On Wednesday 27th July, we took over The Yard in Shoreditch, IPR London’s amazing adaptable space, to host the next in our series of FashTech Talks. During the sold out event, we discussed the very current topic of influencer marketing; the huge growth of it in recent years, the implementation of new laws and the ramifications of these, the relationship between influencers and brands, and the possible future of this particular marketing strategy.

Our fantastic panel consisted of Diipa Khosla, India’s most successful global lifestyle and fashion blogger; Debbie Cartwright, MD of IPR London; Amber Atherton, Entrepreneur and Founder of myflashtrash.com; Samuel Barrett, Head of Business Development at Takumi; all overseen by moderator John Harrington, Deputy Editor at PR Week. John kicked off the discussion by defining an influencer as a consumer/blogger/‘normal’ person who has become influential for brands by building up an organic following on social media. For the purposes of this discussion, we did not want to include celebrities under the term influencer, as their social power is built upon a very different foundation.

Our panel (from left to right): Samuel Barrett, Diipa Khosla, Amber Atherton, Debbie Cartwright

Our panel (from left to right): Samuel Barrett, Diipa Khosla, Amber Atherton, Debbie Cartwright

So why are brands investing in these influencers? Why has there been a shift away from celebrity endorsements and towards influencer endorsements? Debbie explained how it is largely down to the fact that consumers are just wise to it now; they know it’s for money and that the celebrity will often have no genuine interest in the product. Influencers, on the other hand, are far more trusted, having built up organic relationships with their followers. Diipa explained the importance of being relatable; if you are a successful influencer then you are relatable to your audience because they have seen you from the beginning and been on your journey with you, creating a bond, like a friendship, and they trust you not to promote something you don’t believe in. Sam concurred, saying that word of mouth advertising is key for all brands, and this is essentially what influencers are doing; they are spreading the word of a new product to an engaged following of people likely to be compelled to buy.

However, whilst this may all sound fantastic and fool-proof, how tangible is the influencer effect in reality? How can one measure the ROI of an influencer’s involvement? Debbie explained that a lot of her clients ask this question and it isn’t always easy to give a solid answer, but if it is a specific product the influencer is posting about, then the most obvious and strongest ROI will be the direct increase in sales. Diipa argued that it was not just down to sales figures, though, but also brand profile. Influencers can help to hugely increase awareness of a client’s profile, but understandably it is more difficult to measure this tangibly. She explained that two of her clients, Timberland and North Face, are both currently in the process of researching the true ROI of influencers and how best to quantify it. Amber added that, in her personal experience, the reach you get from working with ‘real’ girls; cool genuine fans of your brands, is so much more tangible than the reach of one big influencer. This is of course dependent on the brand, however, and the specific campaign. The influencer needs to fit the brief in order to gain maximum impact.

Our audience in The Yard

Our audience in The Yard

Diipa, a hugely successful influencer herself, has worked with a plethora of brands and clients since starting her journey just two years ago, and answered a number of different briefs. Having come across ‘fashion bloggers’ for the first time in her gap year from studying law, she decided to try it out with her sister who had just started photography. Very cleverly, she saw a gap in the market for her; no one was doing it in India so she saw an opportunity to spearhead the movement before it reached her home country, and there didn’t seem to be any “exotic” bloggers in the UK or US so she thought she could be the first of her kind to make an impact over here. Watching how it was done through the agencies she was working with in her gap year, she has used smart strategy from day one in order to get her to where she is now. When she started, she was buying clothes, taking photos with the tags still in, and then returning them, but when she hit 100K, suddenly brands were asking “how much for a post?” and from there she’s been able to make it her livelihood. Whilst the “here are our shoes, take a photo and post” requests are easy, Diipa says that her favourite way to work is to collaborate on a brief with the brand in order to create a new and original way of using social media and lifestyle to promote a product. She loves to “think outside the box and create new amazing content.” Sam agreed with this, stating that the most successful campaigns they’ve worked on have always been the ones where the influencers are the content creators. A post won’t be effective unless the blogger gets some creative control, otherwise it’s just not authentic. If the brand guidelines are so tight that it essentially becomes a contrived advert then it’s never going to work. Amber cited the perfect example of that being the ridiculous amount of Coachella posts that pop up over the dreaded festival fortnight every year. The posts are becoming so unauthentic that it can actually start to have a negative impact on the brand. “The hashtag this year was #nochella”, Debbie reminded us. Not exactly the picture of beautiful original content most brands would have in mind to achieve.

