Engagement is Everything:
Rethinking Celebrity and Influence


TV launched the notion that reach is king. In this new era of celebrity, there’s a new king in town: engagement. In the TV world, being able to reach the largest audience possible was the measure of success. Now, we can actually track and measure the influencers that deliver deeper connections and engage with their audience, rather than simply reach a wide audience. This is what makes today’s social driven media world so interesting.

For brands, this means re-thinking some of your traditional strategies on reach, and shifting towards engagement. ZEFR did an analysis comparing the reach and engagement of “traditional celebrities” with some of the today’s biggest social-media influencers, and the data tells an interesting story.

Take Grace Helbig, the YouTube star whom E! recently tapped to take over its late night talk show franchise. Helbig has over four million followers on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That’s a lot of people, but what does that number really mean? And, when measuring her level of influence, how should those followers be compared to her ability to carry a nationwide TV audience four nights a week? Clearly, social stars are being tapped for mainstream platforms, but success on one platform doesn’t necessarily translate to another.

Brands must answer these important questions if they ever hope to understand celebrity and its influence online. A brand needs to gauge the value of “influence” before aligning itself with an influencer, let alone the right one. As new platforms continue to emerge, forcing us to rethink what “fame” even means, brands can no longer rely on an old framework that no longer fits the current picture.

To help brands navigate this new terrain, ZEFR did an analysis comparing the reach and engagement of so-called “traditional celebrities” with some of the today’s biggest social-media influencers. If you haven’t heard of some (or most) of these new multimedia stars, therein lies the problem we have described above. If you are a brand, you need to know them and here, ZEFR shines a light into the darkness, uncovering data that calls for nothing less than a new definition for celebrity itself.

Why Jimmy Fallon Is ‘Less Famous’ Online: Different Metrics for Different Contexts

When YouTube star Grace Helbig appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon recently, she revealed two important lessons for anyone trying to understand this new era of social influence. She explained to Fallon that when her new show debuts on E!, she would eschew the conventional TV talk-show format in favor of a set without a studio audience. This approach would help her to avoid alienating the fanbase she earned online, by focusing on intimate conversations that mirror her well-established YouTube show.

While Fallon seemed shocked by the notion, the lesson that he and others are missing is that social influencers came up through a far different proving ground than traditional television.. Influencers like Helbig gained a following on YouTube precisely because of the more intimate, authentic experience that digital platforms allow. When Helbig looks right into the camera from the comfort of her own home, her audience connects with her on a personal level. The addition of a studio audience would only sever that connection, not enhance it.

Just look at the top comment right now on Fallon’s official YouTube channel for Helbig’s appearance, and you begin to see the roots of a highly engaged audience that cares deeply about how their favorite YouTubers are portrayed when they appear on TV:

engagement youtube comments zefr

But, what’s likely even more surprising to Fallon is that some of these new social influencers are drawing more engaged audiences than Fallon himself. TV, the world’s greatest reach potential, is amazing for scale. But it lacks the interaction that makes social media so revolutionary. With influencers, reach isn’t what matters. It’s engagement.

Why engagement?

Everyone knows the old adage: if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Similarly, if a tweet is sent around the world and gets zero engagement, did it really exist? The promise of social media is connecting the world and allowing people from all walks of life to communicate with each other. User activity reveals in real time what’s resonating and what isn’t by how individuals interact and engage with content. The value of engagement cannot be understated, It is quite literally the data equivalent of millions of people telling brands and content owners exactly what they care about most.

ZEFR looked at the data, and it just may shock you to see just how engaged these new audiences are when compared to traditional celebrities.

Connor Franta vs. Jimmy Fallon

Engagement is what matters for influencers today. If you are creating content that is very personal and intimate, you would hope that your audience will respond to that openness by taking an action of some kind – liking, favoriting, commenting, etc. Consequently, the amount of engagement that new social influencers generate often dwarfs what you’d expect from “traditional celebrities,” who are better known for their potential to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Compare someone like Connor Franta to Jimmy Fallon.

ZEFR YouTube data - Fallon v Franta

Yes, Connor Franta has a more engaged fanbase on social media than the most popular talk show host in the United States. Not only is Franta’s engagement rate higher that Fallon’s – Franta also manages to drive more total engagements despite having of reach of 25 million fewer people. If Fallon was surprised by Helbig’s approach, wait until he hears about these numbers.

Grace Helbig vs. Kelly Ripa

Need more evidence? Compare Grace Helbig to someone like Kelly Ripa:

zefr youtube data helbig vs ripa

See that? Helbig – supposedly the more unknown quantity – already has more online engagement and reach than Ripa, a traditional star who’s been on TV for more than 20 years dating back to her soap opera career. Yet, with the younger generation getting raised online, should we really be that surprised?

Meanwhile, coming back to Helbig’s Fallon appearance, she is presumably hoping to get a boost for her new TV show. And, while she’d probably love some of his ratings-driving expertise to expand her reach, he might want tips from her on how to actually engage digital fans – Helbig’s engagement rate is 7.55%, more than double Fallon’s rate.

Digital vs. Digital: Jenna Marbles and Prank vs. Prank

For good measure, ZEFR also dived into a “digital vs. digital” comparison, since being “digital” doesn’t automatically mean that you’re flying high in the world of online engagement. To help show the nuance going on in this new online world when it comes to knowing who to trust, compare YouTube sensation Jenna Marbles with the comedic stylings of digital creators Prank vs. Prank.

As we saw in last month’s Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, It’s not just the number of punches thrown – it’s about the number of punches landed.

zefr youtube data jenna marbles vs prank prank

Again, as illustrated above, just because a digital star like Jenna Marbles can boast about widespread reach, Prank vs. Prank reveals just how crucial it is to measure actual engagement once a campaign gets underway. Reach will only tell you so much. Engagement is where the real connections take place. And, this holds true across celebrities, across platforms, new and old alike.


Its important to avoid any oversimplifications here. As traditional celebrities continue to better adopt and integrate new platforms as part of their image and reach, we should expect engagement rates to rise. Ultimately, brands can’t reduce this new age of influencers to a one-size-fits-all strategy. You need to track the rise and fall of different personalities across each platforms to make sure you end up working with the right people.

And, the amazing part of all of this is that these influencers are willing to work with brands in creative ways. Combine that creativity with passionate audiences and the result is a level of authenticity and accreditation that only engagement metrics can truly speak to.

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  • Meredith Gene Levine


  • I think the comparison of Fallon vs. Connor may not be quite so clean cut. An explanation for the comparative lack of engagement is quite simple; people know of Fallon’s show and it has various outlets. For social media only celebrities/influencers you literally only have social media. It’s like being part of a new, bleeding edge thing and thus liking, commenting and sharing tends to mean you’re also cool. No one likes it when a friend reposts “Charlie bit my finger” cuz we’ve all seen it a hundred times; that was cool a decade ago. I think Fallon has the same issue; it’s just not that cool to repost a Fallon clip from last week since most people saw it live. This, the metrics may be flawed in the comparison due to “public engagement anxiety”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t influenced by it none the less, right?