Opportunities and challenges for the content creator market

Discussion with Jeanette Okwu, Founder and CEO of BeyondInfluence, an influence & brand ambassador marketing agency helping clients to ride the next wave of marketing.

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Jeanette Okwu, Founder and CEO of BeyondInfluence

As a champion and an independent thought leader on social and emerging technologies, Jeanette brings a track record of building and implementing effective integrated marketing and communication initiatives by putting data and storytelling front and center. She is poised to help businesses to master influence marketing at scale and is on a mission is to create harmony between creators and brands by bringing trust and relevance to advertising.

You work in a various regions that are shaped by their individual cultures and you support a range of product catogories from highly exclusive luxury products to lower cost, scalable products. Do you see a difference in these markets?

Definitely. And understanding those industry differences across countries and cultures— including all the key stakeholders— is essential in conceiving and launching successful campaigns. The thing is you need to understand how each country differs, not only in terms of industry nuances or social network preferences but also, as you mentioned, in terms of its culture generally. It’s not just the target audience and their interests you need to consider, but also the influencers themselves and how predisposed they might be to partner up with you. That sounds unbelievable, but compared to, say, the US, there are a few European markets where creators tend to be less willing to enter brand collaborations because they’re more sensitive about looking like advertising billboards. Knowing that going in allows you to strategize more smartly and can go a long way in informing you how to best allocate your resources.

But to really answer your question, I’d have to put those nuances into a specific context. 

For example, when it comes to laws and guidelines, my team always keeps in mind that in mature markets like the US, UK, and much of Europe, the respective government agencies impose strict guidelines influencers are required to adhere to when collaborating with brands. When we set up campaigns, we always sign agreements with influencers that clearly state they obey the respective FTC, ASA, or GDPR guidelines. The simple truth is influencers and content creators are monitored by these governing boards. There’ve even been highly publicized trials where influencers were compelled to pay steep fines because they failed to mark the paid promotion clearly. So, we effectively clear content before it is posted, and in the few cases where the post wasn’t clearly marked, we ask for an edit. In the end, everybody wants to walk away happy.

Sweepstakes are a specifically tricky issue. In some countries like Italy, complex regulations around this kind of competition often result in influencers declining jobs.

Secondly, there’s the issue of fees and terms. Here supply and demand and market maturity play a significant role. When we’re budgeting for a Global campaign, we always note that fees differ, as you might expect, across markets or countries. Influencers in Scandinavia customarily demand and receive much higher fees than their counterparts in France, for example. 

Also, in markets where influencer marketing is well established there’s a whole ecosystem attached to the talent: managers and/or agents who navigate opportunities, negotiate fees and terms, and deal with most everything related to the business side so the influencer can focus on content creation. Ultimately, that affects the cost.

Thirdly, you have to consider how long it takes to produce the content itself, so time and time zones are a big factor. This might sound silly, but if you don’t build in enough time for shipping products to content creators, you’re potentially jeopardizing your campaign. The same goes for general campaign planning. Look, time of course, is always crucial. But it’s paramount when you’re working in international markets. I always suggest my clients to start as early as possible and factor in enough buffers just in case things don’t go smoothly which is most of the time the case. I tend to look at influencer campaign planning the same way I imagine editors of magazines plan key issues: months ahead of time.

Also, when you’re pushing out content you need to consider local time in the respective country. Content should be staggered and not published all at once everywhere. People might miss a post just because they are sleeping.

And there are clear cultural differences across markets. Ultimately, there should never be a one size fits all approach if you want to be successful with your influencer campaigns. It’s crucial to listen to any local employees or agency partners. They know how their market works best and briefs going out to influencers might have to be adjusted based on local customs. Let’s take a swimwear brand that wants to engage influencers in the Middle East and in the US. I think it’s clear that the brief that goes out to American influencer might look quite different than the one for creators in UAE.  

How does influencer marketing differ between luxury and low-cost products? What tools would you recommend/use in both categories?

Luxury brands have historically approached social media with caution. It seems counter-intuitive for a brand built on exclusivity to invest in platforms that are all about accessibility. However, times are changing. Consumers have never been as skeptical towards advertising as they are today. Luxury is no longer about shrouding a quality brand in mystery but more about attaching a quality brand with a sense of personality and authenticity.

Still, luxury brands have been slower than non-luxury brands in incorporating influencer marketing as part of their overall digital strategy. When it comes to the luxury market other strategies might be considered, such as combining event marketing with influencer marketing. Brands like Chanel, Gucci, and others have built relationships with the right influencers by inviting them to fashion shows in order to optimize the reach and impact of their content. There’ve been several extremely successful brand/fashion influencer collaborations that have not only accelerated earned media value for the brand but also increased sales. 

