How modern brands are leveraging the power of digital influencers to create content and cultivate new audiences

It wasn’t that long ago that the word “influencer” was rather vague and hazy. It wasn’t clear if influencers were a marketing tactic to test, let alone roll into the marketing mix. But now, thanks to the success of influencer programs, billions of dollars are being pumped into the campaigns as influencer marketing goes mainstream.

According to a study from ANA and PQ Media, total brand spending on influencer marketing is projected to reach $101 billion by 2020, up from $81 billion last year. When you combine brand spending and operator revenues—includes contracted firms, such as agencies and media companies—$167 billion is expected to be earmarked for influencer programs by 2020, up from $130 billion in 2016.

It may come as no surprise that social media is the fastest growing influencer marketing channel, besting word-of-mouth, PR and customer service and telesales.

Last month, Marriott Rewards introduced a series for the first time on Snapchat, with each of the four “snapisodes” hosted by a top social media influencer. The series, “Six Days, Seven Nights," was developed specifically for the mobile app to educate Millennials about its loyalty program. The first episode debuted March 30 starring Jen Levinson, a notoriously picky eater who sets out to broaden her palate and discover the best food in Berlin. She squirms and tries “not to vomit” when tasting dishes like currywurst and frog legs, but ultimately finds meals she likes, including what she calls “slimy” frog legs.

“For each episode we have a different host who is a well-known influencer in the Snapchat space, has a built in audience and is highly recognizable,” says Amanda Moore, senior director, social and digital marketing, loyalty, at Marriott. “We want to show the viewers that we know them by working with influencers that they’re familiar with in the hopes that will drive more association and viewership of the program.”

The success of influencer marketing is helped by the fact that 95% of consumers trust friends or people they get recommendations from who they trust or see as similar to themselves. Brands tap into these everyday people who have built social followings who share their opinions in an authentic way and move their fans to action at scale.

In addition to Levinson, Marriott has partnered with Tom Jauncey of Beautiful Destinations, Diipa Khosla and Sara Hopkins who take viewers both on- and off-Marriott properties in Berlin, Seoul, Dubai and New York City. Each three-minute episode is unscripted and partially filmed using Snapchat Spectacles to enable viewers to get close up looks at new destinations, cultures, communities and Marriott properties. As the influencer goes on the adventure, along the way viewers learn about Marriott Rewards benefits like free wi-fi and room upgrades.

Don't miss Moore and other leading marketers from Mountain Dew, MINI USA, Malibu Rum and Vera Bradley at Masters of Brand Activation June 13 in NYC.

Marketers work with influencers for dozens of reasons. Like Marriott, the leading reason is relevancy to my audience (73%), followed closely by authenticity and trusted voice (72%) and to drive engagement (60%). Other marketers cite organic reach, word of mouth and quality content that can be repurposed as other reasons, according to the Linqia study “The Value of Influencer Content 2017.”

Measuring the success of influencer marketing is still a bit of the Wild West. The best-case scenario would be to directly tie sales to the influencer content and activations, by using measurable promotions like offer codes or coupons. But, in general, most ROI is still based on more traditional metrics like reach, impressions, views and engagement.

Marriott will be looking at the standard metrics, as well as running a Nielsen Digital Brand Effect study to understand whether the influencer-led Snapchat series made a good platform for the campaign.

“That’s the great thing about our approach to this channel,” Moore says. “We’re calling this a pilot season. Our main goal is to come out of this and say, is this channel relevant for Marriott Rewards. We’ll have the data and insights behind it. It will answer the question around what our longer strategy is for this channel.”

Some 86% of marketers are using influencer marketing as part of their content strategy, with 53% finding the content valuable, according to the Linqia study.

Retail is the largest vertical industry category tapping into influencer marketing at $13.3 billion, or 11%, in 2015, followed by automotive (10.5%), banking and financial services (10.2%), business and professional services (8.2%), pharmaceuticals (7.9%), travel, trans, tourism and hospitality (6.4%) and restaurants and QSRs (6.1%).

QSR Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, which markets hand-rolled soft pretzels at more than 1,600 locations, is a newcomer to influencer marketing. It recently staged its first campaign and discovered that the brand has a strong built-in fan base with influencers due to strong opt-in rates. The influencers shared rich content that helped spread its brand message to millions of social media users.

“While we took away some key learnings and identified areas of improvement for our next attempt, we were happy with the positive engagement and excitement generated for the brand,” says Carol Pasquariello, vice president of marketing at Auntie Anne's. “The wealth of accessible influencer content for brand use was another beneficial outcome.”

