Jacob Shwirtz is a Personal Chief Digital Officer for different celebrities. He was formerly the Chief Social Media Officer at Endemol Beyond and before that he oversaw social media for Viacom. Shwirtz is also a member of the Found Remote Council. You can follow him @Shwirtz.
Cutting to the chase:
This is a manifesto about the ways celebrities use and leverage social media, how their activity is valued by fans and corporate partners (studios, networks, publishers, etc.) and how they can derive even more value from their efforts by evolving the classic agent, manager, publicist ecosystem.
As someone who regularly works with celebrities, I all-too-often see them getting taken advantage of by partners focused on a specific, short-term goal (promote the next movie, the upcoming show, etc.) at the expense of a quality social media strategy set up for long-term success (and profit).
And beyond those types of relationships, there is a whole undiscovered country online for most talent – one that offers the ability to create their own content, explore their own passions, drive attention to their causes, and enjoy a level of creative control and intellectual property ownership that they likely haven’t experienced previously.
Taken to the rare extreme, we see savvy celebrities create entire digital businesses. Short of that, there are specific, powerful ways that a smart digital strategy can benefit a talent with even the most traditional career ambitions (bigger roles, better parts, larger venues, conventional spokesperson deals, etc.)
Ultimately, I believe each celebrity who understands (or is curious to understand) the value of their digital presence will grow to have a “head of digital,” who works alongside the other members of their ecosystem, to help them navigate ever-changing trends, vet opportunities and maximize the impact (and income) from everything they do on everything they want to do.
My first-hand experience with the topic of "celebrities and social media," in all its idiosyncrasies and permutations, comes from a decade spent working with reality stars at MTV and VH1, advising social media managers across all the brands of Viacom, acting as Chief Social Media Officer within the world's largest independent production company (Endemol Shine Group) and guiding lots of talent directly, including Courtney Love.
Celebs getting social:
By the way, I’m using the words "celebrities, talent, creators, influencers" interchangeably and focusing almost exclusively on “traditional” talent, as opposed to digital-native stars. Some celebrities are adamant about staying offline, some dip their toes in the water hesitantly, some consider social media for purely promotional purposes, and others embrace the medium as I do, as a fascinating and impactful storytelling platform, offering endless possibilities for sincere engagement, authentic creation and serious business.
For those that do make the leap, there’s a whole spectrum of how they do so, from tackling social media personally, to outsourcing to ghost writers, assistants, publicists and high school friends.
For example, I worked with Drea De Matteo, who had previously only been active on Instagram. I launched her Facebook and Twitter accounts, focusing on video content and helping her translate her unfiltered perspective to the two platforms. We also held a wildly successful Reddit AMA. She now has a much more rounded social media presence that’s serving her well into new projects.
Here's my proof @shwirtz #THEMUTHASHIP Too early to type!! A photo posted by Drea de Matteo (@dreadematteo) on
The corporate comparison:
Regardless of whether or not the talent is active themselves, celebrity social media is executed very differently from corporate social media.
Companies usually employ "social media managers," as well as analysts, designers and editors, to carefully craft and implement strategies that learn from case studies, exemplify every-changing best practices and experiment. Companies have budgets for staff, as well as for vendors and tools to help track, analyze and publish.
A celebrity, as an individual, typically doesn't have any of those resources. That's where we get either the celebrity handling things themselves (and figuring stuff out as they go along, sometimes with help from reps at the various networks) or relying on assistants and maybe someone junior from the agent, manager, or publicist.
Unfortunately, in almost all these cases, there is little to no actual social media expertise in the mix. And even if there is a little experience there, it can’t compare to well-staffed, well-funded, well-trained and well-connected corporate teams.
That's not meant as a value judgment. Even when they lack a professional level of savviness and resources, talent that love it can still excel at creating personal and energetic social media presences… while those that don't love it, and perhaps rely on outsourcing, are left with a mostly generic, uninteresting social media presence.
And even then, those that don’t love it, and maybe don’t even care about it, might nevertheless have huge digital followings, which come from the sheer force of their celebrity. Unfortunately, when you dig below the surface of those staggering numbers you'll usually find accounts that can't deliver the quality reach, engagement or click-throughs of much smaller-but-better accounts. And by “better,” I mean “more authentic.”
Not shitting on agents/managers/publicists:
In general, I'm avoiding the claim made by some agents/managers/publicists about their teams' social media expertise and resources as I draw a clear distinction between their expertise and the expertise needed to really capitalize on the potential of the digital revolution on behalf of their clients. It’s simply a different job.
Very few invest in creating the sort of full-blown digital practice you’d need to really compete. Instead, if they do try to pitch this type of service to clients, they more often than not hire a few junior social managers and call it a day. This approach falls short for various reasons:
- The resulting content will never be as authentic and impactful as that coming from the talent themselves - especially when considering interactions like replying to fans, live-tweeting and Q&As.
