Brands Should Work With Influencers, But Only If They’re Smart About It

Words of wisdom from speakers at Adweek's Elevate: Influencers conference

Adweek's Lisa Granastein on stage with Will Schafer, Leslie Burthey and Russell Barnett
Adweek’s Elevate: Influencers conference took place Oct. 17 in Los Angeles.
Julian Gamboa for Adweek

If you Google the phrase “influencers are,” you get these descriptors: dead, stupid, annoying, gross, losing their influence. And those are some of the more diplomatic responses to that popular open-ended search.

So why should brand marketers continue working with self-styled digital tastemakers and trendsetters?

“Consumer sentiment has never been so negative,” said Amber Atherton, founder and CEO of Zyper, a company that helps connect brands to their die-hard fans. “The market is saturated, and trust is being eroded.”

The key is choosing the right influencers, sometimes those with sway over a relatively small number of people in their immediate social circles, since 83% of consumers trust recommendations from family and friends more than any other form of advertising, according to Nielsen stats.

That insight came during Adweek’s Elevate: Influencers conference Oct. 17 in Los Angeles as Atherton discussed the value of super fans with Akash Mehta, Christian Dior’s global digital manager of parfums.

In the past three years, Mehta has zeroed in on “the bottom of the pyramid,” meaning those budding online mavens with 1,000 to 10,000 followers, where he’s found “more conversion and potentially more credibility” for the Dior beauty brand. (The top 1%—celebrities and other famous faces—still play a role, he said, but mainly in building awareness.)

The execs wanted to dispel the notion that working with everyday folks can’t move the needle.

“When you activate an influencer, it shouldn’t just be image driving—it should be business driving,” Mehta said, who also noted that he’s using gifts, free product and other rewards as incentives to get quality user-generated content. “We’ve seen ROI improve as we’ve gone further down that pyramid.”

The afternoon thought leadership event, held at Deutsch’s Steelhead production studio, included sessions with Kalen Allen, a video novice turned viral star (and Ellen DeGeneres protégé) and Drew McGowan, communications lead at Clif brand and Luna Bar, whose partnerships with members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team highlighted the battle for equal pay for the World Cup-winning athletes. Helixa CEO Florian Kahlert told attendees to drill down further into influencers’ audiences (beyond demographics to psychographics) to find the best brand match.

Other insights from panelists included words of wisdom from Aimee Song, an “OG” blogger who’s built the fashion brand Song of Style with online retail giant Revolve, who has always listened to her “inner voice” about working with marketing partners. “I won’t promote diet tea because I don’t believe in it, for instance,” she said. “There’s quick cash to be made” from such one-off deals, “but I’d rather have longevity.”

Execs at Revolve, an early adopter in the space, have built a stable of some 3,500 millennial and Gen Z influencers “in over a decade of making smart, strategic bets,” Raissa Gerona, chief brand officer, said.

“We’ve always looked at influencers as entrepreneurs,” she said. “A lot of companies don’t understand the power and complexity of influencers.”

Revolve, amping up the experiential marketing that it’s pioneered with its influencers, has toyed with the idea of opening a branded hotel or restaurant (there’s already a members-only Revolve Social Club in L.A. for loyalists) as part of realizing its “lifestyle brand” status.

L.A. Brand Stars winner Russell Barnett, CMO of My/Mo Mochi, spends “an inordinate amount of time” vetting and educating a highly curated group of influencers for the sweet treat brand, knowing that sometimes they may toss the script.

“If they go rogue, we love that and we don’t love it,” he said during a session with fellow L.A. Brand Stars from Beyond Meat and FabFitFun. “Sometimes it’s a happy accident because that’s where the real passion is. If it goes bad, you can ride that out.” 

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