Jason Falls Q&A
Jason Falls Is a leading digital strategist for Cornett in Lexington, Ky. His experiences have given him the opportunity to speak at conferences, write three books and be called all sorts of superlatives by Forbes, Business Week, Entrepreneur and others. Jason is the host of two podcasts on C-Suite Radio. Digging Deeper – Make Creativity Your Business Advantage is a weekly interview series focused on creativity and marketing. Winfluence – The Influence Marketing Podcast dives deep into experts on influencer marketing and is a supplement to his latest book.
Can you give some background about yourself and how you got into the industry?
Jason: When you’re talking about influence it’s really my whole career. I started out as a public relations professional and my first job right out of college was a journalist. I did that for a couple of years but then I went into public relations and spent 15 years as a public relations professional in university college athletics, so it was a very specialised and niche portion of PR. The whole goal in my PR career was to work through third parties who have audiences and influence their audience to take action, whether it be to buy tickets, to come to a game or stay informed about the sports teams that I was working with. That mechanism in influencer marketing these days is no different than media relations, public relations and good communication skills. They have always been a part of my career and I really consider myself to have been doing this all along. Social media obviously changed the game a little bit because it democratised the media. Everybody has the opportunity now to be a publisher and gather an audience and what you’re seeing with the world of influencer marketing is individuals who are able to influence, whether it’s because of their writing, their photography, their art, their talent or the fact that they share and try to inform or entertain their audiences. They’re able to gather audiences, sometimes even bigger audiences than traditional media outlets. So, some nuances are different in dealing with influencers versus journalists, or trained media professionals, but I don’t think the nuances are all that different. I think it’s really just trying to find a partnership opportunity, a way for you as a brand, or as an agency representative of a brand, to provide value to them and their audience, and they then provide value to you in the exposure that they give you. So, I’ve been doing this a long time and the social media world has just made it a little bit broader, a little bit more complex, but it’s the same skill set.
Can you speak to the changes you’ve seen over the last five years, and then over the last 12 months with the effects of Covid, in influencer marketing?
Jason: I look at it more broadly and say influencer marketing has been around forever, however if you look at it through the filter of influencer marketing happening with the explosion of social media blogs 10 to 15 years ago, obviously what has changed is the media landscape. People reaching their intended audiences through a third party that has an audience or has influence has just extrapolated out exponentially. What is really great with the democratisation of media, and the fact that there are so many different people out there creating content, is that you can find people who are influential at a very specific level. I host a podcast about influencer marketing, that’s really niche, there are not a lot of people in the world that care enough to subscribe to a podcast about that topic. There are people out there who have blogs and YouTube channels on blacksmithing, crocheting, and how to do makeup. So, there all these really granular, specific and niche topics and these make the world of influencer marketing, media relations and public relations more complex and more difficult in some ways. But it actually makes it more efficient in a lot of other ways because you can find those people who are very specifically influential about a given topic. The last 12 months or so has changed quite a bit and I think as more and more people have moved online and are spending more of their free time online, because of the various quarantines, closures and lockdowns, I think that influencers have become more important. They become more important because the consumers are consuming their content with more frequency. I think the impact on influencers’ audience sizes are continuing to grow and I think you’re starting to see more influencers that are diving away from the mainstream paths and becoming influential in certain smaller topics which are amplifying everything. Probably the biggest difference, though, over the last three or four years that has contributed to some of what we’re talking about in the industry now is the push from a certain type of influencer out there to be an influencer as a profession or just wanting to be famous on Instagram and YouTube. Probably 10 to 15 percent of the influencers out there are just trying to just gather up as many followers as they can, thinking that’s all they have to do to be influential. This produces people who think that all they need to do to be rich and famous is to have followers and they come to the unfortunate conclusion that if they don’t have substance to their content then they don’t have anything for those people to consume. So, these people can’t just be famous for being famous, they have to be famous or earn influence for having expertise or some talent. You’re seeing a lot of flash in the pan people who have a bunch of followers but there’s no substance there and their followers fall off as people don’t engage with them. It produces the desire to have a lot of followers and it also produces the problem of influencer fraud.
