Ashton Kutcher, Tech Darling — and His Celeb Posse

Ashton Kutcher’s practiced finesse and stage presence were completely out of place at the TechCrunch50 conference earlier this week, but his appearance was the talk of the show. Kutcher wasn’t in San Francisco to run a casting call for “Beauty and the Geek,” but to launch a web video show focused on something about which he knows a fair amount: celebrity gossip.

Celebrity spokespeople are a fact of life at this point, but celebrity tech founders? Like so many things, it’s a phenomenon that gets frothy every time there’s a bubble. And with the rise of online video, there are opportunities galore for celebrities to bring their content experience to the table and contribute something of value to the projects of their techie co-founders and venture backers. Meanwhile, social web tools give celebrities a way to meet their fans on their own terms. No tech conference would be complete these days without a token celebrity entrepreneur.

Most of the attendees at the TechCrunch conference seemed to think Kutcher’s show, called “Blah Girls,” was a less-than-compelling idea (of course, it’s more of a teen girl thing, and to my knowledge there were none of them there). But they also agreed that it was bound to do better than many of the other competing startups at the event because of Kutcher’s role (even if the tech company for which he was previously a spokesperson, Ooma, has hardly succeeded). And “Blah Girls” is just one of some five web series in development at Kutcher’s Katalyst Media, he said. For more, see the video interview on NewTeeVee.

Celebrity names certainly don’t guarantee success. Damon Wayans took his “In Living Color 2.0″ video site and YouTube channel offline less than six months after they launched. Jack Black had Acceptable.TV, which tied web video to a show on VH1, but spent less than two months on the air before petering out online.

Funny or Die could hardly be considered a failure, but so far its story has centered around its efforts to match its first hit, co-founder Will Ferrell’s “The Landlord.” And the site has succeeded in making clear the power of celebrity. Its top non-Ferrell videos of all time star Paris Hilton, Eva Longoria and Jerry O’Connell, respectively.

When I met MC Hammer for a sit-down interview about his social networking startup, DanceJam, last year he nearly walked off the set after I asked whether he was a celebrity frontman. DanceJam, according to public traffic measures, hasn’t made it big, but CEO Geoffrey Arone promised me this week that “a bunch of big celebrities” would soon be making appearances on the site through a worldwide dance competition promotion with Bebo.

IBeatYou CEO Abdul Khan is acutely aware of how hard to push the celebrity angle. After co-founding the startup with basketball star Baron Davis and Cash Warren (best known for being Jessica Alba’s husband), they brought their high-wattage friends to the site, which hosts photo, video, and text competitions. IBeatYou middled along until a breakout hit in May — Jessica Alba engaging in a staring contest with fans — got 1 million views on IBeatYou, 5 million views on YouTube, and more through IBeatYou’s widgets. People stuck around, says Khan, giving IBeatYou a respectable (but not that impressive) high of 400,000 unique visitors in August.

But Khan says he knows he needs to build an engaged, sustained audience that outlives these celebrity boosts. Given how may of these sites are based on user-generated content, de-emphasizing the celebrity aspect seems prudent. The stars log into IBeatYou a couple times a month, says Khan, but “99.9 percent of our content is non-celebrity content.” More popular than Alba’s staring contest? A member-initiated “most creative motivational poster” competition, Khan says proudly.

Promotion is becoming increasingly important on the web, where there’s simply too many diversions bombarding users. So having a celebrity’s MySpace friends or fan club in your camp, plus the press attention you attract, can be a big deal. Expect many more Hollywood folks to appear on the scene, especially those who had an apple dropped on their heads during the writers’ strike with the realization that they could control their craft if they went straight to the web. Will they succeed? Hard to say, since it’s not like celebrities can guarantee success offline, either.

Image courtesy of TechCrunch

This article also appears on Businessweek.com.

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