Is "influencer marketing" new? Do influencers make traditional public relations and marketing communications obsolete? These are questions Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss in today's episode.
Merriam-Webster defines influence as "the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways." In marketing, the use of "influencers" existed long before the digital era. Any celebrity, athlete, public figure, or scientific expert who could influence a buyer's decision was (and is) considered an influencer.
But the rise of social media influencers with their own audience or following -- usually on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc -- has begun to change the way companies and marketing agencies alike think about the marketing mix. Influencer marketing is a strategy and a tactic, not unlike other marketing communications tactics. You still have to have a good story to tell, good content to share, and a good understanding of your target audience.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Does Influencer Marketing Make Traditional Marketing Communications Obsolete?"
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Welcome to another episode of Copper State of Mind, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Influence and influencer marketing is a subject that consumes a lot of attention these days. Everybody who's under the age of 22 wants to be an influencer and many organizations and companies are grappling with influencer marketing as part of their outreach, part of their strategy for reaching their audience. I'm joined for this conversation by Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, are we all under the influence? I think we are in some cases and I think it's a good topic to discuss today about really the role of how communicators use influence and the different strategies that we have to create influencer campaigns for our clients, our organizations, and getting people to take action.Adrian McIntyre:
Influence is such a fascinating topic to me because it cuts across not just our professional work, but reaches into psychology, social psychology, history, the study of how people at various times have tried to shape the perceptions of things at a grand scale. What is the definition of influence? Merriam Webster defines it as the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways. I thought that is really interesting because with influence, we're not talking about a direct argument, a direct attempt to determine something, but rather a shaping, a subtle more behind the scenes method. And of course, throughout history, we've seen propaganda campaigns and manipulations of various kinds. And of course, advertising itself, as pilloried in the film, Thank You for Smoking has been designed to try to shape the perceptions and the purchases of an audience. So is influencer marketing just the latest version of something that's been going on for a hundred years?Abbie Fink:
Well, I think that's a safe destination for that conversation is have we been doing this forever? And I think the answer is probably yes. We didn't necessarily have the words for it back in those days. You mentioned propaganda or things along the lines that did influence people and maybe that even I think the terminology propaganda makes us sound negative, right? It somewhat has that connotation that it is somehow evil in its efforts, but sure. I mean, since the dawn of time, people have been trying to influence another person to take action that is more in line with what their thinking is. And we see it play across virtually everything that we do and I think it's a conversation that also evolves around the concept of trust and who do we trust to get information from and or resources for information? I remember early on in the social media environment when it was becoming much more part of a business strategy and not just a friend to friend communication, and Chris Brogan wrote a book called The Trust Agent. And he talked about the fact that the reason that social media, which and now is then part and parcel of what influencer marketing is, but the reason that was it was being considered successful and why so many of us were relying on it is that there was an inherent trust factor that was existing there. If I need a dry cleaner, I call you up and say, "Hey, Adrian, who are you using as a dry cleaner?" You tell me Betty's dry cleaning down the street. I trust you, you trust them. Therefore, I trust them. Social gave us this platform to be able to do that on a much larger scale. So you can go onto your Facebook page now and say, "I need a dry cleaner," and 20, 30, 40 people will give you their favorite dry cleaner. And it's because we have a connection we trust and therefore, we are influenced by the decision, the answers that you've given us. So to me, this concept of influencer marketing is another tool that we have in our tool chest as communicators that is even more of a direct opportunity to communicate with who our target demographic is. When you're thinking about developing an influencer strategy, you're looking at all of those same things that you might be looking at in your traditional communications efforts, who am I trying to reach and what is the best vehicle for us to get there? And what messaging are we going to share? And therefore, influence comes into play.Adrian McIntyre:
