Today’s influencer landscape seems a far cry from the early days of blogging. But lessons learned over the years since – by influencers, their audiences and brand owners, alike – have created a fast-growing area of marketing which is little short of super-charged.
Back in the early and mid-Noughties, original thinkers and creators began blogging to express a point of view around topics that were often under or misrepresented by mainstream media. They were diverse, brave, authentic and highly entertaining – ranging from LolCats and the Gawker juggernaut via anonymous sex diaries to tech blogs and edgy celebrity comment.
It was the fashion bloggers, however, who performed a masterclass in building and maintaining loyal audiences by epitomising free expression to become a powerful, irresistible message to the masses. And pioneers like Style Bubble and Mademoiselle Robot were the early prototype of Zoella (below) and Jim Chapmans – who are the super-evolved social media stars shaping vibrant conversations and dominating popular culture today.
This evolution was powered by an explosion in social media; the rise of mega-influencers who, by straddling multiple platforms, enjoyed unlimited and immediate exposure to millions of fans hungry to be entertained; and the emergence of a new era of talent management epitomised by Zoella’s manager, Dom Smales, who founded Gleam Futures – the world’s first and largest digital-first talent management company.
Backed by Smales – a man who not only understood the cultural impact of the influencer but has arguably been key to driving it – talent began to have a major impact: changing the way people consume their entertainment; shifting power away from traditional gatekeepers, like magazine editors; and re-writing the rules of engagement for brand owner and influencer engagement.
This new generation of influencers does what it does for the love of it, not the money, says Smales. “They are very cognisant not to over-saturate their channels with branded content.” So Gleam Futures will turn down 90 per cent of the brand work offers that come through. Picky? Yes. Necessary? Smales says: “Too many brands are still making duff talent decisions and then losing faith in the effectiveness of the work being made. It’s a bit of a Wild West and we seek to professionalise it.”
What this boils down to is understanding that A-list talent is just that – people who are super-talented, highly professional and unfailingly authentic to their own brand and the audience they have spent years building. They choose wisely and when they commit, they do so 100 per cent. In short, they could give your average brand manager a run for their money because they are – whether or not they like to admit it – highly talented marketers.
Integrity and shared purpose are key to driving the right associations between brands and influencer talent and avoiding “duff talent decisions.”
Diageo Reserve Brands head of culture and communications Sam Newall (left) says: “If partnerships are explored with integrity it can lead to truly authentic and credible work, but you have to place shared values and brand purpose at the heart of what you’re doing. Get it right and you’ll be rewarded with advocacy, word of mouth and cultural relevance.
“By applying those rules of integrity and shared purpose, we can demonstrate the unique lifestyle associated with a brand to inspire audiences to participate and engage with us in a genuinely credible way. That’s the difference between landing our brands firmly and authentically in culture, and missing the mark entirely.”
Chanel is another brand to have cracked this authenticity conundrum and come out smiling.
Realising that consumers are jaded with one-off celebrity endorsement, the brand took a clutch of the world’s most fashion-forward Instagrammers to Grasse, France to visit the Chanel flower fields and reveal the making process for their new scent. This was a huge success generating over 1,600 pieces of branded and influencer-created content, which gained over 900,000 likes in the first month of the campaign.
Everything Everywhere partnered 21 You Tube gamers famed for playing FIFA to create the Wembley Cup to promote its Wembley partnership and push its innovation creds. A ten-part branded entertainment series resulted; with minimal branding and much of the content housed on influencer channels. The strategy paid off: episode content views now exceed 20 million – 89 per cent of which was organic – and extra content generated a further 15 million-plus views.
Others are exploring micro-influencer opportunities. With smaller (though, often, just as enthusiastic) followings and fewer celebrity-style trappings, micro-influencers are lauded for their unprecedented levels of authenticity and effectiveness. But they also provide a welcome antidote to organic engagement rates – which, among larger audiences especially, are in serious decline.
While organic engagement with Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account levels out at 1.5 per cent or less, micro-influencers can achieve anything from 2.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent. Add to this the fact that micro-influencers are undamaged by over-exposure, still write passionately and authentically about the brands they love (not just those they are paid to work with), and tend to be more cost effective as they begin their careers, and bingo: you have brand bait.
All Saints, for example, asked customers to share an image of themselves wearing the brand under an initiative kicked off by mid-level influencers under the hashtag #ItsUpToYou, The content has seen huge spikes in social engagement and customer loyalty, reaching 17 million in organic reach.
Five common principles unite those brands now successfully harnessing influencers: By treating influencers like partners, they capitalise on influencers’ creativity. By reserving a proper budget, they build mutual loyalty and respect. To ensure a natural fit between brand and influence, they find a shared purpose – so building authenticity. They are strategic – building partnerships that are long-term, not one-off. And in the knowledge that the talent knows its audience best, they leave them the space and freedom to do what they do best.
Ria Campbell is head of content at communications agency Southpaw.