They’re all around us. On buses, billboards, TV, every traditional marketing platform imaginable and, ubiquitous in the social-sphere. Influencers are modern-day brand ambassadors; invaluable for marketer’s looking to connect brands with customers.
We report on the fast-growing social influencer marketing industry – the people behind it, and why brand owners can no longer ignore it.
t high school Shannon Harris had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.
“At one stage I wanted to be a counsellor, then I wanted to be a photographer or designer. So I studied toward the latter.
“I ended up dropping out halfway through my course due to anxiety. But it ended up being the best career move, because it gave me skills toward my YouTube content and more time to focus on my videos.”
Today the 24-year-old, aka Shaaanxo, has New Zealand’s most subscribed YouTube channel.
Shannon is an ‘influencer’ – a vlogger (video blogger) making a nice living promoting top beauty brands, including her own (XObeauty), to more than 2.9 million subscribers.
Most recently Shannon was placed fifth on Forbes’ list of the world’s top beauty influencers. She has more than nine million fans in total across her social channels.
Shannon has seen the number of brands using influencers “skyrocket” since she started vlogging in 2009.
“If you’re a brand and you DON’T work with influencers, you’ll fizzle out,” she warns. “Even MAC Cosmetics are using influencers to help with marketing now, which is super cool!
“Seven or so years ago they were in their own league, and never even needed to pay for marketing.
“There are hundreds of brands out there making huge names for themselves thanks to social media and the use of influencers.”
For all intents and purposes brand ambassadors and influencers are one and the same. ‘Google’ influencers and you’ll find varying descriptions. Perhaps businessdictionary.com describes them best – referring to them as “individuals who have the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of their (real or perceived) authority, knowledge, position, or relationship.”
Inevitably influencers are already celebrities or, as Shannon Harris has demonstrated, they quickly become one. And the people they’re connecting with are the younger, unreachable (in the traditional sense) generation.
It’s not hard to rattle off names of influencers and brand ambassadors out there.
Think Bachelorette Matilda Rice (Jockey and Colgate Optic White, Cure Kids), reported to have 100,000 Instagram followers; Olympic pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney, who has 30,000 in her social media network; or the likes of Lorde, Richie McCaw, Max Key – the list seems endless.
Head offshore and the money becomes ridiculous. Macro influencer Kendall Jenner is said to pull in up to US$300,000 for a single social media post.
But at the other end of the scale, micro influencers, with just a few thousand followers, also play a vital role in reaching potential buyers.
Not surprisingly influencer marketing has matured in New Zealand, and, according to Fuse general manager Gina McKinnon, there’s a battleground emerging around who owns it.
“There are new ‘influencer’ agencies starting up every day. PR firms are vying to control it, media companies are trying to take back control of their own influencers, and talent agents are rebranding as ‘influencer agencies’.”
She says brands must be careful around who has the expertise to develop influencer strategies and implement the roll-out to achieve effective business results.
“There’re numerous types of influencers and, if used correctly, consumers won’t become immune to their use.”
A mix of celebrity influencers, brand advocates and prosumers (regional opinion leaders), if developed in accordance with the overarching brand plans, can be extremely effective, she says.
McKinnon predicts that at least 40 percent of digital spend will be used on influencers this year, which is already the case in the US.
“People want different things from brands than they used to, they want to be informed and educated and when brands give it to them they are appreciative and responsive. And they buy things.
“Recent research shows that every dollar spent on influencer marketing – arguably one of the highest in the value exchange – generates $6.85 in ROI and over $10 in specific verticals like fashion and retail,” McKinnon says.
Achieving that perfect match
So what are the key considerations when selecting influencers and matching them to brands?
Imogen Johnson, founder and CEO of Johnson & Laird Management, the talent agency representing Shannon Harris, says the influencer must be passionate about the content they create, consistent with the production and uploading of their content, responsive and appreciative to fans, and always upskilling and evolving as trends and platforms change.
“The first step is making sure the morals and message of the brand align with those of the influencer; so an authentic and honest collaboration can be made,” says Johnson.
“Then ensuring that the brand and influencer have a good working relationship – whether that’s a very collaborative one or a simple brief to be followed.
