Josh Ong is the US Editor at The Next Web. He previously worked as TNW's China Editor and LA Reporter. Follow him on Twitter or email him a Josh Ong is the US Editor at The Next Web. He previously worked as TNW's China Editor and LA Reporter. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].
Just when the buzz surrounding celebrity social networks was starting to get a bit stale, Upfront is livening things up with the launch of a new premium platform that grants fans access to exclusive videos, text messages, emails and other perks from influencers they follow.
Created by HopeMob founder Shaun King and Ray Lee, Upfront plans to sign deals with popular musicians, authors, chefs, brands and even religious leaders to have them share content to the social network. Users can pay between $0.99 and $5.99 a month per account they want to follow to enjoy different levels of access.
The base level includes access to questions, thoughts, communications tools and photos, while a $3.99 per month plan adds exclusive audio and video content. The top level ($5.99 per month per creator) adds on live webcasts and in-person events.
Upfront is launching with a Web version and iPhone and Android apps.
Though musicians, bands and actors seem like the the most obvious fit, King said in an interview that the platforms influencers could basically be anyone with a “devoted base of supporters and fans”
King noted that he’s not trying to replace existing social networks, as he’s a fan of Twitter, Facebook and Path. Upfront draws a lot of its inspiration from the intimacy of Path, but tailored to allow celebrities to interact with fans.
The paid aspect of the network is designed to keep out haters and spam. It also serves to quickly monetize content for celebrities so they can invest resources in keeping the goodies coming on their Upfront accounts. Revenue sharing will follow a standard 70/30 split, and Upfront will cover the costs associated with sending out messages from its 30 percent take.
King said the startup is rolling out its partner influencers slowly in order to spend time prepping each of them. It currently has 40 partners from a “broad spectrum of genres” signed up to start sharing and is launching with Maxwell and Hillsong United. Both artists have over 3 million likes on Facebook, so they have proven fan bases. The rest of the influencers will jump onto the platform in coming weeks and months.
The idea for the startup came while King was managing social media accounts for celebrities.
“At the time, both of the people I was helping had close to a million followers on Twitter. I was personally shocked by how much spam, hate and weirdness they could get on their @replies,” he said.
Out of a thousand replies to a post, King estimated that only a few hundred would be from genuine fans. One young artist that he worked with even deleted her Twitter account at one point because of all the hateful messages she was receiving.
“I started thinking a couple years ago about how difficult it was in the current social networking space to be able to isolate and communicate with just your fans. Today, it’s exponentially harder than it was just a few years ago,” he said.
He expects celebrities to continue to use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the general public, while Upfront will be reserved for dedicated fans.
“We really feel that we have created a platform that’s spam-free and ad-free. I like to say that we’re hate-free. We’re constantly monitoring to make sure that it’s a positive environment. We have policies as far as that concerned,” he added.
While the fan side of the app performs as a fairly regular social network, the celebrity side comes loaded with plenty of unique features.
“What’s most powerful and unique about our platform, most fans will never see. We have a series of tools that we provide our influencers to connect with our fans,” King said, adding that the company has patents for some of its work.
Upfront has built a communications system so that celebrities can send text messages, pre-recoded calls and emails to their followers. While some of those might get annoying to casual fans, I can see how plenty of Beliebers would love to get voicemails from Justin himself. Upfront will also impose limits on how many messages influencers can send out per week.
Celebrities will also be able to live-stream to their accounts from within the app.
Upfront is going to live or die by the strength of its celebrity partnerships, so I asked King what kind of response the startup has gotten from those it approached.
“Without fail, everybody that uses our platform is really amped to be able to have in their own hands the ability to communicate directly with their fans,” King said.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of fatigue in the celebrity social network space. When asked what sets Upfront apart from other attempts, such as Backplane and Hang w/, King replied that there was still room for growth in the sector. He noted that some services were well-designed, but they lacked engaging content.
“We’ve really tried to say, ‘What are influencers missing on current platform?’, ‘What is it they need that they’re not currently able to do?'”
While the startup didn’t approach the service from the fan perspective, King said it will end up benefitting the fans.
“The tools that we’re giving people of influence are going to allow them to share more content and better content with fans,” King said.
I’m personally having a hard time thinking of a celebrity that I’d be willing to pay $0.99 a month to receive updates from, it’s not hard to imagine that there are plenty of people who would be. Friction’s going to be an issue, however, as Upfront will need to market itself well to get users to jump the paywall…up front. With just a handful of influencers at this point, it’s too early to tell how popular this will be, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Image credit: iStockphoto
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