But high-end influencer marketing isn’t as simple as it looks. It’s long been problematic to select the right partnerships, avoid inflated user base and engagement rates, and to measure meaningful ROI. Vetting influencers is essential for luxury brands. Although it’s tempting, brands shouldn’t simply select influencers who have amassed millions of followers. The plain truth is, the larger the number of an influencers’ followers the more likely that a brand might miss messaging its target audience. And that can be an expensive risk. Some of the big gun influencers are charging up to $ 50.000 a post. The outcome can be disappointing. I’ll give you a hypothetical example: Let’s take a luxury cosmetic brand that wants to launch a lipstick targeting 25 – 35-year-old women in both Europe and the US. They think this one particular influencer is perfect from looking at her feed on Instagram and the 3 million follower number on the profile. They contact her manager, and he quotes 25K for a post. Now, any reputable agency or brand should use tools like tagger media or dovetale (there are many more, but these are the ones I use after basically having tried almost everything on the market) to deep dive into the influencer’s followers.

That research ultimately reveals that 60% of her followers are male – I assume because she is beautiful, has long legs, and always wears short skirts. 55% of those men are based in Brazil. 10% of her total audience are mass followers—they’re real people, but they rarely if ever engage with her content. Essentially, they’re dead weight. Seven percent, by the way, are fake followers. Now, we have to stop here for a second and do some explaining: the seven percent of fake followers doesn’t mean that our influencer bought them. Good tools can absolutely detect when and where a creator used  a bot farm. It can mean that somebody else bought them for her out of spite. These accounts with large followings automatically attract those bots. Bot farming is a whole industry on its own by the way. And I could talk about it for hours.They are like influencer leaches, clinging to an account for a split digital second, unfollow, and then the next bot arrives before the whole cycle rinses and repeats. I personally don’t even have a significant social following on my private Instagram account, but Mercedes Benz is following me, and I swear some bot account named Mercedescar101 or MercedesBenzoffial98 follows and unfollows me all the time. 

So, what’s my point about our hypothetical lipstick campaign? 77% percent of the influencer’s following is of no use to me as a marketer. That doesn’t mean that I am not going to work with the influencer. But knowing the make-up of her audience gives me leverage to renegotiate the rate because half of the remaining 23% is exactly what I am looking for. 12% out of three million is still a substantial number of people to reach.

It doesn’t really matter if the brand plays a role in the luxury segment or sells low-priced products; planning is the most crucial thing when conceptualizing an influencer marketing campaign. There is no difference. At the beginning of every campaign—no matter the brand—you should always ask: what do I want to achieve with this campaign? What’s the objective – the goal? Is it awareness? Great. Those influencers with a large following might be just the ticket. Do I want conversion, like selling those lipsticks? Then we are dealing with a tactical campaign that might require a different set of influencers. Or do I just want content for my own digital properties such as website, social channels, e-Newsletters, CRM communications, or offline signage for my store? Then the influencer’s numbers don’t matter that much. Then I don’t really care about all the fake followers that clearly were bought by a particular influencer of interest. In this case, the influencer becomes a creative production partner for a fee because only the optics matter.

That goes for both categories, luxury, and non-luxury. 

What changes have you seen over the years in the influencer marketing/content creator field?

Lately, influencer marketing has become the hot new thing for brands looking to expand their reach, increase brand awareness, and boost conversions. In fact, a whopping 93% of marketers now practice influencer marketing. This tactic has proven so effective that many of them plan to increase their influencer marketing budget.

When you think about it, the concept of influencer marketing has been around for longer than many of us can recall. Before social media, people relied on what they saw in print ads, radio, and television for product recommendations. But even the earliest marketers figured out that featuring influential people in their ads could sway consumers’ purchasing decisions.

In fact, the first person recorded to have leveraged an influential person was a British potter named Josiah Wedgwood in 1765. Queen Charlotte gave him the approval to use her logo and image, practically becoming the ultimate influencer at the time, Wedgwood leveraged his relationship with her and promoted his pottery as “Queensware,”. The royal endorsement catalyzed his brand as you can imagine. 

After that , we had a fictional Santa Claus promoting Coca Cola, we all know the Marlboro Man, 

and let’s not forget Aunt Jemima, who gave the pancake namesake a face. 

What followed in the years after was an array of celebrity endorsements well into the early 21st century. When by 2010, social media established itself as a communication hub amongst users, brands like Amazon quickly saw the opportunity to make use of digital recommendations between friends and family. Bloggers started to become popular review channels for products, and soon after that, money began to exchange hands for endorsement by a new breed of people – the social media influencer. 

What are you expecting for the years to come?

At the dawn of the influencer era—back when influencers were bloggers—brands chose to work with them for one simple reason: their creativity. There was no hand-wringing about a content creator’s audience demographic or post-performance metrics. In a sense, we’re going back to the future. And that’s a good thing. The way I see it, influencer marketing will evolve in the right direction when brands genuinely buy-in, first, partnering with the right influencers and then allowing them—shackle-free—to do what they do best: execute genuinely creative stuff. Because if anything is true in our business, it’s this: Every great campaign starts with the creative concept.

