The Marriage of Colleges and Social Media Influencers Is Bad News

Last week a lot of people’s cages were rattled when it was revealed dozens of the nation’s wealthiest individuals had paid outrageous sums to consultants and others who would help their kids get into the most elite colleges and universities around. The situation starkly revealed the disconnect between the ideal – that an education is open to anyone based on merit – and the reality, that those with privilege have unique advantages not available to the common citizenry.

It shouldn’t have been that surprising. Earlier this year there was a report that part of the education gap between white and black students is due to the lack of black teachers in lower grades. The top 20 colleges in the country receive over one-quarter of private donations despite educating less than two percent of students. The system is skewed in favor of the wealthy and has been for a good long while.

One aspect of the story that got some new attention is how colleges are on some level working with social media influencers such as one of the young women caught up in the scandal as part of their marketing and recruitment. The schools may not actually enlist the paid services of these influencers, but having one around who’s using the campus and facilities as background for their #sponcon certainly isn’t a bad thing. Other brands are already targeting influencers at college as a way to bring their message to the similarly-aged audience they have.

While there’s some disagreement that colleges are actually considering whether an applicant is an online influencer with a massive following, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. A study last year showed one third of college admissions officers actually reviewed the social media posts of those applying to the school while two thirds feel doing so would be justified.
The reasons cited include monitoring to make sure kids weren’t using racist language online or engaging in behavior that could be unethical or otherwise unacceptable, something that would reflect poorly on the school if anyone made the connection.

If colleges are on some level showing preferential treatment to those who have built up influential online profiles and personas, it signals a troubling future not just when considering equal access to education but equal consideration for future employment as well.

70 percent of hiring managers already report researching the social media profile and posts of those who have applied for work at a company and almost half say they monitor what current employees are doing online. The emphasis is usually on how those posts and profiles might be used by current or potential employers to discipline or even fire someone, but there’s the converse in that they are looking for credentials and endorsements along with industry-specific content.

Notably, 18 percent of respondents said they were specifically looking for whether or not the individual had a large social media following.

It’s not that far-fetched to think that someone’s social media influence and the size of their follower network will come to be a bigger factor when it comes to who does and doesn’t get hired. After all, more and more companies are engaging in influencer marketing campaigns to the extent some agencies are bringing those influencers in-house to gain unfettered access to their creativity. Macy’s and other retailers are even looking within their own ranks for those with sizable social networks to become brand ambassadors as a way to avoid becoming entangled with outside influencers who may be problematic in some way.

In fact it’s a road we’ve been down, at least partly, before. Back in the early years of the decade there was a substantial conversation around how someone’s Klout score – an imperfect (at best) measure of someone’s expertise or influence on a topic – might be used in the hiring process. There were reports that people were being rejected for jobs because their Klout score was too low while others were more seriously considered because of a high score, one that likely didn’t meaningfully reflect reality. Professors were even preparing students to keep their scores up to increase their odds of finding work.

[In brief, my problems with Klout are centered around how it mistook engagement for expertise. Someone who was Retweeted a lot or who got a lot of Facebook comments was seen as more of an expert on a topic than someone who didn’t. You could have two decades of experience and multiple degrees on a subject but if you got fewer replies on Twitter than someone who knows how to scratch itching ears you were out of luck.]

The problems with using social media influence as a measure of who does or doesn’t get hired is troubling enough that listing all the issues inherent in the idea would take days. Such status is akin to a form of professional accreditation or certification, the attainment of which can cost money and necessitate time many don’t have. Such status is indicative of class and privilege itself, with only those who can afford to achieve it then being seen as qualified as moving into higher-paying jobs. It’s another way systems supposedly based on merit are actually skewed in favor of those with resources.

Not everyone can be an official, recognized (and paid) influencer on social media. The bar for achieving that level shifts constantly as platforms come in and out of style. Someone who’s devoted significant attention to LinkedIn may find themselves shut out of work when it’s not what a company is looking for, or when attention shifts to some other network. Such criteria are just as discriminatory as anything else that’s less about the quality of the work and more about the show someone is capable of putting on. And it discounts the efforts of someone who enters an agency at a lower level and finds they are there to support the profile of a “Big Name” instead of building up their own industry reputation.

