At this year’s Digital Content NewFronts, the digital media’s annual presentation to advertisers, the leaders of BuzzFeed, a trendsetter in digital publishing, played up their role as matchmakers — not only between brands and audiences, but between content creators and marketers willing to sponsor them.
There is a shift happening in media today, said CMO Frank Cooper: “In the social, mobile, cross-platform world we live in, there is no center,” he said. Outliers can become agenda-setters in this world, he said.
The rise of bloggers as social media influencers is being tapped by brands, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The gold standard is the story of Michelle Phan, who in under 10 years went from a waitress posting makeup tutorials on YouTube to a million-dollar business with endorsement deals and her own makeup company.
But even ordinary fans with more limited followings can be powerful amplifiers for marketers’ messages. A number of studies recently have shown the power of everyday advocates in building brands, and digital media have given every consumer a potential megaphone — for better or worse.
Several studies have shown reviews and recommendations are the most powerful factor in buying decisions. Research by Dr. Jonah Berger of the Wharton School of Business found influencers have more conversations about product recommendations than the average person, 22 times more. And what’s more important to brands: they are perceived as more knowledgeable, more credible and better at explaining how a product works.
“Of course, authenticity is critical,” said Christine Villanueva SVP and head of strategy at agency Walton Isaacson. “When you have the right match between what the brand stands for and how the influencer actually lives life and behaves, that’s the ideal situation.”
That effectiveness has given rise to much debate about how to harness brand fandom and how to incentivize influencers — or even if they should be paid to voice their opinions. Most experts agree that influencers must receive some incentive and that it should be disclosed to the public, who are likely to spot the fakery, anyway.
“Readers can—and will!—sniff out inauthenticity miles away,” said Stefania Pomponi, president of influencer marketing agency Clever Girls. Marketers are not paying for the endorsement, but for the influencer’s work on their behalf, noted Pomponi.
Consumers have reached the point where they understand some influencers will be paid, but they appreciate the transparency, said Matt Lang, senior digital strategist at digital agency Rain. And the fit between the influencer and the brand has to be right, so the first step is to engage in due diligence to identify the right kind of influencers and surface the right kind of talent for the effort, he said.
“It’s not going to rub (consumers) the wrong way that they’re working with brands. It’s accepted today,” said Lang. But he added: “Someone who’s posting fashion content all day and now is posting for McDonald’s is going to rub people the wrong way.”
Once the right influencers are targeted, marketers must tread lightly, said experts. Influencers, even paid ones, are not always easy to control, if they are to remain authentic to their audience. Brand guidelines could help them stay on message, but too much control can be “obvious and ineffective,” said Pomponi.
It is best to give them the freedom to do what they do best, said Lang. Marketers need to think of influencers more broadly, encourage more organic tactics to reach them, such as engaging with user-generated content, and see how fans react to each post.
“The more we try to constrain and the more guidelines we give them, the more low-performing the content is,” said Lang.
“A focus on identifying the right people and staying authentic is key.”
And taking the influencer relationship from a one-to-one communication to a larger-scale effort has risks too. “Working with human beings is challenging. You can’t treat them like ad units, but you can’t treat them like freelance copywriters/photographers, either,” said Pomponi.
Soliciting reviews from users is one simple way to get authentic endorsements and feedback, say experts, but curation may be necessary. Authenticity is important and any sign of tampering with reviews can cause irreparable damage to consumers’ trust in the brand, said Sara Spivey, CMO of BazaarVoice, a consumer-generated content platform.
“You can’t force or cherry-pick the content, but you can choose to curate reviews from groups of influencers who are more likely to utilize products similar to your brand’s,” said Spivey. “If you activate consumers already passionate about your brand, such as social fans or previous reviewers, you’re more likely to get on-brand content.”
Lang noted the practice of influencer marketing has pivoted recently to more strategic engagement with influencers who have smaller, more targeted audiences. The bottom line: Building a relationship is key, said Jeremy Simon, director of influencer & partnership marketing at Attention, the social arm of agency KBS.
“True collaborations are received more positively than one-off posts promoting a product,” he said.