Brand-influencer relationships used to be as simple as a YouTuber standing next to a man dressed as a giant tongue. At the very first Vidcon, in 2010, the tongue-scraper company Orabrush sent a bumpy pink mascot to the convention center to strike up quasi-impromptu interactions with early influencers like iJustine .
When you fast-forward to the megawatt influencers of today, who regularly ink six-figure deals with giant global brands to promote products to their millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube, a stuffed tongue seems quaint. For both brands and influencers, the stakes and risks of partnering are now incredibly high. These relationships often sour, and when brands yank that firehose of cash away it’s web-wide news: YouTube controversies like Pewdiepie’s Hitler cosplay, Logan Paul’s suicide forest misadventure, and beauty guru Laura Lee’s racist comments (and meme-worthy botched apology) reflect badly on the brands that used to line these creators pockets.
These scandalous fallouts have sped up a pivot that was already underway. Endorsements are no longer the sole domain of the broadly popular megawatt star. Instead, companies want to work with the smaller, more niche internet personalities they’re calling “micro influencers”—generally speaking, people with followings of about 50,000. Limiting the scope of a potential scandal is only one of the benefits of working with a micro influencer. Analysts argue that micro influencers’ intimate, engaged communities are more likely to trust and buy what the influencer recommends. Others point to brands’ bottom lines: Influencers still struggling to make it big will work harder, and for smaller paychecks.
Brands have begun to realize that betting big on a single star doesn’t always pay off, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, an AI-powered service that connects influencers and brands. If you’re an iconic brand—like Ford— the advertising logic goes, you should work with the biggest star you can find, who will enhance your brand recognition. But millions of followers doesn’t necessarily net you millions of car sales, because no one trusts car assessments from, say, YouTube sketch-comedy duo Smosh.
“We came in with data and metrics saying [companies] should choose multiple, relevant people to create conversation,” Detert says. “ And at the same time...brands started asking themselves ‘Why would I pick one big name that’s going to screw me over a few months down the line? It’s now jumped to the point where literally every kind of brand, from automotive to entertainment, have embraced the idea of working with more influencers of smaller size.”
Influencers have been taxonomized: Brands will request macro-influencers (people with a few hundred thousand followers), micro influencers (somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000 followers) or nano influencers (2,000 followers or fewer). Micro influencers are a kind of engagement sweet-spot, because engagement is really a wonkish sort of word for emotional attachment and trust. Megastars have superfans, but they also have legions of casual viewers who don’t really care what shoes they’re wearing or what soda they’re drinking. Micro influencers have a small enough reach to seem (sorry) “authentic.” “It’s like buying something from your local hardware store,” says James DeJulio, president and cofounder of Tongal, which connects brands and creators. It’s less like a generic celebrity endorsement and more like a recommendation from a trusted friend. When they say they love something, you believe them—and buy it.
Still, these pairings require precision: it won’t work if you ask a new mom with a following of 2,000 other new moms to promote Juul. So an entire industry designed uncomplicate connecting the right brands with not just one, but many relevant influencers has sprung up. Vidcon hosts speed-dating style creator-and-brand meetups. Tongal works like a reverse kickstarter: A brand makes a request and some of their 200,000 creators come back with pitches. Influential uses IBM Watson’s API to comb through creators’ data and play matchmaker. “Influencers think we’re mind readers. We’ll approach them and they’ll say, ‘How did you know I love Adidas?’” Detert says. “And we say, ‘Because you mentioned it!’”
But jumping from the formalized studio system to the wilds of social media is a shift that comes with growing pains. “The balance of power had changed,” Lennon says. “It’s not like booking a movie star, telling them what to say and paying them a set rate.” Advertisers are realizing that to work with influencers, they’ll have to accept surrendering control. “In my time at Paramount, we only worked with a very short list of people,” says DeJulio. “But we’re now in the era of mass democratization of tools. You don’t need a specific area code to participate in the creative economy, and brands needed to recognize that.”
All of which seems like a great underdog story—sending brand endorsements to people who actually use and enjoy the brand. But it’s also just another yank in power tug-of-war. “[Advertisers] are more comfortable with micro influencers because it’s less risk and higher ROI,” Lennon said. “Micro influencers are also willing to do more for less and deliver on more of the asks than larger names.” Lennon, says she often witnesses micro influencers putting #ad on unsponsored post, in an effort to make themselves seem marketable—so partnering with these smaller players can be a way for brands to cash in on desperation. “We pass on so many deals that we know won’t work that then get passed on to micro influencers,” she says. “Then, when the poorly thought-out plan doesn’t work, it’s blamed on the platform, or the micro influencer.”
Still, that failure may point to the way forward. Brands attempting to cash in on creator’s audience without considering that they’re also buying their personalities hasn’t worked. Manipulating smaller creators into doing exactly what they ask doesn’t seem sustainable either. Maybe the solution is for brands to fully partner with creators—big and small—who actually suit the company’s products, tone, and goals. Lennon thinks that shift is still a few years out; buying further into social media marketing means diverting money away from stodgier, more traditional advertising venues. And when influencer marketing budgets do eventually swell, brands will want to work with bigger names again. In the meantime, praise (and pity) the micro influencer.
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