Anyone with an internet connection and an idea can develop an audience. These words, spoken by actor and producer Kevin Spacey in 2014, perfectly encapsulate today’s age of influence. Thanks to social media, it no longer marks you out as a fantasist or having an over-inflated ego to take an active interest in building "brand you". For digital natives, curating their social-media profiles is as much a part of their routine as putting the rubbish out. Yet brands and agencies are struggling to find their place in this new world order.
"You only need to look to communities like online gaming to see what a massive impact influencers are having on a new aesthetic"
Maks Fus Mickiewicz, senior journalist at consultancy The Future Laboratory, says there has been a complete breakdown in the power of influence of traditional media platforms such as magazines and newspapers.
He explains: "There isn’t as much of a role for magazines as mediators any more. Rather than being advertisers [brands need to] not just partner influencers, but act as influencers in their own right." According to Fus Mickiewicz, this democratisation of media means that someone with no budget can create a campaign that is better than one created by a major agency. This trend is being exacerbated by the drive toward raw imagery and video, which has become core for brands that see authenticity as a shortcut to building trust among cynical consumers.
New role-model army
While authenticity is at the top of the marketing agenda, industry experts guard against using it as a lens through which to judge the growing commercial appeal of influencers. Amrita Randhawa, chief executive of Mindshare China, believes this trend is more about raw passion than raw authenticity. She explains: "You only need to look to communities like online gaming to see what a massive impact influencers are having on a new aesthetic."
She cites the example of US basketball star Kevin Durant coming to China to launch the Nike KD 9 shoe, where he partnered not standout junior athletes, but standout players of the game NBA 2K online. "When Jay Chou, a wildly successful Taiwanese singer, actor and more, is seen playing the hugely successful League of Legends with friends in tournaments and following gamers, you know that the [question] of who is a great influencer, and why, defies definition," Randhawa adds.
This is far from a niche trend; in fact, the rise of gamers and their important role in the Chinese influencer ecosystem has been embraced by mainstream brands. Louis Vuitton, for example, uses Lightning, a character from the Final Fantasy series of video games, in a mainstream marketing campaign in China. This is not a partnership one would have imagined a few years ago, yet it both shows brands’ willingness to experiment and illustrates the expanding pools of creative talent on social platforms.
According to Randhawa, brands should beware of confusing influence with the traditional definitions of celebrity – or seeing celebrity as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for influence. She refers to the example of Papi Jiang, an incredible success in China, who has racked up hundreds of millions of views of her daily blogs poking fun at everyday topics. She has more than 20 million dedicated followers. Jiang’s partnership with Magic – China’s first sheet-mask brand, which is part of the L’Oréal group – is an example of a Chinese brand embracing the opportunities afforded by this new type of influencer.
The art of influence
While there is no shortage of influencers, or brands and agencies seeking to partner them, it remains a delicate equation. Brett Booth, partner at youth marketing agency Urban Nerds Collective, which works with Converse and Puma, says that, where possible, we should avoid the term influencer altogether. He believes that brands should be aspiring to something more meaningful than reach alone. "What this is really about is visibility and that doesn’t always come with an easily recognisable hashtag," he explains.
Booth believes the most potent creative partners for brands don’t all simply aspire to mainstream commercial creativity – a fact that presents brands with a challenge. The real creative potential is to be found in the "raw ideals" of brilliant pockets of creators who don’t always come with a huge reach or a high media profile. This goes some way to explain the growing number of agencies launching dedicated hubs and departments designed to both curate and connect with influencers.
Simon Summerscales, director of commu-nication strategy at 72andSunny Amsterdam, embraces the idea that creativity can come from beyond the walls of the agency. He explains that while there will always be moments when you want to get your point of view across as a brand, "real collaborations with influencers afford brands much greater levels of authenticity".
Like so much successful creative work, influencer marketing is dependent upon brilliant casting. All too many agencies mistake the number of followers an influencer has as a shortcut to their relevance. Indeed, the "casting" of influencers is perhaps one of the most undervalued skills in this emerging ecosystem.
Summerscales says that "emerging creators", not someone with five million followers, are more important than ever for brands. "All too often influencers are talked about in terms of their media footprint, not the impact they have," he adds.
72andSunny has a suite of social-listening tools that track influ-encers by channels – from reach, relevance, authority and audience engagement to the unique point of view. Summerscales explains: "There is a real crisis on social media as to what effectiveness really is. People were just after numbers." He cites the example of football star Lionel Messi, who, despite his phenomenal reach, has low engagement on individual posts. This issue provides a challenge for both creatives and brands. "The key is thinking more about the audience and what you can offer them," Summerscales adds.
