Harnessing User-Generated Content through Micro-Celebrity endorsements

Written by Allan Su

The Rise of User-Generated Content

With the emergence of social media platforms, one person is now able to communicate their experience with a product to hundreds and thousands of other people in a matter of seconds (Mangold & Faulds, 2009; Naab & Sehl, 2016). Consequently, a power shift has occurred (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak & Hofacker, 2013) no longer is it a one-way communication from the marketer to the consumer, but a two-way communication between them. But more significantly, consumers are able to broadcast their experiences to thousands of other consumers, potentially impacting purchase intentions through influencing brand attitudes and brand equity of a company (Schivinsky & Dabrowski, 2014; Wang, Yu & Wei, 2012).

Companies in the forefront of social media are therefore actively engaging with their consumers in order to stimulate and promote positive user-generated content (UGC). These companies realise the eventual impact UGC will have on soft and hard brand performance measures such as brand associations, brand attitudes and brand value. Whether the impact will be positive or negative will depend on the pro-activeness of the company – to either be a promoter and moderator of user generated content or simply a passive observer (Gensler, Völckner, Liu-Thompkins & Wiertz, 2013). For the purpose of this article, UGC will be defined as being characterised by a degree of personal contribution, it must be published and is created outside the realm of a profession and professional routines (OECD, 2007, p.8).

UGC is enabled primarily through social media platforms, the platform operators do not produce content but provides users the means to produce, collaborate and distribute content.  While social media platforms are built from fundamental elements of interaction, some platforms such as Instagram and YouTube promotes self-promotional brand related UGC.  YouTube’s slogan “Broadcast Yourself” encourages their users to be the star in their videos, supporting the creation of micro-celebrities (Burgess & Green, 2009; Moon, Lee, Lee, Choi & Sung, 2016; Smith, Fischer & Yongjian, 2012). The rise of micro-celebrities is undoubtedly facilitated by the increasing access to technology that enables creation and distribution of UGC (Marwick & Boyd, 2011).

Micro-celebrities -  The New Celebrity Endorsers of Social media

A micro-celebrity can be defined as something one does, rather than something one is. It can be understood as a mindset, a set of practices or performance.  The self-presentation is carefully constructed and leveraged through social media for consumption by others. While the audience is viewed as a fan base requiring management to maintain one’s popularity.  (Marwick, 2015; Marwick & Boyd, 2011; Senft, 2008).  This is exemplified today by “regular people” adopting micro-celebrity tactics to gains status through constructed personas leveraged through YouTube.  

Micro-celebrities are often regarded as more authentic by fans as they interact directly with fans via @replies, comments or face-to-face meets. While traditional celebrities only give the illusion of interaction and access. This interaction aspect plays a fundamental part in maintaining the micro-celebrity’s brand and popularity (Marwick, 2015). They to be niche personalities for very specific audiences that broadcast media could not support; as they often are willing to reveal intimate or emotional material to appeal to viewers, while being personally accountable to their audiences (Marwick, 2015).  Furthermore, micro-celebrities are seen as more trustworthy, earned through consumers following the micro-celebrity for a certain amount of time, which helps the developig trust by giving them a clear understanding of the identity of the micro-celebrity, their lifestyle and patterns (Ilicic & Webster, 2013; Jargalsaikhan & Korotina, 2016) Furthermore the idea of micro-celebrities’ autonomy from powerful and commercialised systems underpins the very nature of their trustworthiness and authenticity (Jerslev, 2016).

With the rise of micro-celebrities, we also seeing an increasing tendency of companies engaging in micro-celebrity endorsements. Take the example of Sarah Ware, CEO of Markerly, her company engaged with the Kardashian sisters on Instagram to promote a weight-loss tea company resulting in hundreds of conversations. However, they also approached around 40 micro-celebrities and were able to convert at an even higher level (Chen, 2016). Marketing agencies utilising micro-celebrities is increasing as they provide authenticity and trustworthiness, access to different demographics and better consumer engagement compared to traditional celebrities at a cost effective price point (Chen, 2016; TechCrunch, 2016).

Figure 1 - Instagram post by Nikki Blackketter promoting Gymshark underwear

Figure 1 - Instagram post by Nikki Blackketter promoting Gymshark underwear

While traditional celebrity endorsement is one of the most effective and widely used tool of marketers (Seno & Lukas, 2007). Proving to be an effective method in distributing and exchanging attention, awareness creation and developing positive brand associations (Erdogan, 1999; Van Krieken, 2012). The effectiveness of celebrity endorsements can be explained by assessing the meanings that the consumers associate with the endorser which are eventually transferred to the brand (McCracken, 1989).

Arguably, micro-celebrities share similarities to traditional celebrities, as fans often associate micro-celebrities with different meanings such as authenticity. Young consumers especially borrow symbolic properties and meanings from celebrities to construct aspects of their self. Micro-celebrities can therefore be considered culturally relevant and inspirational beings embedded with symbolic meanings for consumers on social media. The consumption of micro-celebrity endorsed products allows consumers to obtain these meanings and properties for constructing an ideal self, similar to traditional celebrity endorsement (Peter & Olson, 1996, Boon & Lomore 2001; McCracken, 1989; Sirgy, 1982).

The Case of Gymshark: Engaging with Micro-Celebrities in building Positive Brand Image

Gymshark is a growing fitness brand offering fitness apparel for men and women and is specifically targeted at young heavy lifting gym-goers. The clothing is designed to deliver comfortability both inside and outside the gym. But most importantly making the consumer look good (Social Media Nexus, 2016; The42, 2016).  Starting off as a small brand, the company’s growth took off with the use of micro-celebrity endorsements with YouTube micro-celebrities within the fitness niche, acting as brand ambassadors (Brusin, 2015).

