As an ex-marketeer I am fascinated by the world of social media. When I was in the industry the social media world was not as prolifent as it is today. Yes we had the internet (I’m not that old), Facebook and Twitter but the brands I worked for meant we used these in a limited capacity.
The world today seems to revolve around our devices and social media apps. Normal everyday people can capture the hearts and minds of the larger population and become insta-famous. Whilst this is amazing and opens doors otherwise closed for many people it also comes with a certain amount of responsibility.
I got in touch with Nik Speller a social media guru to ask him more about the ups and downs of influencer marketing.
1: Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve had a pretty diverse career since I left university, where I studied History and international business. I’ve worked for a market research company (probably why I’m a geek for numbers), a publishers, a design agency, a political risk consultancy, and a few marketing agencies. I guess the underlying thread through all my jobs is digital – and, in particular, social media; which is probably why I’m working where I am today.
2: What is influencer Marketing? And how did you get into it?
Influencer marketing is a broad-brush term used to describe the marketing of products and services through (primarily) the social channels of ‘social first’ online personalities. What I mean by ‘social first’, is that these folks have created their ‘fame’ online, rather than being known for something in the ‘real world’ first. I guessed we’d, traditionally, call the latter celebrities; however, the line between influencers and celebrities is definitely becoming blurred.
I started in this industry, writing for a few blogs and getting to know the industry as it grew and developed. Then, opportunities just began to open up for me, as I’d gathered an understanding of how the industry worked at a time when there wasn’t much of an understanding about it.
3: Can you tell us a little about your current role at Influencer? What do you do and which clients do you work with?
My role at Influencer is to head up the campaigns team. Essentially, that means working with a range of clients to develop strategic and creative approaches to their influencer marketing – and then managing the guys who connect with the influencers, contract them for campaigns, and manage the delivery and publication of content.
It’s a fun role, which has me working on lots of different projects, for lots of different brands, and with lots of different influencers. So, a really mix and a good dose of exposure to almost every part of the industry. It’s also good to be working with a team who have a similar knowledge and skillset to my own; especially, as – previously – I was used to working alone and managing all of the issues that came along without much help.
4: How do you help brands determine whether an influencer is worth collaborating with do brands do their research and how do they track ROI?
That’s the million pound question the industry is still grappling to answer. There are – obviously – easy to access statistics out there, showing audience, engagement, and the rest; but, their validity and reliability has been frequently called into question – and, for a lot of brands, their campaigns success seems to be far more down to luck than to judgement.
I wouldn’t want to give away all of our secrets; but, generally, our work at Influencer involves gathering together as many data points as we can to build a convincing case that an influencer genuinely has the influence (and the right content type, persona, character, and more) that the brand are looking for – and, coupling this with a degree of intuition, make a choice as to who to work with.
It’s not a simple science (not currently, anyway). It all depends on what the brand is looking to achieve, what budget they have available, and (ultimately) who actually exists in the wider-world.
On that final point, the number of ‘influencers’ out there is finite and the number of reliable, high quality influencers isn’t a huge % of the total. A lot of brands seem to think they can reel off a list of incredibly specific criteria (e.g. a female YouTuber, living in Bristol, with a 2 year old cat, blonde hair, an estate car, a grandmother in Sweden, and 250,000 followers) and those people will magically appear, waiting, and willing to work for them.
When it comes to ROI, for many in the industry, sales are still the ultimate goal and there seems to be a lot of disappointment when tidal waves of money don’t come rolling back in, immediately, from a brand’s investment in an influencer campaign.
Sales can (and in the long term, should) be used as the definitive measurement of success in influencer marketing; but, the real goal of influencer marketing is to affect a change in human behaviour – making target customers aware, consider, and (finally) purchase a brand.
This can be a long old process (for instance, no one buys a car they see in any form of ad they see, instantly) – and brands need to consider how they will measure the relevant changes in consumer behaviour that are the intended result of their influencer campaigns; not just the cash pile that rolls in at the end.
5: Let’s talk about fake followers and fake engagement – is it still a big problem? Is it easy for brands and businesses like yourselves to spot and what do you think will happen in the future to try combat this?