An invitation to individuality
When the industry talks about influence, it risks attempting to shoehorn emerging talent into the traditional framework of celebrity, as opposed to embracing the power of the influencer community. This approach ignores the fact that the hierarchy of influence is undergoing fundamental changes.
Influence is becoming decentralised, with the power devolved to the YouTubers and Instagrammers who create more multifaceted views of the world. The generation that has grown up with the iPhone is very comfortable with seeing its identity as a fundamentally fluid concept. Fus Mickiewicz believes that the rise of a "Y2K" aesthetic is evidence of this.
"Teenagers see Photoshop as bullshit," he explains. "For girls, the idea that you have to use Photoshop is about believing you are ugly. The younger generation is more clued-up that the world isn’t about perfection."
"Media has evolved much faster than creative"
Felipe Pires Dias, engagement planner at BETC London, says that for businesses such as the agency’s client, cosmetics brand Rimmel, certain platforms – Instagram and YouTube, for example – are dis-proportionately important; not just as a platform to advertise on, but as a source of creative inspiration.
He explains: "There is a move away from make-up as a mask to hide your imperfection [to it becoming] a tool to express yourself as an individual."
This is a market rife with experimentation, with some consumers even investing the time and effort to create three dedicated looks – for morning, afternoon and evening – in a single day.
This trend is reflected in the evolution of Rimmel’s strapline, from "Get the London look" to "Live the London look". Danièle Manasseh, business director at the agency, explains that enabling consumers to celebrate their own individuality was key to this change. "It is a shift from broadcasting a line to engaging in a conversation."
This demands a shift in strategy from brands. As Pires Dias explains: "If you want to work with influencers it is hard work – it takes time, it takes effort." Yet it pays off, particularly when it comes to staying ahead of consumer trends.
Pires Dias highlights the trend for "wokeness" (being aware of social injustice and embracing fluid definitions of gender and sexuality) as manifesting itself first in social communities. "In beauty, diversity is a hygiene factor. For this audience, gender isn’t really a thing," he adds.
For Rimmel, capitalising on the openness of this generation of consumers, and inviting them to express themselves, is a marketing strategy that demands a relationship with influencers that goes far beyond the cover of a magazine.
Brands as curators
The challenge for the industry is that "influencer marketing" is not a line on a traditional media schedule and requires greater understanding from both brands and agencies.
"Media has evolved much faster than creative," says Sanjay Nazerali, chief strategy officer at media network Carat Global. "The media has evolved so quickly it is only now the creative is catching up."
According to Nazerali, the creative opportunities offered by influencer marketing are so extensive and varied that it is impossible to put a simple "rate card" on it. However, he cautions that those opportunities may be limited by "how dreadful the platforms are at showcasing their creative potential".
Underlining the fact that Facebook is a "platform, not a media-owner", he goes on to claim that there is a "missing skill set" when it comes to com-municating and maximising its creative potential – and, although the social network is building an in-house creative team, it is tiny.
Despite the clear creative potential afforded by influencer marketing, Nazerali believes the industry is failing to ask the most important question – namely, who influences whom, and to do what exactly?
This is the sort of question that makes current marketing strategy "as banal as banks sponsoring pop concerts", he quips.
Nazerali argues that nobody has yet suc-cessfully measured the value of influencer marketing. He explains: "Influencer marketing is so glamorous – we get so seduced by it, but we don’t measure it in the same way as we do traditional advertising, so we aren’t being as rigorous as we could be."
A question of rigour
This lack of stringency is creating an opportunity for traditional media owners to step in and ensure that the union between brands and influencers includes traditional media brands, and that they use their skills to ensure relevancy.
Victoria Foster, commercial director of digital at media company Bauer Media, says that brands need to understand that using the power of influencer marketing is not simply about investing in advertising on social-media platforms.
"We are seeing a growth in influencer marketing – nearly half of all brands we work with are planning to increase their investment in it," she adds.
Foster believes this puts publishers in a great position. She cites a campaign fashion retailer River Island ran with Grazia and website The Debrief which featured a Periscope live stream of a panel debate as one example of how influencers can work with in-house editorial and marketing talent.
One error marketers must beware of making is seeing influence as an either/or marketing conundrum – many influencers gain their following by virtue of their "real-world positions". Indeed, many magazine editors, particularly in the fashion sphere, have significant followings on social-media platforms.
Foster views this as a reflective of the "blend" in marketing techniques. She explains: "We are starting to see a shift in how influencers and publishers work together to build deeper, more authentic, relationships."
