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Visions of the Future from Stream Con

By Karina Masolova

This Halloween weekend, New York saw its first digital content and creator convention, Stream Con NYC. The East Coast alternative to VidCon welcomed thousands of digital content fans, creators and professionals as they negotiated the future of branding and content consumption—and, of course, the implications for licensing.

Celebrities from social media, and the new entertainment formats they are developing, are no longer a niche market. While digital stars make their mark across all age groups, for millennials and Gen Z they are fast becoming the only real celebrities. As TLL reported earlier this year, digital stars are more influential, engaging and relatable than their traditional counterparts—and thus stronger purchase influencers.

Despite their obvious draw, licensees have tended to avoid partnering with social media stars, one reason being the risks associated with long lead times.1 TLL has identified a number of creators who have placed licensed products in brick-and-mortar, but the traditional path to riches remains partnering with brands through endorsements, sponsored content and traditional advertising. However, this doesn’t mean that digital stars are not eager to have merchandise as part of their revenue stream. Most everyone sells goods like t-shirts through online on-demand retailers like CafePress, Zazzle, Skreened, Spreadshirt, District Lines and Redbubble.


For many digital stars, their first successful foray into traditional licensing is through publishing—usually memoirs or how-to books, but increasingly with comic books or novels, as with Haunting of Sunshine Girl. Properties that have published extensions are particularly enticing because they are often the source of film or TV programming, which in turn can lay the foundation for a successful licensed franchise (think Harry Potter, where licensing activity is based on filmed extensions rather than the original property).

Digital stars are seeing unprecedented success in publishing, with first-time authors becoming #1 best sellers. And while some have found success within the traditional publishing model, alternatives that take advantage of the unique nature of online stars are increasingly proliferating.

In one panel, staff from Keywords Press, an imprint created in partnership with United Talent Agency (UTA) and Atria Publishing Group (Simon & Schuster) for digital personalities, cited speed and flexibility as key for licensees. While the standard production schedule is roughly 9–14 months, Keywords pushes out new titles as fast as 4 months. Editorial collaboration with authors, who don’t usually come with full-fledged proposals, is much more intimate and can involve the publisher influencing final format and genre. And actually selling books to skeptical traditional outfits like bookstores and libraries has required tapping into a celeb’s dedicated fan base for pre-orders—numbers have been key in convincing retailers to stock up.

UTA’s Natalie Novak revealed that, surprisingly, most book sales (citing 96% for one title) have been for physical copies and not ebooks. Fans revel in the experience of trekking out to stores, meeting stars at a book signing or event and bringing home physical proof of their devotion.

Working With Digital Stars

Content creators promise an unprecedented scale of engagement for uniquely tapped-in young superfans. In order to monetize a superfan’s devotion, licensees need to be nimble, flexible and possess a strong vision.

The social media star is a different animal from their traditional media counterparts, with different demands and expectations. Phil Daniels, Partner at Ginsburg Daniels, a transactional entertainment and digital media law firm representing creators as well as brands, noted that influencers typically demand greater creative input/control and a larger split of proceeds. They’re conscientious about their own brands and demand equal levels of authenticity and rigor from the companies they work with.

While top creators frequently cited negative past experiences and acknowledged that they turn down most offers, they remain excited2 about working with companies. Rather than contrived one-off campaigns, which can come off as fake and selling out, social media stars seek collaborators with a strong vision that they can develop alongside their own brand. They repeatedly stressed the need for companies to own their brand, however big or small, with a developed vision and story that will support a dedicated fanbase. For a manufacturer, that might mean anything from having a strong social mission, sourcing specific materials (cruelty-free, sustainable, high quality, etc.) or having its own iconic in-house brands.

Don’t miss out on upcoming trade shows and events. See our full list of upcoming events here.

New Media

Perhaps more important than digital celebrities themselves is the new form of content they are engaged in developing. The way younger generations are consuming media is changing, and that has implications for which emerging properties will be the next big thing and which evergreens will die out. National Geographic is one such brand that described its efforts to take social media seriously—that meant transforming their storytelling for digital and mobile. Strategies include anything from using only vertical format video for Snapchat to featuring personal stories of correspondents.

Kathleen Grace, CCO of New Form Digital, a production company for digital scripted series, stressed the importance of distributing multi-form content with social media in mind. She claims the strategy is highly successful, citing Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures, a joint venture with The Jim Henson Co., as an example. Merchandise sales made up 20–25% of gross revenue. Obviously the financial model for producing and selling online video is on a lower level than traditional screen productions. But it is clear that bigger players who similarly embrace online video and social media as part and parcel of a franchise might see greater levels of fan engagement, and thus, greater success in licensing.

That’s not to say digital stars are re-inventing everything they touch. The digital world is following the next big trends, namely superheros for girls and reboots, in the form of live action Electra Woman & Dyna Girl (Legendary Digital and Fullscreen), a reboot of the 70’s sci-fi children’s show. The series screened its first two episodes on Friday with leading actresses/YouTubers Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart making appearances.

  1. As social media stars have proven their staying power, even players like Madame Tussauds are getting into the game. Last week, the museum announced its latest addition to a digital star series with Jenna Marbles. Plans exist to develop wax figures of Zoe Sugg, Alfie Deyes and Grumpy Cat over the next year. They will join Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox of Smosh, whose likenesses are now on tour.
  2. Makeup guru Kandee Johnson noted that when she signed with Condé Nast in 2014, her fanbase was thrilled that she was working with the home of iconic brands Vogue and Glamour. And when fashion and beauty influencer Natalie-Tasha Thompson partnered with lesser-known Jane Cosmetics, she did so because the company was only beginning to develop its altruistic, woman-empowering image—one she felt she could contribute to.

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