How Ashley Tisdale became a digital brand

Ashley Tisdale attends the 2015 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City.
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A year ago, actress Ashley Tisdale came up with the idea of starting her own blog so fans could learn more about her. After meeting with her digital management team, the idea for lifestyle website The Haute Mess emerged.

"The Haute Mess is a site that we like to call an editorial style online magazine," the former Disney actress explained. "I am the editor in chief, but it's not me blogging. It's about me sharing my audience and spotlighting my bloggers."

Tisdale is one of a growing number of celebrities exploring the idea of turning themselves into online brands. From Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop to Blake Lively's Preserve, more stars are establishing themselves as digital media entities whether that is through their own website or amassing a large number of social media followers.

It's also giving rise to a new industry of digital management agencies and companies that can provide editorial content, strategic guidance and digital advertising opportunities.

"There's more demand for an online presence now," said Digital Media Management CEO Luigi Picarazzi. "Celebrities are not only the face for a campaign. They are the distribution of its content."

Digital Media Management focuses on helping stars build and maintain their online presences through creating media outlets and social media accounts. Services range from teaching clients how to use platforms like Pinterest and Snapchat to creating the look and feel of their personal websites for those who already have built their social media followings. Its roster of clients include Elizabeth Banks, Mark Ruffalo and Felicity Huffman.

In Huffman's case, Picarazzi said she was interested in expanding the conversations about motherhood her character on "Desperate Housewives" was having past the duration of the show. They decided to launch What The Flicka?—a play on her nickname—so she could curate content around parenting.

"Our choices was to turn Felicity Huffman, Oscar-nominated actress and Golden Globe winner, into a mommy blogger or let her keep her career," Picarazzi said. "(Creating a media brand), the actor can be preserved. What The Flicka? can be the brand created to have the mom conversation."

Picarazzi said he used to fear the backlash that might come from fans when they realized that celebrities didn't create all their own online content. However, in recent years, he said the public has become more understanding, even sending the company fan mail thanking them for the work they do on behalf of clients.

"It's OK for people to know that celebrities have help because chances are the help that we're contributing to them gives fans more of what they love," Picarazzi said.

Tisdale, on the other hand, has 12.9 million Twitter followers, and 4.9 million Instagram followers. For the next step, Digital Media Management and her team wanted to come up with a way to reach her audience of 30-something, mostly female fans with content she was personally interested in. They settled around fashion, beauty, health and fitness.

The site does rely on blog contributors, but Tisdale said she's completely behind it. When it comes to posts with her name on them, she says she does all the writing and contributes other content like photo shoots. For the rest, she attends weekly meetings, and personally approves everything that goes on the site.

"For me, being active online is really getting to connect with my audience," she said. "That's why I use Twitter and also Instagram. I have control over what I want to say and talk about, and can tell people what I'm interested in. ... Another thing is it is another way to be out there to give back to them (the fans), and share things I've learned along the way."

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While Tisdale says the main point of The Haute Mess is to have a place for her Twitter followers to congregate online, sites like these are appealing to other companies who want to reach her audiences as well. For example, the actress says she can share tidbits about her new projects, which can help get her fans engaged.

"The studios and networks are relying on the celebrities themselves and their connections to their audience to help promote (their content)," Tisdale explained. "If I'm starring in something, I'm supporting it 100 percent. I want my fans to support it as well."

Talent Resources CEO Michael Heller, whose company helps broker deals between celebrity clients and brands, said that having a digital presence helps actors build a platform where they can use their power to reach people in real time. Much more, because it's from their own personal accounts and websites, the content is seen as more authentic to fans—something studios are very interested in.

For example, Heller was a co-producer on "Arbitrage" in 2012. He said that social media followings played a role in who was cast for the movie. Heller said the practice is getting more common, which is why we're seeing celebrities like Nicki Minaj, who has 33.7 million followers on her Instagram, get more movie and TV roles. Heller added that Ashton Kutcher's casting on "Two and a Half Men" was strongly influenced by his number of online followers.

"Celebrities have become their own network, and are even more powerful than they were before," he said. "You used to look at People and In Touch magazine, but even on their digital platforms, they don't come close to the audience of some of the talent that we're working with. Some of these celebrities have over 20 million online followers listening to what they have to say, which is more powerful that some broadcasts and most of our networks."

Advertisers also are interested in tapping into that scalable and highly tuned-in audience. Talent Resources has worked with Kelly Clarkson and Citizen Watches, as well as Demi Lovato and teeth-whitening product Cocowhite.

IZEA, an online marketplace that connects social media influencers with brands, said digital media has opened up the door to smaller brands. CEO Ted Murphy explained that these "micro endorsements" can provide support to a specific cause without forcing a brand into a multiyear contract at much larger numbers. It's brokered deals for stars from the Kardashians to Neil Patrick Harris.

"We did the first paid celebrity tweet with Kim Kardashian in 2009," he said. "We paid her $10,000. That was unheard of, and now a $10,000 tweet is pretty commonplace. The six-figure deals are less commonplace, but they do exist."

But, it's not all about money. Echoing Heller, Murphy said that many celebrities still value remaining authentic. He said he even got a seven-figure offer for a specific celebrity to tweet about a product, but they turned it down because they didn't want to go against their principles.

Murphy said it's still about maintaining who they are and their personal connection with fans, which is also the most valuable to brands.

"Followers isn't the biggest metric; it's the level of engagement on the tweet," Murphy said. "That's the No. 1 thing we look for and the clients look for. We want to see how these messages spread and what type of relationship does this celebrity have with their followers."