What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.

PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

What’s the Latest in Content Creation for B-to-B Marketers?

Content creationThere’s an interesting new study just published that gives us interesting clues about what B-to-B marketers are doing in content creation.

The B2B Content Marketing: 2012 Benchmarks, Budgets & Trends study is a joint research effort of the Content Marketing Institute and marketing information resources firm MarketingProfs. The survey found that nine out of ten B-to-B marketers are using some form of content marketing activities to achieve their business goals.

[For this survey, content marketing (also known as custom publishing or branded content) is defined as “the creation and distribution of educational and/or compelling content in multiple formats to attract and/or retain customers.”]

The research found that usage of several content tactics is now quite widespread:

 News articles: ~79% of respondents are using
 Social media (excluding blogs): ~74%
 Blogs: ~65%
 e-Newsletters: ~63%
 Case studies: ~58%
 In-person events: ~56%
 Videos: ~52%
 White papers: ~51%
 Webinars or webcasts: ~46%

When queried as to how effective marketers believe these tactics to be, a combination of traditional and “new” ones were cited with high effectiveness scores:

 In-person events: ~78% view as an “effective” tactic
 Case studies: ~70
 Webinars or webcasts: ~70%
 e-Newsletters: ~60%
 White papers: ~60%
 Blogs: ~58%
 Web microsites: ~56%
 Articles: ~51%
 Social media: ~51%
 Videos: ~51%

The survey also investigated how content tactics are being measured for success. Tracking web traffic stats is the most popular measurement tool:

 Web traffic: ~58% use to measure success
 Sales lead quality: ~49% use
 Direct sales figures: ~41% use
 Sales lead quantity: ~41% use
 Qualitative feedback from customers: ~40% use
 Search engine rankings: ~40% use
 Inbound weblinks: ~30% use

And what is the biggest challenge these marketers see in content creation? It’s the age-old problem of coming up with interesting topics to write about.

More than four in ten respondents cited “producing the kind of content that engages prospects and customers” as their biggest challenge.

Some of the comments heard from survey respondents on this topic sound all-too-familiar:

 “Finding people within my organization to contribute their expertise … nobody outside of marketing seems to see the value in sharing our expertise with the market via content.”

 “Having the discipline and being able to assign sufficient resources to create and manage the right content for the target audience, in a sustainable manner.”

 “The ideas are all there; it’s just a matter of finding time to create and write copy.”

 “Management patience: Management needs to understand that in today’s B-to-B environment, it takes time to engage prospects.”

What about your situation? Are your content management issues the same ones as reported in this study … or are you facing different challenges?

PR Firms at Loggerheads with Bloggerheads

PR mistakes with bloggersTime was, we could get a chuckle out of television commercials where unsuspecting consumers were surprised to find out that the restaurant coffee was really Folgers®, or the day spa’s skin moisturizer treatment for their hands was actually Palmolive® dish detergent.

There was something rather endearing about those consumer reactions – and they were uniformly positive ones as well.

But to show how far removed we are from those halcyon days, consider this recent attempt to pull a fast one on unsuspecting dinner guests at a “faux” restaurant in Midtown Manhattan: Cooked up by the Ketchum public relations unit of Omnicom Group for its client, ConAgra Foods, New York-based food bloggers and “mommy” bloggers were invited to dine at “Sotto Terra,” an underground restaurant supposedly run by Chef George Duran of TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off cable program.

But Sotto Terra, far from being the “intimate Italian restaurant” of the invitation, was nothing more than an elaborate set-up – hidden cameras and all – to get bloggers to sample ConAgra’s newest offerings in the Marie Callender’s line of frozen entrees and desserts … and presumably to extol the virtues of the cuisine.

In fact, no such restaurant even exists. Rather, it was all a staged scene in a Greenwich Village brownstone. The invitation promised a “delicious four-course meal” accompanied by Chef Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria” … along with a talk by famed food industry expert Phil Lempert on new taste trends in food.

The invitation also promised a “special surprise” for those who attended the dinner on one of five evenings.

The special surprise, of course, was revealing the actual provenance of the food items being served. “The twist at the end was not dissimilar to what brands like Pizza Hut and Domino’s have done in the recent past, with success,” noted Stephanie Moritz, a public relations flack at ConAgra.

The plan was to use the video footage captured at the dinners for promotional clips on ConAgra’s website and on YouTube … as well as for the bloggers who attended to generate cyber-buzz about being pleasantly surprised at the revelation.

But this is 2011, not 1981 or 1991. And bloggers are also quite different from the average consumer. Ketchum and ConAgra apparently forgot about the “90-9-1 rule” of online content: 1% create content … 9% comment on that content … and 90% simply lurk.

Not only are bloggers part of the 1%, they take their role seriously and certainly don’t appreciate being fooled. So instead of the food taking center stage, the event itself became the topic of (uniformly negative) conversation on the blogs. A few examples:

 “We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods. And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Lon Binder, FoodMayhem Blog)

 “[I] pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. I’m NOT their target consumer, and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen goods after tricking me to taste it.” (Cindy Zhou, Chubby Chinese Girl Blog)

 “Our entire meal was a SHAM! We were unwitting participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three-cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.” (Suzanne Chan, Mom Confessionals Blog)

I loved reading the PR personnel’s “spin” of the events the way they transpired: “Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” Stephanie Moritz remarked.

… By which she means the remaining dinner evenings were canceled.

Looking back is 20/20 hindsight, of course. But it does seem like most PR professionals could have seen this negative reaction coming from a mile away. PR agencies exist to provide not only publicity for their clients, but also counsel. Sure, the event sounds like a fun lark with a bit of a twist – and I can just picture the breathlessly animated PR brainstorming session at Ketchum that produced this idea.

But is duping bloggers and making them out to be fools the correct tactic? … Especially considering that their megaphone, augmented by the viral nature of social media, is much more effective and far-reaching than ConAgra’s corporate website ever could hope to be.

When the Public Relations Society of America was contacted by the New York Times for comment, Deborah Silverman, chairperson of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, responded by stating that the Ketchum/ConAgra PR stunt was “unfortunate” and “not quite where they should be in terms of honesty.”

Ya think?

McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.