What happens in what sector, such as education, will impact another. If colleges go deeper into actively choosing new students based on the size and influence of their social networks that will bleed into the job market, even if there’s no distinct intent to do so. It’s something schools should consider when making their choices.

No, Ethics Have Been Around For A While Now

Of all the various issues raised by the dueling documentaries – one on Hulu, one on Netflix – recounting the events of Fyre Festival, one of the most pervasive has been the actions of Jerry Media, a creative agency hired by the founders of Fyre to promote the event online. The agency, which produced the film available on Netflix, has come under significant criticism since it debuted, primarily because it has a history of stealing other people’s photos and comments and republishing them under their own @fuckjerry Instagram account.

The comments have become so widespread that Elliot Tebele, Jerry Media founder, has felt it necessary to respond with a post on Medium that seems intended to defend (or at least deflect) some of the charges leveled against himself and those who work for him.

Here’s the key graf from his post:

I know I’ve made enemies over the years for using content and not giving proper credit and attribution to its creators. In the early days of FuckJerry, there were not well-established norms for reposting and crediting other users’ content, especially in meme culture. Instagram was still a new medium at the time, and I simply didn’t give any thought to the idea that reposting content could be damaging in any way.

Alright, let’s take that apart a bit.

The “early days” of FuckJerry are 2011, which Tebele positions as the Wild West of the internet, free from rules and structure, where anything went and people were ruled only by their hedonistic impulses.

Right from the outset he has shown himself to be either A) a liar, or B) ignorant. For the sake of argument let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and go with “ignorant.”

The Federal Communications Commission enacted guidelines for disclosure of paid social media and online postings in 2009. What Tebele is talking about isn’t exactly that, but it’s important to note that the Federal government deciding to weigh in on what should or shouldn’t happen online is at least 10 years in the past, occurring prior to the free for all described by Tebele.

Conversations around what did or didn’t constitute “fair use” of consumer-generated media predates even that. Those conversations were happening as far back as 2004 (if not earlier), as soon as the first brands began using photos people were posting online in their ads and other marketing. It quickly became evident that the same sort of permissions collected from professional photographers were necessary when dealing with the owner of flickr.com/FloridaPhotoGuy.

So Tebele’s statement there was a lack of “well-established norms for reposting and crediting other users’ content” betrays a startling lack of awareness of basic principles that had been around for at least a half-dozen years. If he was unaware of them it’s because he had a vested interest in not knowing what they were. It’s true he may not have been around while those foundational discussions were being hashed out in blog posts and comments, but if he wanted to build a business around online marketing he had a responsibility to educate himself, something he obviously didn’t do. That makes him at best negligent.

If he’s running a stupid little Instagram account with a “shocking” handle that’s one thing. It’s another if he’s using that philosophy as the foundation for a creative agency that purports to do actual client work, because ultimately those clients are going to be responsible for the actions taken on their behalf.

In many ways the Jerry Media situation offers a perfect example of the modern state of online marketing, one where getting people’s attention is the end that justifies any and all means. So it’s fine that, as of 2017, only 11 percent of marketers were aware of FTC guidelines around sponsored content disclosure. Why should they, when it will only get in the way of posting the kind of material that resulted from that epic microbrew-fueled brainstorming sesh.

It’s a generation that has come up *after* the ones that had the kind of original conversations mentioned earlier. Unfortunately as they gained influence they discarded much of what had come before, perhaps because they didn’t make their bones in the age of links and attribution, instead being raised on social media sharing where nothing came from an individual, it was all just there on the platform. And brands were all too happy to sign up with these buzz-driven agencies founded by one or two dudes who were “good at Instagram” and who would help them seem cool with the kids.

