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How has the rise of influencer marketing had an impact on communications?

In the white heat of the Labour leadership battle, the competing campaign teams found the time to make fierce persuasive efforts to win over a 17-year-old student from Merseyside. After weeks of courtship, Abby Tomlinson took to Twitter one morning to make a teasing, self-deprecating declaration: ‘Okay, for the few people who are interested, I have officially decided who I’m backing for leader. Stay tuned.’


Political editors were agog. Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson noted: ‘Genuinely lots of lobbying by leadership teams over this one.’ On Channel Four News that evening, Tomlinson revealed her decision – she intended to vote for Andy Burnham.


Even among Westminster’s political enthusiasts, Tomlinson has only modest name recognition. Yet she is a crucial social media influencer, because it was she that briefly turned the previous Labour leader, Ed Miliband, into an unlikely sex symbol. By waxing lyrical about his sultry looks, she created one of the most unexpected memes of the 2015 general election by sparking an online avalanche of ‘Milifandom’.


You don’t have to be famous to make waves online. You don’t have to be qualified – or even, necessarily, smart. But you do need a certain digital charisma that strikes a chord within a specific demographic – in Tomlinson’s case, predominantly female students and 20-somethings with a passing interest in politics.


Influencers are all the rage in public relations. A crop of upstart ‘influencer marketing’ agencies has sprouted on the landscape over the last few years, promising to take your campaign viral by linking your brand to a small number of key individuals whose online endorsement matters.


When Mondelez launched a new premium chocolate, Cadbury Glow, in India, it got a major boost when Miss Malini, a Mumbai blogger with half a million followers, shared a personalised video featuring the confectionery.


In the fashion world, names like Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies, Dani Song from Song of Style and Leandra Medine of the Man Repeller may be greeted with blank looks from many women on the Clapham Omnibus, but they’re red-hot influencers on Instagram with blogs astutely targeted by clothing brands.


YouTube stars, known as ‘vloggers’, such as Zoella, Jim Chapman and Phil Lester (known as AmazingPhil), are commanding such attention from marketers that the Advertising Standards Authority published specific guidelines in August on transparency to make sure that commercial incentives to promote products are disclosed.


One recent study found that 74 per cent of marketing professionals intend to devote resources to ‘influencer marketing’ over the next 12 months. But is it truly all it’s cracked up to be? Or has the phenomenon been overhyped and overblown, in just the way that so many short-lived online fads excite for a year or two, then fade into memory?


Advocates are evangelical. Social Chain, one of Britain’s largest influencer agencies, claims on its website that it can reach 209 million people – a figure that constantly ticks before your eyes. It has worked with Asos, Disney, Krispy Kreme donuts, Smirnoff, the BBC and Spotify.


Steve Bartlett, founder of Social Chain, offers fluent expertise on going viral, talking of a ‘five-minute window’ to target your ‘influencers in order to prompt a ‘thunderclap’ moment. Among the best times, asserts Bartlett, are Sunday evenings. ‘There are lots of people online and there’s not much on TV. The last thing you want is to do anything in the middle of the Champions League final or the X-Factor,’ he says.


Social Chain will help you identify the key social media movers for your demographic – whether that is 16-year-old girls or 30-something wealthy professionals. It will help you build creative materials, then deliver them to the main movers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. ‘If you can ascertain who your potential customers are, we can help you ascertain who their influencers are,’ says Bartlett.


It’s a simple, alluring proposition – but is it worth the money? And does it work? Not everybody is convinced. Do thousands of retweets of a picture, a video or a comment about a new Nike shoe truly lead to increased sales? Are the tweeters truly being ‘influenced’? Or were they avid fans of Nike who would have bought the footwear anyway and who are simply signalling agreement and enthusiasm?


Ray Poynter, a market research writer and consultant, ridiculed the notion of influencers in a blog for GreenBook, the PR website, citing an outbreak of flu as an example. ‘We could examine a town and work out who caught flu first, last year, and call them early adopters. We could look at who tended to catch it from whom, and we would identify some nodal points.’


Hey presto, you end up with a model of ‘flu influencers’, he quips, that would be absolutely useless in predicting where, and how, the flu will spread next time round. ‘If we try to use our flu model to predict the pattern of the next outbreak of glandular fever we would be even wider of the mark.’


The idea of influencers is nothing new. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point discussed similar ideas of connectors, mavens and salesmen with a rare social gift of persuasion. Much earlier, in 1967, the psychologist Stanley Milgram began researching chains of connection – work that led, indirectly, to the commonly used assertion that between any two individuals, there are six degrees of separation. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have made these chains all the more explicit.


Chris Graves, chairman of Ogilvy, reckons the industry is becoming far too obsessed with what he describes as ‘a social tsunami of hot money skateboarders’. He argues that we must distinguish between influence and popularity.


‘What’s the measure of influence?’ Graves asks. ‘It’s demonstrable evidence that you’ve changed the way people think or act from the way in which they would have done if they’d had no contact with you. It’s not just agreement, or amplification. And that makes it really difficult to prove.’

Too often, he suggests that popular themes on Twitter consist of chains of people who already had a similar world view holding hands in cyberspace to chant ‘we’re smart aren’t we? And those who disagree are idiots, aren’t they?’


Influence marketing, Graves maintains, is more akin to a media buy – simply gaining amplification and advertising – than public relations, which seeks to seduce or persuade.


A similar view is expressed by Duncan Watts, an influential Microsoft researcher, who told the Harvard Business Review, that ‘the influentials hypothesis is a theory that can be made to fit the facts once they are known, but it has little predictive power. It is at best a convenient fiction; at worst a misleading model. The real world is much more complicated.’


