When you load Unicorn Island, the app from YouTube star Lilly Singh—aka IISuperwomanII—she immediately thanks you in a video. Singh refers to her happy place as “Unicorn Island,” so it’s fitting that she’s designed a bright and welcoming place as her digital hub for all things Singh, allowing you to easily purchase a ticket to an upcoming show alongside backstage snaps and question-and-answer settings.
You start out just following Singh, with access to exclusive videos and photos that she doesn’t share elsewhere on social media, but you quickly realize that Unicorn Island is definitely an island full of unique “unicorns”—Singh’s name for her fans—with their own content and creativity. You can follow those fans and invest in their own content right alongside the app’s originator.
“The app enables my fans to create new things in one place, which is really cool—whether it’s a GIF, images, polls,” said Singh via email. “I think they feel like they have more control over what they create in the app because more people who matter get to see it. Because those who downloaded my app are true super Unicorns, the number of engagements and other metrics mean a lot more to me than my numbers on Facebook and Twitter.”
That app is a product of Victorious, which offers a new way for digital celebrities to further connect with their ballooning audiences. When it launched, YouTuber Ryan Higa’s version was the No. 1 trending app in the App Store, with no paid marketing. His 14.3 million-strong community led the charge. For Singh, choosing Victorious to power her app came down to an understanding between creator and fan.
“I’m not going to lie—a lot of people offered to help me build an app,” she said. “But I chose Victorious because I like their vibe. I think they really understand, as a creator, what I want to do with my fans and what connection I want to have. They understand our connection and understand that as creators we have so much on our plates—and make it easy for us to do more.”
The company was created by Bing Chen, YouTube’s former global head of creator development and management, who spent time as Google’s “creative whisperer.”
“What that meant was, ‘Can you get creators to do what we want them to do?’” Chen laughed. “But really my job was to understand the pain points.”
That led him to start his own venture, Victorious, which aims to put power in the hands of creators and their most dedicated fans.
“We are all superfans of something,” Chen explained. “Superfans don’t have a meaningful place to congregate. They have to go to mass-market platforms with casual fans, [but] there’s trolls on those platforms. We enable each of these superfan apps to be a micro social network around content and community. Every fan has a profile and can be followed. This also benefits the creator because now this is their own community and own audience.”
As Chen explains, the power of community is in the creator’s hands.
“No longer do they have to rely on someone else’s algorithm and platform,” he said. “We know that superfans don’t just come to portals for portals. They come to portals for specific creators and specific content. So we empower fans to have one-touch access to their fans. In addition, we also empower creators to have direct access to their audience.”
For Mother’s Day, Ryan Higa asked his legion of fans to chime in with some words for their moms using the hashtag #DearMom. He took these submissions, combined them with his own words and the words of several other big-name YouTubers, and produced a video that racked up almost 2.4 million views in less than three weeks.
But Higa didn’t turn to his broad fanbase for this input, or even traditional social media. He used his own app to solicit these responses, and took the product he created with his fan community back to YouTube.
Victorious isn’t the only entrant in the game to court creators and the fans who love them to supplemental platforms or outlets for their creativity. Earlier this year, Vessel launched premium and first-look content with creators while charging fans a $2.99 monthly fee to connect with anyone on the platform. Even YouTube is laying the groundwork for a paid subscription model with new terms of service updates. Another company, VHX, is branching out from paid one-off downloads from content creators to a subscription service model. Victorious falls more in line with these platforms, betting that fans who are willing to pay will happily drive the majority of engagement and revenue.
“It’s the 20 percent that drives the 80 percent,” Chen said. “They’re the first in line for the movie, first one to buy the CD, first one to watch the YouTube video. We did quite a bit of research. What we learned is people are not ultra fans of 10 things; they are ultra fans of two to five things. That’s tenable. We also want to help other creators help each other. So on Ryan Higa’s app, he’ll cross-promote creators he loves. It’s like building your own Comedy Central, where you can swap out and incubate new [content].”
Chen emphasizes the safety of the apps, especially in the current climate of cyberbullying.
“We like to think of these apps as safe havens,” Chen said. “Cyberbullying is a big issue now. One of the things I’m excited about and proud of is these are not just for superfans; these are for safe fans [with whom] you can share your opinions and be elevated.”
It’s that connectedness that he thinks will drive apps over other platforms for fans and creators. He points out that when digital celebs are tweeting, they’re talking to the masses. In a closed app, the biggest fans can be treated differently. It also gives them a place to show off that they are more than just fans—they’re creators.
“If you’re a superfan of Michelle Phan, you are a beauty and fashion tastemaker yourself,” Chen explained. “If you look at Ryan Higa’s app, a lot of it’s not about Ryan Higa; it’s the next generation of content creators.”
For creators, he sees Victorious as a partnership. While the apps have various ways to generate revenue, from in-app purchases and advertising to branded content and ecommerce, they only share a revenue split on the purchases and ads. Creators with audiences smaller than 500,000 subscribers get a 60/40 split, while those above the threshold enjoy a 70/30 split, both in favor of the creator.
“We want this to be an ongoing partnership,” Chen said. “We do not just produce apps. Building the app is the easy first step. The bigger part of our job is ensuring the app is successful over time and a part of the creator’s career.”
For Singh, she says she’ll be using the app for special moments between her and her “super Unicorns.”
“I’m also going to do secret meetups through the app—but you’ll only know if it’s happening through the app,” she explained. “For example, I’ll post exclusively that in 15 minutes, I’m going to be in this location, and only super Unicorns in the app will know. I can’t wait.”
More apps from digital stars are launching, but Victorious is also branching out into the TV network and film franchise space—and finding that its needs and wishes are very similar to those of digital creators. The goal is to help all forms of entertainment evolve from the platform on which they were born, be it TV or Vine, and expand their brands.
“If you are a creator of anything, you want to be a sovereign entity,” Chen said. “The term Vine stars hate is ‘Viners.’ At some point, you’re not a viner; you’re a comedian. We see the Victorious platform as a place for people to expand their brands beyond where they were born.”
Illustration by Jason Reed