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Digital Celebs

As YouTube Celebrities Gain Influence over Teens, Their Licensing Clout Is Bound to Grow

YouTube stars continue to gain influence over U.S. teens, with the platform’s top creators viewed as much more approachable, authentic and engaging than mainstream celebrities. From a licensing perspective, many of the video platform’s top creators actually have a smaller footprint than their tens of millions of subscribers suggest, and have yet to move beyond the online T-shirt business. However, as digital native celebrities and their user-generated content continue to infiltrate the mainstream media business, that is bound to change.

YouTubers Eclipsing Traditional Celebs for Teen Influence

Last month, Variety released its second annual ranking of celebrity influence among people ages 13–17. Eight of the top 10 were YouTube creators, up from six of 10 last year. The survey compared the 10 YouTube stars with the most subscribers to the 10 traditional entertainment stars with the highest Q score among teens. (The Q score is a measure of celebrity influence widely recognized by marketers.) A sample of 1,500 teens was asked how the 20 celebs stacked up in terms of approachability, authenticity and other criteria. To be fair, while the top 10 was dominated by digital natives, the top 20 was evenly split, with entertainment stars including Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Johnny Depp and Jennifer Aniston clustered at the bottom. The only mainstream celebrities in the top 10 were pop music artists Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift.

Celebrity brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev, who led the survey for Variety, predicted that within five years, YouTube stars will completely shut out traditional celebrities on the top 20 list. It’s a good bet that their licensing mojo will also grow in that time.

Consider that Maker Studios, the network of online channels that works with PewDiePie, the No. 1 attraction on YouTube worldwide with more than 9 billion video views, is owned is owned by consumer products licensing juggernaut Disney. Multichannel network AwesomenessTV, which works with Smosh and others, is owned by DreamWorks Animation and Hearst. YouTube in the spring committed to funding original content by some of its top creators and movies produced by AwesomessTV. YouTube and AwesomenessTV also were at Licensing Expo 2015 together as first-time exhibitors, signaling that T-shirts are just the beginning of licensing for their artists.

YouTube Stars Still Lag in Licensing

In terms of current licensed merchandise sales, most of the YouTube artists on Variety’s list haven’t yet landed major licensing deals. While YouTube artists including fashionista Bethany Mota and makeup demonstrator Amy Phan have signed big licensing deals for signature fashion and makeup lines with the likes of Aeropostale and L’Oreal, the creators ranked by Variety are still developing and may be less commercial, specializing as most do in rogue comedy and videogame commentary. Most sell apparel, posters and accessories through their own Web sites, those of multichannel networks like Maker Studios’ MakerShop, and on custom printing sites like Spreadshirt and District Lines.

There are exceptions, of course.

  • In May, the Joester Loria Group brokered a deal for Dynamite Entertainment to develop a series of comics and graphic novels for Smosh. There is also a Smosh calendar from Andrews McMeel Publishing. The duo’s Smosh: The Movie went on sales on digital platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Vimeo on July 24 and a DVD version is available for preorder exclusively through Walmart.
  • PewDiePie will have a book, titled “This Book Loves You,” published in October by Razorbill. It is enjoying brisk presales on Amazon.
  • Publisher Keywords Press was created last year by Simon & Schuster and United Talent Agency specifically to publish original works by digital celebrities. It has released books by YouTubers including Zoe Sugg, Shane Dawson, Connor Franta, Joey Graceffa and Justine Ezarik.
Top 10 Celebrity Influencers of Teens
*Across all branded channels
NA=Not Applicable
Data Source: Variety.
2015 Rank 2014 Rank Celebrity Origin YT Subscribers (in millions*) Who They Are
1 4 KSI YouTube 13.6 British videogame commentator, comedian and rapper Olajide Olatunji.
2 3 PewDiePie YouTube 38.3 Swedish videogame commentator Felix Kjellberg has a “Bro Army” of followers.
3 NA VanossGaming YouTube 13.4 Videogame commentator and comedian Evan Fong.
4 5 Nigahiga YouTube 18.4 Comedian Ryan Higa riffs on pop culture and life.
5 1 Smosh YouTube 33.1 Comedy duo Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox produce skits, animations, and videogame themed music videos and playthroughs.
6 NA Markiplier YouTube 8.6 Gaming videos, comedy sketches, animation and more from Mark Edward Fischbach
7 NA Bruno Mars Music NA Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter.
8 NA Taylor Swift Music NA Grammy award winning country-pop crossover artist and actress.
9 2 The Fine Bros. YouTube 18.2 Brothers Benny and Rafi Fine produce the React video series and others.
10 16 Jenna Marbles YouTube 15.3 Jenna Mourey mines gender dynamics and her two dogs for comedy.


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