Today’s brand partners bring creativity, social media credibility and their own engaged audiences. They’re also just a bit dangerous.
Troye Sivan is a genuine Australian influencer. The twentysomething singer, songwriter, actor and vlogger who starred alongside comic genius John Cleese and appeared in X Men has 4.4 million YouTube followers thanks to his electronic dance-pop music. He is talented, ambitious and popular. He’s also thoroughly, unashamedly honest.
Troye isn’t coy. On his vlog, he never shied away from talking to his community about difficult subjects; in 2013 he announced on it that he is gay. So when Durex, the condom people, approached his social media manager Emma Barnes to discuss ways it might use influencers to talk about safe sex to young people, Troye hit on the idea of creating a six-part video series called Awkward Conversations in which he would speak candidly and directly about taboo teenage subjects.
“The best thing about that campaign is that in every video he spoke to the fact he was working with Durex – that he’d ‘teamed up’ with them,” Barnes says on a YouTube-produced video called Tables of Content. “Durex [built] resources around those topics Troye was talking about, but they did it in a way that actually provided really valuable information for that audience of young people through someone they trusted.” Barnes is now a director of Sydney-based Click Management, which handles the affairs of some of Australia’s biggest gaming and technology influencers.
The most misunderstood aspect of influencer marketing is what is most appealing about it – the best “talent” engaged in projects are those who are talented in a number of ways. They are not merely celebrities: they know what they’re doing and they know their audiences better than anyone. They know which emotional buttons to push; they know people will see when they’re faking it. They’re subject-matter experts; creatives with a ready-made distribution platform and a loyal following. Their talent and authenticity is not for sale or hire – they only do things that appeal to them because they know those projects will appeal to their lovingly constructed community of like-minded individuals.
Suzie Shaw, managing director of social media agency We Are Social in Australia, says influencers aren’t just famous because they’re big on social media. What makes them unique is that they are the media. “Influencers are a combination of three things – they’re talent, they’re creatives and they’re distribution,” Shaw says. “They’ve worked really, really hard to build a big audience.”
Successful influencers, such as Sivan, are good at their craft and have developed skills that have allowed them to succeed. Most excel using their preferred technology, for instance, and are smooth in front of the camera. They create content for social media at scale, and have the discipline to publish regularly on their best channels.
“Those creative skills can be sold as a service to brands,” Shaw says. “It’s ‘work with me and I will create your content, that you might want it to be distributed on my channels or yours, to integrate a brand message’. That’s unique.”
Shaw says brands prepared to work with influencers are the most likely to succeed. “I think [their unique skills] create some interesting dynamics for how you engage them, and what sort of deals you should do with them, to get the best result in terms of branded content.”
Leo Roberts, Coca-Cola’s marketing manager in Australia and New Zealand, sees a fundamental and important difference between brands engaging with influencers or working with celebrities. Speaking on the Tables of Content video about collaborating with YouTubers, Roberts said: “The distinction between a celebrity – someone in the mainstream – and an influencer is the celebrity has ‘one-to-many relationships’ whereas an influencer has a ‘one-to-one relationship with many’.”
To believers, it’s this one-to-one relationship that makes influencer marketing so powerful for brands.
Entertainment first, authority second
Shaw’s agency recently commissioned a study on the role of influencers in Australia, “Under The Influence”. The main findings showed that influencers can determine how people engage with social media and the wider world, including how they see themselves:
- 85% described influencer content as entertaining
- 77% cited entertainment as the main reason they enjoy influencer content
- 71% liked seeing behind the scenes of an influencer’s life
- 59% “don’t mind seeing products” in an influencer’s feed
- 67% said they “mind” if influencers promote things they don’t use or don’t believe in
- 63% follow an influencer because they’re a trusted source of information
- 62% agreed that “influencers help me shape my identity”
Shaw isn’t surprised most survey respondents see entertainment, not authority, as the main reason to follow an influencer. “I think most media is entertainment driven, particularly today,” she says. “The most surprising thing around entertainment with influencers is the diversity they offer. They have spawned these fantastic formats and interests for people that would never, ever have been commissioned by mainstream media.”