- There are more and more outlets that require personal, real-time content creation that can't be faked, ghost-written or produced ahead of time - like live-streaming and Snapchat. Just in the last few days we’ve seen news that growth on Facebook will soon be very difficult without live-streaming video (or spending lots of money).
- There’s a vast difference between young, social-savvy social media managers and overall, high-level digital strategy that only comes from seasoned, senior executives, who have deep relationships with investors, the social platforms themselves, vendors, startups and apps, as well as experience with insight analysis, trend-spotting and overall business strategy.
One example is my work with Eliza Dushku. At the time, she had just launched a new homepage and we strategized a content plan for that, as well as how to leverage her social media accounts to benefit the non-profit cause she was (and still is) most passionate about. One tactic was to kick off a crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than our goal of $40,000. Finally, I was able to bring a digital perspective to the film she was acting in at the time, with live Q&As and more content sharing from the set, bringing fans into the heart of the action. In all the above, the work spanned various projects, personal and public, for-profit and non-profit, helping to build her own long-term impact in a way that the traditional setup, where talent gets support from specific corporate partners, would never be able to achieve.
Having said all that, it’s not impossible to conceive of agents/managers/publicists who can pull this off to the high standard I’m setting. It takes money, commitment and planning because it isn’t easy, can’t be done in a day or with a few junior folks.
If you're a celebrity who's chosen to embrace social media, hopefully you're not overwhelmed or intimidated while growing a quality fan base, enjoying unfiltered feedback and interaction, ignoring the haters and welcoming it all as a fun part of your overall career.
From the perspective of "return on investment," you likely feel the potential for your social media activity to benefit specific projects, like getting the word out about new shows, movies, albums, books. You probably also tried leveraging your following to benefit the social causes and non-profit orgs closest to your heart. Maybe you've even made some money from companies who were willing to pay for specific promotion.
When not done in the right way, these attempts at ROI can really harm your reputation. Its easy to "sell out," seem overly self-promotional or come across as just boring/generic. You or your friends might have even questioned whether it's worth the effort, wondering, "what are my millions of followers good for?!"
That's because being "worth the effort" depends on who you ask - it definitely benefits your corporate partners (film studios, production companies, retailers, etc.) But their interests are usually short-lived, focused on the project at hand (let's say a new movie's release) instead of the long-term quality of your digital reputation.
Similar to how relying on external resources might not lead to the best digital strategy, likewise only valuing your efforts through external lenses (like promotional partners) misses the point. Here's an example of what it's good for, a project I worked on with Kevin Smith.
Recognizing your intrinsic social value: Hopefully you're not falling into some of the traps I described because, even when not tackled with high professionalism and resources, your celebrity social media can still bring massive, tangible impact.
That's because, as a general rule, anything you do with your digital presence will overshadow anything corporate partners do with theirs. Of course there are exceptions but, again, generally, audiences are much more apt to act based on the post of a celebrity, someone they theoretically love, than the post of an official show account, which everyone knows is corporate-run.
In short, companies might theoretically have the savviness and resources but celebrities have the audience trust and attention. Of course you want to make money and promote your projects but only you have your long-term reputation with the audience in mind.
Recent research from the film world:
Twitter teamed with analytics firm Crimson Hexagon to analyze tweets for 33 movies released in 2015, spanning each film’s lifecycle from trailer release to post-premiere. The films included 15 “over-performers,” which had an average box-office-to-budget ratio of 2.5, and 18 “under-performers,” with a B.O./budget ratio of 0.5.
The key findings: Over-performing movies had 150% more posts on Twitter than the pics that bombed, among the films analyzed. Overall, movies that had talent who were active on Twitter saw a 326% boost in average daily volume of conversation on the service, compared with those whose actors or directors did not have Twitter accounts.
“It’s a powerful story to tell: Having your cast on Twitter does boost the overall conversation about your movie,” said Rachel Dodes, head of film partnerships for Twitter.
Recent reporting from the branded marketing world:
It turns out that consumers have little interest in the content that brands churn out. Very few people want it in their feed. Most view it as clutter—as brand spam. When Facebook realized this, it began charging companies to get “sponsored” content into the feeds of people who were supposed to be their fans.
On social media, what works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox.
The problem companies face is structural, not creative. Big companies organize their marketing efforts as the antithesis of art worlds, in what I have termed brand bureaucracies. They excel at coordinating and executing complex marketing programs across multiple markets around the world. But this organizational model leads to mediocrity when it comes to cultural innovation.
Working with Mr. Worldwide, @Pitbull. A photo posted by Jacob Shwirtz (@shwirtz) on
Cashing in on your value:
Your activity online as a celebrity, with an active, long-term and hopefully authentic, vibrant, smart social media presence, is WORTH REAL MONEY and, therefore, should be treated with the sensitivity, forethought and business savviness as any new venture, promotional appearance, endorsement and the like.
