Under the Influence: The Highs and Lows of Working with Social Media Stars

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Influencer marketing has its fair share of champions and detractors – but just how valuable is it?

Love them or loathe them, it’s hard to deny that ‘influencers’ are everywhere. The stars of the smartphone generation have escaped the confines of social media platforms and branched out into books, TV appearances and lucrative careers, becoming role models for some and figures of derision for others.

Pewdiepie; Zoella; Cameron Dallas; even if you don’t follow their activities, there’s a good chance you know at least one name on that list, and it’s because they and others like them now absolutely dominate pop culture. So great is their presence – that many of them are pulling down six and seven-figure salaries in marketing campaigns and endorsement deals, with their sponsored social media campaigns earning them up to $100,000 per post. Zoella, for example, is worth an estimated £4.7 million, while Logan Paul’s 16 million Instagram followers net him $65,400 for every sponsored post on his account.

Kylie Jenner tops the ‘rich list’ with a net worth of more than $1 billion and a cost per sponsored post of over $1 million, and brands like Puma and FitTea queue up to have Kylie and other top influencers endorse their products.

The general assumption is that these influencers demand exorbitant sums for a relatively static image, posing with a brand’s product and directing followers to a single-click activation point, but beyond these megalithic titans is a universe of smaller influencers – and even ‘nano-influencers’ – with lower follower counts and more affordable pricing. Brands are starting to take notice of this, according to Ollie Lewis, co-founder of influencer marketing agency The Fifth, and as a result, the industry landscape is starting to change.

The common consumer conception of the type of content influencers create is very product-focused,” he says, “like unboxing, reviewing and posing in still imagery with products and or services. Where we think the market is moving is more towards brand storytelling, which means audio, more video, and much longer-term creative executions. So as opposed to it being quite fast and transient and still imagery-based, it’s a lot more about bringing the upper-funnel brand storytelling to life and moving away from bottom-funnel conversion.”

The audience effect

So why do brands work with influencers in the first place? Scale is the obvious answer– many influencers boast thousands or even millions of followers, providing a big potential audience for campaigns – but the true appeal is deeper than that. In Lewis’ eyes, the value of working with influencers extends beyond their reach as purely a marketing channel and is more to do with the loyalty and affection that their fans have towards them.

“I think inherently, the real value they bring to brands is that connection that they have with their audience, the trust that they’ve built and crafted over a long period of time,” he says, “and ultimately if you then can marry the connection they have with their audience and the values that they share with their audience, to the values that the brand has, you get an absolutely winning opportunity to tell that brand story. This isn’t just all about selfie-type product imagery. This could be artists, photographers, incredible content creators; this can be people with genuine talents to tell stories.”

“I think content creators bring a new perspective to the table,” agrees Tomi Adebayo, a journalist, and photographer who has worked on marketing campaigns with Mazda, Samsung, Jacamo, and others. “They are free thinkers who don’t have a creative director to tell them about their ideas, so it’s good for any brand to have. Besides the creative side, you then think about the audience they have and how well they can communicate the brand’s message in their own way, a very effective way. We can also have conversations with our audience that brands can’t have.”

Questions are often raised as to whether or not influencer marketing is an effective channel compared to more traditional methods. Marketers certainly seem to believe that it is; according to a survey from MediaKix at the beginning of 2019, almost 90% of marketers believe that it offers a comparable or better ROI compared to other channels, despite citing measurement and improvement of that ROI as their top challenge when conducting influencer marketing.

As with any campaign, metrics and tracking are a key part of the puzzle in this regard, but in Lewis’ view, follower counts and engagement levels aren’t necessarily the most useful data-points to focus on; instead, brands should consider the goals that they want their influencer campaigns to achieve.

“It’s absolutely interesting to report back as an indicator of how many people have viewed that piece of content,” he says, “but as opposed to engagements, you really want to have more interesting outcomes around either the sentiment of those engagements or, more specifically, actions like follower signups or sales or downloads, or even driving footfall – all of which can absolutely be measured using the right techniques.”

“I think an awful lot of campaigns are executed without a clear objective in mind, without necessarily something measurable, and therefore, I think ROI has been hard to track because the objective, in the first instance, wasn’t there.”

When Influencers Go Bad

There is, however, a darker side to influencer marketing. Collaborating with influencers can deliver huge value for brands but it can also create unexpected headaches, and seemingly innocuous campaigns can sometimes metastasize into full-blown crises. The problem with influencers is that many of them are young people managing themselves – and like most young people, they can be prone to mistakes and ill-considered decisions. One of the most well-known examples is Logan Paul’s infamous video filmed in Japan’s ‘suicide forest’, which resulted in a huge backlash, an official response from YouTube and numerous apologies from Paul himself.

This is far from an isolated incident, though; beauty influencer Olivia Jade found herself in the middle of the US college admissions scandal last year after it came out that her university admission was the result of a $500,000 bribe, and gaming influencer Pewdiepie continues to find himself in hot water over racist behavior.