While keeping specific metrics under wraps, the experience “has been positive and we plan to execute additional influencer campaigns in the future,” Pasquariello says.

Pasquariello offered the following five tips when developing contracts with influencers:

1. Identify the campaign goal Who is your target audience? What are you trying to achieve? Figure out what you want to get out of the program before diving in.

2. Determine a budget Influencer programs can be tailored to meet any budget, from hundreds of dollars to millions. For those on a limited budget, micro-influencers, or those everyday individuals with small, dedicated followings online, can deliver serious bang for the buck. For mid-level budgets, consider a mix of micro and higher-profile options.

3. Pick the right agency If you've never executed an influencer campaign, don't blindly attempt to coordinate one yourself. Working with a social or PR agency, or an agency focused solely on influencer programs, can streamline the process and limit potential headaches.

4. Pick the right influencers Start with a list of potential options and narrow it down to your finalists. Concentrate on voice, tone, demographic, audience and following. Make sure your influencers are the best choices for realizing your campaign goal.

5. Confirm posting details before signing How many posts? What channels? Who has editorial control? If followers engage with posts, is the influencer going to interact? Who owns the content after it is posted? Everything should be agreed upon before the campaign begins.

Some 50% of marketers pay influencers a flat rate to produce each piece of content. Other forms of compensation include performance-based models like CPC or CPE. Some 42% of the marketers surveyed said that content creation was included in their influencer-marketing program. Another 17% pay between $100 and $500 per piece, 15% offer $500 to $1,000 and 12% between $1,000 to $5,000. Just 7% reported paying under $100. These rates run anywhere from 2.2 to 2.7 times more if working with professionals versus influencers. In fact, marketers are using influencers to fuel their own content marketing programs by repurposing the most successful influencer-generated content on their own social and digital channels, Linqia found.

Marriott’s final snapisode will air June 30, and it has already taken learnings from the first episode and applied those to all three upcoming installments.

“We already have insights into what’s working,” Moore says. “For example, having the influencer talk directly to the camera is one learning that you’ll see in future episodes. To date we are seeing the intro, the first 10 seconds, is where we are capturing the viewer. That learning came from viewers and makes the episode a little more swipeable. We’re really trying to make modern what is timeless—the experience of travel through new and innovative content.”

Just take a look at Rudy Mancuso’s lofty froth of pompadour hair—and his 1.8 million YouTube subscribers—and you’ll understand why Axe Hair partnered with the social media sensation as an influencer to promote its men’s hair styling products.

Mancuso is one of 30 digital influencers that began creating and pumping out content last month with a message to guys that styling is not over-complicated and can be a simple skill once they settle on a look.

The influencers, known as the Axe Hair Creators, cross a wide range Axe Hair’s target demographics, including sports, music, epicurean, gaming, technology and comedy. Each day during March, a different influencer took over the Axe Instagram page to answer guys’ styling questions and explain why everyday styling is important. Other influencers included Josh Peck, Josh Elkin, Tyler Ward and Brodie Smith.

A digital content hub,, featured a three-step quiz for guys to figure out what style might be best for their hair type and offered video hacks on how to get it done.

Piyush Jain, vice president of Haircare at Unilever

Piyush Jain, vice president of Haircare at Unilever

Piyush Jain, vice president of Haircare at Unilever, talked to Chief Marketer about influencer marketing, finding the right match, measuring the effects and wrangling 30 social media stars.

CM: What was the goal of the program?
JAIN: To most guys, styling seems over-complicated, and they don’t want their friends to judge them for “trying too hard.” We are setting out to that prove that not only can every day styling be easy, it can impact your confidence and make you more interesting. We believe there is no one better to help us spread the message about how easy, yet rewarding, daily styling can be than the 30 AXE Hair Creators who guys are already following and looking up to.

CM: How important are influencers as a marketing strategy?
JAIN: While our brands have been working with influencers for years (celebrities, social media stars, stylists), we’ve learned today’s 18-24 year old guy trusts influencers more than brands—and specifically those influencers that are in his top areas of interest.

CM: How do you select influencers?
JAIN: They were selected not only because they have great, relatable style, but also because they have unique talents within the areas guys are most passionate about.

CM: How do you measure the impact of these partnerships?
JAIN: One of our key objectives with this campaign is to change guys’ perception about daily hair styling. Success is progress against breaking down the barriers that are currently keeping guys from styling every day. We will not only look at quantitative measurements such as how the influencers’ content performed, but we will also look qualitatively at how guys have responded to the message in their ‘Instagrooms’ and other AXE social content.

