Startup Turns Kevin Bacon And Other Celebs Into Content Marketers for Brands

WhoSay Lineup for Canon Includes Bacon, Eva Longoria and Mario Batali

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Kevin Bacon in a video for a Canon campaign.
Kevin Bacon in a video for a Canon campaign.

WhoSay, a startup that helps famous people post to social media and then curates their feeds for fans, is enlisting celebrities like Kevin Bacon, Eva Longoria and Mario Batali to serve as content marketers for a campaign with Canon.

Now in its fourth week, the Canon campaign -- called "Bring It" -- is the largest brand ad campaign yet for WhoSay, which was co-founded in 2010 by talent agency CAA and entrepreneur Steve Ellis. It comes less than a year after former Newsweek Daily Beast President Rob Gregory became chief revenue officer.

"We're turning celebrities into publishers -- building an entertainment media company," said Mr. Gregory, who earlier was also publisher of Maxim, Rolling Stone and Men's Health.

The effort comes as Canon is trying to turn around its camera business, where sales plunged 22% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2013 as consumers increasingly opt for smartphones and their high-quality cameras. The company is scheduled to report second-quarter earnings on Thursday.

Tokyo-based Canon spent $251.7 million on U.S. advertising in 2013, a 10.6% decline from the prior year, according to the Ad Age Data Center. The bulk of it, $172.3 million, went to non-measured media, which includes digital video and product placement.

Canon and its agency Grey declined to comment on the campaign. Mr. Gregory declined to say how much Canon spent on it with WhoSay or to discuss WhoSay revenue.

WhoSay consists of two apps and a website. One app is invite-only and allows famous people to post messages across multiple social media accounts, track engagement on their posts and monitor the number of people following and mentioning them.

The app also includes a private message center where brands can offer gifts to WhoSay users. Bose, for instance, used the feature recently to give headphones to about 100 WhoSay users, according to Mr. Gregory, who said no money changed hands between Bose and WhoSay. No strings were attached, he added, though some who took the product posted selfies with the headphones.

"We think there's an opportunity to monetize it down the road, maybe as part of a larger campaign," he said.

Celebrities that CAA represents comprise just 17% of the 1,600 celebrities signed up for WhoSay, Mr. Gregory said.

The other app and its companion website are for regular consumers, who can scroll through a stream of celebrity posts or follow specific stars.

A spokeswoman for WhoSay declined to say how many people had downloaded the app. She said 2.5 million people have registered with WhoSay either through the app or on the website and have set preferences for celebrities they want to follow. The company is compiling first-party data on those users to use in ad campaigns, Mr. Gregory said.

In June, WhoSay's unique visitors in the U.S. across desktop and mobile reached nearly 2.6 million, a 7% increase over the month a year earlier, according to ComScore.

WhoSay runs ads on its website, most prominently right now in the form of headline-recommendation modules from Disqus, but the Canon campaign marks a broader effort to tap WhoSay's network of celebrities to create branded content campaigns for brands who want their products seen in stars' hands.

Web publishers as a whole have struggled with downward pressure on display ad rates online, fueled by automated auctions for an ocean of ad inventory, and sometimes responded by pushing into so-called native advertising, which tries to draw readers' attention by mimicking the look and tone of the site.

"We figured out pretty quickly that if we were in that shrinking middle between programmatic and native content, then it's a race to the bottom," said Mr. Gregory.

For "Bring It," Canon and Grey worked with WhoSay to identify a dozen celebrities they would enlist to capture videos and still images using a Canon camera. A team at WhoSay edited the raw footage into short video clips, which the celebrities share on their social media accounts.

"It helps the brand because they're getting these videos out to millions of people," said Carlos PenaVega, star of Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush" and one of the 12 celebrities working on "Bring It."

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"We worked with Canon on a media plan and a target for impressions for the campaign," Mr. Gregory said. Celebrities were paid a "small fee" to be part of the campaign, he added -- and they got to keep the cameras.

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