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Volume 21 No. 48
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Brands seek social influencers with reach, cachet

Danny Kim is just a year out of the University of Maryland, but he’s already a player in the D.C. restaurant scene that’s as competitive as you’d expect in a city with 24,000 eateries. Kim isn’t a restaurateur, and he doesn’t own a set of professional chef knives or a “toque blanche.”


However, his “Eat the Capital” Instagram page has amassed 39,000 foodie followers in about a year, in addition to his “Danny Grubs” page, which boasts 132,000 additional hungry followers. So, if you’re looking for a new place to dine in D.C., he’s your go-to guy.

Danny Kim’s “Eat the Capital” and “Danny Grubs” Instagram pages have made him a social media influencer in the D.C. restaurant scene.

“I’m not a food critic,” Kim insists, before detailing days jammed with four or five restaurant photo shoots. Kim has ongoing paid social media gigs with “two or three” restaurant groups, along with the handful of new restaurants, which usually seek short-term promotional hookups monthly. He’s quit his “cubicle job” for a full-time shot at social media that fills as many as 60 or more hours a week.

“I’m a food content creator,” he explains. “My job is to make people hungry.”

Kim is an archetype of something every marketer covets: a social media influencer with credibility and followers enough to break through an internet choked with marketing clutter. Social influencer marketing is on every marketer’s must-have list. Still, it’s about as mature as any person aged 10 to 15 years, which is the age experts attach to the platform. Instagram is every internet marketer’s pet, but with 800 million users, it’s easy to forget that it’s fewer than 8 years old.

“People are getting smarter, metrics are getting better, but influencer marketing’s still a shiny new penny,’’ said Marc Ippolito, president and general counsel of Burns Entertainment, which has fashioned influencer campaigns for Unilever’s Degree and Dove brands, along with Now & Later candy. “A lot of brands rush in without a strategy and are just looking for followers.”

It’s a common problem.

“Lots of times people ask us to give them a list of influencers before we even know what they want to post or what their objectives are,” said Samantha Baier, director of digital sports at Taylor, which has engineered influencer campaigns for brands as big as Mercedes-Benz, Nike and Smirnoff. “We’ve reached the point where it’s a buzzword; everyone wants it, but they don’t necessarily understand how to use influencer marketing effectively.”

“Premium Pete” is a sneaker guru who has done influencer work for Jordan Brand and Puma.

Within sports, endemic footwear and training equipment brands have been leveraging the power of influencers for as long as any. Of course, celebrity athletes are used, but there are also legions of influencers such as Peter Gibaldi, known better as “Premium Pete” to his more than 20,000 Instagram followers. He is enough of a sneakerhead that he owns 500 pairs of sneakers, and his “You Gotta Eat This” Instagram page has another 119,000 devotees. He’s still a sneaker guru but has shifted more to lifestyle, as has his social media. “Premium Pete” has done influencer work for labels including WeWork, Nike’s Jordan Brand and Puma. Currently, Gibaldi is under contract with Dick’s Sporting Goods, as the retailer promotes a new area within its stores, offering athletic shoe exclusives.

“My audience and I have grown up together,” said Gibaldi, who recalls buying Air Jordan 1 shoes for $100 in 1985. The memory of his first kiss is a little fuzzy, but he distinctly recalls “I was wearing Jordan 5’s.”

Marketers have been debating the most effective mix of reach, frequency and quality of audience since advertising began. Naturally, influencer marketing is no different. There’s still disagreement on the efficacy of athletes or other celebrities with followers in the millions versus social media touchstones, like a popular fashion or beauty blogger, or a “micro-influencer” like Kim or Gibaldi.

One solution for sports properties is to package and sell their own network of micro-influencers, a practice employed by Spartan Race to support its 65 annual U.S. events. Anthony Yepez, Spartan’s director of social marketing, said that since early 2017, the obstacle race and endurance brand has been selling against its network of 275 micro-influencers, which range from amateur to elite athletes. They vary from 5,000 to 100,000 Instagram followers apiece. Brands buying across that network have included Yokohama Tire and the U.S. Army and Air Force.

“It’s been an incredibly effective way to build local awareness,” Yepez said.

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Mark Zablow founded Cogent Entertainment in 2011. He’s been handling influencer campaigns since 2006, which makes him a graybeard in this young field. He says he’s doing 1,000 campaigns every year.

“The lesson here isn’t new — celebrity has value,” Zablow said. “Now we have reached the point where there’s a way to leverage them all, from micro-influencers to LeBron James. If you can afford it, the best answer is to have both kinds.”

Zablow sees two trends as paramount: “The A-list [celebrity] budgets are being cut in favor of more mid-tier and lower-level influencers, and a move toward what might be called the influencers of the influencers.

“On the sports side, it’s going to explode there,” he said, “because we know intuitively how much impact coaches and trainers have on athletes, but most of them haven’t become social media stars — yet.”

The micro versus macro debate has not been resolved. As for cost, it ranges from free product or a gift card to six figures for a lengthy campaign, which likely requires category exclusivity. “Eat the Capital” influencer Kim says the standard rate per post is $10 for each 1,000 followers. However, micro-influencers in fashion, style and beauty are routinely paid more, according to Zablow and other experts.

“In the beginning, there was this rush to build groups of smaller influencers, like 20,000 followers or less,” said Meredith Kinsman, Octagon vice president of digital strategy, “but it’s hard to reach any scale with those and it can end up being more expensive and time consuming to track and monitor those. So, we’re concentrating on the higher end and reach.”