While they were doing that – often on the cheap – those who took a more ethical and sustainable approach to the business kept doing their thing. Flashy agencies came and went but more ethical shops stuck around, often picking up the pieces left behind when some other agency exploded the brand’s reputation or caused other problems that now need to be fixed.

Outside of all that, Tebele’s comment that he didn’t give thought to the idea reposting content without attribution could cause problems simply doesn’t hold water from a rhetorical point of view. He obviously did, otherwise he wouldn’t have removed the name of the person who originally posted it. It’s like filing off the serial number on a gun and then claiming you had no idea doing so would make it harder for police to trace.

In the documentary, Tebele rationalizes his involvement with Fyre Festival by saying something like “Well you can’t expect vendors to vet the people and companies they do business with.” But that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Is this a legitimate company or venture? Do the people I’m working with have a history of ethical behavior? Can I trust them?

The Jerry Media team didn’t worry about that – and apparently have never worried about it – because it simply doesn’t matter to them. If it seems fun and like an opportunity to party, they’re in. Rules can be ignored, if they’re aware they exist at all.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 1/16/18

Media

Crackle will rebrand itself as “Sony Crackle” because, according to the story, the company wants to leverage the power of the Sony name. That’s code for “the person who kept insisting it didn’t need to be corporately branded is no longer with the company and so someone finally got their way.”

CBS and Viacom are the Liz and Dick of media companies, reportedly considering merging after splitting up a decade ago when the previous merger didn’t really turn out well for anyone. The industry landscape has changed, though, and it’s now necessary to scale up to fight Disney/Fox as well as the creeping hands of Facebook and Google.

I’m all for this concept of citizen journalists and have been for the 17 years or more the idea has been around. The problem isn’t the model, the problem is that it’s hard to monetize and attempts at scale inevitably screw things up.

People around the world want their media to be unbiased, but once you get beyond that you see no one really agrees on whether their preferred media choices *are* unbiased or not or even what that means.

Wait, Disney’s OTT service will launch with a remake of “High School Musical?” How old *am* I?

Content Marketing

Forget influencer marketing, “Tweetdecking” is apparently the hot new content marketing trend, with advertisers reaching out to groups of coordinated Twitter users who promise to make anything go viral instantly. As shady and terrible as that is, it’s worth noting you never hear about that kind of initiative on Facebook, just on Twitter. That’s because Twitter is for trends and “now” content while Facebook is about “what’s good for Facebook this week,” usually involving showing old posts that aren’t trending anymore.

Probably a good idea if you include some political advocacy and issues-based opinions in your content marketing mix since that’s what young consumers reportedly want to see more of.

“Sonic branding” is about to become a thing thanks to the rise of home assistants and other voice-based technology, with companies seeking distinct audio cues that translate to those devices. I’m honestly not sure how this wasn’t already a thing because of radio and podcasts, but here we are.

Interesting story here about how 20th Century Fox used Twitter to research fan conversation and sentiment around some of the studio’s biggest films, largely because if you’re Fox you get to go to Twitter directly for such research and don’t have to use a third-party service or vendor.

Social Media

Yes, Facebook’s new cruelty means all those “pivot to video” companies are now screwed without writers, with expensive video production equipment they can’t pay for and with the reality that Facebook has zero interest in their continued survival.

The extent to which Snapchat entering “last guy left alive in Alien” paranoia is a cathartic, hilarious development is astounding. This has never been a real company, as I can attest to, and now they’re hoping putting a bunch of “Loose lips sink ships” posters around the office will keep the scam going for a while longer until it can sell its assets to Google. But don’t worry, I’m sure an emphasis on scripted programming, not the core messaging feature that’s the only thing people are apparently using, will help turn everything around.

OMG, Instagram ads are *totally” the new late-night infomercial, a venue for products you don’t need but which you’ll at least momentarily consider buying on more than one occasion.

Technology

Alphabet has been making a hard sell to advertisers to try and assure them that really, it’s safe to place their ads on YouTube in the wake of the latest in a series of high-profile embarrassing incidents involving a high-profile creator that was part of the site’s partner program.

