The social network

Erin Bury turned her online influence into a commodity. But what’s a reputation worth?

(Photo: Nikki Omerod for C)

Two days before the royal wedding, Erin Bury went to high tea at a posh old Toronto hotel. In the lobby, her hostess—like Bury, a local blogger—swept her toward the hotel’s tea rooms, where a dozen young women and a few young men, dressed for an English garden party, tried on fancy hats and posed for portraits. On a laptop computer, a man from Microsoft grafted the absent royal couple into the photos, and then printed copies for guests. As the partygoers sat down to finger sandwiches and scones, a pair of Microsoft’s brand evangelists addressed the room, demonstrating on a projection screen a few handy features of the company’s Windows 7 operating system.

A community manager for Sprouter—a hot online networking tool for entrepreneurs—Bury was among a group of online “influencers” hand-picked to attend the Microsoft event. Twenty-five years old, with long blond hair, pixieish blue eyes and a broad smile, she sat among a group of other community managers and social media consultants. While the evangelists preached, their audience half-paid attention, keeping one eye on their phones. They showed off pictures of each other on Twitter, tweeted at each other across the room, and commented on the software Microsoft was showing off. Each tweet was marked with the hashtag “#W7RoyalTea.” And as they tweeted, dozens of their followers tweeted back, expressing a mixture of interest, delight and envy.

You probably wouldn’t recognize Erin Bury if you saw her on the street, unless you were part of the startup community in which she works. But in some rooms, Erin Bury is minor royalty. At a charity fundraiser organized by Toronto’s social-media community last Christmas, young PR students from the city’s Humber College eagerly networked their way to an introduction, then scurried off to tweet at her to solidify the connection: “Great to finally meet @erinbury at #HoHoTO!” Erin Bury gets free stuff that you don’t, gets invited to parties for which you aren’t on the list, and has huge brands waving cash at her—all this because, in a way, she’s rich: she has social capital, or put more simply, influence.

More and more, companies are turning to “influencers” like Bury to help them get their messages out to interested audiences. The more influence you have, the more valuable you potentially are to a social-media-minded company, whether they sell software or tequila. Some see influencers like Bury almost completely taking over the taste-making roles traditionally performed by celebrities and journalists. But when your reputation becomes a commodity, it can lead to some tough decisions. It’s one thing for Bury to have social capital; now she has to decide how to use it.

By the time you read this, Bury’s Twitter following may have eclipsed the 10,000 mark. She’s been retweeted by Oprah and has a blog with a small-but-desirable readership. Her growing reputation for knowing the ins and outs of the tech startup scene has earned her writing gigs with The Globe and Mail, Business Insider and Mashable. But if along the way she’s accrued the kind of social capital that gets her on the other side of the red velvet rope, it was almost accidental. A product of small-town Ontario, Bury studied journalism at Carleton University, interested more in learning communication skills than becoming a working reporter. After graduating, she spent a year in the Toronto office of the research group Environics. One night over dinner, she met Sarah Prevette, a talented young entrepreneur still in her 20s who was about to launch what would become Sprouter, and needed a community manager for the venture. Bury didn’t know what a community manager was, knew little about social media, but was intrigued by the opportunity. “My barometer for things is always, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’” Bury says.

Bury signed up for a Twitter account the day before she started at Sprouter in December 2009, and began networking on the company’s behalf. As its profile rose, so did hers, as one of its two public faces alongside Prevette. She was getting ample experience to help her one day strike out on her own; but as Sprouter held events in Ottawa and Montreal, and as far away as Los Angeles, Bury realized that to a certain audience, her name had started to mean something, beyond the company she worked for.

Then last fall, a friend in the PR industry convinced Bury’s boyfriend, Kevin Oulds (a tradesman who works far from the social media) to enter a contest staged by Sauza Tequila. He made a funny video promoting the brand, rounded up votes from friends and family, and made it to the final pairing. Bury had been on the sidelines for most of the contest, but with a cash prize of $10,000 on the line, she decided to get involved. While she’d previously helped Oulds with strategy, for the final month she effectively became his campaign manager, helping him with promotions—including giving away a smartphone she’d been given as an incentive for voters—and at times using her own Twitter account to encourage people to support him. Oulds won the contest handily.