Tide’s Super Bowl ads featuring celebrity influencers like Danica Patrick and Betty White (below) helped the brand reach its targeted female audience during one of the most cluttered events of the year.

Influencer metrics have shifted from an early fixation on reach to engagement: How many people liked or commented on an Instagram post? How many viewed a video and for how long? And what was the share of voice?

“We’re all constantly trying to find that balance between reach and engagement with the passionate audience we want,” said Taylor’s Baier. “It was all about views, but now, all of the metrics are being put under a microscope; we’re all being pushed to demonstrate value.”

Spartan Race’s Yepez said the shift has been one from quantity to quality.

“We all know the [follower] numbers can be tweaked to some degree, so now it’s really become all about engagement, as it should be,’’ he said.

Radegen Sports Management founder Alex Radetsky says a 3 percent engagement rate for client David Ortiz (1.6 million Instagram followers) is as good as it gets. “Some of the posts you’d never guess end up being the best,” he said, citing an Instagram post of Ortiz with Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck at a recent NBA playoff game as one of the year’s most popular (more than 115,000 likes at press time).

Those crossover posts are often the most effective. For example, a bracket challenge from digital fan engagement agency FanHub Media in Brazil during this year’s NFL playoffs saw its highest levels of engagement after a tweet from Brazilian UFC star Jose Aldo. “It’s an effective way to combine the power of two big fan groups,” said Phillip de Winter, head of business development at FanHub.

The industry is getting better at integrated campaigns. On Super Bowl Sunday, when much of America turns into TV ad critics, Super Bowl advertiser Tide reached its core audience of female consumers with a supporting influencer campaign featuring Betty White, whose fame grew after her Snickers Super Bowl ad in 2010, and Danica Patrick, who has appeared in a record 13 Super Bowl ads. Taylor, one of five agencies involved, claimed a 33 share of voice during the most commercially cluttered event of the year.

Zablow said the most important number is how much weight is put behind the message. “You need meaningful influencers producing meaningful content over a meaningful period of time,” he said, “or all the analytics in the world won’t matter. Overall, you are buying a billboard; once you have that, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure what they are creating is cool and authentic content.”

Echoed Burns Entertainment’s Ippolito: “At the end of the day, influencer marketing is just a subset of celebrity. The difference is that you are tapping into their voice, their platform and their channels.”

In some cases, that can make things difficult. Accessing an influencer’s social media channels usually requires surrendering more creative control than what’s customary with traditional endorsement deals.

“Some brands just don’t realize that their tagline is not going to come off as authentic on an influencer’s social media,” Kinsman said. “It has to be in that influencer’s voice, so what you give them should be more open-ended than a typical brand-strategy brief.”

Added Ippolito: “You can’t just hire an influencer and hand them a script. If you aren’t prepared to cede creative control, then why are you using their social channels?”

• • • •

All of that is tangential to the biggest issue in influencer marketing — what’s appropriate and what’s not. Sports marketers, long-inured to words like “authentic, organic, real, genuine and original,” will hear them even more frequently within the social influencer world, for all the most genuine reasons.

“Reach is important, but authenticity is critical,” said Pat LaCroix, global head of media and sponsorships at Bose, “because social media will snuff you out in a minute if it’s not.”

As an example, LaCroix offered the recent “Draft Diaries,” in which a handful of top 2018 NFL draftees did short-form videos chronicling their voyages from the draft in Texas to their new team’s headquarters and training facility. Bose product was seen in the short-form videos, but it wasn’t the focus.

“We can definitely see ROI [on social influencer campaigns],” LaCroix said. “Qualitatively, it’s the best thing out there for staying relevant. It’s a real effective front door to our brand — almost to the exclusion of other marketing.’’

Gibaldi said that as an influencer “all money is not good money. It should never be strictly pay for play, because people on social media will sniff out if something smells ‘fugazy’ right away.”

Michael Phelps’ work for Huggies Little Swimmers brand, which in 2017 featured his wife and first son, this year includes water safety videos posted on the family’s social media channels.

That fine line between what’s authentic and what’s commercial is the tightrope on which everyone in social influencer marketing teeters.

“Bad or transparent influence campaigns just anger people, so what’s the point?” Baier said. “The questions to ask are whether you’re really adding value or if your brand really is relatable on that [social influencer’s] channel.”

So, what’s authentic? Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ social channels hardly seem like a genuine or even effective place to sell diapers. But using the social media channels of his wife and kids for touting Huggies Little Swimmers diapers? That’s considered genuine.

Phelps and wife Nicole provided the “behind-the-scenes” access that’s de rigueur by posting family water safety videos, with his toddlers wearing the appropriate waterproof diapers.

“People are just jaded, as far as regular advertising, so you want to find a match that actually does influence,” said Kinsman of Octagon, which handled the Phelps/Huggies campaign. “The advantage is that influencers speak through their own channels.”

Circling back to “Eat the Capital,” and Kim, our paradigm micro-influencer, he’s parked his mechanical engineering degree for now and is developing an equivalent of the MoviePass app for “discount subscription dining.” However, all of those hours spent in restaurants have produced their own lasting influence.

“Don’t get me wrong — of course I love restaurant food,” said Kim, who’s partial to tacos and Japanese cuisine, “but I actually prefer eating it at home now.”