The business of influence: Risks and rewards of purchasing social media presence

Francesca Aiello never thought her Instagram account would land her a spot at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

But in 2014, 19-year-old Aiello made history as the youngest designer to show at the swimwear portion of the fashion extravaganza in New York.

Frankie’s Bikinis, Aiello’s swimwear line, was born entirely on social media. Three years ago, Instagram was beginning to reach the masses and Aiello was an early adopter. She started posting photos of herself wearing her own suits and her following grew steadily. Offers started pouring in from all around the globe.

“We were lucky we got in the market before it got over saturated with brands,” Aiello said. “I don’t think we could’ve done the same thing if we were starting now.”

Social media platforms are now flooded with users like Aiello profiting off a large following. People with thousands of followers are now known as influencers and brands and companies are cashing in on the number of eyes on their posts.

Businesses pay influencers, often through third-party marketers, to endorse a brand or product with an authenticity not previously associated with advertising.

Putting products in the hands of real people comes with risks, but as a tradeoff, business are reaching consumers through sites they visit on an hourly basis and accounts they follow with loyalty.

“It’s an overwhelming opportunity and an overwhelming puzzle to think of the many media platforms we’re contending with,” said Samantha Skey, chief revenue officer for SheKnows Media.

SheKnows connects content makers with content-seeking brands. The women-centric media company sponsors influencers across all social media platforms, matching the right influencer with the right campaign.

The job of the influencers is to incorporate the brand or product into their daily posts. Some products are best suited for visual sites like Instagram and Pinterest, while more information-heavy campaigns do better on blogs. Also, most influencers are more popular on certain platforms.

Skey said while bringing a personal touch to marketing can be invaluable for brands, it comes with the hazard of human error.

“You can’t control everything they say. You can’t shut it off,” she said. “It’s not reasonable to assume you can review every piece of content as a brand.”

Businesses have to allow influencers to put their own spin on brand image, Skey said. Influencers are vetted based on their engagement with followers and authentic interest in products, and they know how to best reach their audience.

InstaBrand is another company forging influential connections. CEO and co-founder Eric Dahan agreed it could be dangerous to hand power over to influencers. Influencers might not post on time or they might not post at all. Their posts might not even fulfill brand requirements.

However, influencers face risks of their own. Companies might not pay on time or followers might not consistently engage.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in this market,” Dahan said.

Despite the risks, companies have no choice but to invest in digital media, saidPatrali Chatterjee, professor of marketing at Montclair State University. There’s no longer a line between traditional and new advertising; it’s one and the same.

“When were talking about an advertising budget spread across multiple media...they have to invest in an integrated communication and marketing approach,” she said. “It’s just another part of their toolkit.”

Aiello’s bikini brand got off the ground without the use of paid media. She said she generated her 515,000-strong following organically through her own Instagram connections.

While it’s possible for businesses to follow Aiello’s strategy, Chatterjee said earned media comes with its own risks. Businesses could spend time and effort generating content without any guarantee anyone will share it.

Purchasing media first is a way of planting your brand’s seed on social media and eventually it should grow on its own, Chatterjee said.

“If you’ve selected the right seeds, they will share it,” she said. “Then the earned media is part of paid media.”

The key is to select a limited group of influencers who can portray the brand in a similar way, Chatterjee said. Businesses should follow an influencer for a certain amount of time to see if their engagement style is a good fit for the brand.

“Try to understand what this person stands for,” she said.

Skey said influencers at SheKnows are evaluated based on their following and business motivation, among other factors. Some are interested in earning cash per post while others put more value on the exposure they gain attaching the SheKnows name to their own.

SheKnows has a pool of 21,000 influencers. Their growing influencer community is a result of the demise of the traditional approach of pushing ads to people, Skey said.

“We as consumers have developed an ability to avoid or not allow that type of advertising past our mental concierge,” she said.

Advertisers and marketers are looking to the growing popularity of peer recommendation sites like Yelp to shape new strategies, she said.

“People tend to trust product recommendations from people they know,” Skey said.

This change in attitudes has affected advertising in a permanent way, Chatterjee said. Montclair State University is developing new undergrad marketing courses and certification programs focused on digital media. The courses are planned for next fall.

Earlier this year, InstaBrand raised $2.5 million in venture capital. The two-year-old startup’s growth indicates this type of advertising is here to stay, Dahan said.

“We live in a world with a trust deficit. We tend not to trust governments, we don’t trust corporations and we don’t trust advertisers,” he said. “But what we do trust is people.”

[By Melissa Wylie.] [Read More.] [Image from Local 10.]