Formula for Influencer Marketing Success: Give Creators Freedom — and Guardrails

Many brands are anxious to tap into the strong relationships that influencers have established with their followers, but may be wondering how to manage such an inherently bottom-up process: dealing with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual creators, each with his or her personal style.

But solving these complex challenges has proven to be worth the investment for a number of brands, including Adore Me, Shutterfly, M.Gemi, SSENSE and Our Place, to name just a few. That’s because it’s the “everyday” influencers — creators who are making content as a side hustle rather than as a full-time job — who are able to truly, deeply engage with consumers.

“Everyday influencer engagement is, on average, about 10X that of a professional influencer, and [they have] nearly 2X the conversion rate,” said Evan Wray, CEO of social commerce platform Mavely. “The problem is that it’s super-manual to engage with them, because it’s a gig, not a profession.” Speaking at the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo (RICE) in May 2022, Wray estimated that there are more than 50 million influencers globally, but that 48 million of them are not “influencing” professionally.

But it’s that very variety that makes these influencers so valuable, and retailers have become more adept at creating intermediary platforms that simplify relationships between themselves, their brand and these creators. That was the solution for Adore Me; the internet-only company began working with influencers with large numbers of followers (1 million to 5 million) in 2018 and 2019, but “we had hundreds of smaller influencers that wanted to work with us,” said Ranjay Roy, VP of Strategy at Adore Me, speaking at the RICE event in May.


Beyond the logistics challenges, Adore Me realized that it needed a different mindset to work effectively with these influencers. “We have over 5,000 people in the program and they created 14,000 pieces of content last year,” said Roy. “We give them a bit of freedom and some loose creative direction, and let people be who they want to be, especially when they are microinfluencers and have more niche audiences. The content they’ve created never could have come out of working with an agency — we couldn’t really even have planned or imagined what they created.”

A common pitfall of influencer marketing at this level is “trying too hard to script the experience and pushing influencers into a corner,” said Lindsey Jerutis, General Manager at influencer platform ShopStyle Collective. These brands are “not understanding the creator halo effect is operating up and down the funnel. Marketers that are investing in influencers are either very brand awareness-driven or very performance-driven, but they miss what’s in the middle of that spectrum — which includes data that informs your ecommerce and digital strategies.”

She gave the example of design guru Bobby Berk from Netflix’s Queer Eye: “All the times you see Bobby talk about products, you [as a customer] won’t necessarily buy it in that moment, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t influence your purchase. All of that’s important in understanding the value of a program.”

Establish Guidelines and Expectations Early On

Nevertheless, brands agree that setting up guardrails and parameters for success is vital no matter what an influencer’s follower count is. “The strategy brief going into [a program] is so important, and as a brand that’s on us,” said Joshua Carter, Senior Director of PR, Social and Influencer Partnerships for Shutterfly at RICE. “We need to be clear with our expectations but also give them the freedom to create, because they know what their audience will care about the most.”

All this requires brands to maintain a more casual attitude themselves, Carter noted: “If a piece of content doesn’t come out the way we want, for example if a product is shot with a certain filter, we’ll discuss it internally and realize that [although] we may not like it, the customer may,” he said. “We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable with this content creation process.”

For many brands, everyday content creators represent just one element of their influencer marketing programs. “Shutterfly has a multi-tier program that goes from content creator to celebrities, and each tier has a different objective,” said Carter.

It can all be a tricky balancing act. “We’re a lingerie brand, so particularly in the early days of working with creator content, it was important to emphasize [to influencers] that the branding shouldn’t be oversexualized, that it should instead be fun and lighthearted,” said Adore Me’s Roy. Now, “it’s become somewhat self-selecting: the people we work with more just know, and [the content they produce] helps inform others.”

Move Beyond Social Commerce Platforms for Maximum Impact

All the speakers discussing this topic at RICE agreed that these creators’ own properties — emails to their followers, SMS text chains, their own blogs or websites — represent an underused set of touch points for marketers, and can also be a resource for the creators.

“Social media platforms are the most visible, but it’s very difficult for creators to ‘own’ that experience,” said ShopStyle Collective’s Jerutis. But when creators do own the experience, “users are radically engaged,” Jerutis added. “They want to be there, they want to know what the creator is talking about, so it’s an amazing conversion and engagement engine. Almost 90% of content creators are using their own properties, because they’re invested in owning their audience, and it’s hard for them to be at the whims of a platform that isn’t necessarily [supporting] their success.”

The speakers also strongly recommended more use of “whitelisting,” which Shutterfly’s Carter described this way: “A brand adds paid money to an influencer’s handle so that when the ad pops up, it’s coming from them versus from your brand. ‘Dark posts’ involve taking the creator’s content and putting it on your own feed, also for a fee.”

“We recommend whitelisting for all our clients,” said Jerutis. “You’re paying for the content, so it makes sense to use it on your site. The best part is that you’re essentially paying for an ad that sounds authentic, with that ‘word-of-mouth’ feel.”

Adore Me leverages its creator platform to “track what’s trending organically, and then we make deals about whitelisting,” said Roy. “We’re also looking into potentially using creator content on the product pages on our site.”

Beyond the bottom-line and brand-awareness benefits of working with these influencers, Roy noted that they provide a unique perspective for the brand itself. “It’s interesting to see how your brand is reflected” through these creators, he noted: “There’s a saying that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. The way these people talk about our products are things we didn’t even think about.”

Additional reporting by Nicole Silberstein.


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