From the Kardashians to Stephen Hawking, influencer marketing is big business. Here's how to work with the latest generation of internet stars.
Share this article
‘Influencer marketing’ may be a relatively recent term, but for as long as there has been advertising, brands have recognised the importance of identifying the kind of personalities - in particular celebrities and other notable individuals - whose choices and behaviours hold sway among their target audience and using these ‘influencers’ as brand ambassadors to help promote products, engage with consumers, boost the brand’s profile, and sell more.
The rise of social media, and its increasing importance as a marketing channel, has elevated brand ambassadors to a whole new level of prominence and influence. But it has also driven change in the profile of the typical ambassador, creating a new generation of aspirational personalities.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the halo effect of an A-list celebrity endorsement is dimming, with peer-to-peer influencer marketing proving much more effective among millennial and Generation-Z (the post-millennial generation) consumers, who look to more immediately relatable YouTube and Instagram stars - and not actors or sportspeople - for brand recommendations.
And with Generation Z so trusting of peer recommendations on social media, those same consumers are the influencers and brand ambassadors of tomorrow.
But brands that turn to influencers to help amplify messages, reach new audiences, and shape consumers’ perceptions also tie their own reputation very closely to that of their ambassador.
If the ambassador makes a bad judgement call, it can drive a slew of bad press - exacerbated by social media’s unique power to whip up a storm of vitriol - that damages the brand and may even hit sales.
Just a few months ago, Google and Disney were forced to end their relationship with YouTube sensation PewDiePie as a result of the fierce backlash to a string of video posts in which he made and appeared to endorse antisemitic remarks.
His was obviously a major indiscretion, but even much smaller issues can have a significant impact.
Charlie bit me: even simple videos can receive hundreds of millions of views
With a collective buying power of as much as $44 billion, it’s no wonder Generation-Z is a prime target for brands. But putting their reputation in the hands of younger ambassadors, less experienced in business and life, intensifies the challenge brands face to manage the risks involved in the relationship.
Avoiding the pitfalls relies on brands understanding who Generation Z-ers are, what they want, and therefore how best to work with and influence them.
Above all, it’s vital that brands take time to educate Generation Z ambassadors about their brand values and expectations, and turn the relationship into something genuinely mutually beneficial that will motivate the ambassador to promote and protect the brand.
Working directly with the UK’s students, we’ve identified a number of characteristics of Generation Z that brands should bear in mind as they select and manage ambassadors.
Generation Z is incredibly aware of its own value
Contrary to the stereotype that has plagued the millennial generation and seems to be being applied to their successors too, this awareness isn’t down to arrogance or narcissism. In fact, in our experience Generation Z is actually quite insecure in many respects.
In particular when it comes to things like jobs and homes, they certainly don’t feel they are owed success; if anything, they expect to have to be deferential to employers and systems, at least for a while, and are grateful for what they can get.
But when it comes to their relationships with brands, Generation Z has high expectations.
They are astute enough to recognise that their (future) spending power and loyalty is incredibly highly sought-after by brands, and expect those brands to work hard to earn their interest, trust, and, ultimately, money.
If you want to get an ambassador on board, you’ll need to recognise their value, too.
Generation Z is demanding
It’s not surprising that they want to do things their way - they have no experience to fall back on telling them that another way might be better, they’ve been brought up by a broadly enabling culture, and by and large they’re used to getting their way.
We see it all the time when we deal with student events organisers with a clear and unwavering vision of what they want to achieve that just has to be delivered.
That’s something that brands have to account for that when dealing with an ambassador, and when planning and creating content for the Generation Z audience - brands can’t try to be too controlling; they just need to give Generation Z the necessary information to make their own decisions.
Millennials may have looked to Facebook and YouTube for the latest content, but for Generation Z, the social media and content channel of choice is Snapchat, and chat apps such as WhatsApp are indispensable. Brands appealing to Generation Z need ambassadors who are masters of the ephemeral and the GIF-able.
Move over Facebook: teenagers love the quick gratification offered by Snapchat
That emphasis on brevity also goes for a working relationship with a Generation Z ambassador: you can’t expect to have all their time, to have a long-term partnership, or for your ambassador to remain relevant to your target audience for too long.
Generation Z craves collaborative engagement
This new generation will happily take part in online games or competitions as part of a brand campaign, provide a product review, or engage in other kinds of interactivity, just as long as they feel that they are genuinely interacting, contributing, and benefiting.
Relationships with brands have to be two-way streets that feature engagement and deliver value on both sides. So just having an ambassador on board isn’t enough to elevate your brand in Generation Z’s eyes; you need to use them in a way that actually engages your audience.
Generation Z has a keen radar for inauthentic endorsements
Finally, brands must remember that while dogs might smell fear, Generation Z smells inauthenticity. Engaging an ambassador just because they are popular is a recipe for disaster; this audience will spot any hint of faking it or being in it for the money a mile off.
To be successful, ambassadors need to genuinely live and embody your brand and the values of the audience you are targeting. It pays to get this right - by ensuring you have the best fit you can as an ambassador, you should reduce the risk of having to deal with any behaviour that threatens your brand image and reputation.