Marni Edelhart: Hi this is Marni Edelhart, Director of Content and Experience for the Pivot Conference, on the line with Ryan Stern and Alexa Tonner. Ryan and Alexa are the founders of Collectively, an agency that orchestrates influencer marketing initiatives designed to generate engagement and awareness for consumer brand. CEO Stern is a fearless and visionary entrepreneur leveraging an extensive background in editorial, social and integrated content marketing to reinvent how brands communicate to consumers on social media. As EVP of collaborations, Tonner is inventive and audacious, bringing together the most creative people in social media in incredible brand collaborations.
The two first worked together, managing brand integrations, CPG clients and bloggers at Foodbuzz, which their efforts drove to being the third largest online food property behind only Food Network and Allrecipes. Then, at Glam Media (now Mode Media) Alexa led overall content and community strategy focused on community growth and recruitment, owned and operated launches and branded integrations; and Ryan oversaw, owned and operated content properties and ran integrated content marketing programs globally.
Now, leading Collectively together, they have built it into a 40-person agency in two years and believe in creating an empowering work environments built on a foundation of teamwork, curiosity and risk-taking.
Good morning Ryan and Alexa.
Ryan Stern: Good morning. Hi.
Alexa Tonner: Good morning.
Marni Edelhart: Thanks for being here today.
Ryan Stern: Thanks for having us.
Marni Edelhart: As described on the website, Collectively orchestrates influencer marketing initiatives designed to generate engagement and awareness for brands.
How do you define the term influencer and where do you find the influencers who help you drive success for clients?
Ryan Stern: Yeah, this is Ryan. I’ll take that one. You know we – Influencer is really a marketing term which is great. And we think of an influencer really from the sort of content creator perspective. They are an individual who is creating content on a social media channel or platform. An influencer is really a byproduct of the content that they are publishing for their audience and the trust that they’ve with the audience that they’ve cultivated on that platform.
So for example we work with a jewelry designer. We started an Instagram account and is publishing really amazing high quality jewelry style photography on her Instagram channel and she’s cultivated hundreds and thousands of people who follow her for that content. And so she now is in a position to be influencing her readers. And so that’s how we think of an influencer, and it can be anyone, creating any type of content, on a variety of social media platforms, which is great.
And what we do is we really help our clients identify who in those different platforms and different content verticals, whether it’s fashion or beauty or health or parenting, who might be the right person to partner with them on a particular initiative. And we really do believe the influencers come in many sizes and they can be small and mighty and they can be very large and impactful and across a large readership.
So what we really do is help our brand clients navigate what we think of as the spectrum of influence, and help them understand what they are going to be, what they can expect from the partnership if they partnering with influencers on kind of the smaller audience size of that spectrum or what to expect on the flip side if they work with more of the “celebrity influencer” who has millions of fans.
Marni Edelhart: When pitching projects to clients, how do you avoid the trap of buzzwords and really help them stand out of the social media noise?
Alexa Tonner: Sure, and this is Alexa. I’m happy to tune in on that. So I think that certainly in the world of social media and social media influence, people sometimes picture a one size fits all approach and they try to take a look at what competitive brand is doing or another brand is doing in the space and try to adopt it themselves. But I think our approach has really been to spend a lot of time listening and connecting with our partners and our clients before you know putting together a strategy that really takes into consideration their goals and their audience and what the approach needs to be.
And so typically we are working with partners to identify stories that aren’t being told about them, or stories that we can help amplify and then we use really, you know a lot of knowledge and experience and familiarity with our community to put together the right approach. And we think that that approach is really defined by finding the right influencers and collaborators to tell a story and be part of a project and then to find the right method and to help translate a brand or partner story into a brief that essentially our collaborators and influencers can respond to in an exciting way, in a way that gets them excited. It’s really about finding that right fit to generate the right kind of impact for our partners.
Marni Edelhart: When evaluating those projects, which social media platform do you currently find most promising in terms of ROI and why?
Ryan Stern: This is Ryan. I am going to jump in on this one. That’s a really interesting question I think because there are so many factors for every different engagement that are going to drive a conversation around ROI and there are platforms for particular initiatives that can be more promising based on the specific brand’s goal than another initiative. And so we really think that in terms of the social platform again there’s no one silver bullet or silver – single social media platform that is where everyone should be working with
And interestingly enough like the actual collaborator, the influencer, they are publishing on many platforms. So our community publishes, I think on average, four to five different social channels they are active on. So we really think that it depends on what type of message is being discussed, how we are trying to reach our audience, what type of audience we are trying to reach. We try to look at all those factors and we see where would an influencer marketing be most successful.
