Until recently, the path to Internet stardom followed a formula: Early adopters of a new social media platform help set its norms and culture. The best, most consistent early adopters rise to “influencer” status, their popularity immediately apparent to anyone who joins the platform henceforth. They may not be famous anywhere outside of YouTube, or Vine, or Instagram, but on those platforms, they’re kings and queens.
The mythology surrounding these stars is that they came to stardom organically and their authenticity can’t be manufactured by, say, a corporation. That’s why so many corporations are partnering with the kooky, quirky, goofy, awkward, and sometimes childish stars of YouTube, Vine, and Instagram rather than try to build their own stars on the platform. Some YouTube stars, like “awkward older sister” Grace Helbig, are even making the leap to traditional TV.
New media companies see the opportunity in digital video, and now they’re attempting to defy odds by manufacturing their own social media stars. From the beginning, BuzzFeed has cast its own employees as the stars of its videos. Andrew Ilnyckyj, a BuzzFeed producer who stars in many videos, has more than 300,000 fans on Facebook (in addition to unofficial fanpages). Likewise for his colleague Eugene Lee Yang.
Now Mic, an up-and-coming media outfit with an audience of 20 million monthly unique visitors, is taking a page from that strategy. The company is investing in personality-driven video content, says CEO Chris Altchek. Sure, social media stars can create and publish content without the backing of a company. But they wouldn’t have a built-in staff of editors, video producers, and researchers helping them, nor would they have revenue and ad sales teams helping them monetize their content. “We give them platforms and support to get their perspectives in front of the Mic audience, and beyond,” he says.
The company aims to turn the stars of its videos into well-known Internet personalities. How? By sending them out into the field, rather than taping in a studio like cable networks. And with data: Weekly audience sentiment surveys, social analytics on more than 2,000 publishers, and a partnership with Google Surveys helps the company figure out what its audience cares about. (Areas of interest include: solutions to climate change, body positivity for women, and trans rights.)
So is it working?
It’s starting to. The most prominent personality is Liz Plank, who joined Mic as an intern. Her “Flip the Script” video series got more than 35 million views in its first “season,” and she’s gone on to mainstream TV appearances on the likes of the Today Show and the Daily Show. The trailer for a show called “Future Present,” starring Daisy Rosario, got 3.5 million views. (The series will officially launch in the Fall). Darnell Moore, a national co-organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement, is planning to imitate that success with a Mic series on social justice.
“We have built a brand expectation that when you come to Mic, you get something different, a new, fresh perspective,” Altchek says. The next class of social media stars might not be the same ones that came up organically alongside the platforms they publish on, but they’re adding a whole new group of professional, yet authentic, voices into the mix.