Influencer marketing is a term utilized to describe leveraging trending social media “celebrities” to promote your product or business online. As the CEO and founder of HYPR, Gil Eyal has built a client base of over 100 Fortune 500 brands and 100 of the biggest advertising and PR agencies in the world, including LVMH, Next Models, Levi Strauss, Hearst Magazines, Calvin Klein, Time Inc., and Estée Lauder. No stranger to working closely with celebrities, Gil was the COO of photo-sharing app Mobli, where he became a trailblazer in the influencer marketing space – recruiting over 120 celebrities including stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Serena Williams.

In this edition of The C-Suite, Gil explains why a large following (audience) doesn’t necessarily translate to meaningful engagement and what makes a successful influencer marketing campaign. Finally, he explains what a micro-influencer is and why they have been gaining such an increased presence on social media (including what brands should know before partnering with one).

Sidney Evans: In a recent WWD article “Think Tank: The Dirty Secret of Duplicate Fans,” you explain why a large following (audience) doesn’t translate to meaningful engagement. How would you define meaningful engagement? Why doesn’t a large following necessarily translate into meaningful engagement?

Gil Eyal: I’m a big believer in the concept that influencer marketing is a form of marketing and the same fundamental rules that apply to traditional marketing should apply to influencer marketing. There’s this fascination in the industry with engagement levels (e.g., how many people like, how many people share), but there’s really no focus on who those people are. You would never advertise in a magazine and say, “Oh, I got a million readers” without asking who those readers are and if it matters.

If my brand targets females ages 20 to 30, then would I go and advertise in a men’s magazine? No. So, when you measure engagement, what really matters is whether you engaged with an audience that’s relevant and that’s really interested in your product. For that reason, having a large following (at least in the influencer space) is detrimental to receiving focus. So, we have to compare 2 types of influencers. For example, Kim Kardashian has an enormous audience, but it’s also an extremely diverse audience. They’re interested in a lot of different things and the only thing they really have in common a lot of times is that they follow Kim Kardashian. But they’re not very tightly connected to her, so their decisions aren’t very influenced by what she tells them to do.

Compare and contrast Kim with someone like Linus Tech Tips, who has a whole YouTube focused on tips about using gadgets. If you don’t like gadgets, then you’re not following him. You’ve probably never heard of him. But if you love gadgets, then you do follow him. You might get more engagement with Kim Kardashian as a total number, but the quality is significantly lower. Because with Linus Tech Tips you get engagement from people who really care about gadgets and who want to see a video that explains some details; they’ll be paying more attention and spending more time on those.

For that reason, I say that influencer size and traditional engagement metrics (meaning just how many people like or share) simply don’t mean much.

SE: Talk about specificity because what you brought up is key. You talk about this gentleman who speaks about tools… How much should a brand focus on the particular topic that they’re most interested in? Is that something that you would recommend?

GE: It’s definitely a wise decision to focus on a particular type of influencer for several reasons. For starters, the really big influencers have been used and promoting so many things that it’s getting harder and harder to get real value from them. It also becomes less and less authentic – meaning that if you don’t genuinely believe the influencer would use the product, then why would you trust them? We saw that with Blackberry hiring Alicia Keys to be the face of their brand. And we’re supposed to trust her on deciding which phone we buy. A day later, she Tweets out of her iPhone how much she loves Blackberry – clearly she doesn’t know much about phones because she would have noticed that.

To compare and contrast, you look at someone like Samsung who took Unbox Therapy (who unboxes gadgets), gave him a Samsung Galaxy S8 to review, and told him to say whatever he wants to say about it. He made a 7-8 minute review that was the good and the bad, but it got the attention of everybody who’s really interested in buying a phone. Nobody watched that video unless they were considering buying the phone and, yes, he only got 6 million views, but those views were significantly more important in highlighting the advantages and messaging that the Galaxy phone team wants people to know about. That’s a classic example of finding someone who probably cost a fraction of what Alicia Keys cost and created a video that is here forever on YouTube, that’s still discoverable on search engines, and that’s been viewed by millions of people at the time when they’re looking for a phone – as opposed to picking a character who might be super famous, but not so influential in that category.

SE: Influencer marketing is one of the most discussed and utilized digital marketing strategies of the year. What is the key to a successful influencer marketing campaign? And why has it become a moving target as of late?