Google’s share of the search market has dropped for the first time in a while, falling victim to the fact more people are discovering and searching within specific apps – Amazon in particular is called out – and not on the general web. We’ve seen this before and in the past it’s been a short-term trend as people go back to more generic search behavior. Let’s see if that precedent holds once more.

Want even more recommendations? Check out my Pocket Shared Items.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 1/6/18

The Big Story

The death of brick-and-mortar retail is coming about because fashion and culture are curated and discoverable on social media now, not exclusively by hitting the mall. And while the retail industry may be fine as a whole, stories are closing twice as fast as they open. That’s going to hit people who work there hard and is why union leaders are making a push for these workers to organize for protection.

That same movement is why writers and producers at “new” digital media companies have been unionizing for the last couple years, though those efforts have been met by owners with complete site shutdowns or total staff layoffs.

A shift from physical retail to social and online commerce is one many tech companies want to hasten along with the move to a system that makes cash difficult, if not impossible to use. As usual, that’s going to leave the most disadvantaged and vulnerable behind since they don’t have access to plastic and credit that can be used via apps or other cards. Those “disruptions” also often push out immigrants and others who have relied on cash businesses to achieve whatever level of success has been available to them.

The problem is compounded by the reality that if you’re not already well off, male and white also have trouble getting access to the meager capital available that could help them with their own innovations not only because of their gender, race or status but because their ideas are geared toward people like themselves. And if you’re an up-and-comer who does manage to get funded, the toppling of net neutrality rules means you don’t get to play on the same field as the big guys, meaning your chance of success is limited.

Media

Considering some of the draconian measures it’s taken recently it’s no wonder many journalists are worried about the media pressure a combined Disney/Fox company could exert.

The media is terrible at portraying race and poverty. Terrible.

Content Marketing

MoonPie’s Twitter account is the latest obsession of the marketing world, so it’s natural that Fast Company profiles the small agency that is behind that success.

Trying to go after Giphy, which has ruled the market for a while, Tenor is allowing media companies to sell sponsored GIFs, with the company taking a cut of that revenue.

The light, easy-to-use TinyLetter service that gave rise to so many small, personal, independent email newsletters is being shut down by owner MailChimp, which wants everyone to move to the core product. No word on when that sunsetting is going to happen.

I’d be shocked that 10% of publishers admit to not labeling their native advertising, with most saying they don’t do it because of “budget demands.” Which means advertisers are saying they’ll pay more for unlabeled stories.

Oh hey, the latest example of why influencer marketing and the rise of the amateur social media superstar is bad for marketing, brands, social outlets and just about everyone else. But at the same time, let’s profile a Hollywood apartment complex that’s full of up-and-coming such dimwits as being kooky and creative.

Social Media

The problem with the Library of Congress saying they’ll take a more selective, newsworthiness-based approach to archiving Tweets is that you can’t always tell what’s going to be newsworthy until after the news has happened.

With a couple recent disappointing quarters that showed flat (at best) user growth, Snapchat seems to be hoping distributing its content to other platforms helps bring more attention and interest. And it’s considering forcing users to watch at least three seconds of an ad before skipping it, which is surely a demand advertisers have made. This at the same time CNN has ended its platform-exclusive news show while Snapchat makes an effort to sign more content deals.

Instagram is officially going to be inserting “recommended” posts into your feed from accounts you don’t follow, which means things are about to get messy and not at all what people signed up for.

Technology

The approaches being taken with mobile marketing efforts are still pretty rough, largely because fear of unreliable data makes marketers wary of more finely-targeting an audience.

Digital voice assistants of some kind are now used by 46% of Americans according to new data from Pew Research. Mostly that’s done via smartphones but there’s also a good number that use them to connect with or control other devices.

Demand for wearable devices is still pretty low, despite all the hype and despite the growing number of such devices. Maybe this is just a bad idea that’s going nowhere?

Some interesting thinking going on here as we consider whether the promise of the internet heralded back in the mid-90s and early-00s even has the potential to be realized any longer or if we’re stuck with something vastly different from what many predicted.

