Blogs & Comment

The new rules of social media influencer marketing

Putting your brand into the hands of a social media influencer can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Here’s how some top marketers approach it now

YouTuber Troye Sivan takes a selfie with fans

YouTube star Troye Sivan meeting fans at Fan Fest 2015. Brand marketers are still figuring out how best to manage relationships with influencers like Sivan. (Don Arnold/Getty)

If only we still watched daytime soap operas.

I can’t say I’ve ever felt compelled to watch them myself—but as a business owner and marketer in today’s highly fragmented media landscape, I must admit that simpler times—when the original “sponsored content” could reach millions every day—have a certain appeal. It was 1933, after all, when Procter & Gamble began producing sensationalized radio dramas as a way to deliver its advertising to homemakers, and it later made the leap to television (the company went on to produce blockbuster soap operas like Another World, As The World Turns, and Guiding Light). This innovation helped P&G captivate a vast audience of housewives each afternoon and attain market leadership against key competitor Lever Brothers.

If you were a marketer in the mid-20th century, you could devote most of your budget to one source that was clearly and explicitly advertising, then call it a day.

For decades, the dominant model of marketing has been brands “talking to” consumers, as they did in the golden age of soap operas. Brands would transmit a message, without any sort of expectation by consumers of conversation or reciprocity. Being “engaged” with a brand meant buying it, and little else.

Now, consumers expect a brand to “talk with” them, to engage them beyond the functional benefits of a product and into the transcendental benefits of being associated with that brand. Like it or not, two-way, consultative conversations are considered table stakes today. Brands that don’t open themselves up to these conversations risk appearing dated and impervious. As a result, the old “outreach” model is dead. It has to evolve into an “inreach” approach, whereby the former recipients of marketing communications are “insourced,” or embedded within a brand’s core processes, from planning through execution.

Yet, our mission as marketers remains the same. Canadian Business marketing columnist Bruce Philp said it best: “We still show up for work in the morning to make something people want, present it to those people and sell it to them at a price that leaves everybody satisfied. The tools for doing it have evolved continuously for a century, but the essence of marketing is the same as it ever was.”

Putting this into play, however, can pose a major challenge for business leaders today. Successful brands need to engage their audiences and stakeholders in two-way conversations. But according to the fifth McKinsey & Company Global Survey on external affairs,”[engaging external stakeholders] ranks as a top or top three priority for more than half of CEOs…yet only 17 percent say their companies are very effective at tailoring their narratives.”

While social media makes it easier to reach target audiences, it’s getting more challenging to engage and influence them. So what are some of the new rules of engagement? And what tools and solutions are proving effective, particularly when it comes to working with bloggers, influencers, content creators, and media?

As our thoughts turn to nailing down plans for the year ahead, it’s a good time to start thinking about these new rules of engagement. I checked in with some of our client partners and respected brand leaders for their take on today’s marketing landscape, and what we can all be doing to best navigate it.

Made to measure…but what?

At General Mills, Associate Marketing Manager Nicole Korb says several of the company’s brands work directly with influencers and bloggers, a trend that is, without question, continuing to gain momentum. “As marketers, we’re obsessed with measurement. We want to see how any given ‘lever’ we’ve pulled can impact sales. Ideally, we’d want to see how sales have increased based on our work with influencers. I haven’t seen that so far, but we respect the work of influencers more and more, because we see the impact [on engagement metrics] when an influencer shares our content.” For example, General Mills works with Bewitchin’ Kitchen and Dinner with Julie for its “Life Made Delicious” social platform. These bloggers concoct new recipes each month using a variety of the company’s products, then blog about them.

Looking at numbers alone when evaluating an influencer partnership may not actually be that effective, given followers can be “bought.” The focus should be in quality vs. quantity: fit with your brand, engagement levels and the composition of the influencer’s viewership or readership. And like any prospective investment, brands should still begin with their bottom line business goals and then use those to orient communications goals and strategies. These may be measurable in dollars and percentage points, or improved brand perception and purchase intent over time.