GE: The key is to understand that influencers are a channel and a commodity, and those two things should really impact the way that you work with influencers. They’re a commodity because there are a thousand other influencers who can do the same thing for you. If you treat them like celebrities, then they are going to charge you a lot and dictate terms. But if you understand that there are 10, 20, or 50 other options and you approach them as a channel to an audience that’s easily replaceable, then you’ll be able to dictate the terms and start with a lower cost base.

The second part of it is really understanding how you make this authentic and how you reach an audience that really cares. Don’t focus on just reaching an enormous audience; focus on a message that resonates with their audience because they have an audience that really cares. If you are trying to sell make-up, then don’t pick a swimsuit model. Unlike 20 years ago when brands placed models in magazines and put make-up on them, people who follow swimsuit models nowadays are men and they’re not going to buy make-up. So, use common sense in selecting the channels that work.

Now, I think it’s become a moving target for two reasons. One is the lack of authenticity: so many people are using this spray and pray model, just letting influencers use their products because they have a lot of followers. And influencers haven’t been picky. What that’s doing is that we’re seeing those people getting called out more and more for inauthenticity, and for things that really don’t make sense. And the brands are losing credibility with their audiences. That has made influencer marketing susceptible, but it’s not going to kill it, it’s just going to create a better version as the smarter brands really know how to use it and do well.

In reality, when you look at it, Floyd Mayweather recommended that people invest in the Initial Coin Offering of Cryptocurrency. Do you really think that any of his fans expect financial advice from him? Or we had the FYRE Festival, where all of these influencers didn’t disclose that they were getting paid to promote the festival. Do you really think that there’s anyone who thought that Kim Kardashian would let them put her on the homepage of the website without getting paid? In my mind, the disclosure isn’t that big of an issue, it’s more about inauthentic and obvious partnerships that don’t make sense.

SE: Social media analytics instruments help organizations interpret data from buyers into significant experiences. In your recent interview for the Martech Series, you discuss the difficulty of obtaining social analytics. Why is that? What is the most effective formula for brands to leverage such enormous amounts of data?

GE: I think it’s a combination of a few things. The fact that the influencing often happens on social platforms makes it so that the social platforms can decide how much data they share and how much visibility they provide to the brands that work with them. We’re starting to see a shift in the way that Instagram and Facebook work, and they’re going to offer some analytics, but (generally speaking) if you activate an influencer, then you don’t really know much about the results unless you use an expensive platform like ours. And the reason they’re expensive is because we have to deal with so much data that we have high build, working with AWS and different providers. It’s an enormous amount of data…

To give you an idea, we track over 1 billion social accounts (and what they’re doing) every week. It’s an enormous amount of data well beyond what a typical brand can do on its own and it requires a pretty significant investment. Because those aren’t typically available, as opposed to say a blog or a website where Google Analytics can easily provide you with data about who came in, why they came in, and what the sources were.

What I think brands will need to start doing is demand that information from the influencers. If you’re dealing with an influencer or an agent, then at the very least you have to ask them, “Can I see audience demographic data for the influencer(s)? Can I see psychographic data? What are they talking about on social media?” And those guys who are the deeper pocket or are connected to the social networks can pull out that data for them.

The challenge is that as long as brands continue to treat these influencers as celebrities and say, “Oh, I’ll do anything just to work with you,” then they’re not going to demand that kind of information.

SE: That’s a lot of data you’re tracking. How do you ensure the integrity of your data (specifically for HYPR)?

GE: What we do is we look at about 1 billion social media accounts, at their public posting and what they do. We analyze images, natural language processing, and other things, and we take samples that are statistically significant. For example, let’s say that I found you on Twitter. We have a tool that knows how to find you on a lot of other social networks and collect information from each one to verify. For example, we looked at your image from Twitter and we recognized that you’re male, so we’ll also double check that with your image on Instagram, the way you write (whether it suggests that you’re male or female), and so forth. Our system will make a determination.

You then become a sample in our audience. But we know who you follow. Let’s say you’re interested in surfing: we don’t start by saying, “These are the influential people, now let’s see who follows them.” Instead, we ask, “Who do all the people who like surfing follow?” And then we look at a big sample of those people. That ensures that we have a good idea of who is over-represented. It’s not an exact science; it’s more about how much noise you create on the Internet when you talk about surfing.