Yes. It’s a huge problem and it’s a problem that has the potential to undermine this whole industry and severely damage it for all involved.
While it’s not hard to identify those who cheat the system (although, it is getting harder, due to more sophisticated techniques to cheat and Facebook removing a key tool in the ‘fight’), knowledge of this cheating and a degree of apathy from marketing agencies – and brands themselves – has encouraged people to cheat.
Brands are (finally) starting to wise up to this (for instance, see Unilever’s recent announcements); however, I feel that while they’re all talking a good game about never working with the cheats, none of them really know how to tackle the issue (or, at least, they’re not letting on as to how they plan to).
My biggest concern is that brands throw the genuine influencer of a baby out with the cheat infested bathwater. Once they realise the scale of the problem – and with no clear way to tackle it – they might decide the risk of getting burned is too great and steer clear of the entire industry. That would be a real shame, as there’s so much good work this industry can deliver, when brands work with genuinely good (and upstanding) content creators who have earned their audience, that audience’s trust, and deserve to make a living from their creative output.
6: Do you think Instagram is doing enough to protect the platform from Fakes?
In a word: no. They don’t appear to be doing anything. Sure, they closed API access to a load of suppliers of dubious services; but, new services have sprung up in their place and we seem to be back at the levels of automated comments and mass follow / unfollow behaviour that we saw before.
I’m still not sure why Instagram don’t do anything. Fraud is against their terms of service and it severely damages the experience for users – not to mention those brands who spend millions of pounds on fake influencers and ads, which are ‘engaged’ with by automated accounts.
I think it’s a blend of ignorance, apathy, and arrogance, that has resulted in Facebook sticking their head in the sand and ignoring the issue. The biggest problem they have is that a whole-scale attack on bots and fake accounts would see their user numbers and engagement numbers drop significantly – and that would have massive implications for their perceived value as a service by advertisers and investors.
Facebook don’t need to act currently. Instagram is performing well and the sun is shining for them. However, if a credible challenger appears, their failure to deal with the fraudsters could come home to roost.
7: Are there any accounts that have bought a certain amount of followers that you know of, that are doing really well?
There are plenty of big accounts out there – some of them with blue ticks – who have bought followers and used automated engagement services (bots) to artificially inflate their followers.
In general, for all of their cheating, these accounts can’t cover up the fact that their content is generally of poor quality. Usually, these accounts are very cheesy, with pearly white smiles gripping a different product in each and every post: from cheap coffee to cat litter, poor whisky to laxatives, they’ll literally ‘sell’ it all.
That said, there are some accounts that start out by cheating and go on to do very well; be it producing good content or getting very lucrative brand deals. It’s sad to see, because it encourages others to cheat and disheartens those who don’t. But, I guess every industry has bad apples and it’s up to all of those involved – brands, agencies, and influencers – to make sure these folks are recognised as having artificially inflated followings.
8: At what point is an individual deemed an influencer by a brand?
Every brand and every marketing agency will have their own criteria; although, they always seem very similar to me and they always seem to start at 10,000 followers, which does seem to cut out quite a large and influential slice of the influencer market.
Really, an influencer is an influencer once they have influence – once they can affect behavioural change amongst their audience. I follow people in London who have a couple of thousand followers, but I’ll trust their recommendations on food, drink, and fashion over people with ten times that number.
Brands need to start seeing influence as something far more nuanced than that which can be represented by one large number. Influence is the ability to influence – and this differs from person-to-person, industry-to-industry, and network-to-network. In the computer games industry, kids with 5 million subscribers on YouTube can shift computer games, while in the drinks industry a guy with a couple of thousand of followers can shift bottles of whisky. If you went on numbers alone, aside from being illegal, signing up the YouTube kid would make no sense for Diageo; while the bearded guy on Instagram would struggle to sell many copies of the next installment of Call of Duty.
That example is flippant, but similar approaches are taken by brands all the time – you only have to look at those fitness influencers, who’ve never mentioned coffee before on their Instagram, now pushing Nescafe, to see a clear example of where a brand is going for big numbers over any form of authenticity.
9: What advice would you give small brands looking for Influencers?