“Finally, it’s about making sure an appropriate fee is paid to the influencer from the brand for the work they’ll create for them.”
Nikki Wright, MD of Wright Communications, says her PR firm is increasingly turning to brand ambassadors and social media influencers to drive brand engagement, and they spend a good amount of time looking at their websites and social channels “to get a feel for who they are and make sure their values align”.
“For example, with one of our clients, INIKA Certified Organic Cosmetics, we try and match them with someone who genuinely cares about natural and organic values and incorporates it into their lifestyle,” says Wright.
“If it’s a larger campaign and we don’t already know the influencer, we’ll set up a social meeting with them and get to know them a bit more.”
Wright believes many brands make the mistake of seeing a high profile ambassador or influencer as a silver bullet. “They’re not. They are at their most effective when used as a key part of an integrated sales/marketing/PR campaign, with a number of other strategies and elements.
“Another myth is that an ambassador with a large social media following is all that’s needed. Social media is one channel, albeit an increasingly important one, and should form part of a broader integrated campaign.
“Ambassadors with large social media followings can obviously be an asset but they will be a much more valuable asset if their profile and ability to influence is leveraged across a broader range of channels and touch points,” says Wright.
“If you are going to pay an ambassador or influencer it’s about understanding exactly how you are going to maximise the ROI on that investment, not simply hoping they connect with their hordes of social media followers.”
Wendy Thompson, who heads social media agency Socialites, holds Makaia Carr and ‘Nano Girl’ Michelle Dickinson in high regard as local influencers. Both have grown strong communities around their passions (health and wellness, science for children respectively) that enable them to live very big, change-making lives, she says.
Thompson believes approaching influencers requires a very similar process on onboarding traditional sponsorships. “Always start with the core customer – who are they listening to and engaging with in the social-sphere?”
Then brand fit is just as important, she says – finding people with brand values in line with your brand message.
“There’s no point choosing a hard-core health and wellness blogger if you’re trying to sell the latest sugary sweet.”
Beyond the numbers
There’s no doubt that choosing the right influencers equates to sales and brand awareness – but it’s not all about the number of followers either.
Kris Lal, an influencer who once generated a respectable 20,000 followers through social media in a single month, and has recently launched social media agency Curator, says he knows from experience that you can get more traction collaborating with an influencer with just 15,000 followers, as opposed to one with half a million.
“Influencers have a huge impact on your bottom line, long-term, if leveraged correctly.
“You don't have to look far past the world's current queens of social influence, the Kardashians/Jenner’s, who usually sell-out an entire product range with a single Instagram post, to understand how important influencers are. They literally make and break brands with the click of a few buttons and a mention.
“It's crazy how quickly influencers of that level can bring you success.”
Lal discovered the true power of social media a few years ago while working on a music project with the legendary T-Boz of TLC.
“I wanted to engage in a strategy that could leverage her existing reach and fan base to get our music to a new generation of online listeners. Social media was the defining factor in the success we were able to garner with the project,” he says.
“It became blatantly clear to me that social media was the new media. Influencers were the new celebrities, change-makers, and voices of this generation.”
Lal agrees that authentic, meaningful and quality engagement is the new standard for approaching influencer marketing successfully. “I see so many influencer marketing companies boast and advertise impressions made, likes gained and comments received. That's great but what is that indicative of really?
“Engagement is everything going forward. The word 'Viral' is such an on-trend word for marketers now. While the exposure is great, essentially all you are doing is entertaining.
“There needs to be a balance and some understanding as to how this will give you a return on spend.”
Fails and successes
Influencer campaigns require careful planning and foresight. Social media is littered with examples of successes and
One standout failure Lal highlights is Kendall Jenner's recent campaign with Pepsi.
Having a Kardashian or Jenner advertise your product is the Holy Grail in terms of influencer marketing, he says, but unfortunately for Pepsi, they got it wrong.
“It crossed lines it shouldn't have. Celebrating the right to protest against oppression (featuring a Jenner) to sell a soft drink is a campaign brief that should have never left the table of discussion.
“On the flipside, I’m a huge fan of how Tag Heuer is utilising celebrity influencers, including our own Dan Carter, into their campaigns worldwide. They’ve got it right and the associations they are making with music, sport and the arts industry are congruent with their brand identity and desired customer profile.”
