What is an influencer? I think a different way to phrase that question is to ask who isn’t an influencer. The way we curate our feeds, the emphasis on followers and likes and engagement, have trained us to value these metrics as currency.
Everyone you know, from a mother reviewing free samples to athletes and celebrities, are all “influencers.” Some cost more, others less, some are overtly commercial, others are deep into partnerships. But they all consider themselves to be influential.
Now, the question is, can they really influence? That's a completely different conversation. Having seen the evolution of the influencer economy from the mommy bloggers of the 2010s to social profiles to Instagram influencers recently, I am certain it is the brands that use their own fans as influencers that will thrive in the future.
I began my career--like many other people in marketing--in advertising in New York. I moved there thinking that advertising and its creative culture was a place where I wanted to spend my days and nights. I worked for large brands, like Procter & Gamble or General Motors, seeing the mechanics of how big brands go to the market.
While that was educational for me, I quickly learned that the fact that big brands were unable to capture the speed and creativity needed to keep up with the times would be their biggest downfall. The DNA of those companies won’t allow for that. So, I switched to startups. I moved to the West Coast and joined a number of startups, beginning with Method, the famous early disruptor to the cleaning space. It was there that I got to work with early-day influencers--namely, mommy bloggers.
Afterward, I went to TaskRabbit, one of the very early players in the sharing economy, and then to late-stage fashion brand Spring, to lead marketing and continue working with influencers, public relations, etc. My entrepreneurial journey has offered me unique insights into the influencer economy, and today I am the operating officer at private investment company Emil Capital Partners and CMO at Cheribundi, a national sports performance beverage brand specializing in tart cherry juice.
We raised $15 million about nine months ago at Cheribundi. In doing so, we extended our influencers’ program, which we call the Pit Crew. Pit Crew numbers over 50 experts who share fitness, wellness and exercise recovery tips and advice with our community through a variety of channels. We also consider those who sign up for our subscription program ($32.40 monthly) members of the Pit Crew. Since this program launched, we have tripled our revenue on Amazon and increased our Instagram engagement rate to a frequency above 10%, which is at least twice the average.
I attribute our success in part to our adoption of the Peloton approach. Much as the famous bike-fitness content platform uses their own instructors as the face of their marketing strategy, inverting what used to be an advertising model where you paid a spokesperson to appear on TV, we similarly tap into our own network to find authentic ambassadors. These are people who have already tried and loved our products (and Cheribundi has over 300 professional and collegiate sports teams who buy from us).
It’s a completely integrated influencer model, much more powerful and believable than the outdated, commercialized, and transactional model of recent years.
Think about the influencer economy. It was born around 2010. At that point there was no Instagram. We barely tweeted. Social media actually wasn't part of the conversation. The first real influencers were mommy bloggers. They were the CEOs of the home, who did the shopping and in their spare time reviewed products on their blogs. Brands began sending them free stuff.
In the mid- to -late 2010s, “influencing” boomed into a full career for many. It became that way because social media became so pervasive, brands found a clever outlet to market their products. When Facebook launched ads, riots broke out online.
People thought ads would be disruptive to their personal feeds but look at what’s happening today. In a social media-first economy with contractual agreements, terms, conditions, and deliverables, influencers became their own brands. Around 2018 the space became overcrowded and transactional, a commercial exchange in which neither brands nor influencers were that invested though.
In 2021, brands are moving away from ads and into branded content, so the new-generation of influencers will be the ones that genuinely love and already use a product. Consumers are savvy: they can tell when this is just a paid placement in their feed versus a deeply integrated post from someone that really loves this product. And the platform best suited to such a transition is TikTok.
Where Facebook and Instagram cater to your filtered self, TikTok speaks to your unfiltered self. The first two are on the wrong side of history. People today want to be more “real”. They don't want to be marketed to in a way that feels commercial or fake. TikTok or Snapchat are more authentic and resonate better with younger generations.
Place your bets on the young brands that reach to their fan base to find influencers, because big companies will struggle in this new influencer era; they are not built for outside influence but to optimize their supply chains. All reasons why I am glad I pivoted to startups early on in my career. There’s a certain amount of bravery and risk taking you need to take to be truly influential.