This could also mean we’ll see a different kind of influencer rising to the top ranks as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. It might be influencers who strike just the right tone when engaging their audiences. The kind who acknowledges the reality of our current lives without being overbearing. It’s about providing information, inspiration, or entertainment to the audience that resonates in a meaningful and genuine way. That could range from giving tips on coping with working from home while homeschooling children to staying fit or practicing mental hygiene as lockdown restrictions loosen and tighten along with the erratic behavior of this persistent virus. That new blouse might be beautiful, but no one wants to see the outfit of the day when we are wrestling with issues that can’t be resolved by retail therapy. 

Although influencer marketing was already on the road to widespread acceptance, the pandemic has now made it a premium option for brands who want to be creative and effective. 

In my opinion, this is the biggest shake-up to happen to marketing. And it’s not to belittle the Mad Men era or other advertising innovations. It’s because of the lightning speed with which the entire industry has changed and will continue to evolve. This also means the influencer profession itself is at a crossroads. It will become imperative for professional influencers to understand marketing, approach the profession as genuine business people might, and serve as trusted partners for brands just as creative agencies have done for years. 

The industry is at the brink of evolving in warp speed. Call it Influencer Darwinism. Those who can’t adapt will be left by the wayside. But those who do will lead the industry out of the current content creation challenges and become legends.  In fact, on the fast approaching horizon an entirely new economy is already taking shape: the creator economy. Brands with the foresight to embrace this next wave of marketing will ride the crest in a post-Corona world. 

In your podcast, you discuss the efficiency of content creator programs and their success regarding the influencer and marketing programs. What is it that you put special attention to?

Although these creator programs or creator funds sound like a good idea, the reality is that they are still flawed. The way they work right now primarily serve creators who make substantial money on those platforms already because they have large followings. But there’s a vast majority of creators just hustling to get by. 

Currently, platforms opt to reward the already rewarded few, although they could choose to serve the much larger creator middle class.

Social networks need to be more democratic and decouple virality from content, support niche creators and their content and add a pinch of chance to their rigid algorithm. These are just a few things, for starters. Right now, the creator fund doesn’t mean much to me from the marketer’s perspective, as they still need some fleshing out. One improvement would be a badge on profiles indicating that a creator is part of a creator fund with a different set of data for vetting purposes. This could suggest that the passive income they are making reflects the success of their content to an audience that may not be part of the creator’s fan base. The algorithm right now rewards large numbers of views which means that smaller accounts who do not have tens of thousands of followers don’t have a fair chance to profit from a creator fund simple because they do not generate the views.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge for content creators today, and what for the companies running content creator programs?

From the outside the life of an influencer may sound glamorous and care free. But that’s definitely not the case. The pros are always working —creating great content constantly, reaching out to brands, and negotiating deals with them. 

It can also be challenging for influencers to convince brands to offer them fair monetary compensation for the services rendered. At the end of the day they’re small business owners who have to market themselves, need to do their bookkeeping, pay their taxes, and they often need legal advice. The competition is steep, especially in the categories of fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Brands sometimes take advantage of the supply and demand mismatch by low balling influencers despite all their heavy lifting. This almost predatory approach by brands has produced a much discussed influencer payment gap. On top of this there are serious disadvantages for influencers of color or physically challenged creators. 

And the list goes on. When influencers collaborate with brands those brands often shackle their creativity. That’s stressful.  And it doesn’t help, that brand promoted content often underperforms relative to an influencer’s organic content. All of this can cause burnout. Pretty much everyone in the community is wary of it. 

I honestly admire content creators, especially those who are still not established. It takes so much energy, focus, creativity, and endurance to fulfill their dream – to become a creator who can live full-time from their craft.

As for the networks that want to capitalize on the growing success of the creator economy, I think they should enable agencies, services and businesses who serve them rather than undercut an entire industry that is highly skilled in leveraging influencer marketing for brands.

If there were a few key insights, you could give to companies wanting to be more active on that side of the marketing (invest in content creators as well as influencer programs) – which advice would you give them?

Good question. Don’t think of influencer, influence, or content creator marketing as an add-on.  Or as a fad to experiment with simply because it’s all the rage now. Take some time to really understand the intricacies of the discipline—to fundamentally appreciate what in theory makes it effective and then how it might practically bear fruit for your product or service. If you think influencer marketing is something you can automate, you are missing the point. Two things; 1. Influencer marketing is very much a people business. Technology only helps ease what’s otherwise a painful manual process. 2. If you think influencer marketing is like buying an ad, then just buy an ad. Working with creators is exactly what it sounds like. You are working with creators. Find the creators who impress you, who are a fit with your brand message, who understand that message and then get out of the way and let them create. What you ultimately get when you’re working with the RIGHT creator/s over time beats any paid performance marketing especially when you consider the manifold benefits. If you’re doubtful, give me a call. I’ll make sure to convince you otherwise.

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