Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
The rapid emergence of social media influencers presents marketers with yet another channel in the ever-fragmenting media landscape.
Promising deep reach into specific niches and armed with stats on the compelling nature of personal recommendation, social media influencers are in some ways also a natural evolution of the celebrity endorsement and affiliate models of old.
It hasn’t take long for suspicion to set in, however, most typically regarding whether the followings that influencers claim are bought or earned, and just how influential they really are when driving conversion.
With so many influencers now promoting themselves, can brands ever really know if they are getting value for their investment?
What's the value
“The barrier to creating a name for yourself is pretty low these days,” says Danielle Lewis, CEO and co-founder of the influencer management platform, Scrunch. “Set up an account, generate some great content, get a mass number of followers, and all of a sudden you have landed yourself in this position of what is called an influencer. What emerged out of that is the fact that there are now millions of them across every category you can think of.
“As a result the brands are really confused – they don’t know who to work with, how to really vet an influencer, and understand whether it is going to be a success or not. That is the real risk. You have to invest up front in these content creators, with having no idea of how to measure it or whether it is going to drive a result for the business.”
Hence Scrunch is now one of a growing cadre of influencer management platforms, all designed to streamline engagement and provide marketers with better metrics.
For Detch Singh, the idea of bringing order to influencers came about when he and business partner were developing a technology business earlier this decade. That led them to create what they believe was Australia’s first invitation-only, self-service social media influencer platform, Hypetap, in November 2013.
“We were looking to market it using influencers, and found that doing this at scale is very painful and very difficult to execute without some form of tech,” Singh says.
Today, Hypetap lists almost 1700 social media influencers on its books for marketers to browse, with each one personally vetted by a human being.
While the original model was self-service, the relative inexperience of brands when working with influencers has led Hypetap to open its own agency, able to create and execute entire campaigns and report back on KPIs.
“It’s not as easy to execute a strong influencer marketing campaign as it used to be, because audiences have reached a tipping point around influencer marketing content,” Singh says. “Going forward there is going to be an increased emphasis on the quality of campaigns. And that is one of the reasons we opened the agency. What we realised is there wasn’t enough expertise, and as audiences started adapting there was an increased need for higher quality campaigns to be successful.”
Singh says issues such as the buying of ‘likes’ or followers means it is important that brands look beyond basic reach measures. Hence Hypetap also looks at engagement and sentiment when inviting influencers on to its platform.
“But more than that, they also need to be a good content creator,” Singh says. “Because if you are going to work with a brand you need to be clever around the kind of content you are going to create with that brand, and be a genuine advocate for that brand.”
Explosion of influencer agencies
Since its foundation, Hypetap has been joined by platforms including Scrunch and TRIBE Group. Each offers a different take on how best to work with influencers. While both Scrunch and Hypetap focus on connecting brands to influencers who will then act on their behalf, Tribe reverses the model by proposing that influencers creates content that then may or may not be used by brands.
Like Hypetap, the idea for TRIBE Group came to its founder, Jules Lund, while facing the conundrum of how best to connect brands to influencers, although in this instance he was acting as the influencer in his role as presenter with the Southern Cross Austereo network. Under the TRIBE Group model, brands post a brief which is then distributed to influencers, who choose whether or not to respond.
“The content is made up front, and the brand has no obligation, as opposed to choosing an influencer and starting a protracted conversation around getting the content right,” Lund says.
The platform was launched eight months ago and is designed to be self-service. Lund says 25 per cent of the work booked through the platform is from brands and creators whom TRIBE has had no direct engagement with, and the model is proving popular with creators.
“Our top influencer is on track to earn $60,000 this year, and she is just a normal dietician,” Lund says.
Aside from the pure-play technology platforms, there is also a plethora of public relations and talent agencies that count social media influencers amongst the channels they offer to clients.
“PR companies have been doing this for years,” says Lund. “PR companies pretty much created influencer marketing before it was influencer marketing, and they were just doing the agency model. Its primarily a service-based model where they are using email and phone calls, and still trying to herd the cats, and the capacity for scale is limited by resource and time.”
Lund says some agencies have invested in tech, such as identification algorithms or communications tools. One example is Crowd Atlas, a content co-creation platform developed by the PR agency One Green Bean.
Whether the market can support the number of both influencers and platforms remains to be seen, but Singh says signs are strong that influencer-based marketing will be a growing part of the marketing landscape.
“Every client that has done a campaign with us has continued to do further influencer work,” he says. “And we are also seeing the ticket sizes go up. So the media spend allocated to the influencer category is increasing over time.”
Why Bellabox is tapping influencers
Among those companies is the five-year-old subscription-based beauty products business, Bellabox. Chief marketing officer, Stephanie Michel, says her firm has been working with Hypetap for more than a year-and-a-half, and now engages with more than 100 influencers though the platform.
“I’ve been in online marketing for ten years, and I am very excited about any new innovation or anything that can help online marketing to go further,” Michel says. “We definitely push influencers, like any brand, but we are very far from having the budgets of L’Oréal or the big cosmetic companies, so we are very tactical.
"With Hypetap, instead of going to influencers one by one, I have one platform. You push your campaign to influencers, and if they are interested they reach out to you. It gives you a reach that would really be time consuming if you had someone fully dedicated just to that.”
Understanding how campaigns translate to sales is somewhat more difficult to determine, Michel says, with only 10 to 15 per cent driving sales right away. As a result, she considers much of her spend to be an investment in branding, but her key determinant for who she works with is not the number of followers they claim.
“Now it is all about engagement,” Michel says. “If engagement is poor, numbers don’t mean anything.”
But in the data-driven era, if anything is to determine the longevity of the influencer model and the platforms that support it, it will be their ability to demonstrate a return for marketers. That requirement has also opened opportunities for analytics specialists such as Spredfast.
Singh says data is one of the key outputs from the Hypetap platform. It is also a core offering for Scrunch, although Lewis says this is something that influencers themselves also need to think more about.
“Where there is a link available, such as on a Facebook post or a tweet or inside a blog article, we actually use unique tracking links and have both the influencer and the brand connect their Google analytics into Scrunch, and then we track those links through to the ecommerce sale on the brand’s website,” Lewis says.
“Because there are so many of these influencers it is becoming quite competitive, so they are going to have to become a lot more transparent with their stats.”