Soon after, Microsoft came knocking. Bury had blogged about her love of the company’s Hotmail e-mail platform, but she’d grown frustrated with it and switched to a competitor. Microsoft offered to pay her to write a series of blog posts on her personal site about switching back. She and Microsoft agreed that she would be transparent, announcing in her posts that the company was paying her to blog on the subject.

And then Dentyne chewing gum got in touch. They wanted to hire a real-life social-media power couple to be the face of a Valentine’s Day–themed promotional campaign. Oulds and Bury were chosen. They were paid for a series of media appearances—including national television—and when the brand flew them to Vancouver for a round of press, they took advantage of the complimentary airfare and extended their stay into a vacation.

If the first two opportunities were relative no-brainers, the Dentyne offer caused a little more reflection. “We had just done the Sauza thing, which I was very associated with,” Bury says. “If I’m all of a sudden a Dentyne spokesperson, is it going to be, ‘Oh my god, she’s partnering up with every brand that approaches her?’”

Bury found herself approaching a dilemma. How much free stuff, how many endorsements could she accept before the credibility that earned her that influence in the first place started to be compromised?

A dilemma like Bury’s only exists because the kind of social-media influence she’s accrued now has actual value in the real world. Rather than broadcasting a message to a wide audience and hoping to hit a few interested parties, brands are increasingly seeing the value in targeting a few interested and influential people and letting the message spread to those people’s networks, which will presumably also be interested. At an event like the royal tea, says Microsoft Canada’s Consumer and Entertainment PR lead, Paolo Pasquini, “I can feel the engagement. You have between 10 and 30 people in an event, they’re tweeting, they’re engaging, they’re dynamic. They’re having conversations with Microsoft, they’re having conversations with the host, they leave, you end up seeing a trickle of tweets, a trickle of blogs—potentially sometimes you find yourself in traditional media as well.” Plus, compared to the cost and return-on-investment you get through conventional advertising channels, springing for tea and sandwiches is a bargain.

“I think of it like shooting gold out of a shotgun,” Joe Fernandez says of the big media buys that have for decades been the backbone of brand strategies. Fernandez is the CEO and co-founder of Klout, a San Francisco company that tries to measure individuals’ influence across social media and translate that into a single metric, a Klout score. The company’s algorithms analyze your behaviour on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and people’s response to —how often you’re tweeted at or retweeted, and by whom, and how influential those people are. The higher your Klout score, the more influential you are.

Bury’s Klout score is 68 out of 100. That’s modest compared to a real celebrity like Conan O’Brien (with more than three million followers and a score of 88), but compares favourably to the Canadian social-media maven Amber MacArthur, who notches a 64. Though MacArthur reaches more people, Klout ranks Bury higher in part because her network features more influential people, and because her tweets are more likely to provoke reaction from her followers.

This concept of the influencer—someone who affects the behaviour of others and, in the marketing world, their buying behaviour in particular—isn’t new. Journalists and celebrities have fulfilled that role for years. But as the new twist on the old saw goes, on the web, everybody can be famous to 15 people. But anybody who becomes Internet famous will have to decide how far to go with this kind of brand engagement.

“Five years ago, I was on this show called Maxed Out on the W Network,” says blogger and bundle of energy Casie Stewart over coffee at a downtown Toronto café, “and the [host] asked me what I wanted to do. And I was, like, ‘I want to be a world brand,’ kind of like Paris Hilton. She told me, ‘Well, that’s really hard, Casie, because you didn’t come from money like her.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, bitch? You watch.’”

Stewart started her This Is My Life blog five years ago, as a hobby while working in the fashion industry. In the fall of 2008, she decided to take it more seriously. “I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to hibernate all winter, and people are going to know me from my blog in the summer,’” Stewart says. “And I did. I just started blogging all the time. I’d go to events and I’d write about them, and any product I use, I started writing about it.”

A local PR company reached out to Stewart and started sending product samples, she started blogging about them, and when her growing profile led to a paid role as a spokesperson for a charity, she decided, “I’m going to professionally be Casie Stewart.”

