What is the return on investment for social influence?

This weekend, 200 yards from the Aegean Sea at WPP Stream, the (un)conference, I had the privilege of chatting with quite possibly the most handsome YouTubers in the UK. In fact, GQ agrees: it recently hired one of the three, Jim Chapman, as a new columnist and an authority on style and fashion. Alongside Jim were his charming celebrity friends Marcus Butler and Alfie Deyes, who have a combined following of over 10 million subscribers on their YouTube channels alone.

Buck Wise, Marcus Butler, Alfie Deyes, Jim Chapman, Ezra Cooper

The conversation spanned from “how to influence a social community while keeping brand engagements authentic,” to “advertising disclosure regulations and how they differ from ASA to the FTC”. The burning question among brands is almost always: “What is the return on investment for social influence?” If you're not asking this question, I will assume you are using social influencers the wrong way or not at all. It was really special having social influencers, creative agencies, multichannel networks, and brands all in the same room to chat about challenges and successes.

In many ways, learning how and why your brand can work with social influencers is a long-term investment. Fullscreen president Ezra Cooperstein says: "We are just beginning to see this space evolve and at the cusp of very long-term, healthy growth."

Influencers Jim, Marcus, and Alfie all agreed the value in partnering comes from a brand's organic introduction to its community, which in turn can drive more authentic engagement than any media placement can deliver.

I asked these heartthrobs a very simple question: "What do you call yourselves?" Jim was quick to answer: “I don’t know yet, I haven't quite figured it out but I'm having fun doing it.” This is why I use the word “variables” when starting to examine the process of perfecting influencer content collaborations. Remember that these content creators with social reach are not agency creative directors and don't use the words “client brief”.

Alfie mentioned that “brands need to trust us in order to create meaningful content that will resonate with the audience, who we understand more intimately than you do.” Too many campaigns get brand messages shoved down an influencer's channel, leaving them asking, "Why didn't this work?"

Ultimately, reach versus relationship is the foundation of the ROI question. Sure, media dollars go to social influencer campaigns because they have targeting and reach in common, but please stop measuring media and influencer content the same way. Understand that there are multiple tactics – from reach, creative production, relationships, and brand association – that bring an entirely different value to your key performance indicators than "reach" alone.

Alongside these handsome YouTube hunks is their manager, Dominic Smales, who runs Gleam Futures, a social talent management agency. Dominic says "brands need to stop creating one-off campaigns and focus on longer-term, meaningful relationships with influencers".

Ultimately, the conversations in Marathon, Greece, reminded me that influencers protect their relationships the same way we protect our brands. Understanding these social partnerships and the introductions they offer may require a short-term learning curve for a long-term payoff.

Follow the conversation at the world’s best (un)conference #WPPstream on Twitter or Instagram.

Buck Wise is director of brand at Swift + POSSIBLE and director of social for WPP Stream. He tweets @aboutbuck

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