Macala Wright: Why Influencer Marketing Is Failing In Retail

The blurring of lines between earn and paid has created a lack of transparency and trust.

For the past seven years, bloggers have become key elements in sparking critical conversations that can spread information in a rapid, “viral” fashion within the lifestyle, luxury, travel, and retail industries. However, the way in which we work with bloggers and influencers has gone terribly awry. The blurring of lines between earn and paid, lack of transparency when it comes to legal disclosure, and continual desire to monetize everything related to blogs and blog coverage has led to one thing: the bastardization of influence.

Since 2008, from their acceptance and strategic use marketing campaigns to their exploitation for PR purposes and classification as sycophants, I’ve watched, participated in, and tracked the complicated relationships between brands and blogs. This past fashion week, I can finally say the conversation reached critical mass and came to a head when respected fashion critic Suzy Menkes wrote about the “circus” that New York Fashion Week has become in T Magazine.

Ah, fame! Or, more accurately in the fashion world, the celebrity circus of people who are famous for being famous. They are known mainly by their Facebook pages, their blogs…{But} only the rarest of bloggers could be seen as a critic in its original meaning of a visual and cultural arbiter. – Suzy Menkes

Menkes’s commentary on the state of influence and its impact on what fashion stands for sparked furious commentary from industry heavyweights.  From bloggers’ rights to be in front rows to being classified as more than a pretty face, the debates continue on when the Peacocking Culture of Me will end.

But no one’s looking at the root cause of these conversations and commentary. The question you should be asking is “How did we manage to bastardize influence, and wow do we fix what we’ve messed up?”  The answer is simple; let’s redefine and compartmentalize how we leverage influencers in long-term brand and marketing strategies. And while we are at it, let’s make sure our new processes are transparent and beneficial to all those involved.

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Ask The Right Questions On Influence

We must stop asking ourselves the wrong questions when it comes Influence. It’s not about if bloggers are more influential than or on the same playing field as traditional media outlets or if we should expect them to work with the same journalistic standards that those outlets follow.

Influencers are media that are in a league of their own. If this were a sci-fi series, bloggers would be classified as a hybrid race; they’d not belong to one group or class. You could not group bloggers into a traditional classification of “fashion critic,” “journalist,” or “writer.”. They have qualities and similarities to traditional media, but they’d then have strengths and weaknesses all of their own.

For example, Suzy Menkes, Cathryn Horyn (New York Times), Cate Corcoran (former WWD Technology Editor) and Jessica Michault are fashion critics and writers. They are in a league of their own, and a writer such as myself would never dare compare them to any other writer or blogger.

These are venerable figures — and editorial muses — that were here long before the fashion blogger phenomenon rose, and they’ll remain just that even after Conde Nast, Hearst, and Fairchild acquire all of the top independent blogger talent and engulf it into the folds of whatever magazine they choose to position them in. They are women to follow, read, and learn from.

But then there are writers like Laura Feinstein here at PSFK, Lauren Idvik (Mashable), Amalia Agathou (formerly TheNextWeb) and Rachel Strugatz (Women’s Wear Daily). Their work is created and resides in digital mediums. While they don’t influence the same exact groups that Menkes, Horyn, Corcoran, or Michault do, there is audience crossover. And that influence on their shared audiences is acted upon in different ways depending on who’s reading which writer, and for what purpose. .

With influencers, their audiences react to their information (photo, video, written editorial) in different ways. Some of them offer more commercial appeal (which I attribute to product sales) and some offer digital credibility (which is leveraged when a brand wants to build awareness and equity with the alpha influencers that cause other bloggers to imitate, further articulate, and syndicate their content).

Therefore, you have to define and classify what you’re wanting for making influencer outreach a part of your marketing strategy. And let’s be clear, it’s marketing that should deliver the mandate of how influencer outreach should be conducted by their teams. Just as social media serves as a layer to all your online and offline programs, influencer marketing trickles across those efforts in the same way. They add dimension to multi-screen, omni-channel communications.

As with your customers, bloggers may be key stakeholders in your marketing success. Start by asking yourself, “Who do I want to influence, why does my brand want to influence them, and what action is it that we are wanting those we’re influencing to take?”

