In the wake of some influencer-led social media fails, last week The New York Times questioned the future of the illustrious world of Influencer Marketing, where it has become standard practice for brands to pay so-called social media influencers for their endorsement.
However, I would argue that it is not Influencer Marketing that is to blame. What is being called Influencer Marketing today is a complete departure from the origins of this still powerful marketing tool. I know, because I coined the term in the early 1990s and I’ve been successfully using the technique ever since for some of the largest brands in the world.
Here’s how it all started: I was in the nightclub business running some of the most seminal hipster venues in New York and Chicago when executives from Camel approached me about rolling out Joe Camel themed nightclubs across the U.S.
Keep in mind that at this time, the country was at the height of anti-corporate fervor—Nirvana dominated the radio, and angry consumers were throwing bricks through the windows of Starbucks. As you might imagine, tobacco companies were among the corporations subject to the severe backlash and were desperate for ways to reconnect with their consumers on a more authentic level.
My simple answer? Camel didn’t need their own nightclubs. They needed to harness the culture of nightlife. In particular, I suggested the brand embrace the bartenders who gave customers cigarettes as an implied service, sometimes for better tips. Bartenders often kept an extra pack on hand just to hook up their patrons (wow, remember when everyone smoked in clubs?). People who worked at these clubs were cultural leaders—fashionistas, musicians, artists and actors all making a living via nightlife. They weren’t just cutting edge; they were bleeding edge. At the time, smoking was endemic to nightlife, and these tastemakers could really help influence the popularity of a brand.
Back in 1994, I called it “Trend Influence Marketing,” a term later shortened to Influencer Marketing. This change in nomenclature references a shift in focus away from the macro culture as a whole to the micro individual, driven by the rise of social media and personal branding.
Trend Influence Marketing was an effective, common-sense solution that detailed how to convert tastemakers into passionate brand evangelists. It was so effective that the Camel brand paid me and my partner a handsome sum to start KBA Marketing. In four short years, we grew to hundreds of employees across 30 field offices before we were acquired by agency holding company Interpublic Group. The success of our programs became a gold standard not only for tobacco but also spirits, soda, automotive and even sneakers.
From clubs to cafes to art galleries, we seeded Camel everywhere their audience congregated. Influencer Marketing was about entrenching the brand wherever their underground culture was emerging. We kept our finger on the pulse to make sure that Camel was a thread within the fabric of the scene.
We supported the offbeat and avant-garde—legendary stories still float throughout the industry. We sponsored everything from DJ tours to drag queen races to a freak-show circus. We created the Annual Bartenders Ball, held in 10 different cities as a mega industry celebration to thank the bar staff for support of our program. We evolved Camel into the first true hipster band, a natural fit because people were passionate about their late-night vices.
KBA later landed Nike, Audi, and Coca-Cola based on our influence marketing success with Camel. Again, we based our strategies on each brand’s need to connect with hard-to-reach audiences. For instance, to connect Coca-Cola with an urban fan base, we opened Coke offices in neighborhoods like Harlem and Compton. We gave local DJs coolers filled with product to supply countless block parties. We made a point of hiring locals to do community outreach and gave young neighborhood interns Coca-Cola stock certificates as stipends.
Simply put, we study the brand culture as it manifests through their consumers. We focus on the commonality between a brand’s values and the passions of their consumers. We build relationships around these cultural situations to influence perceptions and consideration by supporting the organizers, zealots, artists, and entrepreneurs that make that particular sub-segment of fringe culture happen.
This is a far cry from today’s “Influencer Marketing,” where the rise of Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram allows influencers like the Kardashians, Lele Pons or Casey Neistat to endorse products to the tune of six-figures. That’s not influencer marketing; that’s a good old-fashioned media buy with celebrity endorsement. This shift is diminishing the value of real Influencer Marketing. Take for example the recent failure of the Fyre Festival, where celebs were paid exorbitant sums to post endorsements of an event they weren’t even involved in. This week in AdAge, Coltrane Curtis addressed this issue and made some valid points. Frankly, for many, the approach has become homogenized, and inexperienced brands have forgotten what the word influencer really means.
As one of the pioneers of Influencer Marketing, I have had the privilege to test numerous influencer campaigns. Almost 25 years later, I have evolved a set of essentials that are key to effective Influencer Marketing campaigns.
Five Essentials of Influencer Marketing
1. The Right People
When it comes to influencers, most brands are missing the mark by confusing notoriety for influence. True influence is not about the number of people reached, it’s about the number of people moved to action—and that action is spurred in a number of ways.
Malcolm Gladwell addresses this in his book The Tipping Point, categorizing influencers as Connectors, Sellers or Mavens. As stated in his book:
- Connectors are the people in a community who know large numbers of friends and acquaintances and who are in the habit of making introductions.
- Sellers are "persuaders," charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.
- Mavens are the "information specialists," or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information."
The advent of social media has warped these three categories. Although Instagram celebrities have millions of followers, they no longer “know” these fans nor are they in the habit of making introductions to the mutual benefit of all involved. Sellers are still there, but their “negotiation” powers have waned when their primary interactions are one sided and screen based. Moreover, while mavens remain the most important type of influencer, their power has been diluted by the rise of false prophets armed with fake news.
This has all made Influencer Marketing scalable to a degree I never imagined 25 years ago, but in the process, we have lost the in-person connection that makes this type of marketing so incredibly powerful. Effective campaigns go through a rigorous vetting process that ensures the credibility and authenticity of the influencer and therefore the voice of the brand.