Whose role is it to set standards and regulations within the industry?
Jason: That’s a really good question because I don’t think there’s a definitive answer. There are certainly some trade industry associations both in the U.K., in the U.S. and certainly in other countries that are trying to serve as the loudest voice in that conversation. We have the American Influencer Council here in the U.S., which I think is obviously focused on the U.S. So, the trade industry association is one angle, but I think it’s really the responsibility of three primary parties. I think the brands need to get involved in making sure their voice, their needs and their perspective is heard. I think the individual content creators and influencers need to be involved because this is their livelihood, so they need to have a voice in that conversation as well. Then the third party that needs to have a voice are either the agencies or the software companies, the service providers that are sometimes the connective tissue between the brands and the content creators or influencers. I think that’s what you’re seeing when you look at the makeup of the boards of directors of these associations that are coming together. You’re starting to see the good ones, the ones that have an industry health perspective and who are saying we have to have representation from those three groups in there. I think what we’ll see as the industry matures over the next five years, is we’ll start to see a lot of those groups having conversations with the regulatory bodies from our respective governments to encourage a little more formalisation. Maybe there becomes some type of accreditation or some type of validation that someone is. I don’t think that they’ll necessarily come to fruition quickly, but I think you’re going to start to see the FTC and some of these trade industry associations start to have more of an open dialogue about what this looks like and what makes influencer marketing and influencers more legitimate and more, not necessarily regulated, but at least, governed.
Can you speak to why you think that some companies are still sceptical about influencer marketing?
Jason: There really isn’t a regulatory body, there are no regulatory bodies for social media really either, right? We’ve been fighting this battle with social media for 15 years and this is just an extension of that. So that’s one big piece of the problem. But I think the main reason that businesses are sceptical of influencer marketing is because of how the mainstream media portrays influencers. If you Google any article about influencers from any of the major news publications you’re going to see articles about the ones who staged their photoshoots, the ones who airbrushed zits off of their face or the ones who are doing things that are either unethical or immoral or maybe even illegal in some cases. I find it ironic that the mainstream media tends to attack influencers as being superficial when sometimes the influencers have more followers than the media themselves. But the mainstream media portrays influencers very superficially and very poorly. There’s a documentary here in the United States called Fake Famous, where the former New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton takes three influencers and buys them followers to see if they can become famous. Two of the influencers don’t want to do this but the third influencer goes ahead with it. She gets a quarter of a million followers and brands begin paying her and engaging her just like they would for a regular influencer, yet 90 percent of her audience is fake bots. His documentary implies that is how influencer marketing works, all influencers do it this way, which is not the case. So, when you have the mainstream media portraying influencers like that then business owners are going to be very sceptical because they’re not getting the validation that it works. We need to give businesses examples of how it works and how it can work for their business, which is actually one of the main reasons that I wrote my book [Winfluence: Reframing Influencer Marketing to Reignite Your Brand] about influencer marketing, to say to business owners that this is a legit path, and quite frankly, it’s becoming probably one of the more powerful and effective paths to be able to connect your brand with consumers.
What’s your advice on best practices for brands?
Jason: Well, I always say start small and experiment until you get confident with it. Really what you need to do is ask what is your goal and what are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to drive more sales? Do you want to drive more awareness around your business or brand? Find out what is ultimately the reason that you’re using influencers for and then try to identify one that really makes sense and that aligns with your brand. It may be they’re passionate about your brand already and it makes sense for you to reach out to them and find a way to collaborate and do something together so that we can reach their audience but then maybe they can also get some benefit from working with our brand. If you start there with just one person and try to develop a really nice partnership, treat them like a content creator, treat them like a freelancer that you’re engaging to create content for you. They can use it on their channel, but you can maybe also used on your channel. Then you’ll start to understand how a very simple version of influencer marketing works and then you can scale from there. So, find that one influencer that just makes sense for you and try it, reach out to them and see what you can do to collaborate.