CM: Were there challenges working with these 30 influencers?
JAIN: The AXE Hair Creators have received an overwhelmingly positive response since our launch. All 30 influencers are trusted brand partners who we believe embody what it means to have great, everyday style that inspires confidence—and their fans are responding to it.

CM: Are you also trying to also reach guys outside of the influencers’ fan bases?
JAIN: Outside of reaching our target through his top passion areas, we’ve also created tools and educational resources to help all guys find an easy, everyday style, including

CM: As a marketer in a very crowded category, what keeps you up at night?
JAIN: AXE is always innovating and our products are evolving to match the needs and tastes of the modern guy. We’ve seen unprecedented growth in the men’s grooming category as men become more active and passionate about their styling and grooming routines. As the leader in men’s grooming, it’s our responsibility to champion all the ways guys can express themselves every day, including styling their hair.

AXE Hair Creator Josh Peck shows fans "how to get the job done."


Consumer trust in brand advertising continues to wane. The new marketing world is ruled by authenticity, transparency and credibility, which is why influencer marketing is gaining so much attention. Some 84% of marketers said they plan to launch at least one influencer campaign within the next 12 months, according to Inc. Indeed, the most credible advertising comes straight from the people we know and trust.

So how do you effectively work with influencers in an increasingly skeptical culture? Here are five key considerations:

1. Credibility Matters No matter how many followers a so-called expert has, know who you are dealing with. Are they a professional or some unknown who has risen to social fame without a proven history? There are stories of influencers who manipulate their metrics and use services to accrue fake followers. Successful influencers understand what their audience needs and truly earn their followers. And their followers respect them because they add value to their lives. To be effective, influencers must be perceived as independent, as authentic fans of the brands they talk about.

2. More Followers Does Not Equal Greater Engagement How do you know the right size of influencer following for your specific program? What’s the right follower base profile? In this new marketing model, metrics of reach and impressions become just one measure of program effectiveness. At times the most effective programs are partnerships with what we call the Power Middle. These medium-sized influencers, with 50,000 to 150,000 followers, have deeply engaged audiences who value the influencer’s opinion, much more so than connection to social celebs. Look at the influencer’s content. Are they naturally having the same conversation that is important to your business? Is their relationship with their followers based on shared values, and the same values of your brand? The influencer world requires this human touch, not simply looking at reach metrics. Once you’ve identified the right influencer and base followers, engagement as a metric becomes just as—if not more important than—the number of impressions a program delivers.

3. Retain Authenticity. Embrace Transparency You hired the influencer because of their voice, expertise and visual style. Now let the influencer be him or herself. Respect their credentials. Each influencer knows their audience and how to engage them with a partner brand without turning people off. Trust their judgment to deliver your message in their voice—an essential principle for authentic content. This goes hand-in-hand with transparency. Simply put, the FTC requires “effective communication, not legalese.” Influencers have room to clearly disclose any paid partnerships in their own conversational voice.

4. Build Brand Advocates Ask yourself a few questions that compare the influencer with your brand equity pyramid. Is the influencer aligned with your principles? If the answer is yes, you’ve found a partner that can tell your brand story in a meaningful way. And, as such, should be considered an advocate for your brand, a partner that is deeper than a one-and-done “pay to shout” transaction. Instead of a simple media buy, you can end up with a community of brand advocates who demonstrate your brand beliefs in their lifestyle. Consider making these advocates a part of your marketing mix throughout the year to reinforce your messaging across multiple channels. The weight of an influencer’s sincere and continued brand advocacy is cogent.

5. Achieving Scale Historically, marketers believed influencers couldn’t provide enough reach to make it an important part of a brand’s marketing mix. But the consumer-driven push for ad blockers combined with the user growth of social media platforms has changed the playing field. More influencers across verticals reach larger audiences of committed followers, who often get their news and education directly from social media. Improved technology enables effective management and tracking of influencer campaigns, so experienced influencer marketing companies can now deliver larger numbers of influencers, and greater reach and engagement numbers in a more timely and efficient manner. For added scale, the sponsored content being developed by credible influencers can be amplified through highly targeted digital and social media channels, providing even greater impact.

In many way, today’s marketing model has been flipped, with influencers controlling access to the audiences. It can be a difficult situation for brand marketers not used to ceding control. But with the right influencer, the right fit and the right brand brief, the influencer will earn your trust and, in turn, the consumer’s trust in your brand as well.

Karen Koslow is a managing partner at Wellness Amplified Inc., an influencer marketing company focused on the health and wellness verticals.