States taking up the challenge to create their own net neutrality-esque laws is a great protest move but it’s hard to believe the FCC won’t come in and shut these down. Still, the court challenges that will ensue could be essential, as well as fun to watch.

Want even more recommendations? Check out my Pocket Shared Items.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 11/22/17

This is a fantastic overview of what happened to the DNAinfo and Ist site as they faced down the last days before being shut down by billionaire owner Joe Ricketts and just what the communities they operated in have lost in terms of watchdogs and local voices.

That may seem worrisome when you ponder the future of a fair and independent media, but don’t worry.

It’s not as if the FCC wants to eliminate the guidelines that keep the internet a level playing field for companies both big and small to survive and thrive based not on how much they can afford to pay internet providers but on the quality of their products while ignoring comments from the public. Or that it wants to relax other rules that will allow a single company to own multiple outlets in every market, creating a homogenous media ecosystem that is accountable not to the truth but to profits.

Or that bunch of secret companies are tracking your web usage to a degree it can tell who you are, how much you make, what illnesses you might have and more, all without you opting into any such profile building.

Or that the current administration seems to be opposing the merger of two media/tech companies based largely on how one part of one of those companies has been critical of the president.

Or that the tech companies that dominate our lives still can’t get over the mindset that their algorithms can be perfected without ever once delving even once into philosophy or remotely human perspectives but seem to be content manipulating our emotions and behaviors without thought to the consequences and continuing to allow illegally targeted ads.

Or that the problems seen last week in the media world are nothing compared to the crash expertly outlined by Josh Marshall, one that will result in a number of other failures and even more layoffs that result in a glut of talent that drives wages down even if new video distribution and monetization models do emerge.

Or that a legitimately insane tax plan going through Congress could have massive ripple effects throughout the entire economy that could exacerbate already staggering income and opportunity inequality.

So, you know, we’re totally fine.

In Other News…

The FTC has updated its disclosure guidelines around influencer marketing on social media to address various issues and close various loopholes that were being exploited (sometimes with the explicit endorsement of shady agencies) to keep the audience in the dark on the presence of a paid relationship.

Yeah, it’s kind of weird that things like coffee machines and pizza are serious rallying points for political speech but that’s where we are in 2017 it seems.

I was wondering why I was getting a whole bunch of new followers on Ello (I never deleted my profile for some reason) and it seems it’s finding new life as a portfolio community for creative types.

Apparently The Washington Post is a software company now, licensing the custom CMS it created to others. Interesting, but this isn’t exactly groundbreaking as I’m fairly sure this kind of thing has been happening elsewhere in the media world since about 2005.

Following up on the post I wrote last week about how various social networks try to cater to creators as much as possible to keep their loyalty, Facebook has introduced a whole new set of tools to help people make engaging videos.

Facebook will now let you view web-based VR experiences from directly within the News Feed.

Not only has Instagram enabled people joining live broadcasts but you can now request to join the stream of the friend you’re watching.

Want even more recommendations? Check out my Pocket Shared Items.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Marketing Always Follows Consumer Trends

I was intrigued by the headline to this piece on Vice the other day that examined a few examples where music videos from popular artists seemed to closely resemble the kinds of photos posted by popular Instagram travel influencers. Not that those people are being copied overtly, but there are similarities in the approaches and the kinds of images shown.

It’s not surprising that artists and singers would look to the world of social media celebrities for inspiration. That’s a good indicator of what’s resonating with the audience. Those influencers are tastemakers and music videos have always reflected the larger media world around them, whether that meant including leggy models shot in high gloss black and white, experimental indie film, or narrative portraits of complicated characters. Videos are advertisements for the artists and their products and so, just as ad agencies are hiring influencers to help them navigate trends, so too their habits are being analyzed and copied to sell music.

What was more notable to me was the fact that, like the Chicago River in 1900, the flow has been reversed. It’s not artists and other more traditional celebrities providing the influence, it’s the everyday person with an Instagram or other social media account that’s influencing the culture.

