As the influencer marketing industry matures, brands are looking in their own backyards for social-media popular personalities to rep their brands.
Equinox Fitness, which has the Equinox gyms, Pure Yoga, Blink Fitness and SoulCycle in its portfolio, launched a new talent management agency for its employees in late July, following on the heels of brands like Kate Spade, Everlane and Macy’s that have created dedicated influencer programs sourced from existing employees, or heavily feature their employees on their social media channels to push product.
By hiring employees as influencers, brands are fulfilling the need for consistent, quality content that’s produced not by a big-name brand but from a relatable social media presence. They’re also cost-cutting: Hiring employees to fill the influencer role is less expensive than working with large influencers who can charge upward of thousands of dollars for a single post. These companies are also forming longer-term loyalty with their employees by expanding the relationship and demonstrating an appreciation for the employees’ brand knowledge and affiliation.
“Company employees are natural brand ambassadors, especially in the industries like fitness, fashion, beauty and lifestyle, where personal example is most powerful,” said Yuli Ziv, CEO of the influencer marketing division at Launchmetrics. “These brand ambassadors are authentic because they chose to dedicate their professional lives to these brands, and leveraging that authenticity and dedication is very strategic for brands who want to develop their own communities of consumers.”
For Equinox, it had already been informally facilitating sponsorships between its employees and brands, but now, with a formal agency that can help incubate its own influencers and connect them with brands, it can reap the long-term return on investment at scale, said Chloe Steinberg, vp of business development at Equinox. The agency will work by providing employees opportunities for exposure through classes or events, helping them create content, and offering education around things like algorithm updates to establishing brand endorsements. It will initially focus solely on Instagram influencers in New York and Los Angeles, and will further expand to more employees by the fall and as a full-service agency for all social media platforms in 2019. Equinox declined to say how many employees are in the current pilot but did say there are more than 10.
So far, in the evolution of employee-influencer marketing, there are two strategies: creating a dedicated program, like Equinox’s agency or Macy’s Style Crew program, or simply featuring employees on social like Everlane and Kate Spade. For Macy’s, its program allows over 300 employees to create short video clips — produced in partnership with Macy’s and the branded video platform Tongal — which are developed around an employee’s personal interests and feature related products carried at Macy’s in order to direct conversions. Meanwhile, Everlane regularly features its head of social media on its Instagram page, modeling new styles and making announcements, and Kate Spade filmed an unboxing video with the Madison Avenue store’s general manager that was posted on YouTube.
“It is a smart investment for companies to help those individuals create their own brand and content as part of it,” Ziv said, adding, “They might not always have the skills or the tools to do it well, but guided by professional management and resources, they can create a lot of value.”
That value lies in enabling a company to grow through brand awareness via this type of marketing channel. Determining the exact metrics for measuring success and impact is the only quantifiable way for brands to understand just how much return they are earning on their investment, Ziv said. So measurement systems such as affiliate tags need to be put in place in order to track results.
Brands are still figuring out how to compensate employees-turned-influencers, and the rules around sponsored content are still fuzzy. Macy’s provides a commission to its employees, a replication of the in-store policy, while Everlane and Kate Spade have not disclosed if they provide compensation. At Equinox, employees are not expected to pay for representation, Steinberg said; instead, the agency considers its return on investment to be the on-boarding of new Equinox members and retaining of current ones, due to the social media exposure and face-time that members can have with influencers.
“When a brand approaches us, the ability to package influencers and bring customers more closely [to them] and more authentically pays us back,” Steinberg said.