Where are the ad dollars going? The use of influencers in marketing

The Odysseus Arms co-founder and creative director shares valuable insights from the influencer world.

As part of the AICP Week 2019, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel called Where Are the Ad Dollars Going? Under the Influence: The Use of Influencers in Marketing.

I was joined by five fascinating women: Agatha Asch, Director of Marketing & Communications at STOPit Solutions; Donnell Gavin, VP of Influencer & Entertainment at BMF Media; and Jean Belfry, Founder & Director of modeling and casting agency, The Btwn; as well as two influencers, Kendra Austin, a curve model and body politics expander, and Yanece Cotto, a nonbinary femme actress and model.

Though our industries have discussed influencers ad nauseum in the past few years, the truth is that for many brands choosing the right influencers and getting the most out of the partnership remains a mystery as does measuring success.

Our discussion focused on harnessing the power and fine-tuning partnership with micro-influencers -- those who have 5,000 or 50,000 followers rather than five million -- and there were some interesting and important learnings for brands that came through.

Our metrics for choosing influencers need an upgrade

For years, brands have been focused on the simplest of arithmetic—more followers equal more eyeballs and more eyeballs equal success. This has led us to put the mega-celebrity influencer with 50 or 100 million Instagram followers on a pedestal. And, while it is true that this person can bring us visibility, that doesn’t mean they provide the most value.

There’s a major lifestyle gap between these celebrities—be it Beyoncé or a Kardashian—and their followers that can be a problem for brands. We have always liked to gawk at celebrities, but they’re more "eye candy" than "comrade." We don’t actually believe that they’re much like us—the word "unattainable lifestyle" came up a lot—and as such we don’t put as much stock in their opinion as we might with more approachable influencers who look, shop and live more like us.

Authenticity is still queen

This is not new, but we need to say it again and again. Today’s consumers are looking for brands and messengers and relationships between the two that feel real. Micro-influencers aren’t playing a part, they are being themselves and this is what draws their followers in—"this person like me."

As a result, followers are very loyal and very involved, and the influencers are very protective of them. Both of the influencers on the panel talked about how much work they do to vet brands that approach them, even if the ask of them seems small (we’ll give you $350 to wear this watch in a picture). If the brand fits in with their own personal brand and there is synergy, they are happy to weave it into their content. But they don’t ever want their content to ever feel like sales.  

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Do your homework

Unfortunately, brands are often not as careful about the influencers they approach because using influencers is still an afterthought in the conception of the broader campaign. Brands have to do their homework too.

Of course, what this really means is starting with a deep understanding of your customer, where they are, and what truly engages them. As one of our panelists pointed out, Instagram isn’t everything—think about other places like gaming platforms where users are very engaged.  

Influencers are artists

There is a sense in the industry that influencer content is and will, henceforth, forever remain quick and cheap with relatively low production quality. Actually, if you take their mission seriously, the influencers will throw it down for your brand.

Understand that like all other writers, producers, and directors we work with, influencers are artists and we have to be respectful of their creativity. This means bringing them in at an early stage in the process when things are "still squishy" rather than completing a campaign and then looking around to add an influencer component at the last minute. It also means giving people time to create quality material.

They’re also business people

Lastly, we all have to remember that influencers are business people. This is their career and how they make a living. And when we are dealing with micro-influencers with a small but fierce base of followers, we are dealing with people who are working very hard and also people who are bringing in voices and perspectives that have traditionally been under-represented.

One of the influencers on the panel pointed out that she began creating content when she was homeless. She hopes that brands understand that there is a human behind all of this who may be struggling just to get by. Bottom line—we need to pay them fairly for their work. And we need to stop suggesting they get paid in exposure because exposure does not pay the rent.  

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