Before brands take on an influencer partnership, Shaw says, they need to be clear about their reasons and expected outcomes. As influencer marketing has become the “tactic du jour”, she says brands have reacted by asking “the influencer’s the answer, so what’s the question?” This is a mistake.
“Once you clarify what you’re trying to achieve – reaching a new audience or trialling a particular product – that will help inform who might be the right influencer. Then you develop a set of criteria you’re looking for from that influencer.”
She uses the example of a business wanting to reach a new audience. Some influencers might have large numbers of followers in the target market, but others could be more credible advocates for a particular product or service. “There’s a load of due diligence that needs to come into play around looking at [an influencer’s] true levels of engagement,” Shaw says. “Some social media influencers might have a really big audience, but if they don’t have high engagement it suggests their audience is not as valuable.
“What do you want them to deliver in terms of content or time, and do you want a personal appearance? Who’s good at delivering on those things? You also need to look at the brand activity they might have done in the past. Are they working with a competitor? Sometimes one of the reasons these influencers are very popular is because they create content that’s probably not brand safe. All of that stuff needs to be investigated.”
“You need to bring the influencer to the table and say, ‘This is how we thought doing something with you might work, but let us know what you think’.”Suzie Shaw
Influencer marketing is not a safe brand play. For a brand/influencer relationship to be successful, delivering edgy, “off message” content is often part of the deal. Shaw says it’s important both sides are clear on expectations. “[Influencers] are often not people who have worked in a corporate environment or been responsible to marketing departments,” she says. “You need a guarantee that they’re going to deliver what you’ve asked them to deliver and they’re going to do it in a way that meets the standards expected of the brand. There’s a need to [have a] contract and nail it down.”
This includes working out content frequency and length, and ensuring published material abides by current disclosure rules under Australia’s advertising standards. All sponsored influencer content appearing on social media should carry a label declaring a paid relationship, which can be as simple as including “#ad” or “#sponsored” to a post. The code, announced by the Australian Association of National Advertisers in 2017, is voluntary and only applies to brands – not influencers.
A bigger concern is if the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission believes a company or influencer has broken consumer law through misleading or deceptive conduct. This can incur heavy fines for both parties.
Influencer risk and reward
Many marketers remain sceptical of the value influencers bring to brand campaigns. A survey by Rakuten Marketing found 38 per cent of US marketers were unable to tell if influencer activity drove sales while 86 per cent were unsure how influencers calculated their fees. (Rakuten data also shows that one in five marketers have seen influencers increase prices by 30 to 50 per cent over the past year.)
Others question the legitimacy of influencers, some of whom claim to have massive followings on social media. An Instagram fashion influencer recently spoke to Digiday anonymously about how some social media stars, typically those with fewer than 100,000 followers, use “bots” to artificially inflate engagement levels. “As the brands are being more pushy about influencers and agencies want them to grow their followers, they push them to use a bot that ‘likes’ photos for you,” the influencer said. “A few years ago, everyone was growing organically. After brands started paying for things, these people realised they can sell followers to people. The brands use these fucking bots, too.”
Some leading marketers, including UK-based Benefit Cosmetics’ Michelle Stoodley, believe influencers should only be used as part of an overall strategy. “Influencer marketing is probably the part of the digital marketing world that has the least amount of measurement and reliability, so to put all your eggs in one basket would be quite risky,” Stoodley told Marketing Week.
Lillian Betty, who is head of strategic partnerships at Time Inc in the UK, believes brands need to choose influencers wisely. “It would be a mistake for any business to commoditise any partnership or campaign that has an influencer at the heart of it as it’s more than just shifting product,” Betty says. “It’s about brand identity, keeping the right sort of company and ensuring your brand is being shown in its best light with the best partner.”