I’m much less interested in what visuals or themes may have been lifted than the fact that it’s no longer the traditional media that’s doing the influencing. That’s a profound shift in the dynamic that’s been in place since, roughly, ever.

It’s true that many fashion and other lifestyle trends, along with definitions of what’s hip or not, have often percolated up from the general public before they’re fully captured by the media. So the idea that consumers are driving these areas isn’t wholly original. But that handoff has usually meant the move from a niche to mainstream awareness.

Whatever direction the trends are flowing, one thing remains constant: It’s brands and companies that have a vested interest in defining “cool” that still have much of the power and play a large role in determining what is or isn’t seen. In the old days, they would work magazine and other editors to include their products on “Must Buy” lists, have their fashions worn on movie premiere red carpets and otherwise have them seen by those with the power to change habits. The goals are still the same, it’s just the tactics now include working with social media influencers.

So music videos and other popular entertainment retain their position as the outlet for secondary explosions from the initial efforts. You send review product to an influential person, that product becomes part of a trend because of those efforts and then that’s reflected in the entertainment world.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

(Featured image via Vice)

How Social Networks Cater to Influencers and Creators

When Vine was shuttered last year, a large portion of the blame was assigned to the company’s inability or unwillingness to listen to the community of creators and foster their loyalty. Stories surfaced soon after it was shut down that a number of the top creators on the app reached out to Twitter to talk about what it could do to keep them active on the platform, including opening up a payment system to help them produce content that would continue attracting an audience of loyal fans.

It might seem odd that a bunch “nobodies” would essentially hold out their hands and ask for money in addition to preferential treatment from a large company in order to remain loyal. You might think they need the platform more than the platform needs any individual user, or even a handful of popular people.

That’s not the situation social networks find themselves in in 2017, though. The dynamic is instead one that favors the individual influencer and puts the power in their hands, meaning the companies that control these social distribution platforms are dependent on a small number of “influencers” to maintain whatever status they have as being hip and popular or help them reach that level.

It’s this situation that is at least in part behind the news that Snap, which just reported some troubling numbers about growth in the Snapchat user base, is not only considering a substantial redesign of the app to ease onboarding but also paying top creators to keep using it. Snapchat does not want to follow Vine into the great beyond and is willing to write checks to keep people happy.

Influencer Marketing in 2017

According to a study released in December of 2016 by content agency Linqia, 86% of marketers were already engaged in some sort of influencer marketing effort and 48% reported plans to expand those budgets in 2017, the latest in a series of spending increases.

So why is influencer marketing so hot right now?

According to a MediaKix study last year, people are spending almost two hours a day on social media. And social media is increasingly being split into two feeds: 1) The organic feed of updates from friends and family and 2) The paid ads from media companies and other brands that interrupt the stream of updates from the first category.

The reasons for brand updates being given less preferential treatment in the various algorithm-based feeds are many, but the result is that the content marketing programs companies spent years building up aren’t seeing the return on investment they did, say, five years ago. That combined with the rise of ad blockers online and on mobile and it’s clear that people don’t want to be marketed to and the distribution platforms currently dominating the media world wants you to pay to reach people.

That’s coincided to a large extent with the rise of the social media influencer, an individual who attracts a large following on a social platform through unique, original and (usually) wholly creative content. It can be beauty tips, it can be video game reviews, it can be technology updates. It can be on literally any topic.

So, in order to have their marketing messages seen by a highly influential audience, brand marketers turn to those influencers. There are no end of niche agencies that manage databases of influences of all kinds and are more than happy to do the research for a brand and then make the connection, for a substantial fee. The ROI may still be questionable, but the reach is impressive. Ad agencies are even adding influencers to their teams to try and tap into their insights about the audience and what attracts them.

Buying Platform Loyalty

One of the big issues with influencer marketing is that the ground always seems to be shifting. Because these influencers make a living on their image of being hip and cool, they want to be on the platforms that are seen as hip and cool. What those platforms are, though, changes over time. Platforms jockey for position, often by working to attract talent away from other platforms, including by paying them to make that switch.