Perhaps they’re being too harsh. In common with every technique, talking to influencers needs to be done carefully, in a sophisticated fashion and as part of a broader, holistic campaign.


As an example, Tim Williams, chief executive of Onalytica, cites the crisis afflicting hospital accident and emergency departments in early January 2015 when online discussion of overcrowded casualty wards spiked well before national newspapers got wind of the story.


His firm has put together a list of influencers – including health media, bloggers, campaigners and the general public – who had a disproportionate impact in setting the news agenda. It is vital, he argues, for PR people operating in this space to engage with these influencers rather than relying on tried and trusted contacts with mainstream media.


‘They’re journalists, they’re bloggers, they’re third party thought leaders, they’re academics, researchers, influential consumers, politicians, mums,’ says Williams. ‘This is still a relatively fragmented and nascent marketplace.’


Different platforms, he points out, are crucial in different fields. For fashion, image-based Instagram is vital, while Twitter feeds off politics. Facebook was the prominent channel for analysis when Microsoft launched Windows 10. A much more subtle approach can be required when seeking to target online influencers.


Simply emailing them a press release is unlikely to cut it. ‘If you’ve not had any contact before, we’d recommend following them, favouriting some of their content and then engaging with influencers in a very contextual way,’ says Williams. ‘When they’re talking about a relevant topic to your industry, start engaging them and pushing them towards some of your similar content.’


Tools such as Klout, Kred and PeerIndex can help identify influencers. Crucially, experts say, you’re not ‘selling’ an idea in a traditional sense – you’re recruiting advocates to sell it on your behalf.


Flemming Madsen, founder of Influmetrics, which provides leads and tools for content marketing, including identifying influencers, says it is worth bearing in mind that we usually don’t know who our own influencers are. While we know who we directly follow, we often have no clue of the identity of the originator of a particular idea, message or media passed down to us through a social media chain.


‘You don’t have to be well known to be influential,’ he says, pointing out that there’s a temptation to waste time fruitlessly trying to attract the attention of Kim Kardashian, One Direction or Paul Krugman. ‘The more well known somebody is, the more time and money you’ll have to spend engaging with them.’


Furthermore, key individuals usually have a very narrow field of influence. Jamie Oliver, for example, is influential on food, nutrition and education but not on much else.


‘You have to ask yourself, if Jamie Oliver wears our sneakers, is that important? Probably not. Jamie Oliver isn’t influential for his fashion sense. He’s influential for his cooking and for his campaigns on childhood obesity,’ says Madsen.


For a relatively new field, the science of communicating with influencers is catching on quickly. A quick search on LinkedIn will bring up tens of thousands of people who cite ‘influencer relations’ among their skills, not to mention dozens of job advertisements demanding it as a prerequisite expertise.


Some even go so far as to argue that the job title ‘media relations’ could eventually become defunct to be replaced by ‘influencer relations’, encompassing journalists as just one of many target categories for corporate and consumer communications.


It isn’t, of course, a panacea. Despite their best efforts to court the likes of Abby Tomlinson, the candidates for Labour leader seemed powerless to prevent an avalanche of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn which seemed to spread in unpredictable, haphazard fashion, rather than through nodes of well established influencers.


For years, influence was practised through proximity – through family connections, neighbourhood connections, friendship groups or ‘water cooler’ conversations in the office.


Those were the analogue days. In the new world, influence zooms around the world through computer servers at lightning speed, using every more mysterious and complex paths. We’re still only at the dawn of an era in figuring out just how this works.

THE NEED TO ENGAGE


Procter & Gamble’s communications chief knows the importance of online influencers only too well. He has the battle scars to prove it.

The American company’s Pampers nappies found itself at the centre of a social media storm in 2010 when a group of mothers, initially few in number, claimed that their babies were suffering nappy rash from a new range of Pampers nappies called ‘Dry Max’.


It took a concerted PR strategy to convince sceptics that these fears were unfounded. Groups of ‘mommy bloggers’ were invited to P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters to meet both scientists and senior executives, where they were able to ask questions to their hearts’ content. Mums are an opinionated community, as any follower of Mumsnet will attest.


But Paul Fox, P&G’s director of corporate communications, says they’re not unique. ‘I don’t think that Mommy Bloggers are unique in terms of vocal communities online,’ says Fox. ‘There are many such groups that are passionate about a topic, issue or event that come together to exchange points of view.’


He adds: ‘Social media channels have enabled such groups to form and engage each other quickly and easily on a scale that was simply not possible in the past.’


P&G is considered something of a pioneer in influencer communications. Back in 2002, it launched Tremor, a word-of-mouth marketing arm aimed, in part, at hard-to-reach teenagers. Fox says that the idea of influencers has always been central to public relations – but that it’s become more complicated to identify just who they are.


‘In the past, influencers were somewhat easier to define – industry experts, legislators, advisors for example,’ he says. ‘Today, that picture is much more complex as social media has created networks of connected individuals that are deeply influential within their communities and followers.’


Analytical tools that identify individuals with the greatest influence on digital platforms are beginning, he says, to reach a maturity that allows them to be considered a robust, trusted source.


As for interacting with those influencers – well, that has to be done carefully and with due respect for the norms of the community you’re entering.

‘Turning up at a social event and talking loudly without any form of introduction will either portray you as the life and soul of the party or an insensitive, unwanted, boorish brute,’ says Fox. ‘The latter is probably more likely and that is very much the same in online communities.’