Stewart won a role as a Virgin Atlantic Airlines spokesperson, became a face of Puma Canada, and went full-throttle after other opportunities. While she shares Bury’s concerns about credibility, Stewart represents a different approach. She and a few like her are testing whether “influencer” can be a job. She arrives for an interview wearing an outfit that a Queen Street boutique loaned her after she tweeted she’d be appearing on a panel and needed something to wear. She has a talent agent to get her gigs in commercials, especially with brands she’s worked with in the social-media realm. She hasn’t paid her phone bill since 2009; Telus covers it for her, and equips her with the latest Android phones. She makes at least as much per week as she did in her last formal job, which paid $45,000 a year.

But influence can be a quicksilver thing, and there’s no guarantee that today’s It Girl won’t be tomorrow’s Was Girl. Stewart says the thought doesn’t overly bother her. Five years ago, there was no Twitter. In five years, maybe she’ll live on her family’s sheep farm in New Zealand. “I’m always going to be Casie Stewart,” she says. “The brand that is me isn’t going to go away.”

One of the keys to being influential, everyone seems to agree, is being authentic. “Any company that tries to sell to us too much on social media, we turn away,” says Andrea Tavchar, a professor of social media and public relations at Toronto’s Humber College. She teaches her Humber PR students—some of whom will become the people hiring the likes of Stewart, and some of whom may instead decide they want to be Stewart—how to build their social capital online, and how important authenticity is to that currency. “The more authentic you sound online, the more people are going to believe you.”

But can spending your social capital on accepting opportunities to front brands compromise the authenticity that earned you that currency in the first place?

Tara Hunt calls that currency “whuffie,” a term borrowed from the social-capital-based currency in a sci-fi novel by Cory Doctorow. Her 2009 book The Whuffie Factor (retitled The Power of Social Networking for the paperback edition) is part of Tavchar’s syllabus, and has helped shape the way people think about social capital and especially social-media capital. A high-profile blogger, author and serial entrepreneur, the Montreal-based Hunt is a regular on lists of the most influential women in tech. She recalls that five or six years ago, when brands first started sending gadgets and other products to bloggers perceived to have large followings, people were suspicious at first but soon got use to the free stuff. Hunt is certainly open to working with brands. She loves her new tablet computer, provided by Samsung in exchange for appearing in a short video to talk about the future of mobile. But what about trading services not for free stuff, or experiences, but for cash? “You can’t do that,” Hunt says flatly. “When you’re given free stuff, you don’t feel directly obligated. But when you’re on a payroll, you do.”

Hunt’s been offered as much as $20,000 for an endorsement. She’s a single mom with a teenage son, and she’s in startup mode with her new project, Buyosphere. She admits that she sticks so close to her principles that she hurts herself. “We all have to make money at the end of the day.”

But what if the wrong opportunity tempts her, and she loses her whuffie? “That’s the most valuable thing I have,” Hunt says. “If I lose that capital, I have nothing.”

Six months ago, Erin Bury used to get more invitations. Lifestyle brands, spirits-makers, and film festivals wanted her at their events. For the most part, Bury politely declined, recognizing the audience she’d acquired was more interested in the stuff that built her influence in the first place—tweets and posts about entrepreneurship and tech. Presumably the brands, too, recognized that Bury wasn’t always the best fit for them, because the invitations have dwindled. If an influencer becomes just a shill, it reflects just as poorly on the brands with which they’re associated. “It’s got to be very credible to get any kind of distance out of it,” says Pasquini of the art of engaging influencers. “You’ve got to be relevant, you’ve got to be transparent—because that keeps Erin’s credibility, right? And that’s hugely important, because her audience follows her based on trust. We don’t want to ever jeopardize that, [because] this isn’t something we’re doing as a one-off. We’d love to do more in collaboration with her.”

As the royal tea wound to a close, Bury wandered to a corner table, away from the action, where she saw a cluster of unfamiliar faces. They were mostly Microsoft employees, but could prove valuable members of her networks, whether as an influencer or an entrepreneur. She sat down and introduced herself.