The question of how far to let influencers in on your creative process has long been hotly debated - even more so over the past year, where digital or social have been the only channels through which brands can communicate with locked-down audiences.
Has this past year changed how marketers feel about letting influencers unleash their creativity on brands? What might future influencer strategies look like post-lockdown?
These were among the questions debated by an expert panel during The Drum’s Creative Transformation Festival, ‘Are influencers the new source of creativity?’, in partnership with Tribe. The panelists viewed the influencer’s role in the creative process through the prism of more than a year in lockdown.
The clear consensus was to involve influencers as early as possible in the briefing process. Katie Hunter, social and influencer lead at Karmarama, stressed that this will ensure buy-in with the concept from all parties and a mutual understanding of creative boundaries and the review process. Plus, it also allows influencers to have the time and freedom to create content out of brand affinity rather than merely sticking to the guidelines.
That said, Qaiser Bachani, global digital marketing and Europe consumer experience lead at Mondelēz International, pointed out that some creative meetings were already very over-crowded with various stakeholders.
A social success story
North Face is a pandemic social success story. The brand’s PR manager for EMEA, Jack Ibbotsen, explained why: “We call (our influencers) explorers. That can be anyone from a musician through to an artist, a climber or a skier. We look to them not only to come up with ideas, but then to follow that through to the finished output.”
“Before I joined North Face, I had this expectation that a super strong production arm influenced the team that sent ideas and briefs to these people to create stuff,” he said. “Actually, it's the reverse. We say, look, we have this concept, who can we go to and make that work?”
Lisa Targett, global head of sales at Tribe highlighted a worry that some of its clients still have about social – and that’s scale. “It's getting more and more difficult to target, because we've got improvements to privacy,” she said. “Marketers have fewer tools to track and understand the buyer and the customer journey, because the cost of acquiring customers online is increasing, and there's huge competition. So, although influencer marketing done in pockets is great, marketers are being challenged now with how to scale.”
Bachani referred to the daily challenge of these issues: “We are still exploring what kind of metrics to put and how I should evaluate them. Should I go for scale, or should I go for niche? Should it be for every brand, or only for the brands which target generation Z?”
All agreed that they would not be hiring influencers as full-time staff, as it would be too “limiting”. As Ibbotsen commented: “Who was right for the brand 12 months ago is not going to be right for the brand in another 12 months”.
A two-way conversation
While Targett asserted that brands and influencers’ interests are now both being “looked after”, as creators become ever more professional, Hunter pointed to a switch away from micro to macro influencers in large part because “there's definitely a shift towards longer-term relationships and advocacy”. This has led to an increased use of strategic ambassador programs. North Face goes further still and invites creators to come to the brand with ideas; something Ibbotsen calls “crowd-sourcing creativity”.
“The bit that I find really exciting is starting to move this talent into bigger above-the-line spaces, not just thinking about Instagram posts,” added Hunter. “How can we work more holistically with very talented and creative people in more end-to-end, integrated campaigns? I think the recent Levi's campaign “buy better, wear longer” is a really good example of how it can work just as well in TV or VOD as it can for an Instagram post.”
The future for brands and influencer strategy is about a two-way conversation, said Hunter. “Are you a facilitator in helping influencers to do something that they have aspired to, and been really keen to do?” she asked. “It's not just about bringing someone in to be a mouthpiece or a platform for your brand, there's a mutually beneficial piece of work.”
Targett predicted a real change in influencers’ future relationship with marketers: “It's scary how pivotal creators are going to be in a very different role. The next piece is (influencers) becoming our sales department. I know that's always worked through affiliate links and programs. But Instagram is completely shoppable and the commerce piece will be centered around creators.”
Bachani called for some caution noting that brands have to decide whether they want scale or relevancy but did make clear that “there’s no right answer”.
“We're losing a lot of time in our workflows for the end-to-end campaign experience, which is blowing up and down,” added Targett. “This, in particular, isn't enabling revenue (or) relevancy, because a lot of the time, what's going on in social is what customers are saying about your brand in real time. Brands that don't have the most effective workflow (to deal with this) are being left behind and can't really compete and stay relevant.”
Ibbotsen concluded with an encouragement to marketers to be bold: “If you're going to do this, it's going to take time, resource and effort. If you're not prepared to go all in to make the best of it, you should consider using the budget elsewhere.”