Under the influence: Why social media is scaling down
Stepping in to what can sometimes be the wild west of the web that we call social media, Tim Cumming talks to leading players in branding for social, and discovers why the mega-influencers of the pre-pandemic world are downsizing.
The world has been through a seismic digital shift in the past year of pandemics, lockdown, remote working and billowing social distances.
In fact, it could be argued that we’ve collectively been swept down the rabbit hole into an alternative screen reality, and when it comes to brand communications, the old mainstays of television and billboards are poised to be superceded by the wild west of the social space. The old guys like Facebook and Twitter, for sure, but the new kids on the block now towering over their parents – the likes of TikTok, Twitch and Instagram – and that curious tribe of consumers-cum-creators, the influencers, whose size ranges from nano to macro to mega.
[Influencers] may be becoming the strongest force in branding, whatever the brand.
These people may be becoming the strongest force in branding, whatever the brand – whether it’s a heritage one like Avon, making the big move from social selling to social media; contemporary behemoths such as Assassins Creed; or naughty snacks in search of the right naughty but nice influencer.
Above: While Kim Kardashian's huge social media following can still be a boon there has been a backlash as, especially during the pandemic, "the Kardashians of the world suddenly looked unattainable rather than aspirational", and more brands are turning to micro-influencers.
Tamara Littleton, CEO of The Social Element, is perfectly placed to deliver an authoritative, forward-focused overview. “I’m old school,” she says. “I started in 2002, before Facebook, YouTube or Twitter existed. I have a psychology background, and social’s something that’s always fascinated me, because, ultimately, it is people being people. It changes a bit but it hasn’t really changed very much in all the years.”
Through the pandemic... lot of brands have had to step up and change their tone of voice, and do more talking back, connecting and listening.
The Social Element is all about engagement. “It could be community management, or content creation, and a lot is driven by social listening. Over the past 12 months, through the pandemic, there has been a massive shift to social media. A lot of brands have had to step up and change their tone of voice, and do more talking back, connecting and listening to what people are saying and using that to adapt their strategy. Looking for people talking about the brand or what the campaign represents, and having a conversation with them to pull them back to the campaign. It takes a lot of skill to get that right.”
Perhaps the biggest change in social is not the platforms but the inexorable rise of influencers, from nano accounts to mega-celebrity endorsers such as Kim Kardashian, who graced Cannes Lions back in 2014. “How that industry has grown,” exclaims Littleton, and cites a Business Insider report that says the industry will double from £8bn in 2019 to £15bn in 2022. “It’s massive. There’s definitely a rise in engagement when influencers are involved.”
Above: Lady Gaga partnered with Oreo to launched a new product which was supported by a scavenger hunt on Twitter.
And while she points to big celebrity endorsements from the likes of Lady Gaga for Oreo – “it was bonkers, massive engagement and reach” – Littleton also sees a sea change in scale, especially as a result of lockdown, when the Kardashians of the world suddenly looked unattainable rather than aspirational. “There was a backlash about influencers being in Dubai, and brands are adapting to that. There’s a shift away from calling them influencers. It’s all about creators. So there are the mega, the macro, the micro and nano creators, and we’re working with more of these micro creatives.
I’m a big fan of these smaller creators, and brands are much more focused on that, which is why we live and breathe TikTok.
They drive a lot more engagement, because they’re more real, with a real passion subject. They may only have a 1,000 followers, but they’ll have seven times higher engagement rate than the mega influencers with 100,000. I’m a big fan of these smaller creators, and brands are much more focused on that, which is why we live and breathe TikTok. If they have an engagement with the brands, they’ll get very excited and they talk about it. It can be very powerful driver of brand awareness.”
For Haley Koehn, a creative at indie agency Creature London, social is a mixture of democratisation and anarchic free-for-all. “It’s a bit of a wild west out there,” she says, “and a testing ground for some brands to see what works for their audience.” And while social budgets are much lower than for conventional spots, persuading brands new to the space to dive in can be as big a challenge as sending them viral. “To combine a stand-out, risky idea and get a client to go for it is the biggest hurdle,” she says. “Clients such as Axe are willing to break out of the expected and see the rewards of that, but other clients with smaller budges who aren’t as well known have to overcome the fear of doing something drastic that gets people talking.”
To combine a stand-out, risky idea and get a client to go for it is the biggest hurdle.
As an example, she points to snack brand Well&Truly, which came to Creature London to fashion a social, influencer-led campaign, and the agency brought them Towie star Gemma Collins. “If you attach a notable person with their own fan base to a product, that is a sure-fire way to get some people to talk about it,” says Koehn of the campaign, which saw Collins trundling about a park in a mobility scooter, loudly engaging passers-by and making mincemeat of the two-metre rule. “We put Gemma forward as someone who embodied the campaign hashtag, #naughtyish. She encapsulated naughtyish. People follow her on Instagram because she’s funny, even if she is outspoken, almost outlandish. She gets people’s attention wherever she goes, and Well & Truly was willing to set aside the haters. That’s one example of client taking a risky choice.”