Figure 2- Gymshark Slogan "Be a Visionary"

Figure 2- Gymshark Slogan "Be a Visionary"

Gymshark engaged with selected YouTube micro-celebrities with a large following by sending them Gymshark products for free. Which allowed ambassadors to display their products in product haul videos and daily vlogs.  Before a new collection was launched, Gymshark would send pieces of their new collection out to their ambassadors in order to promote and stir hype around the launch. The ambassadors would receive affiliate discount codes which further incentivised the ambassadors to promote the products (Tan, 2016). Gymshark would also fly out prominent ambassadors for company tours, which consisted of face-to-face meets with fans or photoshoot sessions for new products.  These events were not only recorded and made as official content on Gymshark’s social media platforms. But the micro-celebrities themselves used the opportunity to do their own personal vlogging during the events, further cementing the bond between them and the Gymshark brand.

Figure 3 - Steve Cook and Nikki Blackketter - YouTube Product Haul

Figure 3 - Steve Cook and Nikki Blackketter - YouTube Product Haul

By utilising micro-celebrity endorsement deals with YouTubers such as Steve Cook and Nikki Blackketter, who combined have a following of more than 1.1 million subscribers on YouTube. It allowed Gymshark to get access to a specific niche market of highly engaged followers. While arguably facilitating the transfer of meanings and associations of the micro-celebrities to the Gymshark brand itself. This was enabled by the UGC of the micro-celebrities by featuring the Gymshark products in their vlogs or Instagram post. This gave an added level of authenticity and trustworthiness from the micro-celebrity to the brand, while embedding the products with symbolic meaning. Therefore, if consumers bought Gymshark products endorsed by their admired micro-celebrity, they would obtain some of these symbolic meanings and properties to construct their ideal self. By using this social media strategy, Gymshark did not need to place emphasis on acquiring followers of their own, as they gained access to the thousands of engaged followers of their brand ambassadors. Allowing Gymshark to gain traction and attention for a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing activities.

Figure 4 - Facebook post promoting "My Vision" YouTube campaign

Figure 4 - Facebook post promoting "My Vision" YouTube campaign

A testament to their success is that many of their original ambassadors are still with Gymshark today. Which is proof of the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with brand ambassadors and building a stable brand that consumers can identify with. At present Gymshark is rolling out their latest YouTube campaign “My Vision”, which explores the motivations and backgrounds of some of their prominent ambassadors (Tan, 2016). The campaign is arguably an attempt at humanising the Gymshark brand even further through the narratives of their ambassadors.

Conclusion

Social media has facilitated the rise of micro-celebrities, offering smaller companies with a relative small budget a way to get attention and build positive brand associations through micro-celebrity endorsements. However, micro-celebrities are also relevant for larger companies looking to gain access into different demographics of highly engaged consumers. Along with the cost of micro-celebrity-endorsements being only a fraction of what is spent on traditional marketing activities. 

Besides, what better way to engage with consumers in the age of social media than by doing so through “one of their own”.  A micro-celebrity born from the very social media platform in which they have fostered a relationship of trust and authenticity with their consumers.  Micro-celebrities are experts in their field, knowing their fan base better than anyone and having built their personal brand from this knowledge.

However, implications also follow with the rise of micro-celebrities and UGC. How effective are micro-celebrities’ engagement once they reach a certain volume of followers? As noted by Chen (2016), Instagram influencers with a following between 10,000 to 100,000 followers have a like rate of 2.4 percent, which decreases to 1.7 once followers reach a volume of 1 to 10 million.  Furthermore, the current definition of UGC may become inadequate for micro-celebrities, as more and more micro-celebrities begin to operate as traditional businesses, employing professionals to produce their content. Which blurry the line between what is considered outside or inside the realm of a profession and professional routines when producing UGC.

While micro-celebrities draw on similarities to traditional celebrities they are still quite different. As micro-celebrities are bound to their respective media platforms, while their fans require consistent and daily content and interaction to maintain their popularity. Thus, in an endorsement scenario are the criteria for finding a fit between the micro-celebrity and the brand different to a traditional celebrity endorsement? Are the effects of meaning transfer from the micro-celebrity to the brand similar to a traditional celebrity endorsement? Or do the effects differ in terms of longevity e.g. do followers only associate positive meanings towards the brand, as long as the micro-celebrity is associated with the brand? Due to the importance of how the relationship was formed through interaction between the follower and micro-celebrity.

Furthermore, do different age groups receptiveness towards micro-celebrities differ?  In Gymshark’s case their consumers were mostly young consumers, known for their receptiveness towards celebrities and celebrity endorsements. As through the consumption of the endorsed products they could construct aspects of their ideal self. However, it would be interesting to find if this was the case with different age groups.

Micro-celebrities tend to adhere to their niche and platforms due to the risk of losing their audience, by branching too far off from what the audience has grown accustomed to. While some micro-celebrities’ popularity have grown to such an extent to enable such endeavours such as Pewdiepie. We are in this case arguably moving towards the territory of what is considered a traditional celebrity. Which ask the question, can micro-celebrities reach a certain level of popularity and become a celebrity in traditional sense? And in what ways can a micro-celebrity branch out without losing their audience?

These and among others are implications that marketers need to consider when engaging with micro-celebrities. As we continue to move towards an age of increased access to technology, fostering improved interactions and interconnectedness. The number of micro-celebrities will likely increase and the very concept of a micro-celebrity may very well evolve. So too will the concept of UGC, as the line between what is considered UGC or branded content will continue to blur.

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