June/July 2016 Issue
Influencer marketing is becoming increasingly popular
as a way for retailers and brands to reach specific audiences,
and a handful of Northwest Arkansas firms are leading the way.
Photos courtesy of Sarah Gill
For more than a year, every weekday, young Iris Gill was driven by a construction site near her Fayetteville Montessori School. She learned it would become home to a pharmacy called “CVS,” and she grew smitten with what the big bold letters over the parking lot foretold. Soon after the grand opening, Gill, at last, walked in to find aisles overflowing with snacks, toys and chocolate milk: in short, a 3-year-old’s dream come true.
So, it was a no-brainer when Gill’s mother asked her what she wanted as a party theme for her fourth birthday last October. It had to be a CVS-themed bash. Sarah Gill did her best to DIY the notion into reality, concocting a red and white birthday cake, a toddler-friendly miniature pharmacy stand, take-home treats in plastic medicine vials and more.
Gill posted photographs of the big day and the little girl at the center of it all on her blog. They went viral. By the time the dust cleared, posts on the likes of Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, ABC News and Time sent Gill’s blog traffic and social media followers soaring. Additionally, CVS itself sent goodie bags and even placed a happy birthday message to Iris on the Fayetteville store’s entrance sign.
The nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain never paid the Gills a dime for the publicity. All the same, their participation helped boost Gill’s status and earning power as one of Arkansas’ most influential “mommy bloggers.” She had already been getting free baby products from companies, but since that CVS party, brands are much more willing to pay her money for mentions of their products on her blog and social media channels.
“It’s fun spending extra money,” said Gill, who works as an examination services manager at the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards. “Definitely not a full-time job, although sometimes I spend a lot of time on it. It’s maybe an extra couple hundred bucks here and there.”
Creating a Following
Brands and major retail stores are increasingly hiring “influencers” like Gill — bloggers and social media standouts in specific geographic areas — to help launch campaigns involving product launches at specific retailers. This strategy has picked up steam, as companies look for more verifiable ways to reach consumers in light of the rise of ad blocking technology and the threats of ad fraud.
Influencer marketing systematizes a basic tenet of human nature: All things equal, people are more likely to buy a product after a tip from someone they perceive as a friend. Relationships matter, said Elizabeth Michael, director of content and social strategy for CJRW, a Little Rock-based advertising and marketing firm.
“Those bloggers who might have the 2,000- to 5,000-person following — a mommy blogger in Jonesboro or something like that — they might be really well known in the community, but not nationally,” she said. “Those are really well trusted people, so for a brand, that’s as close as they’re gonna get to having feet on the ground there.
“That’s really powerful as far as building trust with a community.”
Sometimes companies want to conscript an army of influencers to produce hundreds of social media and blog posts for a single campaign. The administration and supervision all these contractors entail is often too much for a company’s marketing team to handle. And, given rapidly evolving social media and analytics technologies, the tasks can present challenges beyond traditional ad agencies’ purview, too.
Influencer marketing startups have stepped into this void. These firms specialize in building databases of bloggers and social media standouts categorized by specific shopping and geographic demographics. Companies pay them fees to find the right influencers for the right campaigns, and then report back to them on the influencers’ effectiveness in engaging their audiences to generate buzz.
“Influencers are kind of wingmen for brands,” said Stephanie McCratic, CEO of the influencer marketing firm Acorn Influence in Bentonville. The firm is one of a few located in Northwest Arkansas which regularly work with Wal-Mart and its consumer packaged goods vendors like Pampers, General Mills, Heinz and Johnson & Johnson.
“The special sauce that we do is that we have technology and algorithms that quickly vet out who’s influential to whom, and on what platform, and regarding what,” McCratic said.
The Little Rock native adds it’s also to vital to vet the quality of the influencer’s social media followers since there has been “a lot of smoke and mirrors” in this industry: Some wannabes choose to buy followers by the thousands instead of acquiring them on the strength of their content.
She said Acorn did this before running a Fight Hunger campaign for a large retailer based in Northwest Arkansas: “We identified moms who are passionate about social causes or had an audience about social causes who had actual influence — versus just high follower numbers. So, people actually listened and [were] engaged with what they were saying.”
Gill, whose website sarahfortune.com is a nod to her middle name, has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers and more than 2,000 Snapchat followers. She said it’s their willingness to converse about what she posts that most appeals to the brands and retailers with which she is willing to work. For instance, since she enjoys Larabar energy bars anyway, she jumped at the chance to write a sponsored post about how she and Iris like them. That sarahfortune.com post, which encourages readers to buy the bars at Sam’s Club, came through Acorn’s blogger network.
Leading the Push
Acorn, which started in 2014 as a venture of Bentonville-based NewRoad Capital Partners, is rapidly growing. In the first quarter of 2016, it brought in $2 million in revenue — equal to the revenue it totaled in all 2015, according to McCratic and Shelby Free, Acorn’s director of production innovation.
McCratic expects to at least double her current staff of 13 in the next year, and, as of late April 2016, the company was finalizing plans to move from its 2,700-square-foot office off the Bentonville square into an office space at least two-and-a-half times bigger elsewhere in Bentonville or in Rogers.
Not far away, across Interstate 49, is the headquarters of one of the nation’s largest influencer marketing firms — Collective Bias. Its chief operating officer, Amy Callahan, helped start the company in 2009 with funding from the venture capital firm Mars Ventures. By 2013, its revenue was up to roughly $20 million, while establishing satellite offices in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Minnesota, Toronto and London to serve different major retailers and brands. By April 2016, it had expanded to 131 staff overall, with 80 in its Rogers office.
Collective Bias executives declined to release more current revenue numbers, but said since 2009, their company had achieved 80 percent compound annual growth rate. Like Acorn, Collective Bias has its own sophisticated analytics to track campaigns and a process to select the more than 7,000 influencers in its database.
Acorn and Collective Bias are the most heavily staffed Arkansas-based firms with a focus on influencer marketing.
Pollinate Media Group, a California-based startup with an office in Bentonville, has ties to Collective Bias through its co-founder Alissa Circle, a former CB blogger and campaign leader. The company also has offices in Chicago and Dallas, but derives 35 percent to 40 percent of its revenue from Northwest Arkansas-based business, co-founder Kyle Circle said. It serves not just major retailers like Wal-Mart, but also vendors and more traditional advertising or marketing agencies.
These agencies, which have multi-year contracts with brands at one or multiple retailers, often hire out some of their specific influencer marketing (aka “social shopper”) needs. Pollinate, for instance, has helped run influencer marketing campaigns with CJRW. “Their core competency is in an area where we don’t compete,” Kyle Circle added.
Just as the agencies and influencer marketing firms orbit around the major retailers and vendors, building a web of business relationships with one another, so do their trusted bloggers.
Gill, for one, estimates she’s written sponsored posts in more than 25 campaigns orchestrated by influencer marketing firms. She posts personal pictures to her Instagram account once or twice a day, but caps her number of product mentions at about two a week. Gill knows too much sponsored content quickly wears thin with followers.
To keep their devotion, even as her daughter ages, she is transitioning out of the mommy blogger niche to put a heavier focus on travel and local attractions. For now, Iris still loves dressing up, taking pictures and noshing on most anything sweet, sponsored or not, but “one day she may not, and I’m gonna have to be OK with that,” Gill said.
“The weirdest thing is people know who she is whenever we’re out and about in Fayetteville because of the CVS party or Instagram….”
“I’m embracing it for now.”