Some 350 plus influencers are flocking to a platform called Escapex, which focuses on smaller more private groups.
Last week, actor Jeremy Renner posted a time-lapse video of himself trying on different outfits in front of the mirror. “Suiting up for the Avengers press tour,” he wrote. “What are you wearing?”
More than 2,000 people commented on the post (some offered outfit tips, but many agreed he looked better without a shirt). Others said good luck, or jovially wished everyone a happy Friday.
None of this was happening on Instagram, but on Renner’s own app, where his most die-hard fans gather to gush about their favorite actor.
They do more than just comment on Renner’s photos, videos, and give-away contests.
They also post their own images in a “fan feed”–a quick scroll reveals a woman’s before-and-after haircut, a call for recommendations for a trip to L.A., and a shot of tomato soup and parmesan-crusted chicken with bacon, which a fan had made from another fan’s cookbook.
What does any of this have to do with Renner? Everything and nothing. Renner’s app–along with many others from celebrities like Amber Rose, model Alessandra Ambrosio, and musician Bob Marley’s estate–is designed to create a tiny, independent community that’s centered on a single celeb.
Each app is like a mini, private Instagram for uberfans, who also use the apps to share their other obsessions, their achievements, and their struggles.
Today, Instagram is one of a few platforms that dominate people’s interactions with celebrities. But some of these influencers are looking for something more: They want to own their photos and their audiences.
They want freedom from the algorithms that decide who sees their content. And they want to stop relying on sponsored content and ad posts. Meanwhile, users have similar concerns.
Some, fed up with the constant privacy violations and lack of transparency on the part of platforms, are looking away from the news feed and toward the refuge of messaging, small groups, and even separate apps like Renner’s and Rose’s. They all offer an antidote to Big Social Media.
The company Escapex, which makes these apps, offers exactly that. Each app is a decentralized social media platform that acts like Instagram but is fully controlled by the influencer, offering them an unique insurance policy: When Instagram’s popularity inevitably shifts, they’ll still have their own safe haven for their biggest fans to congregate–and pay them. And for fans, they get more than an intimate glimpse at their chosen celeb; they also get a community of people who feel the same way.
Escapex, which was founded in 2015 and has raised USD$18 million in venture funding to date, now hosts the apps of more than 350 celebrities and social media influencers in 18 countries who have a total of 3.5 billion followers, many of whom are looking for a new way to turn their popularity online into cash that doesn’t involve hawking other people’s goods.
According to Escapex, the combined 350+ apps have over 20 million users, who on average open an Escapex app four times a day.
In the United States, 12% of users who install an Escapex app subscribe, paying an average of $6 per month to access their favorite influencer’s content.
For influencers, there’s a clear draw: It’s an easy way to monetise an audience that doesn’t require you to sacrifice whatever version of “authenticity” you’re selling by landing sponsorship deals with brands.
Let’s say you’re an influencer or celebrity with 2 million followers on Instagram.
The vast majority of those people might be somewhat interested in you, given the fact that they follow you, but there’s a small percentage–it might be as small as .1% of your following–that is really obsessed with you.
If you can advertise your own subscription-based app, and convince these superfans to come download it and pay $4.99 a month to get more personal, exclusive content from you as well as the chance to interact with you more directly, you could be making about $85,000 a year, just from an app. (It’s free for influencers to sign up for Escapex’s platform, and then the company takes a 30% cut of whatever they make.)
The company offers celebrities the ability to make money directly from their fans, cutting advertisers out of the equation. “When you’re serving advertisers or brands, you have to be very careful and moderate authenticity to fit the brand image,” says Sephi Shapira, the founder and CEO of Escapex. “When generating [content] for your fans, you don’t serve any other master. You’re funded by them directly.”
Right now, influencers are dependent on centralized social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, which not only hold all the data about their followers but also control who sees what they post through opaque algorithms.
But Escapex has decided to set up its business model such that its celebrity clients get full control over their apps–and the people who download them. “The [influencers] own the users, they own the content, they own the ramifications of their behavior,” Shapira says.
These personal apps aren’t just for influencers. Osric Chau, an actor who is best known for his role in the cult TV show Supernatural, has 624,000 followers on Instagram and launched his app in January 2018.
He uses it for a very different purpose: to connect with his fans more intimately. While he charges $4.99 for a subscription, most of his content is unlocked and he says he has no idea how many subscribers he has–purposefully so.
Only a few videos in which he talks about his innermost thoughts and feelings are locked. “It’s for my inner circle, stuff I’d say to my friends in person only,” he says. “It’s like my own house in a weird way. It feels like the safe haven for me.”
But Chau’s official app is more than his personal diary–it’s also about actually getting to know his fans. He can’t develop relationships with all 624,000 Instagram followers, but because there are far fewer people on his app, Chau makes more of an effort to read people’s comments and respond.
“It’s emotionally and physically impossible to know that many people,” he says. “On this app, it’s been nice to have familiarity. I can get to know some people and hear their stories.”
His app has also created a community of fans. “My favorite thing about this app is creating the platform where people can get to know each other,” he says. “A lot of people in fandoms feel like they’re alone, and part of celebrating their fandom is about meeting everyone who has that same interest.”
One key feature of Escapex apps is that fans earn points based on how much they engage with the app, including the fan feed (points are also available for purchase).
Then, they can use those points to boost their comment on one of Chau’s posts so that he’s guaranteed to see it. According to Shapira, that’s the primary way that celebs like Jeremy Renner monetize their apps–all the content is free, but people pay to be seen.
Escapex’s success and the rise of these miniature social media networks speak to a larger trend: people’s online communications are becoming more private.
These celebrity-focused apps aren’t for everyone; neither is it likely that every celebrity will create their own mini social media network.
However, some celebs and their superfans, these micro-networks are a win-win. With the future of major social networks unclear, going independent on social media is a savvy financial bet. “I would not be surprised at all if there’s a handful of people who are making crazy livings on apps in the future,” Baym says.
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