November 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Spheres of influence

By Helen Sullivan
Social media is blurring the line between opinion and advertising

In 1886, the newly founded California Perfume Company recruited Persis Foster Eames Albee, a widow who had been running a small store from her home in Cheshire County, New Hampshire, as a saleswoman. Dressed elegantly, Albee started going door to door, peddling perfume sets and, later, creams, balms and toothpaste to her fellow women. “Persis was a welcome sight,” writes the Historical Society of Cheshire County. “She was not considered a nuisance, but as a ‘friendly neighbor come to call’.” The California Perfume Company would later become Avon, and Albee was the first ever “Avon lady”, the term describing the women who, still today, sell Avon products including make-up and perfume directly to their peers.

Today’s peer-to-peer pioneers are social-media influencers. Australia’s own modern-day Albee is Rebecca Gawthorne, a Sydney dietician with 145,000 Instagram followers, who is paid by companies to post photos and captions promoting their products. And what Avon was to Albee, Australian tech start-up TRIBE, which this year received a $5.3 million investment via venture capital firm Exto Partners, is to Gawthorne.

TRIBE acts as a middleman between brands and micro-influencers, which the company defines as users with more than 3000 followers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The way it works is companies publish briefs through TRIBE, influencers submit ideas for posts, and the companies pay for those posts that are approved, which are then published by the influencers on their own accounts. Posts are paid between $75 and $1200, depending on an influencer’s number of followers.

Today, TRIBE CEO Anthony Svirskis is at – where else? – a conference devoted to marketing to millennials, everyone’s favourite generation to fret about, where he is speaking on a panel about influencer marketing. Social media is prime millennial territory. On Instagram alone, more than 90% of users globally are younger than 35; in the auditorium, the mostly 20-something audience members clicked their pens distractedly, heads cocked. Speakers seemed nervous.

“Look,” Svirskis tells me, “I don’t consider myself a millennial.” At 35, he technically is one, but Svirskis feels like he straddles two worlds: he remembers using a computer, the internet and a mobile phone for the first time. He’s not a heavy social-media user. In a way, it’s perfect: like TRIBE, Svirskis sits between digital master communicators and brands learning to adapt.

TRIBE is the brainchild of Jules Lund, the TV and radio presenter. A few years ago, he started tinkering with, then obsessing over, his radio show’s Facebook page. Lund built its following to 350,000, effectively creating a second audience – and one that the show’s marketing team jumped on. But the process of getting ads for the page was time-consuming: between artwork and approval, a single post could take months. So Lund left the show to start TRIBE, which aims to streamline the process of creating and approving content for influencer ads.

A recent campaign for the New Zealand Kiwifruit Product Group included posts from various influencers showcasing kiwifruit ice-cream, kiwifruit with goji berries, kiwifruit slices on a child’s eyes and a kiwifruit wreath bordered with heart-shaped slices of kiwifruit.

“It’s not about who [the influencer is]. It’s about how good the content is that you create,” Lund says. “Everyone is equal until you produce content responding to a brief.”

It’s not hard to imagine a food blogger getting carried away telling their followers about their love for a furry fruit. The relationship is built on the idea that an influencer is someone who recommends things they genuinely use or like. (“If you speak to influencers, they tend to see their whole post history as almost a progression of art,” says Svirskis.)

As with dentists in toothpaste ads, influencer marketing blurs the line between an expert making a recommendation and a company selling you things. And companies are flocking to the format. Among the brands that have used TRIBE are Unilever, IKEA, Domino’s, Spotify, UNIQLO, Dan Murphy’s, Nespresso, Toyota and Mercedes. The Australian government recently used TRIBE to run a campaign designed to encourage women to exercise, called Girls Make Your Move. TRIBE has upwards of 21,000 influencers on its books, says Svirskis, and at least 2000 brands. Gawthorne, TRIBE’s highest-earning influencer, has made more than $110,000 through the app.

Though TRIBE got its start through traditional media, it and companies like it have the potential to deliver a further blow to traditional media’s already shaky advertising revenue, as advertisers pay for influencer posts rather than banner ads and pop-ups. (Some traditional media organisations are jumping onboard: last year, the New York Times bought HelloSociety, another agency that connects brands with influencers.)

Do social-media users know when they’re looking at advertising? While it’s more clearly indicated than product placement in a film, it’s not exactly as obvious as a billboard. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter use hashtags as a way of indexing posts, and TRIBE strongly recommends the use of #ad to indicate that posts have been paid for. While the two-letter word tends to get lost in a sea of other hashtags, this process complies with both Australian and United Kingdom advertising regulations (TRIBE launched in the UK this year). Svirskis explains that the #ad hashtag is hard-coded into every campaign. Influencers can remove it, but he says it doesn’t happen. “The fact is, an agency is not going to risk their brand getting caught out by the [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] or [Australian Association of National Advertisers]. There really isn’t any friction there.”

Who is liable should friction arise? Breaching Australian consumer law could lead to fines of up to $220,000 for the influencer, and $1.1 million for a brand, but so far, according to ABC radio’s Triple J, “there have been no legal cases against social-media influencers”. That doesn’t mean undeclared sponsored posts don’t happen. In September, ABC TV’s Media Watch examined a spike in endorsements for Kmart products by Channel 7 and the Mamamia website. “All the Kmart stories trace back to Facebook and Instagram and groups of mothers,” host Paul Barry told viewers. Kmart gave bloggers product vouchers and told them what to plug. The sponsorships weren’t declared. Influencers who work with TRIBE have to use their own money to buy – or must already own – the products they endorse. Either way, influencer marketing trades on the perception of social media being an “authentic” (surely 2017’s most ironic marketing buzzword) public space, as many a celebrity endorser knows.

Marketing via social media may be a little gauche, a trifle icky, but at least the gender split favours women in the influencer world. Take Instagram: about 60% of Instagram users are female, and of the world’s ten most-followed influencers – celebrities like singer Selena Gomez (128 million followers) and reality star/model Kylie Jenner (98.5 million) – seven are women. More than a century ago, being influential suited Persis Albee pretty well, according to those Cheshire County historians: “The California Perfume Company offered pleasant circumstances, no set hours, the opportunity for promotion, and a respectable reputation.”

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan is a Sydney-based freelance writer. She has appeared in The New Yorker and The Guardian

@helenrsullivan

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