The question of authenticity is a valid one. There is definitely the danger of going so far with brands and sponsored content that you risk jeopardising your integrity; something that Diipa said she thinks about a lot. As your sole job, you have to think about your livelihood and being able to pay for everything you need, she said, and thus sometimes you may feel you need to take the bigger paying jobs even if they may not be the products or brands you favour the most. Your followers aren’t stupid as well, they know that some posts will be more sincere than others; they know you’re being paid for the sponsored posts. Celebrities do it as well; take Beyoncé and her deal with Pepsi - we all know she wasn’t drinking that in real life on the regular! Having said that, you have to check yourself and your moral compass to make sure you’re not straying off in to territory that you wouldn’t have wanted to when you first started. Diipa said that she is lucky now though to be in a position where she can have a selection of offers and can usually take her pick of the ones she wants, meaning that most of her content is genuine.

Amber also wanted to mention that the notion of brands working with people on the basis of big follower numbers is extremely outdated. There are smaller bloggers out there who are a lot cooler and have far more influence over their smaller follower numbers than influencers with huge numbers who have lower conversion rates. “We often have to educate our brands on this,” said Debbie. “The power of micro influencers is often far greater than that of the bigger bloggers.” “Yeah, fans who just love the product are great influencers”, said Amber. Sam: “You may not be reaching the whole room, but you’re reaching the people who need to be touched.” So in the world of influencer marketing it seems that sometimes less is, in fact, more.

Amber and Debbie mid discussion

Amber and Debbie mid discussion

Moving on to the regulatory side of influencer marketing, John wanted to know how the new laws for sponsored content are affecting the process. Sam described how the new laws have taken a pretty hard stance on transparency, meaning that any brands not complying (e.g. Warner in the US) are getting burned for it. In this case, honesty is the best policy. If a follower finds out retrospectively that they’ve been advertised to then there is a sense of trust lost, and trust is one of the key components to a successful influencer’s relationship with their followers. Sam explained that at Takumi, they always use ad hashtags now for paid posts in order to protect their clients and ensure 100% transparency at all times. Not all influencers actually get paid for their posts though, as Debbie explained. IPR can still get quite a lot from their influencers for no fee, because of being with them from the very beginning and having built a strong mutually beneficial relationship. They may incentivise them in other ways, for example through experiences rather than through money. Millennials are a huge fan of experiences and love to be part of the overall journey of a brand or product so paying them in this way is a great avenue to explore. Amber says that this is something she’s done with her influencers before, as well as been on the receiving end of herself.

On the note of millennials, John queried: “Have influencers been created by and for millennials?” Yes, millennials are the key demographic on the whole, but Debbie was keen to also champion the scope for influencers in the older demographic, for example for the Good Housekeeping or Red readers. Diipa said it depends on the location and the platform. “My Instagram is mostly millennials in the west, but my Facebook is mostly the post 45 category in developing countries. If you want to advertise to an older generation, try Facebook. If it’s teens, go for Snapchat or Instagram. If you want to reach the Middle East, Asia etc, then get on Facebook.”

Finally, with a look towards the future, John closed the evening’s discussion by asking our panel: “What will influencer marketing look like in five years time? Could it even replace traditional ad spend?” Whilst social media is infiltrating our society at break-neck speed, Debbie still believes that “If you want to sell a product, you still want to see it in Vogue. You still need to have a broad spectrum, you still need traditional ad spend. That medium will always be there, for me at least.” Amber cited the future as a shift towards democratisation; working with small social groups at scale to create an impact that matches that of Kendall Jenner. Diipa said: “Social media has put the power to the people. The future is for the people. We can try to influence it a little bit, but I think whatever’s going to happen will happen and we will learn to keep up with it.”

John Harrington, moderator, taking questions from the audience

John Harrington, moderator, taking questions from the audience

We'd like to say a big thank you to our headline sponsor, Takumi. To find out more about Takumi, who specialise in end-to-end influencer marketing on Instagram, click here