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Why Brand-Creator Partnerships Are Prioritizing Expertise and Diversity over Fame

Published on ADWEEK on April 28th, 2022

The practice of brands tapping online content creators to boost their reach and forge relationships with customers famously took off with celebrities. When the average shopper thinks of influencers, they likely still picture a glamorous reality TV star making millions to flash a handbag for a second in an otherwise brand-agnostic video.

But the focus of brand-creator partnerships is shifting. September 2021 research by Influencer Intelligence showed that just 15% of more than 1,400 global marketing professionals had worked with celebrities in the past year, while 22% had collaborated with ‘authoritatives,’ or creators who are experts in the industry they’re promoting online.

This shift from celebrity to expertise comes alongside increased emphasis on diversity. Forty-one percent of marketers told Influencer Intelligence that the greatest driver of change in their marketing strategy was “consumer demand for brand transparency across factors such as sustainability, ethical supply chains, and diversity and inclusion.” Thirty-seven percent of marketers said the most important factor when working with influencers was alignment between the creator’s values and the brand’s.

Let’s consider why brand-creator partnerships are changing and how brands, creators, and consumers can benefit from that change.

Why brand-creator partnerships are changing

The original philosophy behind the influencer marketing phenomenon was, as the name suggests, simple: Celebrity creators commanded massive influence on consumers via social channels. Brands wanted to leverage creators’ influence to reach new customers, and creators wanted a way to monetize that influence.

But celebrity is not necessarily the foundation of the most effective marketing partnership, especially when it comes to branded content creation. For example, it seems great for the brand if a creator with ten million followers promotes a product on Instagram. Reach is an important marketing factor. But what if the creator hardly mentions the brand in her content? What if the creator demonstrates values that damage the brand? What if the creator is a difficult partner, expensive, and does not understand the product they are promoting?

These questions are driving marketers to shift their focus from celebrity, or reach, to diverse, value-driven talent with brand-specific expertise. Brands are focusing less on the number of followers of creator partners and more on the quality of the content they produce and the efficiency of the partnership.

Not coincidentally, this focus on targeted, highly effective partnerships instead of reach brings brand-creator partnerships more in line with best practices in other marketing disciplines such as advertising, where a hyper-targeted campaign to likely buyers is more valuable than a spray-and-pray approach.

The benefits of creator partnerships focused on diverse, expert talent

Brands, creators, and consumers stand to benefit from the shift in brand-creator partnerships from a focus on reach to one on partnerships grounded in expertise, diversity and inclusion, and values.

For brands, the shift in what has historically been called influencer marketing points to an opportunity to tap into what others have called brand ambassadorship. An ambassador is not someone who gets paid merely to exercise influence. Rather, an ambassador embodies the brand; they share the brand’s values, know how to speak to its strengths, and fluently connect with its target audience.

Brands should bake this shift in mindset from influence to ambassadorship into their creator partnership strategies. Instead of selecting for number of followers, marketers should consider creators’ values, hunger to work with them, knowledge of their brand and industry, and the ease and cost-effectiveness of the collaboration. They should also prioritize partnering with diverse creators who can extend the brand’s range and speak to a variety of consumer profiles.

For creators, the shift to ambassadorship opens doors. Five or even three years ago, social content creators hoping to score an influencer marketing deal might have assumed they would need to go viral and develop massive followings to do so. This is less and less true. Today, creators can optimize their resumes by developing expertise, nurturing niche audiences that align with those expertise, learning how to measure the value of their contributions (like any other marketer), and earning a reputation for professionalism and efficiency.

Ambassadorship also speaks to a more symbiotic relationship between brand and creator. Brands can own the conversation surrounding their products by providing clear specifications for content, requesting revisions, and ultimately approving an ambassador’s work before publication. Ambassadors get fair pay, the upside of commissions, and guidelines to spur creativity and allow them to delight their clients.

Lastly, the evolution of influencer marketing into brand ambassadorship bodes well for consumers. In recent years, the digital marketing community has been engaged in a conversation about the dangers of social content, especially the unattainable beauty standards it promotes, standards that have been a significant part of celebrity-focused influencer marketing.

The shift to diverse creators with more modest followings promises a healthier, more sustainable, and more relatable content ecosystem. One where consumers can comfortably learn about products from people like them. One where creators don’t need millions of followers to monetize their content. One where brands benefit from giving ambitious, everyday content producers a chance.