Digital Star Popularity Grows Versus Mainstream Celebrities

YouTube creators get even more influential than last year among U.S. teens

YouTube stars have tightened their already impressive grip on U.S. teens since last year, demonstrating more influence than ever even when compared with mainstream household names including Taylor Swift and Johnny Depp.

Eight of the top 10 slots in a survey ranking talent conducted exclusively for Variety are now commanded by YouTube creators, more than the six revealed last year in a nearly identical survey. Although the top YouTube favorites have somewhat shifted — videogame whiz KSI has bumped off comedy team Smosh (aka Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla) as the top influencer — online luminaries are crushing traditional film, TV and music stars.

As executed last year, the survey compared the 10 YouTube stars with the most subscribers against the 10 traditional entertainment stars with the highest Q score among teens, a widely recognized measure of influence by advertisers and marketers. A sample of 1,500 people aged 13-17 were again asked how these 20 personalities stack up in terms of approachability, authenticity and other criteria considered aspects of their overall influence. Respondents’ answers to questions were assigned scores and translated to a 100-point scale.

YouTube stars, especially those focused around videogame content, rate high on all counts; one-quarter of the top 20 list, including the top three influencers ­— KSI, PewDiePie and Vanoss Gaming — hail from that content category. PewDiePie was named the biggest star online in Variety’s #Famechangers ranking released Wednesday.

Pop musicians Swift and Bruno Mars are the only stars to crack the top 10, with most of the mainstream celebrities, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Steve Carell, Depp and Jennifer Aniston, clustered at the bottom of the top-20 rankings.

Celebrity brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev, who has led efforts on both surveys, believes the viral nature of YouTube stars is contributing to their expanding power among teens. “YouTube has an inherent ability to create contagious content,” Sehdev says. “The level of advocacy teens have about YouTube stars is out of control.”

Sehdev predicts that within five years, YouTube stars will consume the entire top-20 celebrity influencer list, and aging teens will grow into a sizable fanbase for online talent overall. But that will require YouTube stars to remain genuine and relatable as they gain in popularity.

In other survey findings: Teens’ emotional attachment to YouTube stars is as much as seven times greater than that toward a traditional celebrity; and YouTube stars are perceived as 17 times more engaging, and 11 times more extraordinary, than mainstream stars.

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