‘It’s like just another add-on’: The agency view of publishers’ influencer networks

More and more, advertisers want to use influencers to pitch their goods and services to millennials. And increasingly, publishers from Refinery29 to Hearst are happy to oblige, offering advertisers direct access to these social media stars.

Refinery29 offers advertisers access to a hand-picked group of influencers across various social networks. Bustle also has tapped into influencers for brands. Legacy publishers have joined the parade, too. Hearst began working with digital video company Reelio in December to pair fashion influencers with its glossy magazine brands. In March, The New York Times acquired HelloSociety, a digital marketing agency, to augment its branded content arm; while Time Inc. partnered with YouTube fashion network StyleHaul.

For advertisers, influencers can offer an alternative to intrusive ads and a way to extend their reach beyond a publisher’s audience. They can go to any number of  YouTube networks for star power, but in theory, publishers have the benefit of having established brands and relationships with social media celebrities.

In practice, though, and perhaps because they’re relatively new at it, publishers often have a hard time executing influencer programs, agencies say.

“They have the foundation in place from a reader perspective that’s needed; if I trust The New York Times, if there’s a new content program I’m more likely to take a look at it, and I trust the quality control is there,” said Mike McLaughlin, managing director of digital, West Coast, at Mindshare. “But they don’t have the established structure that the [multi-channel networks] have. It’s hard to say if they can compete from a scale and backend perspective.”

In some cases, publishers’ use of bloggers feels generic and has a whiff of just serving to inflate a campaign’s performance numbers, agencies say.

Monique Lemus, group director at The Media Kitchen, said while some publishers take time to make sure the influencer marketing represents the brand well, others have fallen short. With one publisher, she said, it had hundreds of influencers promote an article, and while there were some people who clicked through it, the agency didn’t see a ton of engagement.

“The publisher will tack on 20 or 30 influencers including a link in a piece of content in a Facebook post and that’s that,” she said. “It’s just like another add-on. There’s no actual discussion with the influencer about the tone you want to use; it’s very much like copy-and-paste.”

Sometimes the publisher will throw in the influencer marketing piece for free to boost a campaign’s reach. In that case, the agency may have lower performance expectations. But even then, agencies want to know that the influencers have been chosen for the right reasons. Publishers tend to choose people who have a large reach when engagement may be the more important metric to the client, Lemus said.

Horizon Media is a believer in influencer marketing, having created a division at the agency devoted to it. However, it’s seen publishers throwing an influencer component into a campaign and claiming they were going “above and beyond” for the client, said Maikel O’Hanlon, vp of social media strategy at Horizon.

“We see certain publishers treating influencer alliances as another way to generate traffic in a way they used to use paid mechanisms [like] Outbrain and Taboola,” he said.

Some publishers say they go to lengths to choose influencers carefully. “Often, influencers are selected with very little consideration of affinity with the publishing brand and it’s entirely focused on the advertiser’s brand,” said Kai Hsing, svp of marketing at Bustle. “We’re obviously trying to steer away from that.” The Times’ HelloSociety tries to get to know the influencers on a personal level to help determine if things happening in their lives align with certain campaigns. “For instance, if an influencer is about to have a baby, she’d be an especially good fit for a campaign targeting new moms,” said Kyla Brennan, HelloSociety’s founder and CEO.

Of course, the pitfalls of working with social media stars isn’t just a publisher issue; influencer marketing is fraught with measurement concerns, getting influencers to create content that aligns with the brand’s goals and rising prices. Working with influencers requires a lot of hand-holding — entailing more work than some publishers might be prepared for.

The vetting process is key, agreed Howard Mittman, publisher and chief revenue officer at GQ, which works with a pool of 6,500 influencers, a small segment of which it uses to promote brands. “You must curate your network by looking at more than just the total audience they can deliver,” he said. “You must work to find contributors whose ideals reflect the broad values of your organization and you need to manage and maintain relationships with them as you would your staff.”


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