A shotgun for your influence: magazine brands, social media stars and the battle for paid #authenticity

The influencer game is nothing new. As far back as the early 1900s, the Fox Gun company won the official endorsement of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote glowing letter of recommendation for the firearm, which was later published as an advertorial in Scribner’s Magazine. This was no easy feat. Roosevelt wasn’t known for giving away endorsements on a whim, and he certainly wouldn’t have done it unless he really believed in the product.

Fast-forward around 100 years, and the influencer tradition continues. However, in lieu of earnest letters written by presidents, we now have 16-year-olds broadcasting their make-up tips to millions of fans across the world—and brands are increasingly tagging along for the ride, paying handsome sums for so-called “authentic endorsements”. It’s easy to see why this seems an attractive opportunity to brands. It comes with the promise of immediacy, measurability and scale that can be difficult to match. But promises don’t always live up to the expectations, and there are few cracks starting to show around the influencer space.

Influencer faux pas, such as Scott Disick including a marketer’s instructions in a post; issues around transparency and measurability; and exorbitant fees (Kylie Jenner charged Kiwi entrepreneur Iyia Liu $300,000 for a single post) are all starting to pose serious questions about the modern influencer machine.

It could be argued that this has played into the hands of the veterans, the magazine brands and their editors who have traditionally had close and long-standing partnerships with brands. As marketers started questioning the actions and results of the newcomers, they have stepped forward to present an alternative, grounded in high editorial standards and a deep understanding of their audience that can help increase engagement.

And the inclusion of a content marketing category at the Magazine Media Awards this year signals just how important these partnerships have become to both brands and publishers in the modern media context.

Keep it tight

FCB head of media and strategy Rufus Chuter calls magazines a “relationship medium” because editorial teams understand how to communicate with their audience better than most, and goes so far as to say the success of their magazine relies on it.

And while a similar argument could potentially be made for social media influencers who speak directly to their audience from their bedrooms, the reality is that these individuals rarely have any in-depth knowledge about their audiences. What’s more is that the audience is often spread across the world, rather than limited to New Zealand. Both of these departments just so happen to be strengths of the magazine industry.  

Furthermore, Chuter also sees significance in the willingness of consumers to pay for something in the digital age.   

“With so much free content now competing for our attention, you could argue the decision to buy a magazine is a more highly engaged one than ever before,” he says.

Editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day and NZ Woman’s Weekly Sido Kitchin agrees with Chuter, but elaborates further by saying that an important corollary of building this relationship over the years is the trust it engenders between the editorial staff and the reader.       

Kitchin says a must-have for anyone working in the Woman’s Day editorial team is an absolutely clear understanding of the readers, adding they often know the readers better than they know themselves.

And for brands looking to reach and, importantly, engage with an audience, this trust editorial teams have with their readers allows for content to be created that will be of benefit to the readers and the clients. 

Know your onions

The moment editors dabble in the branded space, they run the risk of turning off readers on account of producing content that’s contrived or undeserving of publication. Paperboy editor, and former Home editor, Jeremy Hansen says that magazine reputations take years to develop, and it’s always a challenge to balance the dual relationships of brands and readers.   

“Once you lose readers’ trust or readers lose their belief in your integrity, then you’re not much value to the clients that want to talk to you about shaping their message as well,” Hansen says.

Maintaining that trust was a particular challenge for Hansen and the team when creating the ‘Paradise Hill’ content marketing campaign for ‘It’s not OK’ in Home, which took out the inaugural best content marketing award at this year’s Magazine Media Awards.

The story appeared to be like any other, as it explored a Kiwi home with a seemingly idyllic family profile. However, unlike the usually perfectly set images, ‘Paradise Hill’ also included images of violence and destruction, with smashed glass, knocked over furniture and blood stained walls. The idea was to show readers that domestic violence can happen in any home, even if at first it isn’t visible.

In keeping with the subtle approach, the kicker was a discreet sentence at the end of the story that gave an explanation of its purpose and said it was developed in conjunction with It’s not OK.

Given readers use Home as an escape and a place to dream about their ideal places, Hansen was worried they may not have wanted to be confronted with some of life’s harsh realities.

But the team trusted its readers were smart enough to go on that journey and, as a result, the campaign was well-received and generated positive feedback.

But things don’t always go so well. As evidenced by the Atlantic’s decision to run a branded post on the gloriousness of Scientology a few years ago, even well established publications can misstep when it comes to branded content.

The point here is that publishers—whether traditional or new age—need to choose their partners carefully.  

Bauer works on a case-by-case basis, because the more it tries to develop rules around what brands to work with, the more exceptions to those rules emerge. Hansen says for content marketing to work for the clients it has to work for the readers, and the clients it chooses to work with understand where Bauer is coming from and respect its views and take on its recommendations.

“We’re happy to talk to clients about their objectives and then we work with them on a really tailored basis to create something that will work for them in the environment of the magazine,” Hansen says.

