I’ve been meaning to post a long-ish rant on the importance of celebrities taking control of their own platforms, but never gotten to it, in part because I’m not that enamored with the incessant selling of celebrity that occurs in our culture. Yeah, I sound like a grumpy old man, but I can’t help myself. It bums me out – not because I don’t like celebrities, but because the current approach strikes me as driven by short term thinking.
If, instead, more celebrities actually used their fame to take control of their own destiny and build a platform for themselves, they’d last longer, be happier, and make more money – perhaps not as much all at once, but more over the long term. And what do I mean by “taking control of their own destiny”? Well, in a phrase, I mean “building themselves a platform through which they effectively communicate with, build, and deliver value to their fan base.”
Until recently, those platforms were controlled by others. But now, celebrities can roll their own. And that changes the game, if they chose to play.
Before I explain what I mean by that, let me state for the record that I believe the same is true for all marketing brands. But I get ahead of myself (more on what it means to build a platform for brands in a future post.)
Let’s start at the beginning. What, after all, is a celebrity? Well, if you do a Google Image search for the term, you’re bound to believe a celebrity is an attractive, well endowed woman. Wikipedia defines the concept thusly: “A celebrity is a person who is famously recognized in a society….There are degrees of celebrity status which vary based on an individual’s region or field of notoriety. While someone might be a celebrity to some people, to others he may be completely unknown.”
That last part is important when it comes to social media. I’ve noticed that the class of folks we might call “minor celebrities” have taken to social media far more quickly than those who Wikipedia calls “global celebrities.” In fact, the extraordinary embrace of Twitter by A-lister Ashton Kutcher (there, I wrote his name for the first time ever) serves as the rule proving exception – big time celebrities don’t often expose themselves in an honest dialog with their fans. Instead, they are handled. They are managed, marketed and controlled like packaged goods, sold through the supermarket aisle distribution outlets of sports arenas, movie theatres, network television, and arena tours.
And because they are treated as product by their managers, they are discouraged to do anything that might smack of honest dialog with their fan base – anything that might feel like “routing around” the manicured image laid out by the business of celebrity.
Case in point is the approach major sports leagues have taken toward both Facebook and Twitter. Recently the NFL and ESPN have banned or curtailed use of either Twitter or blogging or both. (As much as I appreciate ESPN’s product, I consider it to be a product of the leagues, not an independent platform for players. From their policy: “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts…” Follow the money, after all…).
Following that money explains why these new policies are being put in place. Leagues like the NFL and distribution outlets like ESPN make their money by controlling the output of the product on the field. If that product starts to have a conversation outside of those lines, money, connection, and reputation might be made on those conversations, value that is not being harvested by the NFL or ESPN. That’s a threat, and they are treating it as such.
It’s no coincidence that the most prolific and natural celebrity users of social media platforms exist outside those manicured boundaries – in sports like tennis (Roger Federer) and cycling (Lance Armstrong, who started tweeting around the time of his appearance at last year’s Web 2 conference). These are celebrities who are not handcuffed by powerful leagues or networks, and who naturally gravitate toward platforms that allow them to connect directly to their fanbase.
Does this sound familiar? It should if you’re a marketer struggling with how to take your brand online. After decades of manicuring your brands through one-way mass media platforms like television, it turns out millions of people are now talking about your prized possessions online, and you can’t directly control the conversation. But a new set of brands have sprung up who seem agile in this environment, and they feel threatening: Think JetBlue and Virgin, over American and Delta. Whole Foods over Lucky. Comcast over AT&T. These “new” brands have taken to social media and are embracing it, warts and all.
I think when it comes to celebrity, the same is also be true. The celebrities who are “minor” now are swarming to Twitter and Facebook, much as unknown bands swarmed to MySpace. Those who have direct, honest connections with their fans will endure. Those who don’t might catch the flame of fame briefly, but they will not endure as brands. Why? Because no matter what, the “packaged goods” platforms of movies, networks, and sports leagues are still important, and it will soon be the players and celebrities with a guaranteed base of hard core fans – or followers – who can call the shots with those powers that be. You think Brooke Burke won’t get a better deal now that she’s in dialog with over a million fans on Twitter? Owning and cultivating your own platform means you no longer are in thrall to “star makers” – together with your community, you make your own star. That’s a kind of celebrity I can get behind.