I stumbled across an interesting article by Robert Young that introduces the concept of “micro-celebrities”; i.e. popular individuals within social networks, whose natural enthusiasm for a product or brand can be supported, amplified, and ultimately projected outwards. The basic idea: instead of (or in addition to) paying a famous celebrity millions of dollars to hawk your wares, why not identify and reward several thousand of your most popular fans, such that they are encouraged to spread word of your product (explicitly or implicitly) to others?

This is not entirely a new idea. Malcolm Gladwell (sort of) touches upon it in Tipping Point. But I like the way Robert has framed the issue, even though his example (featuring micro-celebrities in video ads) is too heavy-handed for my taste.

So, here’s an idea for game companies. Identify popular individuals in social networking systems like MySpace and Xbox Live who are already expressing a natural affinity for your products. At the most basic level, this simply means finding people with the most friends, then doing a quick check on what media they’ve associated themselves with and what games they’ve written about. All this can be automated; anyone who makes it past the filter is then reviewed by a human being, just to make sure they’re an appropriate candidate.

Once you’ve identified your micro-celebrities, reach out to them. Let them know that they’ve been singled out for their interest in the product, and that you care about their interests and feedback. Make them feel special by pulling them into an exclusive group. Maybe try low-cost but thoughtful things to reward them; for example, send them free copies of new games. A triple-A title that needs to sell a million units to be a “success” isn’t going to suffer in the least from 5,000 giveaways, but if each give-away leads to 50 or 100 purchases… you get the idea.

Micro-celebrities could also be supported with (but not forced to use) exclusive media assets that they can employ however they wish. Perhaps major publishers could even hold parties in major cities once a year for their micro-celebrities?

The beauty of the idea is that you’re not actually forcing anything; you’re simply amplifying tendencies and affinities that already exist. And you’re doing it in a subtle way that shouldn’t cause “loss of credibility” for your micro-celebrities (in other words, they won’t be called sell-outs; if anything, their friends will probably become jealous and vie for similar status!)

Studies are showing that weak, “unbiased” signals (like those generated by social networks) are 10 to 15 times more powerful than strong, biased signals (i.e. TV advertisements). No consumer product company can ignore this phenomenon — those who do will quickly find themselves at a very major disadvantage.

-240 responses to “Micro-Celebrities

  1. Micro-celebrities are a minor (sic) controversy in Second Life. The so-called “Inner Core” of early adopters, many of which occupy significant positions of social influence due to their technical experience (and generally genial personalities) have led to accusations of favoritism from newer members of the community. The alleged favoritism might include quicker sysadmin response times, opinion sought regarding future feature lists, invitations to informal gatherings with Linden Lab employees, small virtual gifts, and so on. None of these are particularly unreasonable benefits for longtime paying users, but any semblance of arbitrary dealings between the company and its users may be taken as a blemish on Second Life’s utopian vision of an economy without barriers.

    Jealousy is powerful and can get very ugly, very quickly. Handled improperly, both the valued community members and the company can find their reputations at risk in short order. You’re right, this must be handled subtly, but I wonder how many corporations are capable of such careful subtlety.

  2. The “micro-celebrity”” is referred to, in branding, as the brand champion and sometimes as the brand ambassador. The latter phrase more explicitly describes the role of the champion; however, brand champions can be an internal or external influencer. In the music industry, artists often cooperate with external ambassador groups called “street teams”, whose responsibilities include grassroots marketing to stakeholders usually designated by the artist’s marketing group. The concept of the “micro-celebrity” doesn’t appear to be fresh and revolutionary. Marketers in interactive entertainment who desire more sophisticated PR and IMC approaches to brand building should look to other established industries instead of attempting to reinvent the wheel.

  3. This is an idea that’s been making waves in the industry for years – if you get a chance, check out Jon Berry and Ed Keller’s THE INFLUENTIALS ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0743227298/ ), which describes how, as the subtitle suggests, “One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy”. In 1991, the Scot artist Momus nailed it by paraphrasing Andy Warhol thus: “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.”

    The biggest challenge that ad execs face is convincing their clients that it makes more sense to spend their money courting a smaller group of influentials instead of making more general-audience ads. However, Philip’s right – if the execs succeed in talking their clients into funding such a thing, it requires a deft hand to prevent jealousy from rearing its ugly head.

    Or does it? This may not be as difficult as it seems. Neil Gaiman is famous to way more than just fifteen people, but he’s probably not famous enough for his face to sell cars. (AFAIK, the only time his face has been used in an ad for something he himself didn’t create was for a READING IS GOOD-style library campaigns.) However, he regularly mentions products he has discovered on his weblog, and he casually talks about what he likes or dislikes about them. Most recently he’s been raving about the wonders of a Slingbox, and listening to him talk about it has done more for me considering buying one than any glossy TV ad ever will. I think the answer for companies is, as you say, sending the influentials one of their product. The companies should make clear that the influential is under no binding contract to talk about the product one way or the other, but that the influential has been identified as someone they thought might like the product, and might pass the word on if they do.

    Morgan’s also absolutely correct about street teams, and it’s absolutely an idea that shouldn’t be limited to music. Warren Ellis’ TRANSMETROPOLITAN was an amazing comic series back in the late nineties, and was graphically represented by a three-eyed smiley face. If this were still producing new issues, I’d suggest that DC ask Warren himself to comment on his blog, “If you lot would like a free TRANSMET button for your jackets or backpacks or whatever, email this guy and he’ll send you one.” Suddenly the brand starts showing up everywhere on the streets, and the observant begins to wonder what this three-eyed smiley face is all about, not unlike the KAIJU BIG BATTEL (sic) bizarre Lego-style heads that appear on street signs all over Boston, or the OBEY GIANT logos that are pretty much everywhere on the planet.

    It’s also worth noting that Kevin Smokler invented something called The Virtual Book Tour a couple of years ago, where authors would take over a different influential’s weblog each day for a week. (I’m simplifying here – some authors conducted interviews, others posted excerpts, and so on, but you get the idea.) These tours generated a decent jump in Google rankings, built buzz around the books, and, if nothing else, got copies of those books into the influentials’ hands. I’ve been lucky enough to experience some really top-notch stuff this way, like Mary Roach’s STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393324826/ ), and I hope to do something similar when I start to publish my own stuff. This is particularly useful for books, which don’t have to sell very many copies to establish themselves as hits, but I imagine the same would hold true for video games.

  4. This is kind of the idea behind the ‘word of mouth’ marketing that BzzAgent (http://www.bzzagent.com/) does. Essentially, they give free products to those who sign up, then ask for feedback, and encourage (without obligation) the people to tell others about the product. There is also no requirement to speak favorably about the product — which is a large part of why this type of marketing can be successful.

  5. I find it more intriguing how ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’ are repackaged in this way. Andy Warhol’s quote is all you need – excellent quote.

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