In all these cases, advertisers – who have attached themselves to these individuals because of their public image – have been forced to hurriedly pull campaigns after these scandals turn that public image sour. Rather than making a brand seem cool and attractive, many campaigns have had to be abandoned due to fears that the association will prove reputationally toxic.

It’s not just the possibility of scandals that advertisers should be wary of, either; it turns out that in many cases, simply getting influencers to deliver on agreements can be incredibly di_ cult. For example, actor and influencer Luka Sabbat ended up on the sharp end of a lawsuit from Snapchat parent company Snap Inc. when he failed to live up to the terms of a $60,000 endorsement deal. Beauty YouTuber Bethany Mota earned herself a similar lawsuit for reneging on her $325,000 deal with skincare brand Studio71. Many of these problems stem from a lack of clarity and transparency within the influencer world. There is no set standard on pricing, so influencers can charge what they want, and because it’s a comparatively young field, brands often have little to compare it to – which makes it hard to judge whether someone is overcharging.

Furthermore, the unwillingness of brands to share details of influencer marketing campaigns’ performance means that there’s no way to judge how professional or effective specific influencers are. Some influencers, for example, are less than scrupulous about disclosing which of their posts are part of paid campaigns and which aren’t. So much so, in fact, that the US Federal Trade Commission has started cracking down on influencers and brands, sending out letters to those it feels have violated its transparency guidelines in their sponsored content.

One of its main complaints is the use of ‘#ad’ or ‘#sponsored’ tags at the end of a long Instagram caption to disclose that the post is sponsored, arguing that many users will not read that far. At its worst, influencer marketing involves misleading the public, flouting regulations and spending enormous sums of money for few tangible results – and the perfect storm of these elements was the legendary Fyre Festival. Everyone is familiar with the disaster that the festival turned into, but it’s easy to forget that part of the reason it was such a catastrophe is that it was hugely oversubscribed, thanks, in part, to one of the most ambitious influencer marketing campaigns ever devised. Fyre Festival and its creator, Billy McFarland, were almost total unknowns prior to the festival, and yet it managed to sell its initial 5,000-ticket allocation in 48 hours – an unbelievable feat for an established festival to accomplish, let alone an unheard-of debut event. It has led many to dub the event a success – at least in terms of its marketing – but closer examination tells a different story.

The initial campaign involved paying influencers like Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid to fly out to an island in the Bahamas and shoot a lavish, aspirational promotional video, along with paying another 250 high profile influencers to post about the upcoming event.

It’s unknown what the exact total was for the campaign, but it’s reported that each influencer got at least $20,000 for their post, in addition to the $250,000 paid to Kendall Jenner for her promotion. That’s at least $5 million right out the gate, before factoring in the cost of the promo shoot in the Bahamas.

The eventual number of tickets sold was only 8,000, making that 48-hour launch period the most successful part of the event – but with 5,000 tickets and a (minimum) $5 million cost, that’s a cost per acquisition of $5,000. Hardly much to write home about. Not only that, but the campaign itself was funded by McFarland misleading investors and allegedly misappropriating funds from his other companies, as well as flouting FTC ad disclosure guidelines in the process.

So, if Fyre Festival isn’t a bravura marketing masterstroke, then what can it teach us about working with social influencers? The biggest lesson is that more spending does not always mean more results, and that reach does not automatically translate to conversion. Rather than spending their initial marketing budget on a single ‘big bang’ blitz of promotional activity, the Fyre team could have opted for a phased campaign, optimizing and adjusting it based on key metrics as they went along, ensuring a better return on investment.

All of which brings us on to an obvious question; how can marketers partner with influencers in a way that is mutually beneficial, sustainable and productive? The key, it would seem, is to be highly selective about which influencers you work with. Don’t focus solely on the size of their audience, but instead look at which influencers are going to best support the goals of that particular campaign and that best fit your brand. It’s also important to leverage the creativity of the influencers you’re working with; if you’ve partnered with someone on the basis of their unique style and voice, don’t burden them with too many rigid guidelines around campaign creative and trust them to pick a style and tone that will feel authentic to their audience. “What you find is you’ll end up getting more than you contracted,” Lewis says, “not less. So, you get the brand match right, you treat them fairly, you pay them appropriately, you get them bought into the story – you may contract ten pieces of content and end up with 30. Because they want to put more organic pieces out because they’re proud of the work, they want to share it. And in 99% of the cases, they’ll tag the brand and the campaign hashtag in everything they do.

“For example, if you were to take them on a shoot and create an experience-led piece of content, you end up with behind-the-scenes footage before the campaign’s even gone live. So, from a media value perspective, that’s very beneficial, but I think a lot of it comes down to treating the talent professionally. You will get what you paid for, and what you asked for.”

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