More and more people are earning a great living through Twitter, Instagram and other social media. Melina Meletakos finds out about this new media phenomenon.
Gareth Pon is one South Africa’s most famous Instagrammers.
His knack for capturing the colourful people and places he comes across in Johannesburg’s inner city has earned the self-described ‘pixelmaker’ 160 000 followers on this social media platform at the time of writing.
But Pon uses a number of different accounts on Instagram to have a spot of fun too. His ‘Gareth Pon Eats’ account is a chronicle of his culinary adventures, where he snaps pictures of his peanut butter and jelly sundae and pesto chicken pasta.
Pon also has an account that documents black-and-white street images of children racing with rubber tyres and mothers showering reluctant children with affection, while his ‘Ponte Kitty’ feed is a visual ode to an abandoned feline he found at Johannesburg’s Ponte Tower.
At first he did this as a hobby, but now Pon is cashing in on his popularity on the photo-sharing social media platform.
Samsung, for example, invited Pon to participate in an activation campaign for the launch of the new NX30 Smart Camera where he was given a camera for a day and asked to generate compelling photos for the campaign while walking around downtown Jo’burg.
Pon recently added another Instagram account to his collection when he started ‘Gareth Pon Wears’. For this venture, he partnered with local menswear brand Sergeant Pepper that now sends Pon clothes from the latest range so that he can photograph himself wearing them in return.
Pon is what the internet has dubbed the ‘post-modern version of the celebrity endorsement’ or, more simply, an influencer.
But, what exactly is an influencer, and why should marketers be interested in them?
Influencers are individuals who not only have large social media or blog followings but also the ability to shape their audience’s thoughts, perceptions and behaviour. Brands have caught on to this and have started leveraging this social clout by developing relationships with people like Pon to create visibility and, more importantly, credibility for their product or service.
But as the idea of using influencers enters mainstream marketing, the people behind these campaigns have realised that it’s not merely about Facebook likes and Twitter followers. More and more, it’s becoming about the ability to quantify an influencer’s digital status and the power that can be harnessed from this.
This has steered the development of international sites like Klout, which ranks users’ influence according to data from social media sites. Accounts are given a ‘Klout Score’, a numerical value measured by the size of a person’s online network and how the content they share is received by this community. Similarly, PeerIndex uses social media analytics from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Quora to score social capital by assessing three factors: activity, audience and authority.
Locally, we haven’t been left standing behind in the dust of these global platforms. In October 2013, Webfluential was launched as the first tool that measures the sway that South Africans have online. The home-grown service takes it one step further, however, by using algorithms to pair willing brands with suitable influencers.
Mike Sharman and Murray Legg started Webfluential after noticing that while consumers’ purchasing choices were being affected increasingly by online influencers, there was little quantifiable data available to back up claims of this kind of impact.
Webfluential pulls various social media data and combines it with an algorithm developed by Legg, who Sharman calls the “suit” in their partnership, while he, as a creative strategist, is the “slops”. The algorithm measures three elements that are used to gauge a user’s influence. Reach looks at how many followers you have, relevance assesses how much further your content goes after it is shared, and resonance considers how significant that content is for your audience and how it finds its way to other influencers.
Once users have created their profile on Webfluential, they identify which age group their followers fall under, as well as what their areas of interest are. A brand then puts out a brief specifying the budget, target market and channels of their campaign, and the system will find all influencers that match the brief.
The platform is gaining traction quickly, with roughly 1 000 influencers from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and more than 330 brands having signed up since it was launched. If you add all the numbers up, Webfluential collectively has the ability to reach an audience of 20 million people globally, says Sharman.
“Marketing has moved from a place where you just pay a celebrity. Now you have the ability to roll out advertorial through an influencer-specific niche,” he says.
Dan Nash, founder of popular blog Bangers & Nash, signed up to Webfluential and two similar offerings so that he could benefit from more open communication channels between himself and brands.
“In a space that is still relatively new to media buyers, brands and even bloggers charging for placement, there is a fair amount of uncertainty about how things work. This can be frustrating for all parties, and in some cases badly affects the results of a campaign,” says Nash.
But not everyone is convinced that influencer marketing is as effective as it’s made out to be, with the biggest problem being the mistake of confusing audience with influence. A person can have a large following, but does that give them the power to drive action, or to simply drive awareness?
Oresti Patricios, the CEO of brand intelligence research firm Ornico, says that it comes down to credibility, and whether influencers are trusted by their audiences.
For Pon, it’s vital that he protects his personal brand and so only works with brands that he thinks are relevant and interesting to him and his audience.
“You’ve got to ask: why do they want to send me stuff? And once I receive the stuff, what do I have to do with it?” he says.
Nash says that he is also very selective in the brands he works with to avoid being labelled a mere brand punter by his audience.
“The reality is, my audience is the reason I can charge brands for exposure on Bangers & Nash and I need to keep them happy. But I also need to promote brands in order to pay the bills. It’s finding the balance that makes working with brands online exciting,” says Nash.
Sharman says that Webfluential also encourages its users to highlight when a post or tweet has been sponsored to avoid misleading people.
“We’ve provided guidelines to these influencers and we want to champion transparency. But we’re not going to be the school master that smacks people with a stick,” he says.
Despite this, Patricios says that the idea of having influencers is not something new because as social beings, humans have always had the need to communicate. Now, with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, they have the tool to amplify their message. What has changed, says Patricios, is the way brands understand the clout these influencers can have.
“It’s about understanding the brand. What is the story that this brand wants to tell? What are its values and its culture and how do you align the values, culture and stories you want to tell through influencers?”
This story was first published in the July 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Gareth Pon / www.garethpon.com
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to email@example.com.