Firms turn to online 'influencers' to spread the word on social media

Companies are adding online 'influencers' to marketing plans

After making a chancy investment to open a temporary storefront at the Grove mall this Christmas season, online retailer Revolve Clothing clicked open what it calls its bible and did more than just pray for success.

For Revolve's five-person marketing team, the sacred text is an Excel spreadsheet listing nearly 100 consumers, most of them young women, who could make or break the bricks-and-mortar experiment.

High on the list was Chriselle Lim, 29, of Manhattan Beach. A committed Revolve fan, she immediately said yes when asked to help promote the storefront. Revolve paid for her Uber ride to the store on a rainy day in early December and gave her credit to buy a light-pink leather jacket and a camel-colored coat that had caught her eye online.

It was a great deal for Revolve: Lim blasted two photos of her Grove visit onto Instagram, drawing more than 12,000 "likes" combined.

A mix of attractive looks, a knack for creativity and devotion to their fans has brought Lim and each woman on the Revolve list thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of supporters on social media. Many of the women treat their social media pages as digital billboards, earning thousands of dollars a year — and in some cases more than $100,000 — by promoting the offerings of companies such as Revolve.

"We've found it extremely critical to align ourselves with girls who have a large following of fashionistas," said Ashley Torres, senior manager of social strategy for Revolve, which is based in Cerritos. "It's one of the biggest things we've been doing to create brand awareness."

Tapping "influencers" to produce and distribute advertising is one part of a broadening convention — let the masses do the work — that advertising industry leaders say is capturing a growing share of advertising and marketing spending.

Revolve devotes considerable resources to hunting the Web for social media stars on its own. But not every company is so social-fashion forward.

So a batch of start-ups that includes about a dozen in Los Angeles County have built online marketplaces in which any company, from a tiny coffee shop to 20th Century Fox, can sign similar deals with minimal effort.

"A trusted voice speaking to their personal audience, this is the most effective and organic exposure a brand can get," said Eric Dahan, chief executive of influencer marketing network Instabrand. Increasingly, he says, companies are diverting money from magazine pitches, bricks-and-mortar plans and local television advertising, and spending it on influencer campaigns.

The influencer marketing and crowdsourced creative networks haven't upended traditional advertising agencies. But they're one of the many examples of digital media blurring the lines between content and advertising, consumer and advisor.

"Marketers have an opportunity through emerging technology to get closer and closer to their customers," said Wenda Harris Millard, president of consulting firm MediaLink and a longtime advertising industry executive.

Using everyday consumers rather than traditional celebrities or random actors has been popular since the "mommy bloggers" phenomenon took off several years ago — companies sent product samples to popular online writers, many of them stay-at-home mothers, fishing for positive reviews that show up high in Google.

Now, online content creation and consumption has exploded with the rise of social media. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat have given birth to influencer marketplaces such as Speakr, Instabrand, HelloSociety and Naritiv, to name a few.

"The influencers are the new girls next door," Revolve's Torres said. "We pride ourselves on being on the cusp of fashion and technology, and if we weren't telling our story on social, it just wouldn't make sense for our girls, who are on Snapchat, who are on Instagram."

Her team arranged for 50 women from their spreadsheet who live in Los Angeles to come to the Grove pop-up store. Revolve contracted with Instabrand to find about 10 additional locals to invite, including Mary Shay, 20.

Prodded by her best friend to sign up for Instagram during her senior year of high school, her account "marycake" had surpassed 250,000 followers by the time she began her junior year in college this year.

Shay said Instabrand co-founder Felix LaHaye told her a few months ago: "With the amount of followers you have, this account is basically Staples Center. Imagine everything you post, everyone in Staples Center is viewing it."

"That made me really think I have the opportunity to make people discover new things," she said.

Shay, who is studying public policy, decided to pursue a side gig as an influencer between classes.

Torres monitors the online sharing to see whether it actually generates the amount of online chatter that Revolve is targeting.

"We're definitely going to look at how much did we put into the pop-up and how much did we get out of it from a social awareness perspective," she said as she finalized a larger budget for influencer marketing in 2015.

Through a combination of humans and algorithms, start-ups such as Instabrand identify social media accounts that seem to carry influence. They invite the account owners to join the network, and companies can sort through it for, say, a handful of West Coast millennials who are experts in women's fashion and talented on Instagram.

Influencers opt in to requests from companies, which sometimes review content before publication. Money exchanges hands after posting, with the network taking a cut. A single post on Twitter might cost a company $200, while a more extensive campaign in which a reviewer makes in-person visits to the company might run $200,000.

Getting influencers to accept a pitch from an eczema cream maker was difficult, Instabrand's Dahan said. Ditto for a dating app. Otherwise, most companies have found a match.

Influencer marketing proved itself at 20th Century Fox. Last summer, there was no doubt teenage girls would want to see the film "The Fault in Our Stars." The studio thought it would try to attract some boys to the chick flick.

Through Speakr, the studio contracted a group of male influencers that included former Nickelodeon star Josh Peck to pump the movie on social media.

"For us it's really important to reach audiences in their native languages," said Marc Weinstock, 20th Century Fox's president of domestic theatrical marketing. "The young audience doesn't like direct marketing, so we got to get the conversation going out there in an organic way."

The film had a chart-topper opening weekend and more than $300 million in global sales off a $12-million production budget. It's unclear how many males were attracted through the social media campaign. But Weinstock said any positive conversation is good, and the Speakr campaign accomplished that.

"No matter how cool your message is, the moment someone else says it, it's real — it validates it," said Speakr Chief Executive Marco Hansell.

Twitter: @peard33

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