Brands have long recognized the power of celebrities to influence the buying decisions of consumers. But the advent of reality TV, followed by the creation and growth of social media networks, have given rise to an entirely new breed of individuals that expanded, and in some ways transcended, the definition of celebrity. This new breed of individuals has become known as “influencers,” and as their measurable popularity and influence grew, brands quickly lined up to incorporate them into targeted marketing campaigns. This became known as influencer marketing.
Influencers fall into four categories — micro, mid-tier, macro and mega — based entirely on their number of verifiable social media followers. Historically, significant monetization opportunities for influencers were limited to those that fell into the macro (500,000 to 1 million followers) and the mega (1 million+ followers) categories, as brands with newly upsized social media marketing budgets focused solely on engaging those influencers that had the greatest reach, and especially those whose followers fit the demographic of the brand or its products.
Affiliate marketers were also quick to embrace influencers, who themselves were eager to identify new ways to monetize the base of followers they had carefully cultivated. Entirely new industries were created as a result — influencer marketing agencies sprung up to connect brands and products with influencers, and affiliate marketing companies developed platforms featuring curated products from a variety of different brands and manufacturers that could be made available to influencers who met certain criteria.
The most important criterion was the size of the influencer’s base of followers. If selected, the influencer would promote the products through social media posts in exchange for a percentage of the sales revenue. However, many of these platforms proved to be fraught with poorly executed, friction-filled ecommerce capabilities.
In addition to social selling and social media marketing, influencers gravitated to and found success through a variety of different mediums. I would argue that the most powerful medium, the one that creates the most compelling and enduring relationships between an influencer and his or her followers, is video. As video technology continued to evolve — especially on mobile devices — not only did the popularity of influencers grow, but so did their ability to monetize their fan bases on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the brands that employed them.
Video has indeed evolved. and over the past few years we’ve seen quantum leaps in video technology, most notably in interactive video, i.e. video ads with embedded, clickable icons. Marketers have known for some time that video has substantially higher engagement levels than any other form of advertising, but it has been that in-video clickable icon technology, combined with ecommerce capabilities, which has had the greatest impact and created the greatest monetization opportunities for both brands and influencers.
Brands have been quick to adopt interactive video technology, where they could use an influencer to showcase their latest products and allow viewers to simply click within the video to purchase those products. This revolutionary technology, when deployed properly, effectively eliminates friction from the sales process and can result in higher sales volume.
However, the latest trend that offers the most promising opportunity for brands, influencers and perhaps most notably, creators, is shoppable livestream video. That’s where viewers can watch their favorite influencers or creators live and actually communicate with them in real time through an onscreen chat. Viewers can ask questions about the products they see featured, communicate with other viewers and purchase products through the same in-video clickable icon technology with seamless, friction-free in-video ecommerce capabilities.
But here’s where the playing field is being leveled. There are now livestream shopping platforms that will allow virtually anyone to create a profile, set up a store, choose products from hundreds of brands and retailer and sell those products to their friends, families, fans, followers and anyone else they choose to market to, through livestream shopping events in exchange for a percentage of the sales they generate. And these capabilities are available with little to no upfront investment in inventory and no obligation to manage the picking, packing and shipping of the products. All of that, including managing returns, is done for them.
This new technology represents something previous iterations of influencer and creator ecommerce did not — it represents the true convergence of entertainment and shopability. Some are now calling it “shoppertainment,” and I contend we are on the cusp of a quantum shift in consumer buying behavior.
I believe we are at a moment in the lifecycle of this new technology just before a soon-to-arrive tipping point that will usher in a new era of shoppable entertainment. Those following this sector closely recognize that the changes in consumer behavior necessary to drive broader, more rapid adoption of livestream shopping technology have already begun and are gaining greater and greater momentum every day. And while it is still early, those that have the vision to become early movers have the opportunity to shape and define this new medium.
One may look to the massive adoption of livestream shopping that has occurred in China over the past several years for cues. In that country it is not unusual for a creator or influencer to sell more than $100 million of merchandise in a single livestream session. However, there are certain cultural and societal differences in China that do not exist here in the U.S. Accordingly, I don’t subscribe to the strategy that the key to success in livestream shopping is to duplicate what they do in China. I’ve often heard it said that “we have to catch up to China.” But that would imply that the U.S. is on the same path as China, and I do not believe we are, nor should we be.
There are multiple paths to livestream selling success in the U.S. and the West, but the one that I believe will lead to the greatest broad-based and sustained adoption is the one that puts entertainment first. People want to be entertained first and foremost, and to the extent that the entertainment is both interactive and engaging, adding shopability in a slick, frictionless interface will drive adoption of this new medium beyond anything that has come before it.
I foresee shopping and chat capabilities added to sporting events, game shows, reality shows, concerts and much more. Consumers will be able to purchase items they see featured in these programs, including products offered by the show’s sponsors, which will enjoy a far greater, and finally measurable, ROI for their sponsorship dollars.
As these livestream shopping platforms mature, you will see them begin adopting the same strategies as show programmers on television networks to keep viewers tuned in and engaged for hours as shoppable entertainment programs fall into categories, presented one right after the other, to attract consumers with varied tastes and sensibilities.
In this new paradigm, creators and influencers will have greater control over the content, armed with technology that allows them to connect with their audience of fans and followers like never before and, in doing so, creating greater monetization opportunities for themselves, as well as the brands, retailers and manufacturers with the foresight to embrace these new opportunities.
Rory J. Cutaia is the Founder and CEO of Verb Technology Co. [NASDAQ: VERB], the company behind livestream social shopping platform MARKET.live, among other sales tech innovations. Cutaia began his career as an attorney at a major NYC law firm representing world-renowned entrepreneurs. Leaving law for business, he changed the landscape of the telecom industry through a tech company start-up called Telx, which became the internationally recognized leader in the data center sector and the de facto standard by which the world’s telecom carriers interconnect to one another. Following the highly lucrative sale of Telx, Cutaia became a partner and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at an NYC-based private equity fund. Now, as Founder and CEO of Verb, Cutaia and his team have re-invented what sales software applications should be in today’s video-centric business and social environment.