When identifying influencers, we look at long list of criteria. Some of the most important include:
- What leadership role do they have within their community?
- What notable accomplishments have they achieved?
- Where do they live and work?
- Where do they hang out?
- What are their general lifestyle preferences?
Don’t get me wrong, I also value reach, but only when it comes along with an influencer that aligns with the brand and the campaign. So we include in our evaluation:
- Online social following
- Online post frequency
- Depth of posted content
2. Context: The Right Place at the Right Time
Seeding product in the right places will deliver context and the opportunity for endemic consumption. For Perrier, a brand reconnecting with a heritage in fine art, we placed product directly in local studios, galleries, cafes and clubs frequented by the arts community. When it came time to broaden their impact, we took Perrier to major events like Miami Art Week where we enabled emerging and established artists to create unimaginable installations. Placing product at lifestyle or cultural destinations creates the illusion of the brand being everywhere.
3. The Appropriate Quid Pro Quo
Think of the idiom, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Influencer Marketing is a reciprocal relationship. When Mountain Dew needed to connect to the impenetrable street skate scene where Red Bull was the dominant player an influencer strategy was initiated. Working with our friends that were already respected in the community, we immersed ourselves in the culture to determine the unmet needs of the individual skaters and the community as a whole. What emerged was a unanimous desire to document and tell the story of the origins of street skating in NYC. Working hand in hand with a variety of influencers, Mountain Dew graciously funded a feature-length, unbranded documentary to show its unconditional support of the NYC skate scene. The resulting film, Deathbowl to Downtown, was a monumental success and kicked the door open for Mountain Dew to enter the scene with genuine credibility.
4. An Interesting and Memorable Narrative
What is the story you want people to know? It’s one thing to put product in people’s hands, but you must have a story behind it. As part of Nike’s influencer program, we leveraged the notion that wearing competitive brands alongside Nike was sacrilegious. To inform and enforce this urban myth we recruited local influential street ballers to join the Nike fashion police. Our crew mounted Nike-branded bikes and rode around town issuing tickets for a variety of style violations. Focusing on the cultural hubs of street ball, we engaged athletes and replaced competitive apparel on the spot with new Nike gear. People got a good laugh and took our tongue-in-cheek narrative direct from someone that embodied the Nike ethos. A deep narrative helps to create strong and long-lasting memories
5. Deep Entrenchment
One of the biggest challenges of influencer marketing is that it eludes traditional ROI metrics based solely on CPMs. This is why so many brands fall into the trap of big spends on “one and done” Instagram campaigns that are a flash in the pan with no real chance of moving the needle. We live in a time when tenure for brand marketers is shorter than the time it takes for real influencer programs to bare fruit, and these “one and done” efforts are their way to being immediately accountable to shareholders. However, real influence takes time and constant nurturing to bear fruit.
This is why I focus on a philosophy I call entrenchment; campaigns with long tails that continue to inject new energy to develop hyper-loyal influencers over a longer period of time. Think of it this way: Traditional metrics would tell us it’s better to spend a million dollars to reach a million people with a single ad blast. But how often do you actually watch ads these days? And do you remember them? Do they move you emotionally? But that’s the technique that’s going to satisfy those handcuffed to CPM. Now let's take that same million and reach 100 influencers, person to person, in emotionally charged experiences, again and again, over three years. Who is going to be moved to evangelize your brand? These are not mutually exclusive of course, but if you want to build a real passionate base, you cannot ignore the latter.
A stringent set of principles is why our biggest clients have relied on us consistently since the birth of our agency over 14 years ago. In this type of marketing, to take hold and demonstrate its real value, brands need to commit to it as a standard practice that is part of the ongoing marketing mix. When long-term commitments are made, we determine the best road map for “sequential infiltration” and the proper long-term brand integration into a particular culture. When true influencer programs are given sufficient time and resources, brands are assured of the “hockey stick” effect. This refers to the moment following a sustained investment, when a campaign reaches critical mass, and suddenly we see a meteoric surge in growth as the brand is embraced and consumed at an unbelievably accelerated pace.
Let’s wrap it up.
The basic objectives of most Influencer Marketing for new and upcoming brands is product awareness, buzz, popularity, and eventual mass consumption, while heritage brands utilize Influencer Marketing to remain culturally relevant and authentic. In both cases, properly executed campaigns accelerate acceptance among a string of friends or colleagues who are encouraged to share their positive brand experience with their peers. The process involves social diffusion, and connecting brands and consumers through a planned shift in perceptions. When well executed, it can result in long-lasting bonds that will outlast the effects of even the most powerful traditional advertising.
Most of all, Influencer Marketing needs to be personal. It goes down where your audience lives, both “in real life” and online. The minute an influencer is on the dole, it’s game over. Both parties lose credibility. Do not confuse influence with reach or popularity. A true influencer is passionate about your product and has the authority to speak about it within their subculture. This means it is also contextual and hyper relevant to the place and time it plays out. At its very core influencer marketing is still about small groups of people influencing small groups of people. In the war for consumer’s attention, it’s hand-to-hand combat that brands must engage in to authentically gain and maintain cultural relevance in an exhaustingly over-saturated market. This is why influencer marketing is so effective - because true influencers create, connect, and collaborate to build the small communities that actually make up our overall culture.