Why Engagement Beats Reach for ‘Celebrity’ Influencers

Q&A with ZEFR co-founder Zach James.

We all know that reach and influence are very different things…and that social media/YouTube celebrities work differently than “traditionally” famous people.

A recent study by software maker ZEFR, however, went further. It found that not only do social media names often have follower counts to rival TV stars but that their endorsements might even be far more valuable for clients.

For example:


We spoke to ZEFR co-founder/co-CEO Zach James for more.

What was the inspiration behind this study? What were its most surprising findings?

We knew that these new social celebrities had close relationships with their fans, but we were curious to see how they stacked up against traditional celebrities.

The biggest surprise, when looking at the data, is that “lesser” online influencers can deliver greater engagement than some of the biggest mainstream celebrities and TV personalities today. It forces us to rethink the notion of what it means to be a “celebrity.”

How would you differentiate reach from engagement?

Reach involves passive participation, while engagement requires followers to be active. For example, if a person has 6.5 million Instagram followers, they have pretty large reach. But engagement refers to how many trackable actions happened as a result of someone seeing a given post.

Why do you think certain influencers have more engagement than celebrities with more name recognition?

Those influencers have built their entire audience by cultivating a relationship with their fans through two-way engagement.

Social influence is a contact sport–it involves staying very close to your audience, commenting back to them, and using their ideas. It’s more personal and therefore the foundation of their influence is engagement.

The best influencers have to earn every fan, and they keep their fans by staying engaged with them and retaining their voice.

zach james

What’s the best way to use this data in terms of planning a campaign?

As a brand or advertiser, the place to start is to think about engagement first. Use data and insights to uncover where you are likely to get the most engagement for your brand and message and use that data to inform your planning. That puts the traditional media model on its head.

With more technology and data, and more access to influencers than ever before, brands can now find the right people who are the most contextually relevant to their campaign rather than just guessing.

For brands, it all starts with the goals.  Who do you want to want to reach? What’s the attitude? What’s the message? What’s the language?  Does success equal likes, clicks, shares or views? Those key questions help provide the criteria to identify the right list of influencers for your brand and message.

Extra question: what are some examples of people with lots of followers but little engagement and vice versa?

We see that social influencers generally have even higher engagement than traditional stars, even though traditional stars often see great engagement as well.  One example of this is when we measured the reach and engagement of Connor Franta–a popular YouTube star–with Jimmy Fallon, currently the most engaging and popular TV host in the world, with a massive digital footprint.

The results were fascinating: while Jimmy Fallon’s average reach across social platforms was 207% higher than Conor’s (38.4 million for Jimmy vs. 12.5 million for Conor), Conor’s engagement was 66% greater (2 million for Conor vs. 1.2 million for Conor). It’s clear that brands using data to inform their influencer strategies are going to see much stronger campaign results.

zefr 2