Black Lives Matter is a slogan that sparked a hashtag, a network of grass-roots organizations, and a collective of activists. How did it go from just a social media post to a global phenomenon, what influence it brought and where does it go now?
Recent events have brought to surface what Black Lives Matter movement has been saying all along: our shared value system is rigged, if not broken. Equality is a mirage, experienced only by those with privilege. As opposition lines are drawn by the protesters and the police, where does brand marketing land online? Can companies walk the razor thin line between the have and have nots? Instagram is already inspecting the platform’s algorithm for bias against black voices. Change is here and more is coming, but how to ensure influencers and brands aren’t swept away into digital oblivion or, worse, left on the sidelines by the tide of protests against police brutality, racism, and inequality?
It is no surprise, then, that interest is growing across companies seeking to balance marketing needs with authentic activism and real emotions. The long held belief that ethical practices come at the expense of business performance no longer holds. Consumers demand a clear, visible ethical stand from corporations online and beyond. “Are you with us?” they chant. Brands can no longer remain silent or they risk falling into “against us” category.
On blogs, in Facebook groups, in a variety of listicles, and TikTok streams, people are voicing their discontent with the status quo demanding change. A veteran in influencer marketing data analysis, Open Influence has outlined seven (7) essential recommendations driven by key Diversity & Inclusion principles from environmental, social, and corporate governance ethical guidelines, expertly revised to begin fixing the current crisis many brands are facing in social media:
We have decided to talk with Eric Dahan, the CEO and co-founder of Open Influence, to shed the light on the current situation in influencer marketing activities and how brands should manage them.
How did you come up with the idea of creating Open Influence?
Eric: Since 2013 we have been making waves in the influencer marketing industry. We’re the first to scale it from a talent representation business to an agency that connects brands with today’s leading voices online – so that’s something unique. Now Open Influence has offices throughout the world – LA, New York, Milan, London, and we also have a small team in Hong Kong doing affiliate work. We’re a global team of passionate product specialists, creatives, social strategists, creators, talent coordinators, and account managers, all dedicated to changing the way the world communicates.
What is the importance of influencer marketing especially in the times of #blacklivesmatter movement?
Eric: 2020 has brought with it a host of new and unique hardships, but racism and structural disenfranchisement are not on that list. The Black Lives Matter movement has refocused our society’s gaze on the moral issues of racial inequality but these systemic problems are in no way new and the time for self-reflection and action is long overdue.
As a company, we’re very supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a first-generation American, the concepts of diversity and inclusion are very important to me personally and it’s something as a company we are striving for. During the first week when the protest and the movement started, we paused all influencer efforts out of respect for the movement. We’ve created a lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives internally as an organization, too; and also collaborated with several of our partners to help with their inclusion representation. Overall, the industry has made some strides in helping the situation – we’ve seen a rapid demand for the creators of color!
As opposition lines are drawn by the protesters and the police, where does brand marketing land online?
Eric: Brands have realized that in order to be successful they need to make more than just a profit, they need to promote values they stand for and which they represent. That’s been a trend going on for years, but despite that, we’ve seen the brands have been historically silent during polarizing social or political events. Historically it was normal for brands to stay out of it, however, in today’s world that’s no longer the case, no longer possible. Nowadays brands without a stand are being called out for that silence, so it slowly made a shift for brands to be more vocal and become supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement regardless of their political affiliation. From a branding standpoint, I don’t see many companies saying we’re pro-police other than the local gun clubs and stuff like that. The lines might have been drawn, but brands understand where the majority views might fall.
There are so many biases that were implemented in our subconscious by the old marketing models. What is a new approach to influencer marketing, and we can remove our biases?
Eric: While race is undoubtedly important in understanding our audiences’ experiences, it does our creative, consumers and stockholders a tremendous disservice to use this metric as the only lens by which to view our audience. Modern marketers looking to connect with consumers on the basis of more than just their skin color should begin or expand efforts to understand their audience’s psychographics and include learnings into creative briefs and RFPs. Psychographic information is inclusive of your consumer’s habits, hobbies, spending habits and values. While demographics explain who your buyer is, psychographics explain why they buy and perhaps why they share, which goes a substantial way further towards understanding the creative that they might respond best to from your brand. Actively reeducate yourself on your consumers, their motivations, values and opinions and then allow those factors to guide strategy, creative and talent selection. Doing so will inevitably bring forth more nuanced creative and greater connection between brands and consumers.
The Black in Fashion Council will establish an equality index score for companies across the industry. Do you think there should also be quotas for influencers of certain diversity for brand marketing?
Eric: We’ve talked about the idea of quotas recently with one of our clients. And he wasn’t sure if the quotas are necessarily the right approach. It’s almost like a box ticking exercise, and it might not work for every brand. Some products do really well in the Hispanic market so we obviously would like to work more with the Hispanic creators to promote it. Some markets do well with other demographics, like in the Asian communities. I think before setting any kind of quotas, the company should be conscious, measuring what it is doing and having a meaningful conversation around that to make sure the brand is being truly inclusive. Maybe the quotas could make sense at some point, but I think it just makes me feel you’re trying to check off boxed instead of doing what truly really matters. We suggest that all companies take a look at their current practices to uncover unconscious biases that exist, be it in creative, talent selection, or contract negotiations. Especially contract negotiations. Hire new faces, amplify their voices and pay them equitably.
Some influencers were criticized for capitalizing on the movement. How to make influencers stop treating protests like Coachella?
Eric: When people think about influencers, there are always mixed reactions – are they foe or are they a friend? Of course, the ones who are protesting just for the photoshoot give the industry the bad shadow. They aren’t representing the influencers industry as a whole.
Social media has given rise to a generation of brilliant, driven creators who are eagerly expressing their unique experiences without the limitations of traditional media channels. However, it’s clear now that while the invention of social media and influencer marketing is relatively new, we brought with us, perhaps even unconsciously, the pervasive and archaic structures were long held in previous forms of media.
Let us also be conscious of the contributions from Black people on art, culture, dance, music, and literature, and actively seek to partner with those rarely heard, but invaluable voices. We should look for visible ways to include more diverse representation into our marketing efforts and expand our narrow understanding of that word to include sexual orientation, gender identity, differently-abled people and intersectionality.
How to pick the right influencer for the brand in current market conditions?
Eric: As a brand, awareness is key. Monitoring the situation on the ground and monitoring the sentiment – both are extremely important. Modern advertisers need to make sure their strategies and concepts are spot on, and they are addressing the concerns that people have without appearing tone-deaf. It is extremely important to manage that communication flow. You should always double-check that influencers understand your campaign concept, brand mission and values, and that will help avoid any miscommunications when the creators produce the content for the public consumption.
What is the first step Open Influence takes evaluating a creator?
Eric: In our system, we track pretty much all the content the influencer produces, and how it will fit the particular brand. Then we do the whole background check: if there are any records or criminal past. We want to make sure that this influencer doesn’t have any sort of accusations in sexism, sexual harassment or assault.
What’s your take on the establishment of the AMERICAN INFLUENCER COUNCIL? Do you think this trade association may help to create fair terms for all creators?
Eric: I don’t think the creators’ lobby may change the situation a lot. I personally don’t see value from that standpoint. If creators and influencers want to unionize – it is similar as signing up with a management company that will represent their interests in negotiations and contracting.
This is why for the third time Open Influence has been recognized on the Inc. 5000 list – it is a result of the company’s successful influencer marketing solutions generating over 30 million USD in revenue in 2019. This proves that no matter the sector, incredible growth is based on the foundations of diversity and inclusion.