Though it’s a buzzword right now, influencers have existed since the dawn of culture. Influencer as paid advertising, however, is a newer practice. But with the help of professionals like Sam Katz of influencer agency Social Studies, brands are seeing the full potential of this nontraditional marketing. Here, Katz tells Backstage what both brands and influencers alike need to know about finding one another, and why influencer is not, in fact, a “dirty word.”
What is Social Studies and what do you do there?
Social Studies is the fastest-growing influencer agency in the country, and we work with some of the world’s leading brands. That comes in the form of retail brands such as Panera, but it can also be consumer brands like Nutrafol hair products. We handle influencer campaigns for brands of all shapes and sizes. Our sweet spot is the emerging influencer landscape, someone with 5,000–100,000 [followers], but we work with people who have 200 followers and we’ve worked with people who have 3 million followers. Essentially, we’re a broker and advocate for these influencers. What I do is work on our sales and marketing team as the strategy manager, and the best thing about it is that even though it’s a specific title, I get to do a bunch of different things, which makes every day different. Some days are pitching the brand, some days it’s coming up with creative strategy. There’s the sales team that’s pitching to brands, who are our clients, and then we have a brand experience team who is actually executing the campaigns; they’re also the ones discovering and trying to find the needle in the haystack of creators.
Do your clients—the brands—go to the influencers or do they come to you?
We’ve been very fortunate to have lots of inbounds; influencer [marketing] is definitely a hot topic. Everyone knows that they want to or probably should be doing influencer [marketing], but it’s all about finding that right fit. We are a very specific product: We’re an agency. We’re very hands-on. We have a whole team that leads and runs your campaign. The one thing that’s so great and what keeps morale high is that we get tons of renewals. The other thing is that when people leave—let’s say they were working at Panera and they went to go work at a different brand—they’re eager to work with us on their influencer piece there, as well.
How do you find the right pairing of brand and influencer?
The way we look at it is, influence is a media channel, the same way you could potentially buy a TV ad or digital marketing. You’re looking at a few different points; whether it’s audience or you’re looking at it in a much more technical way, it’s always [about asking], What are you going to get with this buy? Because it’s people, we heavily believe in the value of human intelligence.
There are a lot of tech companies out there that allow you to search for beauty influencers in New York City, and that’s really great; however, it’s not curated. We don’t represent any influencers, which essentially allows us to represent all influencers. We’ll never push someone onto a brand. It’s always about tracking it toward goals. If someone is trying to increase awareness of their new product in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the product is targeted at moms and dads over the age of 35 with an interest in coffee, we will put together a list of 50 moms and dads in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with X followers to bring to the brand. The brand will then approve—“We like this person, we don’t like this person.” We then reach out to the influencers and we work collaboratively on a brief. The important part of influencer [marketing] is that we work collaboratively with them to really get it right to hit that goal. They know what their audience likes. That’s how they’ve been able to build this audience. The purpose of this is for brands to tap into these authentic voices.
What are the things you look for when finding an influencer for a given brand?
I don’t think you need to deem yourself an influencer. A lot of times, the people who call themselves influencers don’t have that much influence, and we’re really looking out for people who actually have influence. I know that sounds silly, but we like to say, “Your grandma has influence! She has influence over her friends over where they’re eating.” The difference is, that’s a 1:1 connection, and with this, it’s word of mouth at scale. So we’re looking for people who have these 1:10,000 connections, where people really take their advice. We look through comments. We look through a bunch of different things to see how people engage with that creator.
Do you find that there’s a stigma around influencers?
As much as “influencer” is a buzzword right now, our POV is that influence is one of the oldest means of marketing in the world. In the 1920s, it was not appropriate for women to smoke outside, so they had these women walk through a parade smoking outside and they got press—that’s an influencer campaign. Now it’s just that it’s on social media, which leads me to [ask]: Why is “influencer” a dirty word? The [influencers] are not just purely there to influence. How did they get there? They’re creators. They create content that resonates with a certain group of people. Maybe they’re a CEO who has built a company that’s gained a following because people appreciate their advice. So, yes, it’s an overarching term, but we really look into who these people are, how they’ve been able to grow their audience, and what makes them so special. You don’t even have to be that special, you just have to speak to a specific audience in a specific way.
What are the benefits of influencer campaigns compared to more traditional means of advertising?
If you look at the 1950s compared to now, they had five TV shows at night, everyone’s in the family room watching TV, and the brand would come on [with a commercial] and say, “Buy our product tomorrow, 50% off.” It was a one-way conversation. Now, with influencer marketing, it’s not a one-way street. It’s not the brand saying, “Here’s the information, now go do what you want.” It’s a two-way conversation. Influence allows brands to tap into a specific audience and have these conversations in an authentic—another buzzword—and organic way. And when it’s done right, it really is all about empowering, from the brand to the influencer and from the influencer to the audience, to make business decisions. It’s really about creating advocates, not advertisements.
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