Fullscreen’s Stu Smith on New Marketing Secret: Millennials Trust Influencers More Than Brands

Influencer marketing “is growing in popularity for the best reason — because it works,” Smith tells TheWrap

For brands that rely on cable networks to reach their target audiences, millennials and GenZers (the leaders of the cord-cutting era) have become increasingly difficult to reach. Distracted by ad-free streaming services and the “skip” button on YouTube’s ads, the two groups aren’t as receptive to advertisements being shoved in their faces as previous generations.

To address this issue, more companies are turning to influencer marketing — identifying individuals with a following on social media who have influence over potential customers and signing them up to push a product. “It’s growing in popularity for the best reason — because it works,” Fullscreen’s VP of talent Stu Smith told TheWrap. (An Otter Media-owned company, Fullscreen offers a set of tools, services, and consultation to social media influencers.)

In fact, 59 percent of marketers said their budget for influencers has increased over the past year, according to a global study carried out by Rakuten Marketing, which surveyed 719 marketing specialists from across the globe.

There is still much debate over the effectiveness of the marketing method: While Rakuten’s results are mainly positive, a study from the Association of National Advertisers suggests that only 36 percent or marketers found influencer marketing effective.

Despite the mixed data, Smith believes the marketing technique is here to stay, citing a study carried out by Fullscreen that found millennials and GenZers trust digital content from creators more so than from brands themselves. Here, he discusses his team’s findings as well as the future of influencers in the content space.

Why is influencer marketing growing in popularity — and do you think that growth is just a fad?

While there has been a lot of debate about the efficacy of this as a new form of paid marketing, especially given that it can seem like a heavier lift than simply buying ads, we’ve recently helped settle that debate. Earlier this year, we tasked our Strategy & Insights team with studying this very issue. They worked alongside social data firm Shareablee to analyze a selection of 31,000 public figures — from film, TV, music and other traditional talent with 20 million-plus followers all the way down to ‘micro-influencers’ with less than 250,000. We also talked to 1,200 millennial and Gen Z fans (ages 18-34) to determine, among other things, levels of trust and purchase intent towards both the creators and the brands that align with them.

There are a number of really fascinating findings that came out of that study. For one, Gen Z and young millennials trust digital content from creators more so than from brands themselves. We found that so-called “Digital Trailblazers” (those with 1 million – 19.9 million followers) garner the overall highest level of engagement and trust among their fans, exceeding that of both micro-influencers and more traditional talent (20 million-plus).

In terms of the products themselves, almost half of the 18-34 group reported trying a product recommended by a creator, and more than a quarter say they have actually made a purchase based on a creator recommendation. The brands who understand the power of creators as a crucial part of their marketing strategy are ahead of the curve. What they understand is that more and more, purchase decisions come down to trust. Because the fan-to-creator relationship is built on trust — and because creators won’t work with just any brand — brands can tap into that trust if their brand values align with those of the creator.

What do you think the influencer market will look like a year from now?

What we see is that more and more the word “influencer”actually means a lot of things. Internally at Fullscreen, we actually don’t use that word. We say “talent” or “creator” because that’s how we see our partners — they are immensely talented. We don’t work with them because they can influence an audience to buy a product. We work with them because they are creating something unique and powerful that connects with an audience on a really deep level.

And really they think about their audience not as a big anonymous crowd the way talent traditionally thought of their audience. They often think about them as a group of individuals — many of whom they’ve actually met personally or have had some kind of interaction with on social. To take it a step further, many of our talent/creators actually see themselves in their audience — the fans remind them of themselves at an earlier stage of their life. So what all of this amounts to is a much deeper connection and the result of that deep connection is more engagement with the content. Content creators on social are the source of entertainment, inspiration, information and more to a whole generation of fans. That will only grow stronger over time.

Is it necessary for influencers to do more than vlogs — to branch out to standalone businesses — in order to remain successful?

This generation of talent is writing the rules as they go. So if you asked our most successful talent partners, they would say no, nothing is “necessary.” There is no playbook. You don’t need to do the things that more traditionally were seen as table stakes to build a career in entertainment. Because again, they have the direct connection to their audience on social.

So in the past you needed to be “discovered” and a lot of work went into just getting you in front of the audience for the first time — most of that work the talent themselves didn’t actually control. Today, it can be as fast as the length of time it takes to create a social account and upload a piece of content and the talent controls the whole thing.

So when thinking about diversifying outside of social, the method of distribution typically isn’t the first question to answer if a creator is making a movie or a series or writing a book or launching a product. There’s a very DIY approach because that’s how they think. It’s first let’s figure out what to make, start making it, then let’s figure out how to get it out to the audience.

Do you encourage your clients to establish their reach beyond the webcam?

Certainly doing more doesn’t hurt. We have creators who tour internationally, who have written popular books, who have launched consumer products and more — we encourage all of that. But, at the end of the day, creators know that they can’t abandon their audience. So if it’s vlogs or daily streaming or weekly skits that the audience knows them for, we would never encourage them to branch out so much that they no longer have the time or ability to provide the core content that their fans love. They know that inherently, they don’t need us to tell them that.

What are the most common mistakes you see influencers make when trying to establish themselves in the industry?

Fans of today’s content creators are the smartest they’ve ever been. They know authenticity when they see it. Any creator who isn’t being “real” won’t be successful, period. This is like Creator 101, so it’s not a mistake that many creators make — partly because the younger generation also highly values authenticity. So it’s simple stuff, but creators will look to us to help facilitate that.

We work with them to build out their long-term vision. We’ve even started helping our talent partners craft a mission statement that we print out for them and a set of really long-term goals. It’s taking a business mindset and applying it to a creative career. At the end of the day, the creative is what matters most, so building a roadmap with certain milestones that all ladder up to the bigger vision helps free them up to focus on the creative. It prevents them from ever getting lost or feeling directionless or just being so stuck in the day-to-day that they lose focus on where they’re headed. It informs what kind of content they want to create and what they don’t. It informs the message. It informs who they will work with, collaborate with, and what kind of partnerships make sense.

Of course, the roadmap changes with time — that’s the nature of this kind of planning. You build the plan so you can continually iterate on the plan. But the vision is locked, so that provides the North Star.

More and more Influencers are being cast in scripted programming. Is scripted content the right fit for online influencers?

It’s all about talent, regardless of where that person gets their start. Social content production is an incredible place to explore a path toward film and TV. Think about it, those who launch themselves on social are often the writer, actor, editor, lighting tech, marketer and SEO expert.

We help enable all of that but they are often a one-person show. A great example is Issa Rae, star of HBO’s “Insecure,” who started on YouTube with her series “Awkward Black Girl” — she now has two Golden Globe nominations and a primetime Emmy nomination for her acting. Lilly Singh and Colleen Ballinger have had similar success.

Fullscreen is working with a number of talent who are on similar paths, like Jean Elie (“Insecure”), Willam Belli (“A Star Is Born” and Netflix’s “Super Drags”), Miles McKenna (Hulu’s “Grad Night”), Cody Ko (Facebook Watch’s “The Real Bros of Simi Valley”) and many others.


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