Justin Clark, who co-founded The Social Club in late 2015 to help connect companies with influencers for marketing purposes, has also witnessed the highs and lows of campaigns here and overseas. An example is US influencers creating content for car brands while behind the wheel, only to be called out by their followers for not having a driving licence.
His company has been especially successful with Snapchat, in partnership with analytics company Mish Guru.
Clark says recent conversion focused campaigns they’ve run on Snapchat have produced ROI of more than
“Snapchat allows brands to collaborate with influencers and tell a story about their brand in a more raw and personalised way than other platforms.”
As Clark point out, social media marketing is an extremely competitive space, and fast-growing. “Which should come as no surprise as our media consumption moves so dramatically towards digital – and within that, social.
“Influencer marketing is still raw in New Zealand, with budgets growing but relatively low compared to overseas markets.”
He can see an increased move towards businesses working with ‘micro-influencers’.
“These are social media content creators with smaller, more localised followings, who have an advantage in creating authentic and meaningful partnerships with brands.
“More and more businesses are also seeking longer term, ambassador style partnerships, as opposed to collaborating on one-off campaigns,” says Clark.
Predictions and challenges
Over the past five years social influencers have become very savvy, according to Curator’s Kris Lal.
“Super influencers are now surpassing celebrities in terms of social media presence and value. Five years ago, they were literally just your next door neighbor; regular people who’ve created an extraordinary offering on social media.”
In the next five years, expect social influencers to grow in importance and value, he says. And expect to see more of them.
“They will become more accessible to brands, but brands will also need to become more aware of how to operate within 'their' space. Content will be king, and engagement will be queen. The end user experience will become more relevant and important than the campaign itself.
“With 'shoppable tags' and in-app purchases becoming the norm, the earning potential for influencers, and financial gains for businesses are huge.
“You will no longer need to leave social media to buy your favorite clothing item, it's such an exciting prospect.”
Lal has seen a shift in the way social media is growing and regulating itself in the process.
“With algorithms and analytics galore – on Instagram especially – now more than ever there is a necessity for businesses to understand it. It is going to become increasingly difficult to do business the traditional way on social media, which is becoming more user-centric.
“You only have to look at a few 'Instagram ad' posts on your own feed to understand what I am saying, generally, they still feel disruptive and detract from your experience.”
He describes the lack of understanding between certain influencers and potential businesses they would love to work with as “incredible”. “There is still hesitation and slight disregard in New Zealand on a wider scale for influencer marketing. They are far more cost effective, mobile, time efficient and uniquely creative compared to traditional media.
“By the time businesses realise this, they may have missed key opportunities and collaborations altogether.”
Imogen Johnson thinks New Zealand is a few years behind the rest of the world in the use of influencers and the kind of campaigns being executed. She says the UK and US provide an insight into what will happen here over the next few years.
Johnson & Laird anticipates seeing YouTubers on billboards, Instagram stars becoming spokespeople for brands across mediums, and more paid campaigns across social media for product launches and such.
New Zealand has a limited number of brands and influencer talent, so Johnson sees more opportunities coming through international deals.
She agrees that educating newer companies on how to work with social talent, utilise them in upcoming campaigns, and align them with marketing goals, is a challenge going forward.
Then there’re the challenges of avoiding oversaturating social talent in the small local market; making sure talents’ brands are managed accordingly and that there are no conflicting clients.
Measuring success in this field, which is on a case-by-case basis and depending on the client’s marketing goals, is another challenge.
“Campaigns that achieve over three percent engagement are considered to have a successful hit rate,” says Johnson. “However, there’s a discussion around ‘passive’ engagement, where people scroll past a social media post and view the content without engaging.”
Keeping up with social media trends and pitfalls will always be a mission, she adds, citing the recent shutdown of Vine, Instagram stories soaring past Snapchat posts, how to best utilise Facebook and Instagram live videos for branded campaigns, and finding the best social media outlets and opportunities for clients locally and globally.
Wendy Thompson describes key influencers as “their own super-targeted media channels”.