One of the issues businesses face when working with influencers is having to let go a certain amount of creative control. Companies that engage an influencer put their products in someone else’s hands, and the result often goes into the world unfiltered. To more adventurous brands, this is cost-effective R&D. But Shaw says it’s inevitable that more brands want to maintain control over influencer output – ”it would almost be negligent to just throw money at an influencer and let them go” – but companies need to realise that advocacy is a two-way street.
“One of the wonderful things about influencer marketing is there’s this ecosystem that exists that protects the integrity of what they do,” Shaw says. “Every single day, they’re creating content, they’re publishing it, they’re responding to all of their followers, they’re watching the performance of their posts … their equity is locked up in their engagement from their audience. They won’t do things they feel will jeopardise [this]. If a brand is encouraging them to do something they don’t feel their audience will respond well to, they’re likely to push back or say no.”
[UK food retailer] Iceland’s approval ratings jumped from 10 to 80 per cent after mothers viewed vlogger-created content.
She says the best relationships are carefully managed collaborations – where the brand’s values align with the influencer’s goals and aspirations. “You need to bring the influencer to the table and say, ‘Look, this is the brand that we’re bringing to the table. This is what the brand stands for. This is what it’s trying to achieve. This is how we thought doing something with you might work, but let us know what you think.”
A great example of this, Shaw says, is the relationship Samsung developed through her agency with influencers for its “To the Makers” series. The electronics company not only provided a publishing vehicle for a range of “doers”, it provided them with product and assistance so they could be creative and experiment.
One of the influencers Samsung worked with was fashion blogger Carmen Hamilton. On her site, Street 365, Hamilton interviews fashionable girls about their life and neighbourhood. Samsung provided technology and production support for Hamilton, who is now looking for further creative opportunities.
“At Fashion Week in the US, she did a shoot in LA and New York to create content for virtual reality city guides,” Shaw says. “It’s been fabulous for her because she feels that working with Samsung has made her content better. It’s sort of 1+1=3. There’s something in it for everyone.”
What also attracts brands to using influencers is their relatively low cost compared with traditional promotional activities. Shaw says an influencer market value is developing – some Instagram fashion identities get about $6000 a post. “That sounds like quite a lot, but they’re coming up with the concept, creating the content, they’re often the talent and they’re distributing it,” Shaw says.
“In many cases it’s more effective [than mainstream marketing]. But influencers are getting bigger audiences and they’re getting more professional, so they’re understanding the value of their time.”
Shaw says her agency often works with companies that want to raise awareness quickly, such as a movie marketing business wanting to promote a new film. “If all you’re doing is giving the influencer some money and asking them to do something and they distribute it on their channels, the investment is pretty much the money you’re paying them. But, increasingly, what brands are doing is activating around what they’re doing.”
Shaw says influencer marketing ROI is as difficult to measure as it is for any other strategy. “It’s virtually impossible to isolate the impact of any one channel, let alone a piece of activity, especially when the value of investment is as low as what you’re looking at [for influencers],” Shaw says. “It’s nothing compared to a massive TV campaign.
“It’s possible to measure if it’s a direct response type of campaign, and that only works for certain sorts of products. I’ve seen quite a few ‘Insta’ models featuring a particular dress that you can swipe up to buy now or click the link in the bio.”
UK’s Marketing Week cites the case of frozen food retailer Iceland, which organised vloggers attached to Channel Mum to cook with their products. According to a blind survey conducted by the channel, Iceland’s approval ratings jumped from 10 to 80 per cent after mothers viewed vlogger-created content – a 72 per cent increase on the brand’s agreed digital KPIs.
Nick Canning, joint managing director at Iceland, told The Drum website the campaign features real mums who are “refreshingly honest”. “The way customers are shopping now, they want to hear from a credible source that they can trust and the best [source] is real mums and customers,” he said.
As Durex might say about Troye Sivan, it’s about finding the right fit.
Links & references
We Are Social’s Under the Influence report
Tables of Content Episode 2: Creativity and Control: Collaborating with YouTubers