straight profit).

For companies looking to do social outreach, utilizing popular home-grown channels for marketing and brand support has proven to be much more versatile as an outlet than traditional celebrities.  Big studios have also started eyeing the lucrative nature of these channels and content creators, especially those who have band together to great small digital networks or studios.

Growing Studio Support

disney-makerMaker Studios, the YouTube network with the most unique views in the US, was recently sold to Disney for $500 million, and has recently teamed up with MiTu –the multi-channel focusing primarily on Hispanic content.  Together, they’re going to have quite the reach.  Maker Studios claims 6.5 billion monthly views and 450 million subscribers (total), while MiTu has 470 million views each month and 55 million subscribers.

Content creators becoming micro-celebrities will not be a flash-in-the-pan. As the William Morris Agency does for stars of stage and screen, theAudience does for growing micro-celebrities. Initially, the company had started as a social media management service – a way to manage a celebrity’s appearance and engagement on social platforms (PR for the win).  Over time, they started adding social media stars and content creator talent to their roster.  From there, the company helps brands access those with strong outreach.  In a way, it’s a more business-savvy marketing-venture, in comparison to the collaborative-creator feel of Maker Studios.

There is even competition growing within types of content the studios wish to develop.  With Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch.TV, YouTube itself is looking to invest more in its eSport and game coverage channel, BroadBandTv.

Community & Responsibility

With the strength and reach of these micro-celebrities (and their channels or studios), we’re going to see a new shift in entertainment development and talent.  And while this is an exciting opportunity for entertainment and legions of entertainers with a digital camera, we cannot forget three things:

  • Creators are self-grown, and often spring from the very audience they wish to entertain, without a true understanding of the business aspect.
  • They’re often young!  The content creator demographic is primarily school-aged or twenty something, and supported by their peers.
  • The social nature of faceless online communities thriving in social platforms (for example: comments section of videos and images and response-tweets).

Some individual channels are not appropriate for children, but the overall platform is embraced by mass public (approved by parents, whether or not the child can create an account).  And many comments are not appropriate for children, even if the channel itself is.


Recently, PewDiePie (again, the most popular YouTuber to date) removed the social ability from his YouTube channel on the social platform.  That. is. HUGE.

PewDiePie lamented the state of comments on YouTube, and said he’d let them go on this long in the hopes that they would improve, or YouTube itself would figure out some better way of moderating them. He stressed that he still wanted to connect directly with his 30 million subscribers, and suggested alternative avenues through which he would do that.

Based on the communal nature of YouTube, this is a tough decision to make, and not necessarily advisable to those without his established subscriber muscle. Also, honestly, he will not be spared the same issues on other platforms. Trolls are everywhere.

Micro-Celebrity and Channel Support


If a micro-celebrity you wish to be, or a brand who wishes to engage with content creators, please keep in mind the necessity of moderation and community management within the platform.  If you wish to have a true relationship with an audience or a community, establish the necessary boundaries and implement moderation techniques or moderators.  This will help you with the abuse, the threats, the spam, etc.  We do this often for many brand channels, and it’s so essential in maintaining the positive success of YouTube creativity and outreach success.

Izzy Neis
Director of Engagement and Strategy

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