Influencer Marketing

24 January 2019

What’s The Deal With Influencer Marketing? The Complete InterviewFeatured

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Influencer Strategies Instructor at USC; photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash…

What’s the difference between a “celebrity” and an “influencer”? That’s one of the many questions I was asked by columnist Samuel Scott for the British marketing mag The Drum.

I provided three single-spaced pages of answers to his written questions, but only a couple of my quotes made it into the final article, “Influencer Recommendations Are Not Celebrity Endorsements,” which tells me I need to work on my quotability. Until then, here’s my entire interview on influencer marketing (with some minor editing and added media for your viewing pleasure)…

Scott: What are the similarities and differences between an “influencer” today and the “tastemaker” of yesterday? Hell, Paris Hilton was called a “socialite” in the 2000s.

Nager: Over the years, influencers have also gone by the names “trendsetters”, “idols”, “role models”, “thought leaders,” “key opinion leaders”, and “influentials” — and I bet there are more appellations being used somewhere. We could argue subtle differences between the terms (an exercise in semantics), but they all generally refer to individuals who shape thinking and/or behaviors.

If the individuals are simply popular — everyday people “follow” them strictly to enjoy their media or witness what they’ll do next — then they’re not truly influential.

For most marketers today, “influencers” usually refer to social media users with a significant number of followers. How much is “significant” is being debated. That said, the term is wantonly applied, since many social media stars effectively influence very few if any people. For example, many extremely attractive models entice voyeurs to gaze upon their photos, with the “influence” pretty much ending there.

A “tastemaker,” on the other hand, would earn that title only if they had an impact on styles and trends.

When I evaluate influencers, I consider who they influence as just as important (if not more) than how many. If someone has only 3 devoted followers, but those followers are Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffett, I would give them more credence than someone who is followed by a million adolescents. Many of the world’s most influential experts have little to no media presence until they win a Nobel Prize.

Scott: What are the similarities and differences between a “celebrity” and an “influencer”?

Nager: Most celebrities have a degree of mass market and popular media recognition. An influencer, on the other hand, may enjoy little recognition beyond their peers and industry circles. For example, I consider Professor Mark Ritson a major influencer amongst marketers, but he wouldn’t create a stir walking down Hollywood Boulevard.

The key distinction is, again, true influence vs. popularity. A celebrity may have a large fanbase, but not shape any thinking or behavior. An influencer may significantly shape thinking or behavior, but not have a large fan base. And, of course, some people are considered both influencers and celebrities (consider the Kardashians).

Scott: All else being equal, what are the similarities and differences between endorsing a product on TV or print compared to Facebook or Instagram? Pros and cons? Methods of promotion and media usage? Measuring the results?

Nager: Nothing too surprising here. Facebook and Instagram posts are more interactive: viewers can readily like, comment, and share them. That enables those posts to gain more exposure beyond the original audience (many social network algorithms will boost a post’s distribution if it garners more comments). As we’ve heard ad nauseam for over a decade, social media posts have the potential to go “viral” (albeit such occurrences are statistically rare and unpredictable). In addition, social media posts can directly link to an online store or, on some platforms, offer a product for sale right there.

Technically, a viewer could share a print ad or TV commercial, but that would require effort. Unless they’re writing for an advertising or marketing publication, they likely won’t do it. A print ad or commercial could also include a URL or street address to a store, but for the consumer, that also requires more effort than simply clicking a link.

Now, a key advantage of traditional media is that it confers more credibility to the sponsor and product than digital media does. Creating a print ad or commercial requires significantly more money and time, plus the approval of the host (TV station or publication).

Conversely, everyone knows con artists can create social media posts effortlessly, cheaply, and instantly, then buy thousands of likes and views to fake popularity. Wary of purchased “likes,” some marketers started emphasizing influencer “engagement” rates — usually, the ratio of comments to followers. But comments can also be artificially inflated. One agency in Los Angeles was able to purchase comments for 12-cents each.