Are you trying to build digital credibility? Are you wanting to drive awareness of social cause? Or are you simply trying to increase product sales? Depending on your goals, you’re going to invest create programs with very different tactics and outcomes. Luckily, there are programs such as Group High and Traackr built with complex algorithms that prove to be invaluable resources in influencer identification, depending on your goals. New services like Fohr Card and SCX: Influencer Exchange could potentially offer extreme value for retailers and brands.

Influence Isn’t Solely Based On Popularity

Just because someone is popular online and is working with brand and retail competitors to your company, it doesn’t necessarily equate to them being the best influencer to represent your brand. As I’ve written in my brand and blogger posts, brands have to balance their citizen ambassadors with their brand image, voice, and story. Why do you cast certain model talent in ad campaigns? They have a look, and they fit an artistic vision. You don’t hire these models based on their internet popularity. It’s the same with influencers.

Ruth Staiman, a luxury marketing consultant at The Fashion Office, says it best. “When you’re looking for influencers that align with your brand, retailers need to look for potential influencers that will offer them longevity. Some of the influencers that started in 2006 and 2007 have disappeared because they’ve taken jobs with other companies. When you start relationship with influencers, you want someone who’s going to be around for more than one or two years. They need to be a strategic extension of your brand’s resource network in a longer term fashion.”

As Leandra Medine wrote, “Darwinism will always prevail. The strong will continue to survive and the weak will eventually begin to weed off.” The best ROI comes from brands not focusing on the flavor of the moment bloggers, but focusing on the influencers that are relevant to their brand and customers and have longevity. Sometimes those are big names and sometimes they may be someone that you can’t even classify as a blogger – they may be your best customer!

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Quality Versus Quantity

Today, most brands and companies feel that quantity (number of followers, views, and impressions) should always trump quality (smaller people or influencers with cult followers). That’s not true. Quality needs to be the starting point, because quality of content put in the right context, that continues the message or story you’re telling, will deliver just as much value as the quantity. And it’s sticky – it will resonate with the audience you’re speaking to.

Remember in 2010 when Cindy Gordon, vice president of new media and marketing at Universal Orlando Resort, was tasked with creating a global marketing campaign for the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter? She leveraged just seven influencers for a global campaign. Gordon estimated that 350 million people around the world heard the news that Universal Orlando Resort was creating the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park through these seven bloggers.

Gabrielle De Papp of Neiman Marcus once told me that the luxury retailer focuses on quality of presence and voice rather than quantity. De Papp later stated that numbers were important, but her company focuses on quality first as it better represents the retailer and its brands to its customers. Staiman, Gordon, and De Papp were correct with their approaches and methodologies.

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A Simple Formula For Better Success

For brands that make influencers a part of the brand strategy and marketing, here are my best practices that can help ensure influencer marketing success:

  1. Treat all bloggers with respect. Whether they have 50 hits per day or 50 hits per second to their website, you never know where the next “it” personality will be found. Treat all bloggers equally. In the bigger picture, we should be following The Golden Rule, so this should not be a stretch. If you’re not going to properly give your marketing team the means to make influencer marketing program work, then don’t do them at all because they’ll do more harm than good that way.
  2. Look for talent rising out of all the bloggers and influencers you interact with. It’s cool to go with well known figureheads, but also continually look for new talent. Whether it’s Lyst, Mulu.Me, Pinterest, Svpply, Bloglovin’, Pose, Poshmark, or the links on the sides of your favorite blogs, study the people your favorite bloggers tweet at, follow bloggers you’ve never heard of in other countries and start clicking through. Don’t just automate the process through your social media monitoring software. Take the Alice In Wonderland approach and fall down the rabbit hole of discovery.
  3. Set department wide standards. Earlier I said marketing should oversee influencer outreach, and I believe that. In our roles, we need to work with our social media and public relations teams in the ways they interact and speak with bloggers. Social should interact, and PR should follow most of the rules here, especially since they’re earning relationships with your target influencers.
  4. Make news and content shareable. As we enter the age of product curation, visual social media and interest networks. You don’t have to be a blogger to be an influencer. If you’re pitching campaigns, launches or products, start creating content that easily sharable to Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, or whatever platform they’re present on. I’ve even gone as far as to design pitches specific to the platform an influencer has the largest audience on; it’s simply necessary these days. You can’t expect the email blast with a release and large attachments to work anymore.  By lowering the barriers to sharing, you increase the viral potential of the content.
  5. Be honest and transparent. The work clients do with an influencer of any level should always be transparent. Let them know who you are, why you’re writing, and send them material or products. Also be sure to kindly ask them to adhere to professional standards of disclosure. And send that disclosure to them in simple legal language.
  6. Pay your top talent. For those you seek long-term, deep relationships with, compensation is a must. Pay them and give them the tools that will make both of you successful. While you may not have the digital spend and budgets to pay all talent, make sure the money you do spend is well spent. In addition to monetary compensation, you can always give them gift cards so they can shop your stores regularly.
  7. But also work out trade. And I always highlight the benefits of collaborating with a brand: email marketing, social media support and of course, print if it’s involved. Brands help build bloggers brand names; that’s worth something.  For example, I have a habit of going to every Anthropologie store in any city I’m in that has one. I go to the clearance section and buy ones and twos of dishware that I find that I like. I also buy the older issues of the beautiful (expensive) magazines they have now on sale. I don’t do this because I’m cheap, I do this because I’m building a story – mostly related to places I’ve been and seen. When friends come over, they always ask about the electic mix. And I then tell them what and where. They love the idea. For Anthro, my story and habit (overlaid with my Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest action) may be worth a gift card to make it easier for me to continue for them. In that case, other monetary compensation may not even be necessary because the story and relationship are enough.
  8. And don’t pay for everything. When you engage bloggers to create content for you, collaborate on ad campaigns or design goods, payment is necessary. They’re working for you. But there are things that shouldn’t be paid for like event appearance, press previews, or news that’s simply worthy of media coverage. Not everything has to or should come with a check.
  9. Beware the middle man. If you’re dealing with a blogger agent or talent management firm, you have the right to be firm in your expectations of their client. You also have the right to transparency in the transactions and professional dealing with the person you’re booking through them. As with any influencer I pay, I’m just as strict with talent management firms as I am with compensated influencers. And before I sign any contract or write any check, I make sure that my wishes and requests are carried out to the letter. If they’re not, and a deadline or project is not completed, I deduct it from the original agreement. Yes, you can write that into contracts.

“Influencers are HERE TO STAY. They have forged a NEW place in the business and Designer Brands and Retailers have begun to develop innovative ways of working with this new breed,” says Ruth Staiman. “Many are very talented and have been snatched up for traditional editorial jobs. Others are backed by traditional media but somehow keep the appearance that they are independent. The ones who have built brands have done a tremendous job pioneering a new space that shapes consumer opinions and buying habits.” So leverage them according to their best strengths as it relates to your brand.

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Balanced Programs Offer Better Results

I know that some of you are still skeptics, so here’s something to drive my points home. In 2009, Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge started exploring influencer outreach in their book, Putting The Public Back in Public Relations, as well as the balance of bloggers and influencers. Solis, principal of The Altimeter Group stated:

“You don’t have to focus on just the top ranked bloggers, they are not the only game in town. In fact, they may not be the most beneficial or necessary target in your overall communications strategy…While the A-list helps with the credibility of a brand, it does very little in generating new customers and enhancing brand loyalty. The true influencers are the peers of your customers. The best communications strategies will envelop not only authorities in new and traditional media, but also those with voices in the Long Tail. They help carry information and promote discussion among your customers directly in a true peer-to-peer approach.”

Solis’s statements, coupled with my personal experience on influencer campaigns, lead me to say to say that the next time your agency, marketing professional, or strategist asks to balance paid or earned blogger and influencer campaigns using established, well-known talent with emerging, niche voices that have dedicated cult followings, allow them to do so. You can even let your customers be evangelistic influencers as Marc Jacobs, Holstee and Alex and Ani have. Better yet, if they ask you to let them go off the proven grid and try something using all new talent, let them try. That engagement may just lead to ROI you take to the bank.

Photos: Independent Fashion Bloggers, Katya Asharya, Net-A-Porter, ASOS

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