Here’s how some of today’s top social platforms are offering money and features to influencers to keep them happy and creative and away from other apps and networks.

youtube app iconYouTube doesn’t pay creators directly but it has revamped its Creators Site after it acquired FameBit, a creator/brand connection company. It also added functionality to the Studio app to make creation and publishing videos easier. That being said, it hasn’t been transparent about changes to content and advertising policies, leaving many creators concerned over sudden drops in revenue.

Instagram_Logo1Instagram does not pay top users to keep using it, but it may not need to. It was identified last year as one of the top two platforms for influencers and one of the two, including YouTube, influencers said they were most likely to leave Snapchat to focus on, an exodus powered by the ease of making money on Instagram. Influencers posting branded content have tools available that allow them to easily disclose those paid relationships.

facebook logo 2Facebook is the only platform more popular than Instagram among influencers, Facebook has worked hard to keep influencers happy as well as the brands that pay them, and pay Facebook. This past March it expanded the availability of branded content to more Pages and Profiles. So influencers who post paid content can tag that company as a form of disclosure. It also added a feature that allows brands to pay to boost an influencer’s post directly, without the brand page having to share it in its own post first.

twitter app iconTwitter has a multi-faceted relationship with influencers and creators. While it certainly dropped the ball when it came to Vine, it has made other moves that show it gets how important a good relationship with that community is. It has touted the effectiveness of influencer marketing on the network and owns Niche, an agency that facilitates connections between brands and those influencers, so it has a vested interest in this category growing. Late last year it opened up revenue sharing for video creators and has been experimenting with ways for fans to pay top Periscope creators through engagement.

musically app iconMusical.ly, just sold to a Chinese tech company last week for a reported $800 million, quite the price tag for an app that didn’t exist three years ago. Like Periscope, fans can “gift” creators actual payments. Brands have been working with top creators on that platform for a while now and is said to be exploring other monetization efforts that would benefit both the company and the influencers eager to reach its teen audience.

pinterest app iconPinterest was identified as one of the top apps for female influencers, who were finding more success there due to the demographics of that network. Recognizing that it had a group of talented “pinners” who could help brands create engaging content it brought those creators into the Pin Collective it launched in October of 2016. That system allows marketers to work directly with influencers, who are paid for their efforts.

medium app iconMedium has pivoted its business model more times than you can count in the last few years, most recently introducing the Partner Program – first to just a few and recently to everyone – that lets users put select posts behind a membership paywall. Unlike a previous incarnation, that membership is not publication specific but for the whole site, with publishers getting a cut based on the engagement of each post they restrict access to.

Brands Pay Multiple Times

The cost of actually working with an influencer goes beyond what that individual may charge to reach his or her audience. Roughly 70% of brands say they repurpose influencer content and 36% report doing so via paid ads. So the actual cost of influencer campaigns includes some combination of the following:

  • In-house cycles spent developing the creative brief
  • Paying a relationship agencies to find the “right” influencer for a campaign
  • Paying the influencer’s core branded content fee
  • Paying for repurposing that content in ads either on social networks or in other media

It obviously remains to be seen whether or not Snapchat can change its trajectory. Since it IPOd earlier this year the stakes are higher than ever for it to succeed, but it needs to not only get past the “I don’t get it” problem that has many delete the app shortly after trying it out and to increase its attractiveness among influential creators. Snapchat Discover allows select media brands to not only create unique content but to sell ads against that content, with the revenue split with Snap. It seems the company could be pondering something similar for influencers.

Money only buys loyalty for as long 1) The spigot keeps flowing and 2) Someone else doesn’t offer a better deal. That means there’s a very small window for Snap to get in on this game and leverage its position to achieve any sort of success.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

What Is User-Inspired Content?

Brands helping tell people’s story for them

A couple weeks ago I came across a phrase I’d previously been unfamiliar with: User-inspired content.

