Is social influence the new celebrity?

MELBOURNE -- Product placement is making its way into the blogs and Instagram photos of "social influencers," or Internet celebs. And Australia's Repless is leading the way.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- Devin Graham, also known as "Devinsupertramp," has a knack for producing videos that go viral, such as, "World's Largest Rope Swing""Human Slingshot Slip and Slide", or the occasional video game promo. The 29-year-old Utah resident, who has over one million followers on his YouTube channel, has worked with high-profile clients, such as entertainment giant Warner Bros. and video games publisher Unisoft, to create marketing and promotional content.

Graham is representative of a new type of celebrity -- "the social influencer" -- defined by Melbourne social media agency Repless as "anybody producing or curating content in a meaningful way that attracts and maintains a large number of followers, subscribers or fans."

Product placement and celebrity endorsements are nothing new, but Repless, established in 2012, claims they are one of the first companies to pioneer the connection between brands and social media influencers.

Acting as middleman, Repless helps brands (or the agencies that represent them) to reach engaged social media followers and fans through product placement and integration opportunities. And in doing so, it enables social media influencers to earn money from their following.

"It's become a very lucrative market," Repless founder Shannon Dolan, a communications strategist, told SmartPlanet. "These social influencers are not working in obscurity anymore, they're working with some of the biggest brands in the world who are relying on these sorts of influencers to access an audience they could never have talked to before."

Repless was initially an online platform through whicht brands could connect with social media influencers directly, for an introduction fee of AUD$100 (USD$94).

Today the five-person agency, whose clients include 7-Eleven, General Motors, Samsung and Tiffany & Co., has expanded its scope of services to offer social media consulting and management. The business receives between 10 to 20 percent of a campaign budget for design, execution and monitoring, or operates on a monthly retainer basis for the management of a brand's social media.

Repless has access to over 600 global social influencers, active across personal blogs and social media channels including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

The agency works with campaign budgets ranging from AUD$5,000 (USD$4,724) to AUD$30,000 (USD$28,347). Clients come to Repless with their objectives -- to raise brand or product awareness, to direct visitors to a site, or to deliver profits -- and the agency connects them to an appropriate influencer, or group of influencers, that can best fulfill the brief.

Recently Repless designed an execution for the integration of products from Bailey Nelson, an Australian brand offering AUD$95 (USD$90) prescription optical and sunglasses, into the Instagram account of a Melbourne social influencer with a following of over 16,000 people.

This influencer (who has asked to be unnamed) claims she genuinely like the Bailey Nelson product, but says that anonymity is key to maintaining integrity for the brand and ambassador, a title that she has adopted.

"I know it's important to Bailey Nelson for my endorsement to appear natural and not paid, and I want any future brand ambassador work I do to be able to appear natural too," the social influencer said.

Bailey Nelson State Manager James Hinley claims that social media replicates word-of-mouth marketing. "Partnering with individuals who have influence through social media grants us access to another pathway to communicate and expose our product to potential and existing customers," he said.

According to Dolan, the Bailey Nelson execution is a good example of what you can do on a small budget. He said that there are some social influencers who "won't roll out of bed for less than AUD$30,000 (USD$28,347)," but in most cases, a budget is weighted to the campaign, not the social influencer.

Last year, Repless was engaged to work on a Warner Bros. Records campaign to grow the audience and direct sales for the then emerging artist Outasight. To create the exposure required, Repless decided on a single video integration, with the song featuring as a background to a "best of" compilation by social media celebrity Devin Graham, whose previous videos typically achieved views of three million or more.

Repless reported that within a month, Graham's video featuring the Warner Bros. Records track achieved over one million unique views. The activity resulted in the original music video receiving over 100,000 views in the same period (a 12 percent increase in the views it already had to date). The campaign is credited with a 70 percent increase in sales.

Dolan, who has an advertising and media agency background, says this business arrangement is an ongoing challenge. He explains that most social influencers will only work with products and clients they feel won't disrupt their content or damage their reputation.

The Melbourne consultant believes that audiences today accept that advertising is part of the media they consume, no matter what the platform, and contends that they would prefer the product to be integrated rather than appear as a pre-roll or pop-up advertisement.

"Of course, there's always a risk of backlash," Dolan said. "There will always be internet trolls saying you're a sellout. I think it's always up to the individual how they deal with that, and how much of an effect it's going to have on their following which they've worked hard to build."

Photos: Devin Graham on location (main), and Repless founder Shannon Dolan.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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