“As traditional media companies get more disrupted, then aligning yourself to key influencers will only become more important for marketers.
“I see a trend to longer-term partnerships, like 12 months, rather than campaign-led – which to me makes perfect sense.”
Nikki Wright believes, with the rising popularity of influencer marketing, agencies are becoming more creative.
“It’s no longer ‘here’s our product, here’s some money, please write/post about it’. We work a lot closer with the influencer or agency to produce a fun creative, and most importantly, an engaging campaign that gets cut-through.”
Wright says it’s interesting to read about legislation in the US, and more recently Australia, relating to disclosure requirements for bloggers and influencers if they’ve been paid by the brand.
“I think we’ll see that happen in New Zealand very soon.”
THE LIFE (AND BUSINESS) OF AN INFLUENCER
Vlogger Shannon Harris almost has to pinch herself to believe the success she’s had as a social media influencer.
“In the first few years people would follow up their feelings of amazement about my job with the question, "What will you do when social media dies out?’ I used to worry about that too - but now I can see that social media’s one of the biggest advertising avenues in the industry.”
Her friends and family are proud of what she’s achieved.
Shannon puts her success down to being herself – putting our good quality content and doing it regularly. “Too many times I see people crash and burn when they try to uphold a perfect image. Imperfection is normal and unique!”
So what has she learnt?
“I guess the toughest lesson is that the only person you can trust is yourself. When I was new to this industry I never realised how many people want to use you for their own gain and then just throw you away. I’ve been hurt a lot by people that I used to love and trust, it's a hard industry to be in sometimes.
“Now, I'm more guarded and try to keep my friend group small. I’ve fortunately found a few friends online in my industry who’re very genuine and special to me.”
A typical day for Shannon involves “waking up early, exercise and filming”.
“Filming normally takes from around 8am till 2pm; then I'll edit from 6pm till 8pm.
“If I'm not filming, I'll edit all day and work on social media pictures and thumbnails for my videos. Sometimes I'll take the dogs for a walk midday to get some fresh air.
“Working from home can be hard as it's difficult to know when to stop for the day. It's so easy to hop on your phone in bed at night and spend three more hours doing emails, social media and commenting to your viewers!
“I love [my life] though, I love calling my own shots.”
SPORTS STARS TURNED AMBASSADORS
Not surprisingly in rugby-mad New Zealand, sports celebrities, All Blacks in particular, are a popular choice as brand ambassadors and social-sphere influencers.
Greg Dyer, talent and rights manager for CSM Sport & Entertainment, which acts on behalf of a number of ABs, says this is understandable when you consider the huge following of current, and former, players.
Furthermore, rugby as a sport has 85 to 90 percent acceptance across the general population.
But gone are the days of smiling while holding a product and banking a cheque.
“There has to be a close connection between the values of the player and the brand,” says Dyer.
Good examples include: Nehe Milner-Skudder, who speaks fluent Te Reo Ma¯ori, is passionate about his heritage, and was a shoe-in as ambassador for Ma¯ori Men’s Health and Ma¯ori Language Week; and Kieran Read, who has plumbers in his extended family and was partnered with Plumbing World by CSM as the company’s official brand ambassador.
Another connection initiated by Greg was Daniel Vettori and Specsavers, when the brand was seeking recognition in the New Zealand market; and ‘petrolhead’ Cory Jane, helping Repco boost Father’s Day sales.
When it comes to the do’s and don’ts of matching players with brands, Dyer says while three or four brand associations are fine, provided they don’t clash, it’s important not to over-expose ambassadors.
Long-term partnerships are desirable, extending beyond the player’s sports career.
And ensure there’s a good fit – for example, Nehe, who also represents Skull Candy headphones/speakers, matches perfectly with the youth market.
Dyer says an ambassador contract typically includes a number of appearances – in retail, conferences, schools, and so on – because people prefer to see the players in the flesh (it’s not just the kids who rush up wanting autographs!). But making all that happen can sometimes be a mission as players have incredibly busy training and playing schedules.
He’s also seen a significant shift to social media and digital forms of marketing in recent times, with sports celebrities now having a direct interface to their fans through social media.
So marketers now know exactly who the fans are, “and what they brush their teeth with”.