Nala the cat first became big on Instagram, where the wide-eyed, siamese-tabby mix is officially the platform’s most popular cat with 3.5 million followers. But she is now almost as popular on Facebook, where she has 2.4 million fans and an upcoming show on Facebook Watch. When a photo of Nala recently went up on the platform, showing her peering out adorably from a cut-out-face hole of an astronaut on a box, it scored more than 4,700 likes and 222 shares. On Instagram, the image earned almost 59,000 likes and 382 comments. When it comes to social media influencers, Facebook doesn’t have the scale of YouTube or the currency of Instagram, which, thanks to Instagram Stories, has replaced Snapchat as the digital video platform du jour.
But Facebook, never one to cede ground in the social sphere to any rival even if it owns it, is going deeper with its investment in influencers. Just months following the launch of a Creator app and website that allows influencers to produce and monitor their content on the platform more easily, the company on Monday will announce a series of new test features for influencers that will be rolled out over the coming months. Among them are monetization tools, including a $4.99 monthly subscription option, and a more efficient system for brands and creators to connect. Facebook will also be unveiling a more simplified version of its rights management tool to make it easier for influencers to protect their content. The Creator app will also soon be available on Android; until now it has only been available on iOS. This news comes in advance of the European version of the influencer confab VidCon EU, which takes place later this week, where the company will discuss it further.
Facebook’s hope is to create a more formalized infrastructure for influencers, giving them an opportunity not only to engage with fans better but also financially support themselves. Improving video engagement is also a way to boost viewing of Watch, which is still finding its footing since it launched last fall. These tools also reinforce CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s old-but-new-again emphasis on “community” at Facebook–ironically just days after news broke that data from 50 million Facebook accounts had been used by the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica in an effort to alter the 2016 presidential election. Facebook’s challenge will be to put that news on the back burner–hey look, a kitty cat!–and take advantage of the Vidcon love-fest. But hovering overhead will undoubtedly be questions of just how much the public–and influencers–can trust Facebook, and to what extent its audience will be hurt by the scandal, which compounds criticism over the platform’s ability to manipulate its users.
The company’s pitch to influencers–and brands–is that it’s more about wonky scientists and diva cats than sensationalist millennials with tens of millions of followers who might post videos of suicide victims or political pundits. It has been steadily growing its community of vloggers over the past few years, fueling their efforts with features like Facebook Live and now Watch. Beyond Nala, stars include the McClure twins, a pair of 4-year-olds who explore ice-skating rinks and fashion runways; and Nicolas Heller, who profiles zany New Yorkers on his series New York’s Got Talent.
Facebook executives claim not to care about the size of an influencer’s audience, emphasizing instead the kind of passionate connectivity that’s baked into its platform. The idea boils down to: We have 1.37 billion daily active users. Come to us and we’ll connect you to the ones who care about what you do. “It’s really about finding who are the people who are really into this thing,” says Fidji Simo, VP of product. “Sometimes creators only care about finding 50,000 people who are going to be very interested. I was looking at this creator who was showing people how to make wreaths–definitely not a teen creator. But she’s found people that are really into that. So for her, it’s really amazing.”
“People get bored about me talking about Fiona the hippo, but we love her,” adds Sibyl Goldman, head of entertainment partnerships, referencing the herbivorous mammal who was born prematurely at the Cincinnati zoo and now has more than 763,000 Facebook followers and a show on Watch. “We know a lot about what people are really excited about on Facebook. We take those as data points. And that led us to talking to a range of people who might not have been focused on a heavy digital presence somewhere else.”
To compete with YouTube in helping influencers turn their followers into a business, Facebook will be rolling out a new tool that will allow them to upload their portfolio of work and highlight their area of expertise. Brands can then search through the files in order to find the most appropriate advertising partners. “It will allow them to search for which creators are in their target audience, so they can figure out who they want to work with for a branded content campaign,” says Simo, adding that at this point Facebook has no plans to take a cut of those deals.
Facebook already allows ad breaks in certain Watch videos, but the company wants to diversify its monetization options for influencers. “Our philosophy has always been that you’re going to need a portfolio of different products to really build a business,” says Simo. To this end it will also be launching a feature that will let fans financially support creators through monthly recurring payments of $4.99 in the U.S. (and the equivalent of that in other territories). This Patreon-like feature will be particularly useful for influencers with relatively small but passionate followings who might not be able to land big branded deals or demand high ad rates. Fans who donate will be acknowledged by a special badge as well as perks like exclusive behind-the-scenes content.
According to Varisiri “Pookie” Methachittiphan, one half of Team Nala, Facebook Groups has helped influencers build relationships with their fans and has facilitated an “intimate” discourse with them. “We’ll go into the group and talk to fans. They become our friends and family,” she says. But now Facebook is going a step further and will start identifying an influencer’s “top fans,” giving those followers badges alongside their names, based on things like how much they comment, share, react, or watch content. (Fans can opt to turn off the feature.) A list of top fans will also appear on a leaderboard on the influencer’s page in order to “really put a face on fans and deepen that relationship” with an influencer, says Simo.
The company is extending its efforts offline as well. Facebook is actively organizing IRL group events for its influencers (Meetup, if Meetup did all the matchmaking), including one in Washington, D.C., this month for science-oriented influencers, so that they can commune and share tips.
Despite these overtures, however, some social media influencers wonder whether they can trust Facebook, given the company’s track record of prioritizing a particular media type for awhile and then moving on. A few years ago it was celebrity influencers (remember the Mentions app?). Then it was news; then it wasn’t, and so forth.
“I think what these platforms don’t understand is that celebrities and influencers only have a certain amount of social capital they can spend,” says one. “They can’t continue to beta test (a company’s) Next Big Thing, and be told, ‘If you invest in this, we’re gonna turn on that fire hose and send traffic your way.’ You can only do that so many times until influencers get burned by these platforms. Facebook is by no means the only platform to do this. However, I think they’re the ones that pivot the fastest and use influencers to beta test products the most.”
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As for the broader issue of trust in light of the Cambridge Analytica news, and concern that users might be turning away from Facebook in light of its breach, this person didn’t think influencers would be rattled. “The consequences of this and the way bigger picture realization of data-as-weapons in our election system will feel too removed from the daily use of the platform for now.” Though this person adds that “that may change as more gets revealed.”
Facebook counters that its interest in influencers is far from fleeting, and the new tools being rolled out are the result of that ardor. In fact, the inspiration for the products has come from influencers themselves who regularly communicate with Facebook. “I’ve been here four years,” says Goldman. “One of the first people I hired was Lauren Schnipper, who used to be (YouTube star) Shane Dawson’s producing partner at YouTube. She knows a lot of these folks very deeply. We’ve been working with creators and people publishers since I started.”
Facebook also regularly meets with influencers to share best practices and help them think about their content and how it can be best fashioned for the platform, and it is launching a producing testing program with a small group of influencers, who will get early access to test features and who will spend time with the Facebook team in order to give feedback. “We’ve gone to headquarters a few times,” says Shannon Ellis, another member of Team Nala. “We mostly talk about the creative. Who Nala is, what’s the style we want. Sculpting exactly what would represent Nala’s brand and who she is. They’ve helped us with that. Pookie and I have no editing or filming experience. We’ve only worked with phones. Facebook guides us, sends us stuff. They’ll coach us the whole way.”
Goldman chuckles at the memory of Nala visiting Facebook. “She’s more famous than anyone else we’ve had come into the office. Very fancy, by the way. And a lot of handlers.”