Above: The Only Way is Essex star Gemma Collins features in a social campaign for Creature client Welll&Truly.
And while Koehn believes that the days of the mega-influencer are not yet over – “when the Kardashians post about something, it sells out” – she’s wary of those who make their living as influencers. “I respond best to influencers who have something else going on in their lives.” Think a personal trainer-cum-fitness influencer. “You feel their authenticity, and I steer brands to be in that camp, rather than towards content mills churning out TikToks and videos based on who’s paying them that week.”
I respond best to influencers who have something else going on in their lives... rather than towards content mills churning out TikToks.
Natasha Hulme, at Seen Group, handles beauty brands and there, too, she’s seen pre-pandemic, generic lifestyle content – aspirational, just out of reach – give way to more specialised approaches. “It’s young people with a perspective on ingredients and formulations, taking a vested interest in the science behind the products,” she says. “Those are the influencers working for the more sophisticated beauty brands. They help to dissect the back of the packet.” And the trend is more to micro than macro. “It’s about bringing together lots of different people to communicate a similar message. Helping consumers understand what the product does from lots of different perspectives.”
The latest tech is being combined with influencer content to push the digital frontiers.
The digital canvas has got a lot bigger through lockdown – it’s the space we’ve been seen in more than in any physical space – and the latest tech is being combined with influencer content to push the digital frontiers, or at least its filters, that much further. When games giant Ubisoft engaged interactive production studio makemepulse to promote Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the creatives came back with the idea of ‘Non-Playable Characters’, speaking their pain via a series of social My Life as A NPC videos. “They don’t live the same life as you, but they have the same language and tone and feelings,” says the studio’s CCO, Nicolas Rajabaly, of his creations, “and they use the same kind of social filters that people use. So it’s simple for users to create an emotional connection with them. The NPCs are like friends on a social network – they’re people like them, rather than the super-duper heroes.” The resulting campaign was a huge success for the brand, and swept the awards for the studio at Cannes in 2019.
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Above: makemepulse used Non-Playable Characters from Assassin's Creed: Odyssey as the central part of a social media campaign.
In Singapore, real-life influencers – or rather, influencers who weren’t primarily influencers, but drawn instead from pop, comedy, sport and film - were fused with Instagram’s newly launched AR face filters by indie agency UltraSuperNew to create Pumans, with discount coupons attached, to get real-world footfall flowing through Singapore’s ten flagship Puma stores.
“We played with what Instagram had to offer, as it became open to business,” says UltraSuperNew’s CD, Shivram Gopinath. “AR came into the picture because the agency wanted to see what was possible. So it was a wild card, to see if it could happen.” Again, choosing influencers with careers outside of product placement was crucial. “People tend to trust influencers with a small following more easily. You don’t see them as hawking things for a living, and they have lives outside being influencers. It comes across as them really backing what they put their face to.”
Above: UltraSuperNew's campaign for Puma combined a social media platform with AR functionality.
The expanding arena of social media interactions and influencer amplification of those interactions has even come to the old-world, face-to-face community of beauty brand Avon. Sarah Baumann, Managing Director at digital agency VaynerMedia, has brought the brand to TikTok, with beauty, fashion and lifestyle influencers including Scarlett Moffatt, Ryley Isaac and Rikki Sandhu leading its #LiftLockPop social campaign to broaden Avon’s audience and customer base. “Covid was the big accelerator on that,” says Baumann, “because they had to start selling online, using social media as well as the community they’d built up face-to-face.”
In traditional media, brand managers see their job as done once it rolls out to the media, in social, the opposite is true.
She highlights the key challenge brands face in adjusting to the social influencer space – giving up control. “It’s about that shift in mentality and mindset in going on to social media,” she says, “which is 100 per cent consumer led. So you no longer have tight control over your brand or brand narrative.” While in traditional media, brand managers have complete control of their TVCs, and see their job as done once it rolls out to the media, in social, the opposite is true. “That’s just the start of it when you make it live. You watch, you see, you learn from the responses. Once clients get into that, it’s very hard to go back to the old way.”
Above: Former Gogglebox star, Scarlett Moffat, featured in a TikTok campaign for Avon cosmetics.
Baumann sees TikTok as a major new player in the beauty space. “The reason TikTok has taken off is that it’s the polar opposite to Instagram; unpolished authenticity and being yourself thrives there, whereas Instagram is far more polished and 'Instaglam', and that can be very intimidating, you feel you’ll be judged if you don’t fit ideas of perfection.” It’s also a perfect fit for a brand like Avon, more lived-in than looked at from afar, as per Instagram’s professional influencers, draped over the edge of an infinity pool in Dubai. And it’s a creative, interactive space between consumers and brands that will only get bigger.
[Social is] your new store front, and you have to make sure your content is up to date, and that your shop window is looking good if you want to be a modern and relevant brand.
“Social is at the heart of everything now,” says Baumann. “And we know consumers are far more likely to check out a brand on their social channel rather than go to their website. It’s the first port of call. It’s your new store front, and you have to make sure your content is up to date, and that your shop window is looking good if you want to be a modern and relevant brand.”