SE: What are micro-influencers and why have they been gaining such an increased presence on social media? What should brands be aware of before partnering with a micro-influencer?

GE: Let’s start with why we even work with micro-influencers. The first thing that pops into somebody’s head when you say “influencer” is the big names, whether it’s the famous almost-celebrities, really big YouTubers, or fitness models on Instagram. Actually, that’s a really really small portion of the people who are influential.

If you think about it, everybody has influential people in their lives. When you choose which restaurant to go to, there’s probably somebody you ask. When you choose which car to drive, there’s probably somebody who you talk to about that – somebody that is in your circle and influential to you. And what social networks have enabled us to do is to analyze everybody that’s on those networks and understand who the people at the center of a specific thing are.

Micro-influencers (as opposed to large influencers) typically have a smaller following – some people say less than 100,000, but I would say that it depends on context. You could be a micro-influencer with 300,000 followers in fashion because so many people have more than 1 billion. But you could also be the biggest influencer in raw food cooking if you have only 100,000 followers.

What is truly unique to them is that, unlike the big celebrities or influencers, they have a very uniform audience, typically. They’re experts on a subject or a niche. They have a cooking show, for example. And, by being niche, their audience becomes super uniform and, as a brand, you want to be able to target very specific audiences.

So working with micro-influencers provides you with a few advantages:

  1. You know you’re hitting a targeted audience
  2. Their expectations are significantly lower than the big influencers (not everybody can afford the big influencers anyways)
  3. It comes off as way more authentic. They’re not promoting as often as the big celebrities, they’re not going to promote something they don’t believe in typically because their audience will immediately call them out on it, and they have a much stronger connection with their audience.

It’s easier for micro-influencers to respond to 100 comments on their posts than to 100,000 comments. So, they respond to them, they have a real relationship with them, and their audience really believes in them. And the result is that looking at them provides a significantly higher ROI.

It’s also challenging because how do you find them? How do I manage to find all of the influencers in my space? I don’t know all of them. That’s where tools like ours help you discover and evaluate which ones are the best. But as a general rule of thumb, working with the smaller influencers always provides you with the benefits.

The other side of it is also the side of what risk you take when working with the big influencers. If you work with a big influencer and they mess up big time, and they’re associated with your brand, then that’s a problem. Take Kirstie Alley and Jenny Craig in the 90s: she gained weight while on the diet, and that’s terrible for the brand. Take Jared Fogle and Subway – terrible for the brand.

But if you work with micro-influencers and one of them does something bad, then alright, we don’t work with you anymore – we work with 10 others.

Bm: In the Jared example, the brand didn’t know that was happening. Let’s just say that you hire a micro-influencer and they make a mistake (not to the extent of Jared), what would be the recourse from there in regards to the audience? What do you do to rebuild that trust?

GE: The biggest thing is not letting somebody become the face of your brand. It doesn’t have to be someone like Jared; it could be something like Bobbi Brown leaving Bobbi Brown. And that’s a fact of life, but she’s no longer part of Bobbi Brown. Nothing bad happened in life, but as a brand, you lost a major piece of equity. When you let people become the face of your brand, you risk them leaving or getting in trouble.

With micro-influencers, you don’t work with only one anyways – you work with 10 or 20. If one of them says something racist, gets in trouble, or gets arrested, then you apologize, say that you didn’t know this and that you’re terminating your relationship, and it’s not the end of the world. But they’re not the face of your brand. Think of the “Can you hear me now?” guy in Verizon and him switching – think about the damage. It’s insurmountable.

SE: Trademark question: What is the next great challenge for brands?

GE: It’s a fight for attention and the fact that people are growing blind to traditional marketing channels. This might not be an original answer, but the truth is that people are seeing thousands of ads a day and they’re simply not remembering them. In fact, they’re becoming not only blind, but they’re actively blocking the ads. What brands have been doing in response is putting more ads – more aggressive ads – and I think that’s a bad route to follow. Some of the biggest online publications in the world, for example, used to have one banner on the page. Now, they have 8. And the advertisers are paying a similar price, but they’re getting less attention.

The biggest challenge is that user acquisition costs are going to go up for anyone who isn’t aware of this and not exploring new channels. But it’s really easy to say, “If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Let’s keep going with what we know.”

Brands will be left behind if they stay with a traditional model.

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