The days when stars are discovered at Hollywood drug stores are dusty memories. The world in which washed-up TV stars make the best ad pitchman is toast. We live in the world of authentic influencers.
Certainly, this is not a reinvention of the wheel. QVC and HSN build their empires on the backs of on-camera hustlers whose personas were modeled after the guy next door with whom you shared opinions on the local sports team while borrowing his lawn mower. By and large, they were (and are) nameless, middle-of-the-road faces who radiate empathy and never threaten or offend.
But like today’s fast-twitch world, influencers have evolved and progressed to include folks of varied races, genders and backgrounds with often edgy personalities. They include entrepreneurs who picked up cheap video cameras and made scores of YouTube clips before they struck gold — and more importantly touched the lives of those who share their dreams and passions. They include those who believed because they were out of the mainstream in some fashion, they were considered outcasts and needed a vehicle to share their overlooked voices. Wisely, brands and those who manage their ad budgets groked their trend and have injected and embedded these stars born from likes, comments, shares and Tweets into their ad campaigns. It’s no longer about the ability to create empathy — it’s about the ability to represent and recommend. Welcome to the world of influencers.
“The key characteristics for success (as an influencer) include an ability to be entertaining, authentic, educational, and consistent with content. These traits are often crucial to building and maintaining a loyal audience,” notes Alec Shankman, VP of the alternative programming & digital division at Abrams Artists Agency.
Which begs the question: how do you know an influencer when you find one?
“Generally, we see the powerhouse influencers have a strong engagement and connection to their audience from the very start. We’ll see them gain traction on their channels and respective social media followings very quickly- sometimes double, or even triple their subscriber base in just a few weeks. That’s when you know they are something special!” says Kimberley Bond, co-founder and community director of Grapevine, which helps pair brands with digital influencers.
The stories behind most of this crop of digitally-fed influencers are pretty darn compelling. I once interviewed Laura Vitale, creator and host of “Laura in the Kitchen,” a wildly successful YouTube show which led to a program offer from a major cable network. Vitale, who grew up in the restaurant business, needed an outlet for her culinary skills after her dad’s chain of New Jersey eateries closed in 2008. Laura convinced her husband to build a kitchen studio in their basement, and the self-taught chef went all “Waynes World” on us.
Harley Morenstein (pictured) is a bear of a man who went from being a Canadian school teacher to one of the most famous cooking celebs on YouTube. What started as a prank — when a friend filmed Harley eating a six-layered burger — became a YouTube hit that Morenstein affectionately calls “‘Jackass’ in the kitchen.” All of which also led to a show on the cable network fyi.
The ecosystem that connects influencers and brands (not to mention TV networks and film studios) runs through agencies who carefully monitor the care and feeding of these digital media darlings. Understanding there is a push-pull between brand and influencers — that is, a cosmetics manufacturers is no doubt looking for unbridled (and often unauthentic) enthusiasm from their spokespeople — these savvied middlemen need to maintain order and serve two masters.
“Our goal is to get the matchup between a brand and creator right every time. We start by qualifying every brand and creator on our platform. From there our recommendation engine helps creators find brands they match highly for based on past experience, content categories, targeting, and more,” says Grant Deken, Grapevine’s chief product officer.
Those involved with managing the delicate balance between brand and influencer uniformly realize that organic authenticity is what drew fans to these new stars, and maintaining that singular voice is what will keep their careers doing.
“One of the most important things we encourage (in talent) is to maintain your own organic voice,” says David Kierzkowski, co-founder and CEO of FameBit. “We always encourage influencers to select sponsorship opportunities that already fit their channel and to promote products and services that they are genuinely excited about. This is because people do not go to YouTube to watch commercials, they go to YouTube to watch their peers whose recommendations and advice they trust.”