I said I wasn’t shitting on your agent/manager/publicist and here’s exactly where they play a key role - fighting for what you deserve, based on the real impact you can have digitally. And they can do this for you when properly empowered by insights and hard numbers from your digital strategy. Imagine them preparing pitches (for your traditional work) that include things like average engagement rate of your posts, breakdowns on genders, ages and locations of your digital audience, and on and on. Real stuff!
Don't get taken advantage of by partners who only care about their one project with you. Don't assume you need to live-tweet your show as a *favor* to the company or that it "comes with the territory these days." Don't swap out your header banners with something gaudy and over-promotional just because the VP of Marketing asked nicely or offered to do it for you. Don't give out your passwords, admin access and advertising rights (the permission of a company to put money behind "boosting" your posts) because an intern of the VP said it'd save you time. Don't participate in some sort of spin-off web series or other digital campaign as a freebie/bonus even though it'll "just take a few minutes during down-time on set."
Yes, this means you:
My thesis applies not just to the biggest stars but to every working talent who’s committed to their own digital presence and the role it can play in their career and business.
Of course, there are some stand-out examples of celebrities that have seriously capitalized on their digital activity, which can be used as points of reference and inspiration for us all.
Celebrities like George Takei have become full-blown masters of content curation. Celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Buscemi and Nicole Richie have enjoyed great success with web series (where they can enjoy more creative control than traditional media). Celebrities like Lauren Conrad, Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon have launched their own entire digital publications and full-blown lifestyle offerings. Celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake have created, invested in and nurtured multiple digital businesses. Others, like Louis C.K., have experimented with leveraging digital strategy to radically disrupt the standard operating procedures of their fields. And don't get me started on the digital mastery of the Kardashians.
Even if you're not going to launch a digital business, there is still a wide middle-ground between just doing what your corporate partners want and exploring the potential for you to leverage your efforts to earn extra money, bring attention to the for-profit and non-profit causes you care about, and use your digital activity to achieve real goals in your traditional career.
Where do we go from here:
It might be a little extreme to say, and we’ll likely see various hybrid models emerge, but the bold pronouncement I’d like to make is, welcome to the birth of the Personal Chief Digital Officer!
As a celebrity, you probably have or had some combination of agent, manager, or publicist. I believe you'll soon also have a "head of digital" on your team that is probably independent of the other three. This person will be much more than a social media manager. In fact, you might still have a social media manager and they may actually work for one of those other three.
Your own personal ‘head of digital:’
This will be the person bringing a digital perspective to everything you do. Sometimes they'll equip your agent with analytics regarding the online demographics you resonate most with to help with pitches. Sometimes they'll brainstorm with your manager what new content to create that'll help attract your desired audience or show off your specific "range" that you might think isn't currently obvious in the industry. Sometimes they'll work with your publicist to make sure all the right media outlets - traditional and digital - are targeted with the right stories that exemplify what you're doing and how it's special.
From day to day the job will change. There'll be a mix of making sure you're always up to date with new features of existing networks, which new networks to experiment with, which old networks to drop - as you always want to be on top of the right trends and growing at a respectable pace.
Then there'll be specific initiatives that capitalize on your traditional projects, partnerships, causes and general interests. Maybe it'll be a cool way of working with an interesting startup or a savvy way of connecting between your passions and what's trending on any given day. There'll certainly be a lot of dialog and coordination with all your corporate partners to insure that your digital footprint is properly valued and suitably leveraged, with your own long-term interests in mind. So when you promote those partners, are they promoting you too, and are they providing you with the most effective content to use, customized to your audience, not just the same generic materials your costars are promoting?
The idea is simply to take the resources, capabilities and intelligence of what a company has and bring it to the realm of what you, as a celebrity, should have for yourself… because you deserve it, because your digital presence can be even more powerful and make even more of an impact that those corporate accounts. It's time for you to have someone on your side that you can trust who is savvy to these issues, someone who lives and breathes every breaking trend, startup, vendor, case study and best practice.
Many studios, networks and agencies like to claim they are “talent first.” In this day and age, given the state of the Internet and its impact on popular culture, I don’t think claims of being “talent centric” can be sincere without serious investment in the sorts of strategies and resources I described. It is possible, and I’m not throwing anyone under the bus.
Hopefully I’ve helped you, as a talent, see this topic in new light. Hopefully I’ve equipped you with new ways to evaluate who you chose to work with and the claims they make.
And if you’re curious to talk more about these issues, just say hi!
And if you do something similar and are reading this, say hi! The world is filled with meetups, conferences and symposia for corporate social media managers but not one is dedicated to those of us doing high level social and digital work directly for celebrities, talent, creators. I'm organizing our own meetups and forums for collaboration, so definitely reach out. Obviously everything is kept in total confidence.