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On April 20, Post Malone startled his 28 million Twitter and Instagram followers by posting a photo of himself in his bathroom, one foot propped up on a toilet seat, with the caption: “Text me:) 817-270-6440.”
The phone number seemed legit, but the 24-year-old tattooed “Rockstar” sensation hadn’t taken leave of his senses under quarantine; what he shared was his Community text number.
Launched in July, Community connects fans via SMS messaging to public figures like movie stars, athletes, even COVID-19 experts. The thinking is that a text message — even one sent to thousands of people simultaneously — is far more likely to grab someone’s attention than a tweet or Instagram post ever could. “North America is all about text messaging,” says Matthew Peltier, Community’s 29-year-old founder and CEO. “It’s an intimate place where you talk to friends and make plans with family. We knew we needed to play in that sacred space.”
Community isn’t the only company using existing tech to rethink the fan experience. Many have by now caught wind of Cameo, an online marketplace where 30,000 celebrities — some, like the Howard Stern “Wack Pack,” in only the loosest sense of the term — peddle personalized video messages to fans for special occasions.
The videos can run from $20 for a TikTok performer to $75 for a bespoke greeting from Dillon Passage, husband of incarcerated Tiger King Joe Exotic, to $550 for a birthday wish from Charlie Sheen. Choosing the price point is left to the talent. “We don’t want them coming to us and saying it isn’t worth their time,” says Cameo co-founder Steven Galanis, 32.
Galanis came up with the idea in 2016, while watching a video of NFL player Cassius Marsh congratulating a total stranger — a Nike executive — on becoming a new father. “The exec said it was the coolest gift he’d ever received, and a lightbulb went off: This is the new autograph,” recalls Galanis. The first bookings were athletes and YouTube stars. Then reality TV and Hollywood came calling. “Our first year, we did 10,000 videos,” says Galanis. “In 2018, it was 100,000. Last year, we did 350,000. In 2020, we want a million.” Cameo keeps 25 percent of each transaction; the rest goes into the artist’s pocket.
A year ago, Cameo signed its biggest stars yet: Sheen and Snoop Dogg, both of whom joined as part of a 4/20 promotion. But a higher Q-rating doesn’t guarantee success: 2019’s biggest earner was 65-year-old comic Gilbert Gottfried, who estimates he’s taped thousands of Cameos at $150 a pop. During the pandemic, Cameo has been his sole source of income, bringing in six figures a month. “I’ll put extra effort into things,” says Gottfried. “I’ll look stuff up about what they do for a living and tailor my jokes to that.” He begins his day by checking the app for requests. “Then I lock myself in the bathroom until I finish taping them all,” he says. “It’s become my recording booth.”
Gottfried thought the pandemic would be bad for business, but the opposite has been the case: “I’m getting more Cameos than ever. People are bored and want something to laugh about.”
Dorinda Medley, the 55-year-old star of The Real Housewives of New York, has also felt a COVID-19 boom. “You still get the ‘happy birthdays,'” she says. “But now you also get a lot of requests to cheer up someone’s friend, or just to reach out to someone they can’t be with physically. Everyone is looking for some kind of connection.”
The company logged $20 million in bookings in 2019, up from $4 million in 2018, according to Galanis. “For the first time in world history, every musician, comedian, athlete, actor are at home with nothing to do,” he says. “On the customer side, people who can’t go to a birthday dinner, a bar or a movie are spending that money sending Cameos.”
Community uses a different revenue model, asking fans to pay nothing and instead charging a monthly fee to the public figures, or “leaders,” who use its services. The more fans opt in, the higher the monthly fee.
After attending a 2013 summit led by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Peltier became fixated on social media’s ability to allow its users “to connect deeper to things out of your world,” a phenomenon he calls “parasocial relationships.” He adds: “Fans wanted to connect more directly with their idols. They wanted to feel spoken to. They wanted a deeper relationship.”
His first attempt was a Reddit-style app called Shimmur that faded in 2017, but a pivot the following year to text messaging drew the interest of music manager Guy Oseary and his investing partner, Ashton Kutcher. Rebranded Community, the Santa Monica-based company raised $35 million in funding; Kutcher was the first star to sign on. Other A-listers — from Metallica to Ellen DeGeneres to Paul McCartney — followed. Most are still experimenting with the new service, feeling out the appropriate number of texts to send without becoming a nuisance.
“What I like about Community is that it’s something you can target,” says comic Jim Gaffigan, 53, who during quarantine texts out links to live family dinners. “If I’m doing a show in D.C., I can do a blanket post on my Instagram announcing the D.C. show — or I could just text the people in the D.C. area with Community.” The app offers a lot of versatility behind the screen. If a “leader” wants to wish “Happy Birthday” to anyone celebrating that day, there’s a button for that. And it often encourages talent to get personal with fans, prompting them with suggestions to “make someone’s day” by texting them one on one.
The company is not revealing any financials, but the waiting list to join the roughly 1,000 Community leaders using the service is around 10,000 names long. Post Malone, of course, didn’t have to wait. His April 24 COVID-19 relief concert — featuring Malone in a sundress playing faithful Nirvana covers — was an internet smash, raising over $4 million and drawing 8 million views. Among them were his Community fans, whom he thanked, of course, in a text: “wow. Over 33,000 of you responded to this. I love you guys … I’ll text you tomorrow:)”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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