Cali Beach Girl 310

Fake influencer successfully fabricated by agency Mediakix

Even if the interactions are legit, “engagement” is a worthless compound statistic, since it’s composed of many variables, and some (such as comments) can be negative. United Airlines’ social media posts enjoyed a lot of “engagement” after one of their passengers was forcibly dragged off a plane.

It’s much harder to fake print and TV metrics, since they’re subject to third-party metrics (e.g., Nielsen), and the cost of buying readers and viewers wouldn’t be worth the investment for sponsors. While traditional media metrics are far from perfect, they’re still more credible than social media metrics. Consider that Facebook counts a video “view” as 3 seconds, which is about the time it takes for someone to find the mute button. What possible “influence” could a video have in that time?

Scott: Two of the marketing marcom tactics are (brand) advertising and direct response (sales or conversions). Are celebrity endorsement campaigns better for one or the other? What about influencer marketing campaigns? Does the selection of the channel make a difference? (such as YouTube vs TV vs print vs Instagram, etc.)

Nager: As mentioned, TV confers more credibility, with print coming closely behind. (Just ask any fashion marketer the value of appearing in the dead-wood pages of Vogue magazine vs. appearing on Instagram.) But some companies have successfully built credible brands and generated sales using social-media influencers — the example of Daniel Wellington watches employing Instagram stars is a popular case study.

In terms of building brands and generating conversions, a lot of factors come into play:

  • Is there a strong alignment between the celebrity/influencer and product performance (e.g., Michael Jordan and basketball shoes, which he actually used to perform superhuman feats)?
  • Who is the audience viewing the endorsement (e.g., teen boys who love basketball)?
  • Is the product readily purchased? (As previously mentioned, clicking over to a store is less hassle than having to drive there.)

McCracken’s Meaning Transfer Model (1989) described how celebrity endorsements create perceived value. An actor like Paul Newman acquired meaning from his roles in movies as well as his public persona; he transferred that meaning to the products he endorsed (from Rolex watches to his namesake salad dressing); and consumers purchased and consumed those products in hopes of transferring that meaning to themselves. (Obviously, this is more likely in the case of a Rolex than a condiment, so the type of product matters.)

For a company with little history or awareness, having a celebrity/influencer endorsement can help infuse their brand with meaning almost overnight. Consider that Nike was primarily a mid-size running shoe company from Oregon before Michael Jordan, and Daniel Wellington watches didn’t even exist but is now a coveted fashion accessory for younger consumers.

Simply being able to afford a celebrity, and persuade such a famous person to endorse a product, can help an unknown brand build trust. If I can pay a Kardashian to endorse my company, my brand would likely increase in perceived value, even if she just stands there and smiles.

Since not everyone can afford a Michael Jordan or Kim Kardashian, lesser known influencers will have to serve. In addition, for the price of one Kardashian, the brand can afford thousands of social media influencers. That helps spread the bet: maybe some of those social media influencers are faked, merely popular, or misaligned with the brand, but some will resonate with their followers.

Note that Daniel Wellington made that social media bet, and now that it’s generating over $200 million/year in sales, it’s going more traditional by hiring Kendall Jenner and opening retail stores.

Scott: The late actor Paul Newman had his own salad dressing and other products. Bill Cosby did Jello pudding pops. And so on… I don’t remember masses of people mocking any of this or getting angry over it at the time. But take this recent influencer post.

Scarlett London Listerine post

Scarlett London Listerine post on Instagram

It got a lot of nasty comments online as well as some reported death threats against the influencer. This post by another influencer also received some mocking (including myself, I must say) before she took it down. There is even a Halloween costume. There are countless examples. Why can influencer marketing result in such negativity but traditional celebrity endorsements do not?

Nager: You might enjoy (GOMI stands for “Get Off My Internets”), which sardonically covers the “internet famous (and those who want to be).”

