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Some of the world's most recognizable brands collectively spend billions of dollars annually associating themselves with celebrities (movie stars, athletes, etc.). The logic is simple: consumers love celebrities, and by associating with the right ones, brands can generate goodwill and buzz.
Most young internet businesses don't have the moola to ink celebrity sponsorships, but that doesn't mean that celebrities haven't become an important part of the web startup ecosystem. Just look at Twitter.
Now one of the world's most popular social media hubs, Twitter was first popular with geeks. But the traction it eventually gained with high-profile celebrities is arguably one of the leading reasons that Twitter is today a mainstream phenomenon. After all, celebrity use of Twitter has earned the young startup a significant amount of mainstream exposure and helped lure non-geeks to the service.
One startup that appears to be following Twitter's lead is the rapidly-growing Foursquare. It had already cemented one partnership with a television network, and now it's targeting individual 'celebrities' themselves through a new deal signed with MTV Networks. Personalities from hit MTV and VH1 shows such as Jersey Shore and The Hills will soon be 'checking in' using Foursquare's new Celebrity Mode.
The appeal of the MTV Networks deal is obvious for Foursquare: if well-known personalities from hit MTV Networks shows are active users of Foursquare, they might be able to do for Foursquare what, say, the Ashton Kutchers and Shaquille O'Neals of the world have done for Twitter.
But does 'celebrifying' your business always make sense? Like anything else, trying to take advantage of celebrity appeal to grow a business has its pros and cons.
Mainstream exposure. For better or worse, Western culture is obsessed with celebrity. For a young startup looking to gain mainstream exposure, high-profile celebrity users can drive a lot of eyeballs.
Increased credibility. Even celebrities that the public loves to hate can help generate the appearance of credibility for a young startup. For many individuals, if a well-known celebrity has chosen to use a particular service, that service must have something worth checking out.
Compelling content. Content is always a challenge for content-driven businesses. Celebrities by their very nature are likely to produce the type of content that even money can't always buy: timely, exclusive and controversial.
Decreased credibility. Despite the modern-day infatuation with celebrities, a large number of consumers don't care about what Ashton Kutcher or Lindsay Lohan are doing. Some are even likely to be nauseated by celebrity happenings. For these consumers, too much celebrity involvement on a particular service is likely to be a real turn off.
Lost focus. Consumer internet companies in particular walk a fine line when proactively courting celebrities. If they're perceived as being too focused on kowtowing to the needs of their celebrity users, they may lose the respect and loyalty of their regular users.
Fleeting relevance. The only thing that fades faster than external beauty is celebrity. Thus, building a service on the back of celebrities can be difficult, and businesses that want to remain relevant may need to develop an alternative source of relevance to the mainstream consumers.
At the end of the day, the decision to 'celebrify' a business isn't an easy one because short-term opportunities to 'celebrify' don't always lead to long-term success. For every Twitter, there are dozens upon dozens of other failed internet startups that were started by, financially backed or otherwise supported in one form or another by celebrity personalities. That's worth keeping in mind before your business tries to roll out the red carpet.
Photo credit: convergentmediapr via Flickr.