By Mel Durupt

While the rest of the city braced for the snowstorm of the season, five brave speakers, a moderator and more than 50 attendees gathered for IABC Calgary’s panel discussion on influencer marketing.

Missed it? Fear not! While this blog is served sans soft pretzels (Wurst on 4th SW – I recommend you try them) it still captures the most important learnings of the evening.

Thank you to (L-R) Michelle MacPherson (the amazing moderator) and wonderful panellists Nick Poirier, Leanna Kruk, Julie Van Rosendaal, Kelly Doody and Donna McTaggart. Photo: Erin Fahey

1. First of all, what is influencer marketing, where did it come from and why is it so hot? Put simply, influencer marketing is a strategy wherein specific individuals who have the ability to affect the opinions and actions of their social circles are engaged to help with the promotion of products and services.

Julie Van Rosendaal acknowledges that it’s less important to focus on what gave rise to the influencer marketing (although Kelly Doody attributes its growing popularity to the erosion of trust between consumers and big brands, and the subsequent rise in importance of referral traffic in this influencer economy) and more important to define who an influencer is.

The shift from traditional to online has moved advertisers away, to some degree, from spokespeople and paid endorsements. This new world leverages Instagrammers, You Tubers and Bloggers. Through this lens, influencer marketing is really custom content.

2. Custom content offers an opportunity to reach an influencer’s audiences in a much more organic way. The key to success is maintaining a level of authenticity is representative of the influencer and supportive of the brand. Nick Poirier notes that it’s extremely important to understand that when you’re dealing with an online influencer, you’re dealing with someone who has clout in the space in which they operate in.

The onus is on brand owners and the agencies representing them to understand who they’re engaging with and work collaboratively to build custom content that offers value to the brand, the influencer and ultimately, the audience. He cautions that if content misses the mark, audiences can see it from a mile away.

3. After paid spokespeople came influencers. What comes next? While it’s true that consumers trust their social circles inherently, nothing alienates an audience more quickly than their favourite fashion blogger randomly posting about Home Depot’s blinds selection.

These situations make followers leery. They upset the balance and opened the door to yet another shift – micro influencers.

Leanna Kruk, Account Director with Brookline PR, takes a straightforward approach to micro influencers and offered valuable insight. Micro-influencers impact their audiences because their network is so tightly knit. A strong social relationship based on trust gives an influencer the license to make recommendations that are acted on by their audiences. Because of this, big brands are looking to capture the audiences that they can be connected to through micro-influencers.

Wurst was a great venue for the evening. Photo: Erin Fahey

4. When asked about their barometers for fake versus real influence, panelists all echoed the same sentiments. While they’d prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, there are some unscrupulous actors out there. There is software in existence to measure authentic vs contrived engagements, but it’s up to brand managers and agencies to diligently vet the potential influencers they’re considering engaging with for their marketing needs. And a little research goes a long way.

Sometimes it can be painfully obvious – an account on any given social channel with 10,000 followers and 26 likes? Hmmm…..

Sometimes it’s harder to spot. Click clubs, comment pods and paid followers artificially increases engagement numbers, effectively gaming the system. Interestingly, the problem is starting to self correct, at least where bots are concerned, because these vanity metrics are becoming less important to businesses.

5. “300 likes? Who cares? What is my conversion on that?”

Traffic to a site, subscribes, boots in the store – these things are measurable and they’re what really matters. If the front end of any marketing campaign is graphic design, photography and copy writing, the back end is analytical. Together they’re an entire ecosystem literally bringing art and science together.

The tidbit of the night:

People spend their money on two things – solutions to their problems and good feelings. The best campaigns result from a perfect combination of these two things and produce what panelists called (6.) sharable content!

Speaking of sharable content, it’s getting harder to get air time on social media because (as Mark Zuckerburg announced on January 11) people are primarily on social networks to connect with their communities and from here on, that’s what people will see more of when they scroll.

The simple translation is that branded content won’t be getting the same priority that it used to.The prediction of the evening was that the focus of future efforts is going to shift towards the creation of custom content that’s organically sharable and indecipherable as to whether it’s a post from a friend or from a brand.

Diving a little deeper into the relationships that brands/agencies have with influencers brought a key insight to the front and centre. There is specific value in developing relationships and long-term partnerships. Experiential marketing is a great opportunity to truly develop brand ambassadors and if that’s not possible, tenure can have a similar impact. While it’s not the worst decision a company can make, a single engagement with an influencer can defeat the purpose of reaching audiences in an authentic way.

7. Please be advised that you’re 100% obligated to disclose when you’re paid for promotionit’s legislated. As consumers we all want to know when someone has been paid to share, endorse, comment on or mention a product so if you’re not aware of the rules around advertising standards and disclosure you need to do some research and get up to speed. Agencies in particular, who guide clients should also be informing partners like influencers.

There are important ethical questions to answer when you’re working with, or as, an influencer. It really is in the best interest of the brand and the blogger to be transparent about the relationship. The muddy water is around the difference between sponsored (in this case I mean paid) content versus a product review. For example: swag arrives on your door and you are asked to review it. You’re not obligated to even post about it. If you love it and you want to, is that sponsorship?

The good news is, it’s easier than ever to let people know! Facebook and Instagram have tools that are literally as easy as the click of a button. It’s a little handshake that tags your partners and Ta-Da! People are also navigating this grey area by acknowledging that they have been given product and have chosen to post about it. They hashtag it and in some cases, thank the sender publicly.

8. Budget is often a limiting factor in marketing strategy. It takes time and effort to create content and that time is worth something. Not everyone can afford to pay top dollars for a voice. Wondering what sponsored content creation might cost? This article by Zach Bussey on Creator Hype provides a great outline.

In cases where a business might want to engage an influencer for partnership in an unpaid capacity Donna McTaggert (an influencer in her own right) listed a few important things to remember:

  1. Identify influencers who are connected with the audience you want to connect with.
  2. Time spent to understand what your target influencer is talking about and interested in is worth it’s weight in gold. Finding clear alignment between your needs and their interests can improve the chances of an influencer saying yes.
  3. The ‘spray and pray’ mentality that might cause you to send out the same email to 20 people may also cause you to skip the most important details that make you, your ask and your promotion authentic. Personalize your asks!
  4. When an influencer says yes, as much as you can, package your story and make it meaningful. Send copy, graphics and important details so if questions arise they can be answered.
  5. Consider the story behind your product and think carefully about how you can make your product or service instagramable or Tweet worthy. This increases the opportunity for your influencer and your audience to share the love.

At the end of the day, who owns all this magical content created by and for influencers? Ultimately it really needs to be negotiated at the outset of the partnership so there are clear expectations. Generally it’s owned by a brand but that’s not set in stone. And remember, if it’s posted to Facebook, they own it.

Trust me, this panel was way better in person!

Make sure you don’t miss out on our next great event!

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