Variety did some market research recently that is more than just eye opening. The top influencers among 13-18 year olds were all YouTube phenoms. These video heroes outranked superstars such as Seth Rogan and Jennifer Lawrence. Who was their number one? Well it's actually a comedy duo known as "Smosh." Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have several million Twitter followers and their sketch comedy routines regularly exceed six million YouTube views. This is no small feat, and the Hollywood power elite are taking note.

The number three most influential figure to this hotly pursued demographic is PewDiePie, a Swedish gamer who also has a tremendously large amount of subscribers. Felix Kjellberg plays videogames on camera while making a smorgasbord of inappropriate, politically incorrect commentary. While NSFW for most parents' ears, his activities online are a mirror of exactly what my 15-year-old niece and nephew are up to in their rooms. Maybe that's why he has over 36 million subscribers.

Writing New Rules for Fame

This new mob of online stars is changing the fame game. Their authenticity and approachable personas draw teens to them in droves. More importantly, the characteristics this new breed possesses carry serious weight when it comes to influencing buying decisions.

Hollywood is taking cues from the YouTube handbook. New shows being produced for online consumption by Disney owned Maker Studios, AOL, Yahoo and every legacy studio you can think of, encourage quirky individualism. The goal is to appeal to a young demographic. This change in tone and style is not the only way this new breed of Internet titans is shaking things up.

User-Generated Content Rises in Importance

Once upon a time, content producers and consumers in general might have cringed at the idea of spotlighting user-generated content (UGC), but that's all changed. UGC has improved in quality over time and contests including it have become a very viable way for emerging talent to get noticed (and for web sites to become profitable). Starbucks and GoPro are just some of the brands that have leveraged this type of content to keep customers interested and engaged.

As an example, one company, "The Audience Awards" is a social network connecting filmmakers, directors and audiences--and UGC is at the heart of its model. Sponsors host competitions with specific content requirements. Users create the content sought, such as this recent campaign requiring content about Montana. The online audience votes on the projects posted. The film with the most votes wins and cash prizes go to the top films. The company is expecting to give over $60,000 to winners in the next six months.

Contests such as this (which can be crowdfunded right on the website) open up the previously closed gates of Hollywood to new creative talent. Even mega-agencies like CAA are jumping with both feet into the process of deal making for web content. They represent several classic YouTube names, and about 25 percent of talent agent David Freeman works with comes directly from the digital arena. A key factor in working with any talent is the ability to effectively communicate a story, and Freeman says it's not only YouTube upstarts who are vying for our viewing time. Established stars like Tom Hanks and Sarah Jessica Parker are now bringing projects to the digital space.

A New Frontier

Bringing brands and content together is one of the new frontiers that talent agencies are getting involved with. Original and user-generated content is where a lot of the hottest action and competition for dollars is happening. "A big part of the growth for our business is on the advertisers' side," Freeman said. "We wanted to take some time out and take advantage of the relationships we have." His says his intent is to show Madison Avenue that the digital space has viable content solutions.

Brands are very important for emerging content creators. They are the ones who have long subsidized traditional TV and radio programming, for instance. It's not that surprising that they now are making success more accessible for small-time folks who don't have big professional networks or distribution. Some brands are even building their own content that draws directly from such real-life stories. For example, Xbox is creating a new soccer series that features some of the world's "fiercest street soccer warriors."

The future for user-generated programming is wide open, with talent development in a kind-of wild-west phase. Voices outside the traditional Hollywood system are getting heard, and up and coming creative talent has perhaps more opportunity than at any time in the history of entertainment. Some stars of YouTube and other platforms will resonate with viewers across screens, and others will only do so in their niche universes. Overall it's a win.

Published on: Feb 3, 2015