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Inside the murky world of 'social media influencers'

Lauren Brousell | July 10, 2015
Marketing via "influencers" used to mostly mean professional athletes pitching expensive shoes or supermodels selling slick sports cars. Today, some brands put products in the hands of "Internet influencers," many of whom have even larger audiences and more reach than the brands.

Marketing via "influencers" used to mostly mean professional athletes pitching expensive shoes or supermodels selling slick sports cars. Today, some brands put products in the hands of "Internet influencers," many of whom have even larger audiences and more reach than the brands.

Some of the most successful influencers are practically businesses themselves, with large followings and engaged users. Perhaps most importantly, the best social media influencers are genuine and authentic -- or at least they appear to be -- unlike many modern marketing ploys. Directly and through affiliate networks, these influencers help companies market their products in new ways, and the relationships usually benefit both sides of the equation.

What is an 'Internet influencer,' and why should companies care?

Anyone who has a significant, dedicated following online, including bloggers, YouTube personalities and Instagram stars, can be Internet influencers. Companies use influencers to reach target demographics in subtle ways. Unlike traditional ads, commercials or aggressive product pitches, partnerships with influencers can convince consumers that they are getting honest product recommendations from people they trust.

Companies can connect with influencers by identifying and eventually contacting the people who line up with their brands, products and target demographics. For example, a clothing company hoping to gain traction with female millennials for an upcoming collection could partner with a fashion blogger to get potential buyers interested in products. An effective influencer might be someone target customers already follow and admire.

Depending on the reach and status of the blogger or influencer, companies may send product samples, request reviews or profiles, or partner up for giveaways and contests. In some cases, influencers are sent on trips to particular hotels or destinations, supplied with cars, or invited to a parties or events, with the understanding that they will promote the associated products or services.

Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, says using Internet influencers for marketing generally isn't labor or resource intensive, so there's little risk for interested organizations. However, she says it's not always going to have significant impact. Rather, the value of such initiatives should be measured like other PR similar projects. "They count the number of mentions they get," Mulpuru-Kodali says. "It's not about sales."

The U.S. FTC has a set of guidelines for transparency around sponsored or paid posts that content creators are supposed to heed. But companies and individuals don't always follow the rules. For example, Lord & Taylor saw some backlash over a recent fashion campaign in which multiple bloggers posted pictures of themselves wearing the same dress, but failed to properly disclose that they had been paid to do so, according to AdWeek. As a result of the campaign, the dress sold out. (Following the blowback, some of the bloggers added a related disclosure.)

 

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