From transaction to trust

While even a few years ago it would have been deemed unethical to “buy” media coverage (unless of course it was clearly labeled “advertorial”), today, there are entire companies dedicated to enabling brand leaders to buy coverage from so-called social influencers. These influencers have earned loyal followings based on their unique points-of-view and the compelling ways in which they express them. But, while they may have “earned” the right to be paid for the content they create, is the resulting content deemed credible by consumers? That remains uncertain.

Pay-to-play transactional content may have a place in an integrated communications plan, but should not be the only pillar. Furthermore, both sides of the proverbial coin benefit from a policy of full disclosure when payment has been exchanged for content. While this has been mandated in the United States, here in Canada consumers will still have to sift through it all for themselves and make their own decisions about what can be trusted and what cannot, at least until early 2017 when Advertising Standards Canada plans to introduce disclosure rules here. Even when these are in place, it is questionable whether sponsored content will be discernible, particularly since the non-compliance process and consequences are as murky as disclosure is for many influencers.

In our team’s work with creators (bloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers and the like) we have heard, time and again, that they’re eager to establish longer-term relationships with brands, rather than “pay to play” transactional ones.

This desire is echoed on the brand side as well. According to Holly deGraaf, Interim General Manager and Director, Retail Operations and Public Relations at Ten Thousand Villages Canada, “The highest [impact is made] when what [bloggers] share and write doesn’t look like— [or better yet, isn’t]—a paid endorsement. The beauty of many bloggers is that their followers feel like they are connecting with a friend. To sully that by having too much of a paid content feel could be detrimental.” The penultimate goal is to strike the right balance to produce paid or company-generated content as good as high-quality editorial, such that it will be embraced by consumers. Many brands either err too much on the “advertorial” side, where consumers tune out veritable propaganda, or the content is too soft and fails to set up the story to sell-in the product. An example of a brand that’s getting it right is Ontario’s liquor distributor, the LCBO, with its glossy magazine Food & Drink.

Graham Robertson is the former VP Marketing with Johnson & Johnson Canada and is now President and CMO at Beloved Brands. He says, he “doesn’t know why anyone would want to follow a media outlet that just pumps out sponsored content all the time. If only one out of every 10 messages is authentic, they will be losing followers.”

Nicole Korb from General Mills weighs in: “Right now, we treat PR [and influencer/blogger relations] as a media buy, as a channel. There are increasingly opportunities to collaborate and co-create with influencers, and brands need to do more of that.”

Crossing the line

There’s no question that we’re in the age of information overload.  Robertson says, “There’s just too much out there. People are no longer seeking out news and knowledge, they are filtering through it. ” He looks forward to its evolution—a “settling down”—to a more credible, focused and consolidated, media environment.

As communicators, marketers, media, stakeholders and influencers all navigate this new ecosystem, one thing is certain: collaboration is a necessity for doing business today and going forward. We need to shift our approach from the old-school “outreach” model to an “in-reach” model, which actively cultivates and incorporates the thoughts of influencers and stakeholders in every facet of business, from product development to content co-creation to crisis communications.

Mattel did this last year in their quest to evolve Barbie into a more true-to-life body type: They brought together a group of carefully selected female leaders, including Canadian icon Erica Ehm. In a series of meetings at Mattel headquarters with top decision-makers, these women not only helped shepherd major changes for the Barbie brand in a way that would resonate with parents and their kids, but also fostered fandom amongst the female leaders who took part. As Ehm said, “I’m so proud to have played a tiny part in re-imagining Barbie to become a doll that girls can see themselves in, no matter their size, shape or colour.” This inreach model—or as our team is calling it, our “content collective approach”—is mutually beneficial.

So when you’re sitting down at the table to plan for 2017 and beyond, you’ll want to have the right people who influence your target’s opinions—and your bottom line—at the table, engaged in the right way.

No soap opera dramatics necessary.

Amy Laski is founder and president of Felicity [Inspiring Communications], a communications and content agency based in Toronto. Prior to starting Felicity, Amy worked at Coca-Cola Canada and at several leading Canadian PR agencies.