Social media makes public mockery much easier than traditional media did. Who knows what people were saying about Newman and Cosby in their living rooms decades ago? If irate consumers wrote letters to the editor or a sponsor with death threats or racist comments, those were probably thrown out. Social media allows even a tiny number of trolls, racists, competitors, or Russian bots to make a lot of noise with no hindrance.

Some would further argue that we live in meaner times, with a complete loss of civility online, and that no one is immune: consider the criticism of Nike after they featured Colin Kaepernick, or the waves of ridicule that landed on Kendall Jenner after her clueless Pepsi spot.

If Paul Newman were alive and posting about socially-conscious salad dressing on social media today, he would likely receive anti-Semitic, anti-“Hollywood liberal” comments.

With the social-media influencers, we also have the element of envy. Few could argue against Paul Newman’s talent or right to fame and fortune. He “earned” it. Many view influencers’ fame and fortune as unearned, built on nothing but pretense and poses. It’s one thing for social media users to share photos of their vacations or latest outfits with their friends; it’s another if they start getting paid to do so. If they further handle those paid endorsements in contrived and awkwardly staged photos, that’s just inviting ridicule.

And that’s one more issue: an ad in a magazine is composed and photographed by professionals. Most Instagram photos are not. While some claim that the blatant amateurism makes them “authentic” (a whole other topic), it can also create a slippery slope for influencers who find themselves more loathed than loved.

Scott: TV viewership and print runs are audited and confirmed. Social media metrics are not. As a result, there is a lot of discussion of fake followers and influencer fraud. How does this affect the choice of whether marketers will or should use the tactic? How can marketers insure and protect their investment and spend on influencers?

Nager: Marketers should research and analyze the impact of their social media influencer campaigns, but many won’t, because they originally turned to online marketing to save time and money. They care more about efficiency than efficacy. If they fail to make sales, they’ll just blame Amazon or focus on the amount of “engagement” they received/purchased.

Now, a savvy marketer would ignore the vanity metrics (likes, etc.) and evaluate all their marketing (whether print or Instagram) based on performance metrics: Did it compel viewers to visit a website or store? Did those viewers buy something, register, donate, vote, etc., once there?

To their credit, some smart marketers are asking influencers to use discount codes to track performance. But then we have to ask, did the consumers buy the product because of the influencer or because of the discounting?

Marketers should also be measuring brand impact over time (especially since discounts hurt brands). Because of the influencer, are consumers willing to pay more for the product? Daniel Wellington watches likely cost about $10 to manufacture, but sell for hundreds of dollars. Are media, investors, talent, collaborators, and other stakeholders more eager to work with the brand? Did the endorsement result in a rise in stock valuation? Unfortunately, such studies take far longer than most marketers are willing to tolerate in our short-term world.

By the way, one of my favorite influencer success stories doesn’t even involve a real human being: Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man In The World” is credited with boosting its sales in a flat U.S. beer market. Consumers enthusiastically watched his commercials and sought them out online. When the character was retired, Dos Equis sales also took a hit. It says a lot about “authenticity” when one of the most successful influencers in recent years was an actor playing a scripted part.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Mark Armstrong
5 years ago

I’d already forgotten about the United passenger who was dragged off the plane. Guess you could say that some influencers are chosen, and some have devastating brand consequences thrust upon ’em…

It’s hard to fathom Listerine giving the nod to that Instagram post. Did it win Most Contrived Social Media Post? Did their sales plummet?? It would be interesting to know how that played out…

The Most Interesting Man teaches a couple of lessons, I think: 1) successful fakery requires a great plot line, and 2) commercials and bonafide ads don’t require a “paid partnership” notice that kills all credibility!!

Great insights, Freddy, and kudos on being recognized by The Drum as a marketing influencer!! ?


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Gustavo Demoner
3 years ago

What a great timeless article Freddy! Thank you so much for generously sharing your expertise! USC students are so lucky for having you!