What challenges do you foresee for influences within the industry right now?
Jason: For the influencers themselves, I think there’s always the challenge of standing out, creating outstanding content and creating outstanding engagement. But I also think being able to communicate and translate their effectiveness to brands is going to be a big challenge for a lot of influencers. If influencers don’t have the attitude to be able to say to a brand, here’s how I can benefit you, here are the conversions that I can drive depending upon your business goals, here’s how I can move the needle for you, and if they don’t look at it as a business, brands are eventually not going to want to work with them because the smart influencers are coming to bat. The first questions they’ll ask me on an outreach is what are your business goals? What needles do you need me to move? Because I’m going to try to find a way to move those needles with you. That’s an influencer I want to work with and I want to work with them over and over again and pay them a lot of money because they’re trying to do what I need them to do. On the same token, I’m also working with brands to have the attitude of what’s in it for the influencer. Can I give them product? Can I give them access to my R&D team, my product team or my executives? What can I give them in return in addition to cash? Because that’s probably going to be on the table. How can we develop a real partnership? Those are the influencers who are going to succeed. I think the challenge for influencers out there is really being able to communicate their value to brands in a way that they can continue to drive that value.
Where do you see the industry going over the next few years and who are leading the way for you?
Jason: We’re still in the infancy of this thing. I still think influencer marketing is very young. You’re just starting to see companies categorising influencers in different ways as opposed to just putting them all in this one big lump. You’re starting to see software companies recognize that there are industry analysts which are different from social influencers, which are different from influencers who are influential because they work at brands. You’re starting to see all those signals of maturation coming out. I just interviewed a couple of college professors who wrote the first dedicated textbook toward influencer marketing and so this is very early in the face of all this. I think the next 5 to 10 years is going to be maturation. I think it’s really just getting to the point where brands understand the value of influencer marketing. They understand how to select the influencers that are effective versus the ones that aren’t. The influencers who aren’t effective are going to fade away and not really be relevant because the ones who know how to draw that balance between creating great content, engaging their audiences really well, but also delivering value through those audiences to brands, those are the ones that are going to emerge as the media outlets of the twenty-first century. All of that is going to become better and more refined. I think the influencer marketing tools and software are going to get better at identifying the effective influencers versus the ineffective influencers and I think they’re going to get better at detecting influencer fraud, which is a problem. It’s not as big as it might sound, because I don’t think it’s more than 20 to 25 percent of the industry right now, but I definitely think the detection mechanisms for bots and followers that are driving engagement is going to become more sophisticated. So again, we got nowhere to go but up because it’s just a maturation process. We’re not really even teenagers yet in this influencer marketing world, we’re still growing.
Do you see the influencer marketing function being taken in-house by brands?
Jason: There’s definitely always going to be space for agencies because brands are different. You’re never going to have all brands doing it one way or another. You’re going to have brands that are well funded, that are leading-edge thinkers, that understand the efficiencies of having that internal team and those brands are eventually going to bring a lot of that in-house maybe with some expert help on scale from agencies and software companies. Then you’re going to have this sort of middle-tier that’s got a strategist in-house but needs people to actually do the outreach and do the work. Then you’re going to have the small businesses who can’t really afford to have a big agency help them, or the software companies help them, who are going to have to do it manually themselves. There’s always going to be that middle tier where agencies are going to help, and agencies tend to be a little bit more forward-thinking on the side of mechanisms and executions for marketing so there’s always going to be a role for them. But for the bigger companies, I do think over the next 10 years you’re going to start to see like they’ve done over the last 10 years with social media marketing, they’re going to insource a lot of that and build it into their digital centre of excellence or their public relations communications centre of excellence and it’s going to be an internal discipline for the larger companies. But I think there’s still that middle tier that’s going to be really good for us agency folks.
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