Influencer marketing and sponsored content are not new concepts. Celebrity product endorsements date back to at least the 1760s, and “advertorials” created by newspapers, magazines and radio stations on behalf of brands go back over a century.
However, the modern digital incarnation of these approaches — accelerated by the rise of online publishing and social networks — has become an integral part of the brand marketer’s toolkit in the past decade. We’re now in a world where celebrities control and interact with their audiences directly via social media. Instead of hiring celebrities and putting them in front of brands’ audiences, marketers now put their brands in front of celebrities’ audiences.
This trend was beginning to explode in 2011. It spawned a huge ecosystem of agencies and individual teams within brands, with most chief marketing officers treating influencer marketing, endorser partnerships and branded content as three separate strategies with siloed teams and budgets.
But over the past seven years, I have come to believe this approach is flawed and is holding brands back from executing these strategies optimally.
The truth is that influencer marketing, endorser partnerships and branded content all rely on these three core principles:
- Borrowing a third party’s brand equity.
- Utilizing their creative capabilities.
- Leveraging their audience distribution and scale.
Whether you’re tapping an Instagram influencer to create branded posts, putting an endorser in your YouTube series, or running a sponsored article on BuzzFeed, you’re essentially executing the same strategy: You’re partnering with a third party to create and distribute your brand message.
Marketers that launch these programs separately — as many still do — risk spending money inefficiently and losing valuable opportunities to build unified campaigns.
That’s why brands need to shift from the established way of thinking about influencer marketing and branded content and consider the benefits of combining these strategies.
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An Untapped Opportunity for Launching Scalable Campaigns
There is a widely untapped opportunity for brands to take more comprehensive, integrated approaches to their influencer marketing, endorser partnerships and branded content campaigns. By launching them under one budget and one team, brands can build more scalable, always-on campaigns that reach audiences across platforms. They can also more effectively ensure brand safety, since one team of managers will be responsible for monitoring all aspects of this one, multifaceted campaign.
This shift in thinking draws parallels to the evolution of native advertising. Brands used to think of native advertising as just sponsored articles on digital publication sites. But now, in our platform-driven world, almost all content is native. Instagram and Facebook ads are integrated right into people’s news feeds, for instance, and Google’s pay-per-click ads appear alongside organic search results. In the same vein, influencer marketing has grown to encompass a wide variety of platforms and partnerships — more than marketers may currently realize.
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Some Players Already Getting Started With Unified Strategies
Publishers were some of the first to realize that they could sync up branded content with influencer marketing. In 2016, the New York Times acquired influencer marketing agency HelloSociety. Time partnered with startup Speakr to launch an influencer marketing network called Time Inc. Connect. And Condé Nast created Social Academy, a Milan-based postgraduate degree program that teaches people how to become industry influencers and then funnels them into the publisher’s network.
Brands are doing it, too. NASCAR consolidated its content creation and distribution capabilities, with a revamped 40-person in-house content strategy team. This helps the auto racing organization more efficiently leverage its network of celebrity drivers to create branded content like podcasts and docu-series for platforms like Facebook Watch.
This is a growing trend. Mastercard just launched a series of content studios called Storylabs. Pepsi has a studio called Creators League, which produces 400 pieces of digital content a year. And Walmart acquired content studio Spatialand to create virtual reality experiences for retail shoppers.
Other brands, like Nike, L’Occitane and HelloFresh, are specifically bringing influencer marketing in-house to consolidate their capabilities and have more control over those campaigns. Going forward, we should expect to see more brands find ways to bring branded content into the mix. For example, Weight Watchers just signed DJ Khaled as a brand sponsor to create social posts about his weight loss journey. If Weight Watchers then also launched a tie-in branded content campaign with select publishers, it could expand its reach beyond just social platforms and connect with even more consumers with unified, always-on messaging.
Facebook seems to be preparing for this shift toward integration. Earlier this year, it released its “Branded Content Matching” search engine, which will allow marketers to find Facebook creators who appeal to certain types of fans so they can team up with those creators on branded content campaigns directly, without having to go through third-party software or an influencer marketing agency.
Related Article: Give Your Branded Content a Helping Hand
How to Win With This New Approach
Every marketer should build a single “branded content” or “partner content” team responsible for producing all campaigns that incorporate a joint creative and distribution strategy — all influencer, endorser and publisher partnerships. This will make it possible to execute buys under one comprehensive strategy and budget. As a result, marketers will be able to better leverage their partners’ scale and creative equity.
Managing these campaigns under one umbrella will also enable marketers to measure their performance with a unified analytics strategy and set of metrics. This will present opportunities to seamlessly optimize campaigns across platforms.
While it’s currently the norm to launch piecemeal content across separate influencer, endorser and publisher networks, that approach has its repercussions: Brands risk burning their budgets across siloed campaigns, leaving behind opportunities to touch audiences from multiple angles in a consistent way. The piecemeal approach also lacks the scale to double down on distribution for certain campaigns or content items that take off.
That’s why it’s so important to consider this new approach. There may be growing pains at first, but the rewards are promising for scaling, budgeting and generating value from your influencer partnerships.