Influencer Marketing: Get Up to Speed or Get Left Behind

Firmly cemented in a fully-digital era, marketing continues to be dominated by “the influencer.” Celebrity endorsements have long been an advertising staple in the fashion industry and beyond, and while that has not necessarily changed, what qualifies as a "celebrity" and the way in which marketers are utilizing their selling power is evolving quite rapidly.   

We know the selling power of conventional celebrities. Nicki Minaj, for instance, helped generate significant engagement and added value for several brands such as Oscar de la Renta, Monse, Marc Jacobs, Philipp Plein and Paul Andrew, according to  LaunchMetrics’ review of the Spring/Summer 2018 season. Her presence at these shows led to a large leap in engagement numbers. For Oscar de la Renta, for example, her posts during the show generated over 7 million interactions.

Similarly, Selena Gomez proved an effective front-row guest that season. The singer/actress uploaded a video on her Instagram account that featured Coach, garnering over 33,000 comments and 3 million likes during New York Fashion Week, alone; the number of "likes" went up to over 16 million thereafter.

But what about social media stars and/or fashion bloggers  the ones tapping into their social star status (built thanks to highly active social media accounts) to shill products? These are the individuals who are taking online marketing and user engagement to the next level by bringing to the table exactly what brands are looking to facilitate and capitalize on in the changing marketplace: Seemingly authentic endorsements.

As consumers have grown to distrust and subsequently, move away from relying on traditional advertising schemes in favor of what appear to be more genuine promotion of goods and services, the influencer has become a very real asset for brands. The question is: Can such influencers match the celebrity-level of impact? Not shortage of signs point to YES!

Bloggers, entrepreneurs, and creatives are particularly powerful as they have proven capable of swaying what millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 2000) and Gen Z-ers (those born sometime between 1990 and 2001), in particular, want to buy. By building large communities on social media, they are turning out to be a relatively more affordable and more valuable way to connect with consumers. That’s exactly what US/UK-based fashion platform, Fashion and Beauty Monitor, discovered when they created “The Rise of Influencers” report.

According to their research, 59% of survey respondents, which included in-house brand marketers, agencies, consultants and media owners in the UK and US, had integrated influencer marketing into their marketing strategy within the last two years. “Word of mouth has always been a trustworthy tool for marketing but now, because of digital communities, it’s even bigger,” explained Priyanka Mehra-Dayal, Content Marketing Manager at Fashion and Beauty Monitor.

NOT ALL INFLUENCERS ARE CREATED EQUAL

But not all influencers are created equal, and influencer marketing is not just a numbers game. As Aliza Licht, author of Leave Your Mark and the former DKNY PR GIRL, stated recently in a discussion on “How to Win Digital Friends and Influence People,” it is not just about amassing followers. “It is about engagement.”

The quality of engaged followers is a key measure for successful partnerships. And this is something which Mehra-Dayal believes luxury fashion brands do particularly well: "If you ask me which is better, a celebrity or an ‘influencer’, it depends what the brand is trying to achieve. If you just want eyeballs and to be seen then a celebrity can produce great results but getting an influencer on board, can give you that reach but can help target very specific audiences, depending on their niche." 

She believes this can be far more cost-effective and send a clearer, more on-brand message than reaching out to self-titled “digital influencers,” who work with so many brands that it’s difficult for consumers to distinguish between paid-for and organic endorsements. “The Rise of Influencers” report found that identifying the right influencers to work with was the greatest challenge for 73% of respondents.  

So, how does a brand go about finding the “right” influencers to work with? London-based influencer marketing agency, The Influencer Group, helps clients to find these partnerships. During London Collections: Men this past January they partnered LAB Series grooming products with bespoke menswear tailor Joshua Kane and the city’s coolest tech entrepreneurs. Instead of the usual celebrities and journalists, The Influencer Group filled the front row with inspirational business-owners from Silicon Roundabout who, though they likely had a smaller social media reach, were well-respected by the LAB Series customer. Each guest was gifted a LAB Series goody bag. It resulted in one of the most successful campaigns the skincare brand has ever had, with over 500,000 social media OTS (opportunities to see). 

