pass the mic

To Crack The Influencer Marketing Code, Brands Need To Give Up Control

Influencers are the most powerful tool in marketing. The problem is, most brands use them wrong.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

About the author: Ian Borthwick is the Senior Director of Influencer Marketing at SeatGeek. He’s executed 3,500+ campaigns with 2.5 billion views from leading names such as David Dobrik, Lilly Singh, Casey Neistat, and Alex Morgan, and partnered with major podcasts such as Pardon My Take, The Bill Simmons Show, and The Pat McAfee Show.

Influencers are the most powerful tool in marketing. The problem is, most brands use them wrong.

By any metric, influencer marketing is exploding. Four out of five marketers said they would engage the channel in 2020; budgets have increased 50% year over year and Google search volume for the term skyrocketed 1,500% over the past three years. Consumer attention is shifting and brands are shifting with it.

But brands apply the wrong mindset. Marketers want the control of an Instagram ad with the authenticity of influencer marketing. This is an oxymoron, and the result is just another #ad clogging people’s feeds.

To get influencer marketing right, you first need to understand the two big consumer trends that brought us here.

1. Creators are now mainstream celebrities with real-world influence. Attention has shifted from traditional media—TV, radio—to creator-driven channels such as YouTube, podcasts, and social, spawning a new breed of creator. These influencers built their audience directly, growing a loyal, niche following into a massive one. This direct-to-audience connection produces staggering real-world impact:

  • To combat climate change, YouTube star MrBeast raised $21.5+ million to plant 22+ million trees. The campaign, #TeamTrees, became the largest crowdfunding effort in YouTube's history—and one of the fastest-growing environmental fundraising initiatives to date.
  • For their annual Celebrity Basketball Game, YouTube vloggers ACE Family filled up Staples Center, selling 21,000 tickets in less than 60 seconds.
  • In under 8 months, TikTok star Charli D’Amelio went from 0 to 20 million followers. The newfound fame catapulted the then 15-year-old into a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus.

2. Banner blindness has extended into all facets of our lives. The average person “sees” 6,000–10,000 ads per day. If you’re shocked by that statement, it’s because your brain has subliminally ignored those ads. When you see a TV commercial, you look at your phone. When you see a banner ad, you install an ad blocker. In a world where ads are everywhere, they are more imperceptible than ever before.

Creator First Mentality

These two forces make creators and their real-world influence the most valuable asset in marketing. The problem is, most brands don’t realize what they’re buying.

Marketers think influencer marketing is about their brand and their messaging; in reality, it’s about the influencer and their community. This may seem counterintuitive, but an influencer can connect your brand to their audience better than you can.

If you take a step back, this makes sense. Influencers cultivate their audience for years across hundreds of videos, and they have a deep understanding of what messaging resonates with the community they built. So of course a script written by a brand will never be as authentic.

This aha moment is the difference between transactional and relational advertising. The most powerful influencer x brand partnerships lean into the influencer and their community. These brands understand that the value of influencer marketing is predicated on authenticity. Specifically, an influencer ad will outpunch its weight when an influencer is given creative control, because of the authentic connection an influencer has with their audience. Once you start inserting “brand speak,” the power of influencer marketing is destroyed.

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Example: SeatGeek x David Dobrik

For a while, SeatGeek’s influencer partnerships followed a standard script:

  • 30-second ad to be read in the first three minutes of the video. The creator must read all provided talking points, and show a prerecorded screenshot of the app during the read.

The thought process: Our product and value proposition should be the focal point: Show the app, list the product features and hammer home the call to action.

The problem? YouTube star David Dobrik wouldn’t read the script.

We’d been trying to work with David for years, and finally got our chance with the 2016 World Series. David wanted to surprise his best friend with tickets to the game.

But reading the script was a dealbreaker for David. “When my audience thinks it’s an ad, they’re going to tune out. Trust me. I’ll make SeatGeek a character in the vlogs. When my audience hears the word SeatGeek, they’ll know something amazing is about to happen.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but David was changing our influencer strategy from a transactional to a relational one. David was shifting our focus from our product to David and his audience.

This rest is history. The video (below) hit 7+ million views, David’s friend bawled his eyes out, and the results beat our product-focused script. After that, we doubled down on the creator-first mentality, letting David lead the way.

We’ve now collaborated on 30 videos totaling more than 275 million views with David. Integrations range from buying his dream car, to paying off a friend’s tuition, to calling me after getting his wisdom teeth removed. Most of these integrations have nothing to do with tickets, but that’s not the point. His audience knows we’re a ticket app, but they care about us because we support David and his vision.

More than 25,000 tweets reference David and SeatGeek, and those keywords have received more search volume than some of the largest influencer partnerships: Steph Curry x Under Armour, Chrissy Teigen x Target, Ninja x Red Bull. By leaning into David’s world, we became part of the community.

Right Idea, Wrong Execution

Influencer marketing is having a moment. After years of being dismissed as a fad, it’s mainstream. But the brand mindset hasn’t changed. Marketers still want full control.

This is understandable—putting your brand in the hands of an influencer is risky. You are exchanging control for authenticity.

But in a world full of white noise, authenticity is the only thing that stands out.

Special thanks to Greg Hempenius for his help & feedback on this post.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author only.

Pass the Mic is a Marketing Brew op-ed column where marketing thought leaders share their thoughts and insights on a topic impacting the industry. To learn more and submit a pitch, go here.

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