I was kind of shocked at the phrase. “User-generated content” has been in usage for over a decade in the online marketing world to describe the material that’s produced by everyday people online, those unaffiliated with brands or agencies. This material was held up by marketers as very important because it showed the talent of the people actually buying products, talent that grew over time as the tools of creation were improved. A whole cottage industry was born as agencies and others integrated UGC into official marketing campaigns and brands were advised to respond to blog posts, social media comments and more feedback.

Eventually everyone figured out (some far later than others) that you couldn’t just grab photos from Flickr and put it in your national print ad campaign without consent. At least not without being sued for doing so. The emergence early on of the Creative Commons license helped with this, allowing creators to clearly signal whether their work could be used for commercial purposes and what credits had to be included if it was. Even so, brands would occasionally have their hand slapped by a photographer, video creator or other individuals who showed they had essentially stolen their work for their marketing.

In other words, even if some marketer didn’t actually reappropriate an actual photo, video or other bits of content outright, they were still on the hook if they had clearly copied what someone had already done.

Enter Inspiration

User-inspired content, then, seems to be not on using content other people have produced but telling marketing stories that are centered around the actual users of a product or service. So instead of asking Stacy if you can use her video in your campaign you can use Stacy and tell her story yourself.

That shift in tactics means the marketer herself is in control of the process and not subject to whatever Stacy (or whomever) has created already. Tamper with the UGC too much and you lose the authenticity. Create your own ad and you have to claim to authenticity. But use your official platform to tell Stacy’s story and you get to still retain some semblance of the rough-and-tumble UGC world while still exercising oversight over the content. The presumption seems to be that it’s the best of both worlds.

Aside from one or two mentions from several years ago the most recent conversations around user-inspired content comes from Expertcity, an agency that matches brands with experts and influencers to help guide their decisions and choices. CEO Kevin Knight spoke on the topic at a recent WOMMA event and wrote a sponsored post on Digiday on the topic.

The Next Evolution of Influencers

The industry’s current fascination with “influencers,” either macro– or micro-, was the direct result of the attention paid to user-generated content. Eventually those who were best at producing such material amassed sizable followings, aided by their presence on the radars of marketing managers who fed them products to review and news to break. That market is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for brands to get the maximum value out of those campaigns, letting them pay to boost an influencer’s own post without having to create one of their own, while also putting more structures in place to clearly identify which influencer posts come as a result of a paid relationship.

User-inspired marketing seems to cut out the middleman in that equation. Influencers, or something close to that definition, are still important but instead of working with brands to create their own content, they are co-opted by the brand into corporately-managed messages.

Here’s the evolutionary track laid out more clearly:

  1. User-generated marketing: Cool picture, Tim, can we use it on our website?
  2. Influencer marketing: Here’s a brief and a review unit, Tim, you create your own video.
  3. User-inspired marketing: We love your story, Tim, and would like to use it in our campaign.

The through-line in that history is that corporate and other marketers are looking to regain some of the control in the messaging. UGC was often messy and came with a lot of complications. Influencer marketing means your message is secondary to the talent staying on-brand for their audience. UIC, though puts the brand marketer back in the driver’s seat.

What’s Old Is New Again

This isn’t so much an evolution to something wholly new but a return to something that’s been in regular use by the marketing and advertising industries for decades: The testimonial. Through that tactic, user stories have been used on TV, in print and in other media as part of the marketing mix for almost as long as there’s been an industry.

That people were more likely to believe someone’s personal story is the reason traveling salesman, both legitimate and otherwise, would put a cohort in the crowd to “spontaneously” begin sharing their experience. They were the “shill.”

Right now this concept seems to be fairly limited in its reach. I’m anticipating hearing more about it if it catches on as a way for brand marketers to once more own the production and distribution of the consumer message, particularly if it comes without the hefty price tag often attached to influencer marketing campaigns.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 10/12/17

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Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 10/3/17

comScore is the latest company seeking to help advertisers determine how well their ads, in this caseTV and digital, are driving physical store sales.

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