I'm struck by the fact that as we look at the history of public relations as a professional field, its origins are very much grounded in propaganda in a very neutral sense. I'm not judging the term, but in attempts by, in many cases, governments, the U.S. Government, for example, to create support for its involvement in World War I. So there were official propagandists working for the war department, whose job it was to sell the war to the American public. And some of those folks, notably, Edward L. Bernays, who is sometimes credited as the father of spin or the father of public relations, really developed some interesting ideas at the intersection of social science and psychology and marketing for how to convince people to change their taste, to buy something that they wouldn't originally have wanted to buy. And as this has evolved away from those origins, public relations as a field has professionalized and become more sophisticated and more subtle in many ways was always working against something that was constant throughout that time, which is the fact that the audiences that were being targeted were relatively large audiences. The readership of a large newspaper, like the New York Times, the people viewing in the television era, the one, two or three channels that were available at that time. So PR as a discipline evolved along with mass communication to reach a relatively singular audience. Although of course, that audience was never homogenized, the messaging was targeted to the masses. In the era of social and with influencer marketing, the nature of audiences has changed. Audiences now are more selective, they're smaller, they're consuming things on their own time. So the way we communicate with those audiences has also changed. Do you think this has made some of traditional PR's approaches obsolete?Abbie Fink:
Well, let me go back one second. And I think the interesting thing about the audience is that the audience may not have changed as much as the way the audience reacts to the information that they get. Does it make traditional marketing communications obsolete? I don't think so. And in fact, my master's degree is in mass communication. And that was only 20 years ago. So that even in that short period of time, we have shrunken the, if you will, the way that we're communicating. We've gotten a much more ability to narrow the focus. But I had an opportunity couple of weeks ago to do some mock interviews with some of the students coming out of the Cronkite School at Arizona State University. These are soon to graduate journalism, mass communications, digital communications, all of which of course, didn't exist when I went to school. And one of the seniors that I was speaking to is currently interning at an influencer communications firm and her title is talent coordinator. And I found that very fascinating that what does that mean? What is talent coordinator? And as she was describing what she's doing, she's working with influencers and helping them hone in on their marketing strategy, the types of brands that they want to represent, what are they going to do as they get asked to be part of an influencer campaign, what messages they will be distributing out to their followers. And I asked her, given that the textbooks have probably not caught up to this yet, they're talking about it very anecdotally, but the influencer marketing is still a relatively new discipline. I said, "Well, as you're learning traditional marketing communications and traditional work alongside your very non-traditional internship, how are you making it relevant?" And she said, "You know what, Abbie? It's exactly the same thing. What I have at my disposal as an influencer marketing firm is just a different strategy than what I might be doing with pitching a story to a reporter, to eventually write about it." She said, "I still have to have a good story, or my influencer still has to have a good story. They have to have a target audience that, that, that brand is trying to reach and they have to have the credibility and the respect of their readership, viewership, clickership, whatever you call the interaction, and that's exactly what we do in a more traditional environment as well." I thought, "You know what? That's exactly right. It still comes down to the basics, which is good content, good message, where do we want it to go? Without those things, all of these other tactics that we have really don't matter anyway." So to your point about the audience, the audience, I think is becoming much smarter, they do have multitudes of places to find that information, but they still have to trust in the exchange. So whoever they happen to be following on Instagram, or whether they're turning on their local news, they have to trust in that information and who's imparting it in order to take action. And that's the basics of marketing communications. We just have a whole lot more ways to be able to do that now.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things it seems to me that's always been a little bit problematic in the way in which relationships between public relations firms or mar-comm service providers and their clients are structured is that somewhere along the way, the clients became enamored of some metrics that may or may not be as relevant now. And some of the ways in which things are priced and tracked and reported on are really just disconnected from the world of actions and results that people want. For example, impressions as a metric, reach as a metric, these are relatively meaningless things. The fact that buying ad space in a magazine is still at an 8x multiple of subscriptions when nobody is actually picking up the same copy of the magazine and passing it around to eight different people who are consuming your ad on page 206, but you're paying as if eight times the subscription number have consumed your ad. So there's a lot of fuzziness and silliness in here. What I find interesting about influencer marketing on social is because it's entirely digital, there is the opportunity to do some better tracking of results. We already know reach is not the same as ROI.Abbie Fink:
The investment that you make should produce results. Influencer marketing can have some of that smoke and mirrors aspects to it as well, but there's probably some better ways to go about that. How would you recommend people think about this issue, which I know we got a little technical here for a second when we're talking about some of these metrics that may not make sense to the leader of an organization who's considering an influencer marketing campaign, but how can we educate folks about what really counts, the metrics that matter, so to speak?Abbie Fink:
Sure. And the metrics is such an interesting dynamic because we as communications professionals have to show an ROI, a return on the investment that these clients are making in the work that we're doing. And for years, and years and years, it was an ad equivalency rate. So this article in the newspaper measures this many inches by this many inches and if I were to buy that ad space, the equivalent of that article was $272,000 or whatever the number was, which is... When you presented that number to your client was, "Amazing. We got a million dollars’ worth of public relations for you." But there was no action taken as a result, right? So it eventually, and by eventually several years, decades became something that was no longer relevant. So where most of us are leading right now is really what are your key performance indicators? What do you need to have happen and why does public relations...? And let's use that as the global term, public relations, how is it going to impact those key performance indicators? So with an influencer marketing is a nice blend of that messaging, "Here's what we want people to know, and here's the action we want them to take." And because social influence has a real direct opportunity for call to action, where that you can say to someone, "Take this, show this Instagram post at the local restaurant for your 10% off." We know that work. We have a direct call to action and the key performance indicator is we're going to increase sales foot traffic by X percent based on this particular campaign.Adrian McIntyre:
Just like in the old school world, you might have a bunch of different phone numbers, then each number was in a different ad and you were tracking on the back end, which phone numbers rang, and that showed you the performance results of the campaign.Abbie Fink:
Correct. Now an article in the newspaper, a story on television, something that you might hear in a news program doesn't have that direct call. I mean, I can say that a dental office is debuting a new procedure and we talk about what that's going to do to enhance dental care and all these kinds of things, but I can't say at the end of that, "And go visit Dr. Jones," in the same way that if I took an ad out. But an influencer, a social media influencer can be in engaged with and say, "Come in and try, tell your followers what you... They have to be honest because it may not always be that they thought your product was the be all and all, but you're contracting with them to do that. Come in, take my... Let me do my new procedure, then tell your followers what you thought about it and as a result, here's your special code that they can use when they call to make an appointment and that's where the financial exchange comes in, but I can track that Adrian, as a dental influencer was able to drive this much traffic to my business. It's got a really nice blend of all the things that we want to have in terms of how to measure that ROI and it is a very direct... It's not the one to many. It is a direct one to... Not quite one, but one to a smaller number of many that influencer has a relationship with. And my view about numbers in general as it relates to what we do in communications is we need to not be enamored by big numbers because those don't necessarily tell the full story. And I would rather have a campaign running with an influencer that has 500 followers that are exactly who I'm trying to reach than a campaign with a following of 5,000 that do nothing. So the numbers have to be relevant to the work that you're doing and it's the same decisions we make when we talk about traditional marketing as well. Is the story better placed in the community newspaper, or is the story better placed on television, radio, podcast? Pick a medium. Well, it depends on who we're trying to reach. Those same decisions go into... If we have this more traditional versus influencer, those same decisions are being consideredAdrian McIntyre:
As marketing communications evolved over the 20th century, there was a real tension between agencies and leaders who focused on brand and those that focused on direct response and that there was, at least in the advertising world, in copywriting and other things, these two camps that were viciously opposed to each other, when it seems now very clear that the answer is both. Brand, as in the impression people have, that they carry around with them of your product, of your company, that really matters. And building brand indirectly, intangibly, in ways that cannot always be tracked and reported is a really good idea. Nike is a whatever gazillion dollar company, not because they have a bunch of pixels that follow everyone around the internet to run retargeting ads to try to get to buy Nike at the moment you want to buy shoes, but because that brand lives for people in a way that is meaningful and substantial. And at the same time, we have all this wonderful technology that allows us to take old school direct response to a 2.0 or 3.0 level. With those pixels, with those reporting metrics, with our ability to integrate directly with platforms and tracking engagement rates on Instagram and things of that nature. So it's not an either, or. It really is, "Let's have yes and, brand and transactions. Let's do both."Abbie Fink:
And that takes us right back to that key performance indicators, right? Wherever we are coming into the conversation, whatever role we play within the organization, all has to be based in that same, "What are we all trying to do? What's our end game here?" And you're absolutely right. We used to all operate in silos. Public relations had their lane, and marketing had their lane, and advertising and branding and of sales. We all had our spot. And it's not that we still don't have those now, but marketing happens when all of those silos open up and come together. Seems to me I've got books on my mind today. Another really great book called Marketing in the Round written by Gini Dietrich talks a lot about the idea that we have to open up these silos a little bit. That we all have our way of doing it. What I do in public relations is different what someone does in sales and is different than someone does in advertising, but we all rely on each other for the end result, which is to enhance the brand in whatever capacity that we're talking about. As an industry, the communications industry has really evolved and I think this smart and successful practitioners are recognizing that we all have the lanes that we operate in, but sometimes we have to share that lane and let others come in and see what's happening. If I'm creating a campaign that's relying on messaging from a public relations perspective, I sure as heck want to make sure that aligns with what the sales team is going out and selling, or conversely, that what they're selling, I can deliver back in production. So it all has to work together or we see no success. We see no performance. And again, we have so many more tactics to work with now than we ever have, but they all come back to a very strategic purpose and determining which one of those is the best option for the particular effort is really where those conversations amongst all of us need to take place.Adrian McIntyre:
Now, a lot of times, Abbie, influencer marketing seems to be implicitly about selling product, and then to a large degree, I think there is a great deal of that that happens through influencer marketing strategies and campaigns, but let's not forget about other kinds of issues based advocacy, other kinds of perception and public awareness campaigns. How would influencer marketing play a role, for example, in a campaign like the one that HMA Public Relations worked on with other PR and advertising agencies, the Mask Up Arizona campaign? Or when The Maricopa Association of Governments is trying to put out something about public safety on the highways and things of that nature, do influencers have a role to play when there's not a sneaker or yoga pants or energy drink to sell?Abbie Fink:
They absolutely have a role. And it goes back to that concept of trust. It doesn't have to necessarily be the widget that we're trying to get into people's hands. If we go back to your definition of influence, is to create a change, right? It's to take action of some kind. If that action is get out to vote, or that action is don't drive one in five or buckle up for safety, don't drink and drive, pick a topic. It's all about an action. One of the ... Most people remember the campaign, This Is Your Brain... This Is Your Brain On Drugs. It was from the partnership for a Drug-Free America 25 plus years ago. And the whole premise of that was out of the advertising industry, if we could advertise to you to do something, then we could also advertise to you to not do something. So they built an entire strategy around telling you why you shouldn't do drugs. They didn't tell you, "Don't do drugs." They showed you. They were influencing decisions by showing you what this was going to be.Adrian McIntyre:
I always just got really hungry for the fried eggs.Abbie Fink:
For the fried eggs.Adrian McIntyre:
Whenever I saw it, I just wanted to eat eggs.Abbie Fink:
That campaign went on to win countless awards and still is seen as a model of advocacy communications. Now it didn't be called influencer marketing back then because we didn't have those words, we didn't understand it, but that's really what it was. It was an action. We have seen and I think we'll continue to see the concept of influence and influencer marketing on all sorts of decisions that we're making. And it may not be as obvious as an ad might be. Think about celebrities that come out and talk about issues of importance to our community. The Oscars are coming up soon and we didn't go to movie theaters all of last year, but movies were released and movies were available, and those studios are all influencing the voters of the academy on, "Vote for my motion picture, vote for my actor, vote for..." So we're being influenced in ways that we're may not even realize that it's happening. And I see no issue with using that to create change on social issues, on things that impact our environment, sustainability, anything that really requires us to take action. If I have the ability to reach an audience by my channels, my social channels, my voice, however that is, why wouldn't I use that for the good of our community? Now the individuals that I interact with have to believe that I am someone they should trust in that discussion, that if I decide that I'm going to take on a particular issue, that I have the credibility and the resources and the knowledge and understanding to be able to put out information that's accurate and takes action in the right way, and that's how those campaigns and the influencer themselves build up their following on those particular topics. But I think if we really paid attention and there has not been a time in modern history where we have not had influencer campaigns. We have just called them things differently. We have interacted with them differently, but the bottom line has always been the same, is trying to have... Create a way for someone to take an action, whether that was purchasing something, going out to vote, stop smoking, don't drink and drive, buckle up for safety, pick the topic, and you've probably interacted with an influencer.Adrian McIntyre:
I love the metaphor of the pipes and the water. Our pipes may have changed, our channels, our platforms, the way in which we reach people, but the substance, the water, the message, the trust, that hasn't changed. It may be delivered by a different vehicle, but what's in those pipes is timeless.Abbie Fink:
I mean, look at this podcast is a perfect example. I mean, two to three years ago, this would not have been a viable option for someone to be able to create a channel for discussion. We would have been on a radio program, or we might have been interviewed for a newspaper article on the same topic, but here we have this opportunity for a conversation and a dialogue, and we're going to encourage people to listen in and hopefully walk away with some valuable information and mention that this podcast talks about this topic, we found it very interesting, and that's all in that creating of influence and bringing information to people to cause them to do something with it for their benefit and for the benefit of whole.Adrian McIntyre:
And that reminds me at some level of something really important. Was that at the end of the day, it's the relationship between the influencer and her audience that really matters. As you said earlier, the size of the audience is less important. And I think to the degree that we become more sophisticated in thinking about how we reach who we want to reach and what works and stop being so enamored of the big numbers. Those days are gone and you know what? They weren't that particularly great anyway. There's an incredible opportunity now for anybody who wants to cultivate that relationship with an audience, to build a following, whether it's on YouTube or Instagram, or pretty much anywhere, whatever the next thing is. TikTok, Clubhouse, et cetera, et cetera, there's an opportunity for that person to become an influencer, which carries with it, a responsibility that all of us who've taken seriously our relationship with the public or publics really have had to grapple with. And that is how do I make sure that my actions are aligned with my values and that I'm here to do good, not just to get paid and all those other things? So those also haven't changed.Abbie Fink:
No. And that's a conversation that we have with our clients all the time before we even get to the tactics or what the topics are, any of that, is that the brand that we are going to be representing is the client that we're going to be working with. Do their core values, their mission, their vision for what they want to be aligned with who we are and what we have established as our brand and our values? And when those two align, you create a relationship and both sides of that have to be trusting in the relationship that we're going to go out and do that. It is my brand, if you will, what I stand for, what my company stands for, how the rest of the team at HMA is perceived when we align with clients or projects or whatever that might be. And it is a big responsibility that who I am in my professional career aligns with who I am personally, because my brand carries with me. Just because I'm off, it's five o'clock and I'm done with my work day, doesn't mean that those things I've created disappear. So who I am has to be consistent and who I stand for and what I stand for has to be consistent. And that's what the same is with any of these influencers and that's when, oftentimes when something goes off the rails a little bit, it's that they, in a lot of ways, went off brand, if you will. That they said something that didn't align with what they've been saying before or what they stood for earlier in the day or... And we all make mistakes. We all say things we wish you wouldn't have said, we post things we wish we didn't, but the there's a difference between making a mistake and then just being completely opposite of anything that anyone has been paying attention to. It's super important, I think that we continue to have that conversation and that we continue to look for ways to engage and stay trusting with our audiences and that nothing that we do in our professional or nothing we do in our personal life ever, as best as we can, never conflicts with each other, because no matter... Even if you do not carry the title of an influencer, if that is not your career path to become an influencer, we all have influence in who we interact with and what we do and what we say, and we have a lot of power in using these tools like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and TikTok and Clubhouse, and whatever they're going to come up with, as you said next week, and we all need to take that responsibility and use it for the good that we all believe in.Adrian McIntyre:
Abbie Fink is vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. For over 40 years, HMA PR has been serving Arizona companies and organizations. Abbie, thanks so much for your insights on this topic.Abbie Fink:
If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.