All-round influence

As magazines expand and develop a 360-degree multimedia offering, their audience is following them. Where they once simply read a magazine over a cup of coffee, now they’re reading their e-newsletters, following them on social media, going to their events, listening to their podcasts or watching their videos. And this has seen an opportunity open up for brands to tap into the influence that extends beyond the printed magazine.

Tangible Media put this to the test when it created the ‘De-Longhi Multifry challenge’, with Dish food editor Claire Aldous tasked to achieve it.

She created six recipes with the Multifry, and the videos of her making them were then posted on Facebook. There, they were viewed more than 280,000 times, liked, shared and commented on by 6,600 people and over 18,000 people clicked on the posts.

Shelley Ferguson, editor-in-chief of Your Home and Garden, Taste and Nadia, and the reigning supreme editor of the year, has also used her significant influence the advantage of clients like Spark when she fronted a campaign to promote its home security offering Morepork.

Kitchin has also found a great joy in engaging with readers and whole new audiences through social media and the Woman’s Day website. Between Facebook and Instagram, Woman’s Day talks to about 90,000 people every day.

And with numbers on that scale, magazines have the same online audience as some of New Zealand’s biggest social media stars, who have also been used by brands to reach an audience. So why should brands try to harness the influence of magazines and their editors, rather than cheaper social influencers?

For Hansen, it’s again about having an editorial authority. He was in front of the camera for ANZ’s Designs for Living campaign, which was a finalist in the content marketing category, and says having the editor of the title present creates a closer connection to the magazine, as well as maintaining the editorial authority.

“When you get content marketing right and you have the editor of a publication fronting that, that integrity also translates onto the screen of whichever device people are watching this sort of content on.”

He adds in the new media environment, it’s important that those who work primarily as print journalists are not wedded to that medium and those storytelling skills can be applied across a whole range of mediums.

That knowledge of an audience and making branded content appear seamless is something social media stars often lack when sharing content, and it’s evidenced when the star promotes a product that doesn’t fit. As mentioned above, reality TV and social media star Scott Disick showed just how unnatural paid posts can get when he shared the wrong caption under an Instagram photo. Rather than saying “Keeping up with the summer workout routine with my morning @booteauk protein shake!”, he included the full instructions given to him, including what to say and when to say it. Not particularly #authentic, not particularly #cheap and particularly #ephemeral. 

Church and state

Many major social media stars have been criticised for profiting from the grey area between legitimate and paid-for endorsements. As Kara Brown wrote on Jezebel: “Advertisements posted as selfies on Instagram or Twitter usually contain no clear indication that the celebrity or personality in question has been paid to promote the product—despite the fact that, in many cases, they’re legally required to disclose exactly that. (Kim Kardashian, for example, recently got in trouble with the FDA promoting a morning sickness drug without including the side effects.)”

Magazine brands also walk that thin grey line and advertorials, which have been around for centuries, are basically a rudimentary form of harnessing a title’s influence. But Hansen says it’s essential to be transparent and there are a range of devices that can be used to stop confusion among readers. These include various labelling devices, along the lines of ‘Advertising Promotion’, or using the logo of the associated brand at the bottom of page to show it has been created in conjunction with it.

“Readers are smart and will quickly abandon a publication if they feel they are not being respected,” he says.

There’s also a growing understanding among clients that they have to release the reins a bit when working with an editor or magazine. Branded content shouldn’t be conflated with advertorial, and the marketer should have sufficient trust in the editor to present the content in the best possible way. Knowing how to do that comes down to understanding what resonates with the audience, and that’s something most editors have learned over many years.

Kiwibank head of marketing, branding and comms Regan Savage has worked with influencers at both magazines and on social media with a large campaign involving Jamie Curry and he says the approval process has to be stripped right back to make it work.

If the influencer is being told exactly what to say, the process is never going to work. So as much as the editors have to compromise slightly and relinquish some of their editorial control, so too do marketers need to stop asking for bigger logos and the insertion of corporate statements that have been approved by the PR department. It’s hard to do, but as Rob Norman, head of digital at GroupM wrote recently about the ‘threat of optimising ourselves into invisibility’: “Fame and relevance are complementary concepts and always have been. Now, due to the algorithmic mediation of experience this co-dependency is more important than ever. If you are famous but not relevant you achieve little, if you are relevant but not famous you might achieve something, but that something may be a fraction of your potential.”

And a growing number of brands are working with ‘traditional’ publishers in an effort to achieve both those goals.  

The influencer game has changed markedly since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. But, as Bill Bernbach famously said, we should be concerned with the unchanging man, not the changing man. Those with influence will always be able to affect their followers’ decisions through their endorsements – in whatever channel they operate in – and the reader’s tolerance for average content remains as low as ever. So publishers here and around the world are increasingly tapping into that long-held influence of their brands and the people who work for them to help brands tell their stories and using their editorial skills to ensure there’s more of the good stuff. 

This story was produced as part of a content partnership with the Magazine Publishers Association.

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