Study your industry and get to know it well. I see far too many small brands calling up an agency or reaching for a self-service influencer platform before they’ve had a look at the industry themselves. Most influencers are decent people, who respect and are keen to promote small brands (if their product is both relevant and good). If I were running a small brand, I’d spend a few hours defining my ‘universe’ (i.e. drawing up a list of all those influencers relevant for my product/service), then I’d follow them, engage with their content, and show them the love I want them to show my brand. There’s no substitute in this game to building genuine connections, based on respect, appreciation, and friendship.
10: What advice would you give Influencers when working with brands?
It might be a bit of an obvious one, but it’s important to work on your terms, not the brand’s. It’s easy to get carried away when a brand approaches you – flattered by the fact they’ve contacted you – but, if your start making allowances, posting things (or about things) you wouldn’t ordinarily do or say, you’re likely to lose the authenticity that attracted your audience in the first.
At the same time, I would always say to influencers not to dismiss a project immediately, because you’re not entirely happy with it as it’s presented to you. Don’t be scared to push back and make suggestions as to how you feel the brand’s project could work best for you and your audience. You know your audience best and a decent brand should respect your opinion and be prepared to adjust their ideas and / or approach accordingly.
Finally, make sure you get paid. Remember that brands are (in the main) large organisations who commit budget to their marketing efforts; if they’re asking you to work for free they’re either being cheeky or genuinely don’t value you as a channel. I’d say, only work for free where the opportunity being presented is a ‘once in a lifetime’ sort of a thing (ie it delivers you a significant value other than money).
11: What are your thoughts on Instagrams algorithms? Some accounts that have a high number of followers have claimed that in recent months their visibility has dropped off hugely, is there anything they can do to overcome this?
No one out there will ever truly understand the workings of the Instagram algorithm, so it’s always going to be a struggle to fully understand why one piece of content is successful and another isn’t.
One thing I would say is that the algorithm is designed to deliver the type of content people want to see, from the account’s they like the most. That means you’re likely to see higher reach (better visibility) for your content if you have a highly engaged audience, who you interact with, and who interact with you. That does mean committing a lot of time to the social side of Instagram – but then, that’s what Instagram want; people (both influencers and their audience) logged in and using their system (because it’s access to those logged in eyeballs that they sell to advertisers).
12: What are your thoughts on hashtags? Do or Don’t?
On Instagram, hashtags are the only legitimate means for your content to reach a large audience automatically. To appear on the explore and search page, in front of a relevant audience, your content has to be tagged appropriately, so it makes complete sense to use as many (relevant) hashtags as Instagram will allow (a maximum of 30).
Content is (and will always be) king; but, it’s important for an influencer to understand how to maximise the opportunities to reach a larger audience (within the rules, of course).
A slight side note on hashtags; influencers – at every level – should know, respect, and adhere to the rules with regards to content declaration. This means using the appropriate hashtags (#ad or #sponsored – although, it’s almost always going to be #ad) and making sure they’re clearly visible to your audience (no hiding them away, at the bottom of a caption, or buried in a comment with other hashtags). Not only are these the rules – and you can get in trouble for flouting them – but, with brands keeping an increasingly watchful eye on the behaviour of those influencers they work with, failure to make these declarations clear could see an influencer overlooked for future projects and campaigns.
I really hope you enjoyed this interview, for more information on Social Media Law make sure you check out the FTC, ASA and CAP which have articles on best practise in the USA and UK. It is also worth noting that if you are an influencer it is best to err on the side of caution and make it clear up front whether you have been gifted a product or service. My research (and past experience) has shown that it only takes one complaint and this does not benefit either brand nor influencer.
UPDATE 1ST OCT
So many of you left messages on Instagram and were confused with regards to what constituted a Gift, Ad, Sponsorship, Affiliate Link and what had to be declared. Since then Nik has written a fabulous blog post detailing what the ASA/CAP claim to be best practise when it comes to this rather grey area. I will also try do a simple 1 page guideline as I’m guessing many of you don;t have time to read through 10 pages of best practise.
Link to Nik’s Blog post is here.
Link to 10 page ASA guidelines is here.
If you have any feedback please leave a comment,
Love Chet x