Understanding the Power of YouTube Influencers (Compared to Traditional Celebrities)

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By Abbi Whitaker

I've seen firsthand as the president of a PR agency that YouTube stars are more influential than traditional celebrities among Millennial consumers. On the face of it, no one should be terribly surprised, especially considering the new Google research on the impact of YouTube influencers.

After all, celebrities become celebrities through repeated exposure to audiences, and YouTube reaches more folks in the 18-34 age group than any cable network in the United States. If viewers are seeing YouTube stars more often than they're seeing the star of some cable show, it only makes sense that YouTube celebrities will become more influential.

But beyond the seemingly obvious Google findings, this research provides some insights about the changing nature of celebrity influencers -- as well as some insight into the way that the relationship between celebrities and audiences remains unchanged in an era of social media.

Celebrity Influence Throughout the Ages

For more than 50 years, researchers have been fascinated by the power of celebrities -- how they're created, how audiences become attached, and how celebrities influence behavior.

John Zimmerman and Ellen Ayood of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University observed a decade ago that consumers think of their interactions with celebrities as one-way, safe relationships that allow them to live a fantasy life without any obligation on their own part. The relationship between a consumer and a celebrity grows stronger, the researchers found, when consumers allow themselves to be influenced by the star.

Not much has changed for decades: Actor Ronald Reagan was an effective influencer when he endorsed Chesterfield cigarettes in print ads of the 1940s. (Weirdly, sales of Ford Bronco SUVs may spiked in the days after the famous low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson down the freeways of Los Angeles.)

The Power of YouTube Influencers

So, what makes YouTube stars stronger influencers than traditional celebrities? Two things, the Google research finds:

First, YouTube audiences tend to see stars on the social platform as creators, not just performers. Comic Jenna Marbles, for instance, draws about half a million YouTube views a day. They carry a flavor of authenticity that's not common in a network sitcom crafted by eight folks in a writers' room.

Because audiences view YouTube stars as creators, not just performers, audiences are far more likely to believe that they are joining a community of supportive fans when they follow a YouTube star.

Second, YouTube creators interact with their fans far more often than traditional celebrities. The result is a relationship that the audience views as something more akin to a friendship than membership in a fan club. About 40 percent of millennial viewers, in fact, say YouTube creators understand them better than their own friends.

The upshot: Google says videos created by YouTube stars result in far more engagement -- three times as many views, 12 times as many comments -- than videos from traditional celebrities.

All of this, in short, puts more force behind the traditional power of celebrity influencers and provides a strong competitive advantage for brands that know how to navigate the crowds of YouTube content creators.

Abbi Whitaker is the founder and creative engine of The Abbi Agency.