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These were the key takeaways from a panel discussion we hosted at Social Media Week London, ‘Reinventing Influence: The Blurring Lines Between Celebrities and Creators, and What’s Next’. The panel featured our host, ITB Worldwide’s very own Global Growth and Development Director Crystal Malachias, WME Partner Carolyn Moneta and Coty’s Influencer Marketing & Comms Lead, Grace Fung.
In an increasingly digital – and social – first world, celebrities and influencers alike are becoming one-in-the-same, merging traditional and digital content to become media entities in their own right. But in the shifting landscape of digital content creation, how can brands harness influence to build cultural relevance amongst their consumers?
The blurring lines between celebrity and influencer/creator came to fruition in a big way in 2020, with many celebrities opening up their lives to audiences online and embodying what so many traditional digital influencers have built their names and communities on. From Stanley Tucci making cocktails on Instagram to Gordon Ramsey doing dance routines on TikTok to Lizzo opening up about her health and wellness journey – and of course Adele’s Instagram Live, the distinction between the two is changing.
“There’s not really a practical distinction between the two when you’re evaluating it on influence, fame and popularity, but there’s a rational distinction based on what the talent is best known for,” said Carolyn Moneta. “The distinction to me comes down to whether you speak directly to your audience through channels you actually own and control. Influencers were the first to lead that in terms of how they drive impact but celebrities also now have that impact as well.”
From a storytelling perspective, Grace Fung noted that: “When it comes to influencer marketing, we refer to them as content creators rather than influencers, because ultimately they’re all there to tell a story in different ways and from different perspectives. We tend to work more with content creators because we’re tapping into their specific expertise as the illustrators that can bring the storytelling to life.”
With changes in online behaviour and media consumption, spurred on by the rise of TikTok and new formats like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, how can celebrities, influencers and brands adapt and stay relevant?
The experts agreed that those who are successful are those who are unafraid to be first movers on these platforms and are willing to explore new formats. That requires them to be strategic and have an intimate knowledge and understanding of how to use social media and all the different platforms. The ultimate driver of influence, according to Carolyn, is having the talent use their own voice and sharing their own content.
Celebrity or Influencer?
The panelists moved on to discuss how success can be measured in this blurring world and debate whether bigger and better when it comes to follower count still applies.
“Celebrities still have that impact when you have something that’s completely brand new, whether it’s messaging or a new product line – it’s always good to have someone with a known name and a huge following to get that message across,” said Grace. “But the local strategy has been to trickle down and interpret that message with our content creators. Celebrity endorsement/ambassadors are great with the reach itself but not necessarily with the engagement.”
“Gone are the days where it’s only a one-way communication of an ad,” added Carolyn. “Now, it’s more of a two-way thing and I think a lot more celebrities are aware that they have the voice as well and that will actually give a more authentic voice for both the celebrities and the brand. It’s about starting a conversation. If you’re equipped to do that, and engage in the right ways, brands will see success on social.”
Measuring Star Power
The conversation also touched on how agencies are helping brands determine the ‘star power’ of potential talent to work with – but noted the measure of their stardom is subjective. Instead the driving force should be whether the brand’s DNA matches with the celebrity or influencer’s DNA.
“With the advent of social and particularly influencers, these are talent in their own right,” said Carolyn. “There’s a lot of reasons why you’re engaging with them based on who they are and what they stand for. Obviously engagement and measurability happens and we try to use that and leverage it to everyone’s benefit but not to be the sole driving factor. We try to focus on engagement versus follower count ratio – those analytics that really show meaningful influence.”
And of course it couldn’t be a panel at Social Media Week without mentioning the all important Gen Z audience – but, as Grace pointed out, brands should look beyond Gen Z as a bracket and distinguish more in terms of lifestyle and what tribes they belong to.
“Just putting someone in an age group doesn’t really reflect what they believe in,” she said. “What are their values? Are they aligned? It’s not just about following or finding the biggest stars because these are the group of people who see authenticity and individualism as more of an upfront criteria – so they need to have a voice as well.”
Long Lasting Relationships Built on Trust
To wrap up the session, the panelists shared their biggest lesson learnt throughout their careers working with celebrities and influencers.
For Grace, it’s about ensuring that you don’t just have one voice or one person speaking: “Don’t just work with one celebrity because it doesn’t represent everything a brand stands for. It could be a selection or tribe that people can associate with. In terms of influencers, it’s about having a defined set of influencers or content creators with the same voice and DNA that could align because then you have more authenticity.”
“Identify content creators that align with the DNA of the brand to have a really long lasting and flourishing relationship for content creation, which comes across as more of a two-way communication, and not just obviously branded content,” she added. “Identification is always key when it comes to content creators and establishing good relationships with agents because they are the eyes and ears.”
Talent (celebrity or influencer) intimately understand their audience better than anyone and they know what’s going to be successful on their platform. That means that brands need to relinquish some control and put their trust in the talent who have their own style, know what their audience like to see but also understand what the brand needs.
And trust is the foundation of any successful partnership to help brands achieve their goals, as summed up by ITB’s Crystal Malachias: “Trust in the experts of agencies that you’re bringing along on your journey to help guide, advise and give counsel; trust in the talent you’re working with based on the trust they’ve already built with their audience.”