Dudley Nevill-Spencer, Director of The Influencer Group, believes that researching influencers thoroughly, understanding their personal passions, and collaborating with individuals who are authentically excited by your brand is the key to a strong influencer campaign. “Because social media has exploded, and it’s very hard to hide the true nature of an influencer, the consumer gets a very good idea of who that person is and what their personality is. So if you do something which doesn’t reflect the values of those influencers then the campaign doesn’t resonate with the consumer.” 

When The Retail Trust, a charity that supports those working in the retail sector, wanted to launch an influencer campaign, they didn’t turn to an agency for help. Instead, they enlisted the help of those who understand influencer marketing instinctively, Generation Z. The trust partnered with London’s Fashion Retail Academy, who they also support with funding, to launch a competition for students in which they were tasked with designing a charity t-shirt and developing a celebrity marketing campaign. 

Working with the generation that doesn’t remember a time before the internet, The Retail Trust has relied on them to highlight which influencers are cool, and that have a genuine impact on young shoppers. A viral Instagram campaign was also crucial for many of the students, aged 16 to 18, in order to spread the word, and follower numbers were taken into account. “It’s just natural to know,” shrugged one student when asked how she decided who was a popular celebrity for her campaign. It won’t be long before this switched-on generation joins the industry, no doubt fuelling the rise of influencer partnerships. 

“The students who have impressed us the most have been those who have really researched their celebrity and found out which designers they were inspired by and what they cared about,” said Holly Thacker, Communications Coordinator at The Retail Trust, who is helping to judge the competition. The winning student will have their t-shirt made and sold through a High Street partner retailer of The Retail Trust, with the aim to also get the student’s chosen celebrity to endorse the campaign.  

IS IT WORTH REALLY IT?

Another challenge facing marketers is measuring their return on investment. This, unlike identifying influencers, which is largely done by manual searching, is improving with the help of software tools. Centaur Media, a leading London-based multi-platform content group, is currently developing an influencer marketing tool, something which their Rise of Influencers report will have a direct impact on.

Another popular online media intelligence tool is Meltwater News, a platform that measures not only how much your brand is being talked about but, importantly, whether the sentiment behind the buzz is negative or positive. It is important for brands to understand that a general uplift in consumers talking positively about your brand is as much of a key measurement as sales. A common mistake is to assume that social media buzz will translate into immediate sales.

This is something Nevill-Spencer has had to explain to the brands he works with, “What you find when you start working with influencers properly is you just start seeing it (positive brand communication) tracking up and that should effect sales. We always say to a client, ‘give us six months’ because at minimum you should see a sales effect within six months, after a year, you should start to be getting on quite significantly,” he says.

Mehra-Dayal agrees and believes that as brands understand influencer marketing better they’ll be playing the long game, “I think we’ll also see a lot of brands working with influencers over a longer period of time, as more of a brand ambassador, than just one off projects. They’ll become part of your brand voice.”

While celebrities often come with strict contracts and time scales before they move on to a new endorsement campaign, influencers have more potential for being long term advocates of brands. Not to mention it can start with very little budget.

“At the low level budget-wise, you don’t even necessarily have to put in any money,” says Nevill-Spencer, “Let’s say you want to support the grass-roots music industry. You can help pay for the costs of t-shirts and merchandise that they sell, which really helps them at that level when they don’t have a big deal yet, or you can give them your venue space they might want to use, or if you’ve got a product like alcohol then gift that.” These can create a great amount of good will in the early days of an emerging creatives career and, if they start to take off, can turn into great value for your brand as their fan-base gains.

Nevill-Spencer also believes it can give you the best value for money out of your whole marketing strategy, “I think influencer marketing is the most important thing you can do for your brand, because, if you get it right, they do all your advertising, marketing and PR for you.”

The movement is growing at a rapid pace; influencers are emerging and growing in significance, a new generation of switched-on young people are entering the industry and fashion brands are learning how to best utilize influencers. In just two years, a huge number of organizations in our industry have adopted influencer marketing into their strategy. Those that haven’t yet realized what influencers can do for their brand risk getting left behind.  

Olivia Pinnock is a freelance fashion journalist based in London and founder of The Fashion Debates talks on ethical issues in the industry.