Smosh

YouTube will always be the go-to destination for cat videos, but increasingly this low-brow user generated content (UGC) is just the appetizer to what’s becoming a more and more credible premium video offering. With money flowing into the ecosystem from YouTube content grants, multi-channel networks, and traditional Hollywood production houses, we seem to be finally entering an era where YouTube content is taken seriously.

A new survey indicates that the stars of this new platform are already commanding the kind of notoriety and popularity once reserved for those headlining summer blockbusters or weeknight sitcoms. According to the Variety-commissioned study:

…teenagers are more enamored with YouTube stars than they are the biggest celebrities in film, TV and music.

That’s the surprising result of a survey Variety commissioned in July that found the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13-18 are all YouTube faves, eclipsing mainstream celebs including Jennifer Lawrence and Seth Rogen.

Variety crowns Smosh, the comedy duo featuring Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla, as the most popular act, earning a score of 93 out of 100. They were followed by the Fine Bros (Benny and Rafi Fine) and PewDiePie (Sweeden’s Felix Avrid Ulf Kjellberg). Tragically, the highest-ranked non-YouTube star in the survey was the late Fast and the Furious star, Paul Walker, who ranked sixth with a scored 75 on the survey. The top ranked woman from either category was Jennifer Lawrence, coming in seventh with a score of 74.

Brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev spoke to 1,500 respondents in the highly coveted teen demographic for the survey, asking about the approachability, authenticity, and overall influence of 20 stars, including a mix of YouTube and traditional celebrities with high Q scores among the target teen audience. The result was that the Top 5 and six of the Top 10 high scorers were YouTube stars. The Top 5 YouTubers all earned scores of 81 or higher, while aging heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio rounded out the Top 20 with a score of just 8.

It’s just one survey among just a small number of fans, but it’s significant nonetheless, as indicated by the below playful tweet from Defy Media (fka Break Media) co-founder Keith Richman:

The question, likely on the minds of all YouTube stars, is when will this popularity translate into dollars. Despite the enormity of its audience, online video advertising rates still trail those of traditional TV by orders of magnitude and even top stars find themselves forced to working overtime just to make a decent income – there are no YouTube stars pulling down eight-figure annual  incomes and living in palatial mansions for just a few months work. These kids are still hustling.

But as Variety reports, “YouTube stars scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities across a range of characteristics considered to have the highest correlation to influencing purchases among teens.” If that doesn’t translate into advertising appeal, I don’t know what will.

One risk in further commercializing these rising stars, however, is that they may be seen as losing some of the authenticity and spontaneity that made them popular in the first place. As variety explains, “teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros.” It’s a catch 22 that the YouTubers themselves and their managers and advisors will need to navigate deftly in the coming years so as to make the transition from home-grown talent to A-list star a smooth (and profitable) one.

As Variety’s Susanne Ault notes, there are lessons to be learned by Hollywood in these survey results as well. Traditional stars can benefit from emphasizing individualism and authenticity, as opposed to the always-on, always scripted images that we see on the red carpet and adorning magazine covers.

YouTube may not yet move the economic needle like traditional Hollywood productions, but as the above data shows, digital video is no slouch when it comes to building true stars. Smosh and their peers have the unlucky privilege of being the guinea pigs in this grand experiment, but their careers will likely pave the way for the next generation of digital native stars. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

[Image via Ultimate Smosh Fans]