So in some cases, it might be on the YouTube community. In some places it might be on Instagram. And in a lot of cases it’s actually a multi-platform program that offers brands influencer touch points and content across four to five different social media platforms. And that content has been a little bit tailored to each of those. And that’s when we really see programs shine is when we sort of created a scenario where the influencer content and the buzz that’s been created around a message or a campaign is happening in sort of all of these different social corners of the internet.
Marni Edelhart: So when you take the ROI factor out of it, is there a certain social platform that you just find particularly compelling right now?
Ryan Stern: Snapchat is really interesting. It ends up being one that is the most nebulous in terms of understanding the audience and the target and sort of the actual metrics that could go into an ROI calculation. But it’s definitely a rapidly growing channel and we are seeing influencers and content creators adopt the platform very quickly. And it sort of continues to be an area that we are exploring with a lot of curiosity and finding brand partners who really want to be first in that space and come up with interesting ways to create branded, collaborative content there.
So that’s one that’s really great. And then you know it’s hard to pick a favorite. We’ve just, we see such great content coming out, even in just kind of a blogging program that blogging feels like it’s been around now for many years. Its where we started but some of the blogging programs we do have – they really develop such rich conversation that it’s hard to say that that’s not as good as Instagram for example which is also very compelling for different reasons.
Marni Edelhart: Totally understood. There’s a lot of variety out there. So it’s hard to pick any single one and really you know Snapchat and Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram, there are so many differences. Your campaigns stand out particularly due to their high level of visual interest that when I look at your website its like perusing a magazine or museum catalogue in a way. So how do you take a brand message and turn it into art, specifically when the product is not inherently visual?
Alexa Tonner: Yeah. And that’s a really good question and I think the secret really is letting our collaborators be part of the projects and interpret the project and the brands and the partner in their own way. And so I sometimes say that it feels like we are a creative agency but we have all of our creators, with thousands of them all across the world in the form of influencers and our collaborators who work with us on projects. And it’s interesting that I think that really it’s kind of you to compare us to a magazine. And I do sometimes think that some of the mentality that went into our directing and careful consideration and styling, you know the internet and social media have really broken down the barriers. And no longer do we have magazines and editors sort of as a gateway to help people find out about things and beautiful styling and that kind of reporting.
And so we see a lot of our collaborators taking it upon themselves to be you know stylist, art director, writer all in one. And I think that that’s oftentimes kind of what we are looking for especially in maybe a longer form content creator, like a blogger. And so what we really do and kind of our approach is, is we do some strong briefing with our community and each product and we have a sense of guidelines and ideas and thoughts to get people started. But then it really takes a lot of trust and we find that giving people the room to interpret a project and really to take it the final mile is what gets us the most success and the most sort of visual impact. You know the collaborators and influencers we work with, they really have their ear to the ground as far as what resonates with their followers and community so we really believe in respecting their expertise.
Marni Edelhart: One major challenge facing brands is successful hiring and retention of young talent. What steps have you taken to make Collectively a desirable place to work for employees of all ages?
Ryan Stern: Yeah. So I think it’s a couple of things. I think one, I think we, we seek to create a really encouraging and nurturing work environment and I think we also offer a lot of structure and opportunity for ownership, even at entry level roles so that everyone understands where they fit in the larger Collectively vision. And they understand what their role means and expectations and the potential for growth within that role.
And I think we are also really fluid and responsive to requests to explore a new discipline within Collectively so one of the things that I think sets us really apart is that we are very open with our team and you know many of them, this is, you know possibly first, second, third, jobs right out of college, and you don’t always know exactly what you want to do. But I think there’s a lot of different opportunity to – Collectively to try your hat in a few different places and we really make it our goal to find the right approach to really nurturing everyone’s potential within the organization. And we want people to be ultimately happy so that they can do their best work.
So we do a lot of activities that are designed around kind of really checking in and making sure people are excited and happy and know how to go and get support and troubleshoot or identify challenges and get any mentorship around solving this and just naturally come up in a work environment. And we also have fun. We make sure that you know we work hard and we also take some time to just recognize that we need to take a little time and whether it’s kind of company happy hours or lunches or finding team-bonding activities. We try to also get to know the people we work with, really well. It makes it more fun.
Marni Edelhart: Fun is a good place to start. Well, thank you both for taking the time to speak with us today. I get lost in the beauty of your website, every time I check it out and I am so excited to learn more about your work when you speak at Pivot on October 29.
Ryan Stern: Thank you.
Alexa Tonner: We are excited.
Ryan Stern: We are very excited.
Alexa Tonner: Thank you.
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