Imagine a World Without Justin Bieber, It's Easy If You Try

Looking for Proof of Social-Media ROI? For Starters...

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I have a confession: Although I'm not, last I checked, an 11-year-old girl, I'm sort of a Belieber -- a Justin Bieber fan.

Wait! Don't run away screaming! (Or run toward me screaming, if you happen to be an 11-year-old girl.) I've got a good excuse, I swear.

But before I explain, I'll note that I've been thinking about The Biebs lately because on Wednesday, Oct. 17, in Beverly Hills, Calif., Brad Haugen, the CMO of Scooter Braun Projects -- the entertainment holding company and talent-management powerhouse that used social media to turn Bieber into a global superstar -- will be speaking at the second Ad Age Social Engagement/Social TV Conference. (If you're reading this before the 17th and are interested in hearing from Haugen, along with Twitter head of TV Fred Graver, Facebook head of entertainment and media Kay Madati, and more than a dozen other speakers and panelists, visit adage.com/social2012 to register.) Scooter Braun Projects is both the House that Bieber Built and the shop that made Bieber's career possible in the first place, because its namesake, Scott Samuel "Scooter" Braun, is the guy who discovered Bieber back in 2008.

I know what you're probably thinking: Scooter Braun Projects is big enough to require its own CMO? Really?

My response: Do not underestimate the Bieber-Industrial Complex. For one thing, Bieber, estimated by estimated by Forbes to have pulled down $55 million between May 2011 and May 2012, outearns Adele, Katy Perry, Rihanna and even Lady Gaga. Forbes also reports that his fragrance Someday -- just one of countless Bieber-brand products -- rang up $60 million at retail in its first six months, which helps give him the pocket change needed to be a budding tech investor (in Spotify, Tinychat, etc.).

Credit: Kelsey Dake

And the fingerprints of Bieber and Braun are all over pop culture these days. For instance, you know Carly Rae Jepsen of "Call Me Maybe" fame? Yeah, Jepsen's managed by Scooter Braun Projects (and Braun and Bieber jointly signed her to Schoolboy Records/Interscope).

As for my confessed Belieber status? Well, J.B. and I go way back -- all the way back to 2009. He popped up on my radar because at Ad Age I've been deeply (and sometimes surreally) involved in trying to make sense of the Tweetosphere and Facebookistan and other social-media precincts. Toward that end, I've set up informal editorial partnerships with various players in the analytics and trend-tracking space, including Trendrr, Bluefin Labs and HootSuite. In witnessing Bieber's early outsize social-media footprint, it became obvious to me by the summer of 2009, even before his first album was released, that he was going to blow up huge.

The pre-Zeitgeist
If you know what patterns to look for, and what dots to connect, social-media analytics can serve as a sort of pre-Zeitgeist -- an early warning system for emerging culture. The recurring currents of social media presage mass media.

Truth is , sometimes I can't help but root for certain entertainers, songs, videos, memes, etc., that are going viral -- because what is virality but something capturing the imagination of tons of people all at once? To me, there's just something deeply human and weirdly touching (and sometimes a little overwhelming and a lot scary) about watching things catch fire in real time in social media. The uncanny sensation of riding a rapidly rising internet wave can be intoxicating.

Now, don't get me wrong. I haven't drunk the entire pitcher of social-media Kool-Aid. I'm more than happy to question some of the more dubious precepts of the social-media faith. In fact, after I spoke at yet another conference a couple weeks ago, a member of the audience came up to me and said, "Thank you for calling bullshit on social media!" (Which I guess I sort of did, somewhat.) He told me he spends time on Facebook, he tweets, he's dabbled in tumbling on Tumblr and pinning on Pinterest, etc., but "For me, there's no ROI."

Can't be denied
Fair enough. As we said in one of our ads for the Ad Age Social Engagement/Social TV Conference, social media has just become too vast and too idiosyncratic to yield any fixed, one-size-fits-all marketing solutions. Some tools and strategies and platforms will work brilliantly in some cases; in other cases, not at all.

But to insist that social media is mostly just a waste of time and that it's still unproven is to basically deny the existence of , for starters, Justin Bieber. Because without social media there would be no Justin Bieber. Not only did he build his brand, most notably, on Twitter (as of this writing, he's got 28,842,737 followers), but remember that Scooter Braun encountered him in the first place through social media.

It's a story worth repeating: Back in 2007, Bieber's mom, Pattie, posted a video of her son doing a cover of Ne-Yo's "So Sick" at a Canadian singing competition because she wanted to share it with friends and family. (They're from Stratford, Ontario -- population 30,886.) Proud momma continued posting videos of Justin doing acoustic covers of R&B songs, and that series of simple acts -- her using YouTube (where Braun later randomly spotted the videos) as a platform for social sharing -- is why her kid, five years later, is worth an estimated $112 million and has become an indelible part of the pop-cultural landscape.

My point is that whether or not you've ever found yourself singing along to "Baby" in your car, or whether or not you've ever been out somewhere and heard a snippet of an insanely catchy song and it turned out to be some random new Bieber jam like the totally irresistible "Boyfriend" (you're welcome to plead the Fifth if you have to), the fact is , Justin Bieber is living proof of social-media ROI.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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