From the banal to the brilliant, the diversity of online talent has conspired to create a perfect storm of influencer marketing power. The growth of live video and the multitude of platforms to serve up a slice of life are bringing further excitement and opportunities for brands in the sector.
Fus Mickiewicz claims the rise of live-video-streaming app Twitch is one iteration of this trend. "There is a magic of being able to connect with anyone in the world with the same feeling as you at that moment," he says – a space where people feel free to express themselves without self-editing.
Yet this explosion of talent and the platforms that host it are not without problems – not least the failure of agencies and brands to exploit their full creative potential. "Brands should beware of seeing this as a cheap alternative to advertising," warns Summerscales. "It is absolutely the future of what we are doing, but it is not the whole future."
Sticky questions remain over authenticity in this discipline. As influencers rise in prominence and commercial appeal, they inevitably risk shedding the credibility that made them appeal to brands in the first place; and, as Johanna Jones, global director at Dunnhumby consumer-advocacy arm BzzAgent, says, the issue also arises when influencers are paid, as opposed to offering organic endorsements.
According to Jones, the evolution of the influencer space requires a parallel development in how media is planned and bought. "We are coming to a point, as an industry, where we need to look at reach versus influence," she contends.
Indeed, Jones believes this could be a turning point for brands. "There are multiple studies that say person-to-person marketing is the most influential; but because it is so disparate and it is not a line item on a media plan, people have not been embraced as a viable marketing platform." She attributes this slow pace of change to the confusion surrounding measurement.
Marketing plans may have evolved from the one-size-fits-all hunt for influencers to a broader focus on micro-influencers, but the ultimate manifestation of this trend is perhaps not to be found in the narcissism of the individual. For at the heart of the growth of the influencer economy you find not a selfie stick, but the human desire for community and connection.
Randhawa points to the influencer economies of old in countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, where brands have worked with local midwives, among other influencers. "We see in these cases that brands think about the issues important to the community, and then think of how they will craft their offer to align with community issues," she says.
The social incarnation of today’s "community midwife" might well be Clemmie Hooper, the London midwife with a book deal and more than 260,000 followers of her Instagram account, @mother_of_daughters.
For brands and agencies alike, that the biggest and least exploited group of influencers are not the social-media megastars but everyday people; seeking to fulfil the same fundamental human need for community and support they always have done. For those businesses that successfully curate and empower this talent, the creative potential is seemingly endless.
Scarlett London, lifestyle blogger/influencer on the Buzzoole platform
Are brands becoming savvier when it comes to working with influencers? Do you find that they respect your need to remain authentic?
On the whole, brands are a lot savvier to the fact that sponsored content is more effective when the story is driven by the influencer. The vast majority understand that remaining authentic is key to what drives influence, so they are happy to hand over the creative control to the creator rather than have the final say over everything. I think brands are understanding that the influencer knows their audience best and wants to create content they are wholeheartedly proud of and that will effectively engage with their demographic. The majority of collaborations are indeed collaborative, but it’s a mutual project rather than influencers being given a specific brief to fulfil.
Can you see a new aesthetic emerging in terms of what influencers post?
Most definitely, there is a shift to a much more "natural" lifestyle aesthetic as opposed to a complete feed of polished shots. Influencers have to remain relatable and so often the most successful posts are the more raw, in-the-moment lifestyle shots, taken on the iPhone – rather than the huge productions behind some of the shots.
I think posts are reflecting a more "lifestyle" aesthetic; however, since the blogging market is so saturated, you do have to make your content look professional and stand out from the crowd.
Audiences are demanding that polished, editorial look from influencers, but, equally, they love the realism that bloggers provide – the thing they fell in love with first. So a woven mix of the two has started to emerge. Usually bloggers opt for a polished, beautiful image and then a caption that reflects a little more authentic and relatable view of what’s going on behind the camera. Audiences love connecting with the person behind the blog, so as long as that shines through, that’s key.
Saying that, I have seen more authentic, real and unrefined images and videos pop up frequently over the past year. Bloggers baring all about their personal life, their acne, their break-ups and their imperfections. It’s refreshing in among a sea of perfect selfies, and helps provide that raw authenticity that made the blogging industry so loveable. However, a mix of both "real, natural, down-time moments" and the "glamorous lifestyle" seems to be the most popular.
How do you think the younger generation of influencers compares with older, more established social-media stars?
Both offer something different. While the more established influencers are working with huge brands and offering expertise, younger influencers are flourishing by showcasing their make-up skills and utilising the ever-changing world of social media to capture the attention of their audiences. They are equally savvy in authentic storytelling.