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The ‘in-house influencer’: How brands are creating influencers with digital hustle culture

by Hannah Thorpe

3 June 2020 12:26pm

Is the grass greener on my side?

Everyone and their gran is on instagram and I’m sure even they’ve heard about the plucky young upstarts that are building their social media empires based on relationships they’ve with their followers. It seems that influencers may have the upper hand these days, with many brands struggling to hit the nail on the head with their lockdown messaging, whereas most influencers (kind of) seamlessly transitioned to content with a real human connection.

The tide may be turning yet again with brands dipping their toes into the heady world of influencer marketing, but not as a client buying service, but instead as a digital hustler building influence. I’m referencing the rise of the in-house influencers and brand ambassadors that work as part of a brands team, but also have grown their own following on the side. It would be remiss of brands to not take notice and use these communities at their staff’s fingertips. Sometimes called ‘internal influencers’, they are where your brand's culture meets the world. Essentially it's leveraging content creation by your staff, but giving them the ownership on their own channels to form a symbiotic relationship between brand and private channels. By putting faces to the names behind brand owned content, you ideally build clusters of influence behind the personalities within your company.

Go Team Brand!

It may sound convoluted to work with influencers this way, but for many companies the long game has paid off. You get a roster of in-house influencers, all familiar with your brand, completely bought-in to your message. External influencers seem flighty in comparison, with some jumping to whichever brands sends them the highest check and others stuck in a scandal-apology loop. Of course taking full advantage of the in-house influencer needs careful nurturing and investment. You don’t want to be overbearing and lose the magic that draws people to people, and not people to brands. Ideally once you’ve found the right people within your organisation, you’ll be building a self sustaining content algorithm, where your in-house employees release their branded content to their own networks.

Perhaps the most successful example I’ve seen of this is with the Bon Appetit team on YouTube, echoing Buzzfeed’s content powerhouse. What may have started as a way for this magazine to enter the field of digital video content, has exploded into memes galore and internet fame for members of the editorial team. Each one with their own personality and specialism, they’re now influencers in their own right.

Urban outfitters have also been featuring their own design team on their Instagram profile in their ‘Us @ UO’ series, creating homespun tutorials and styling videos in the comfort of their own home. It’s a win-win for many, staff get to build their ‘personal brand’ and further their career, and brands get authentic content fronted by an actual human being.

Instant influencer? (not the reality show)

Of course, letting your staff roam free on the brand’s social handles isn't on the top of many CMOs to-do lists. A lot of hard work should be done internally, defining company culture and values. Employees that live and breathe a ‘Brand’ will be more likely to naturally exude these qualities online without coming across like a set of brand guidelines. Diversification of your content is just a bonus, but a very welcome one at that. You can focus less on your content calendar and more on influencer management, if that's your bag.

One of the first brands I've seen do this are another fashion retailer, ASOS. As a digital only retailer they re-imagined the whole concept of shop assistants wearing the brand on the shop floor. Instead they gave them each their own Instagram account. ASOS insiders - an influencer team standing to attention, each with their own specific flavour of content which means there will be something for (probably) everyone. The joy of finding someone who looks like you reflected in a brands content can’t be undersold and I’m sure ASOS Head Office are reaping the benefits.

Internal influencers are almost like customer service representatives with personality, some may even be the perfect vessel for collecting customer insights, including barriers to sales and buying journey pain-points. Shiny brand ambassadors with their own social following also effectively advertise you to prospective hires, priming candidates for future roles with your company.

Creative differences

Sounds like a dream? It could be, or it could turn into a nightmare. With most things, there's a balance. The drawbacks to growing your own team of in-house influencers obviously includes the extra time and effort it takes to build a significant following. Creative differences aside, it can be difficult for brands to loosen the leash and give staff license to create on their own terms. Of course, you can overcome this with a lovely signoff framework, but that’s also work, necessary as it is.

Authenticity and the absence of it, is a word inextricably tangled with the influencer world in 2020. How will the public react if their favourite influencer was revealed to be a brand shill on the payroll all along? (If you’re interested in the answer, it was covered in a storyline by Apple & Rob McElhenney's TV series Mythic Quest). It's best to avoid any big revelatory moments and keep it transparent from the start. Start small and instead of signing content contracts with your staff straight away, first give them the tools to safely experiment. Do your employees know what your social media policy is? Gently reminding them what they can and can’t share might give them peace of mind to post what they were wanting to post anyway. You might not go as far as a company hashtag but if it all starts to pick up, a set of rules of engagement might go even further in the comments section.

Brave new world

For many brands, the resource to build from scratch won't be worth the delayed gratification. But for others, they may already have a primed audience right under their noses, in the hands of their employees. News UK (owner of The Sun and The Times) have already opened up their very own influencer agency, The Fifth, featuring none other than their team of editorial personalities. Savvy move, but perhaps one for the audience to ponder - drawing the line between news and influence has always been tricky. According to The Fifth, there will be a hard line drawn, and brand partnerships will be limited to the influencer’s social channels. Is this the new influencer trend to kill all others? Probably not, but it's an interesting direction taken by brands to take back ownership of the message they're sending online.

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