At this year’s NewFronts, we saw platforms like TikTok and companies like Barstool Sports lean hard into influencer marketing. The creator-brand partnership slice of the advertising industry was expected to be especially impacted by COVID-19, and influencers were warned that they might see their income drop significantly. Influencers told us that in March, as large-scale lockdowns kicked in and brands struggled to find footing, they did notice a drop in new deals and a sink in CPMs. In the two months afterward, though, some companies have noticeably restrategized by siphoning their ad spend away from more traditional channels and putting it toward influencers.
So, the fact that TikTok focused its NewFronts show on telling brands about how ready for sponsorship its creators are (rather than telling them to just buy more ad space) and that Barstool Sports offered up an entire new division dedicated to hooking brands up with its collection of popular podcast hosts and video anchors…isn’t that surprising. But their presentations–and the industry developments we’ve seen on the brand side–did make us wonder how influencer marketing mainstays are dealing with changes.
That’s why we decided to chat with BEN. Our NewFronts coverage sponsor was founded in 2007 and is currently helmed by CEO Ricky Ray Butler. BEN’s core business involves using artificial intelligence networks to match brands up with the creators that best suit them. The company is well aware that people don’t like ads, so it focuses on what it calls “non-disruptive integrations,” where a brand and its products are wrapped into an influencer’s content, rather than flashed to viewers in a preroll ad or in content that’s wildly different from what a creator would normally post.
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We talked to James Myrick, SVP of performance, about what BEN does, how coronavirus has shifted the landscape of influencer marekting, and what creators and brands can do as they move forward.
Tubefilter: How is BEN different from other influencer marketing and entertainment companies?
James Myrick: BEN is an entertainment AI company that gets brands inside influencer, streaming, TV, and film content through authentic, non-disruptive integrations. We leverage deep learning neural networks and predictive analytics to match brands with integrations that resonate with today’s ad-averse audiences and add greater depth to storytelling. The team’s strongest attributes are its decades of experiences within the entertainment industry and longstanding relationships with top producers and influencers. Through this experience, combined with our world-class AI capabilities, BEN has established itself as the global leader in influencer marketing and brand integration, pioneering new ways for brands to work with creators across channels and better connect with audiences.
While other companies have experimented with AI, there is no one else in the industry that is using and building proprietary, custom-to-brand AI within entertainment marketing. BEN’s AI is a tremendous differentiator within entertainment, empowering the most effective integrations for clients.
Trained with 40+ years of structured and unstructured data on brand integrations, BEN’s proprietary algorithms provide targeted recommendations on the right channel and audience for a brand’s unique needs, with guaranteed ROI. This enables us to achieve an unprecedented level of analysis that is proven to be more accurate than humans in predicting real results from high-impact brand integrations. Using a combination of AI and traditional market research tools, BEN helps clients focus their investments on the integrations that deliver the highest value and deeply resonate with audiences.
Tubefilter: How do you make your ads “unblockable,” and why is this a vital part of what you do?
JM: Today’s audiences are increasingly ad-adverse—86% of Americans skip through ads, and 47% of global internet users are using an ad-blocker. Instead of relying on pre-roll, skippable and blockable ads, BEN integrates brand and product offerings directly into the content itself. This allows viewers to enjoy content without the disruption of an advertisement and leaves a good impression of the brand or product when placed or used authentically. This authenticity is key to our success, as strong integrations enhance and even uplevel the content. And, not only are we partnering brands with influencers, but we’re working to place brands across mediums, from feature films to primetime, which allows us to connect with audiences at different touchpoints, since this content lasts forever and is frequently redistributed across new platforms. Ultimately, BEN and our partner brands are creating a seamless experience for the viewer, while supporting creators and empowering content—all while driving an ROI.
Tubefilter: How has COVID-19 changed the landscape of influencer marketing and digital content?
JM: The first half of 2020 created major challenges for advertisers—productions came to a halt and in-person events were canceled or postponed. Yet creators, from Hollywood celebs and top YouTubers to TikTok stars and gamers, adapted and found new ways to engage, and many marketers turned to today’s rising influencers to connect with audiences. Major artists, like Travis Scott, streamed concerts on Twitch, and late-night hosts turned to YouTube. We’ve also seen a massive uptick in the popularity of online fitness content and new viral hits like Some Good News. And they’re generating major success and validating the power of social media and influencer content, with millions of views and high engagement.
In turn, marketers are reallocating their budgets to play in the influencer space, whether a brand is partnering with a new influencer for the first time or upleveling existing partnerships and expanding campaigns. With viewers spending more time at home and in front of their screens and social platforms, influencer marketing across social platforms is key to reaching this content-hungry audience.
Tubefilter: What’s the worst way for a brand to integrate into a creator’s content?
JM: When embarking on a partnership, the worst thing a brand could do is try to control the creative process through precise scripting or lengthy approval processes. This usually results in forced, inauthentic, and awkward content that is unusual for the influencer, leaving an unfavorable impression of the brand with their loyal audience and diminishing trust. Both brands and the creators have a common goal to connect with audiences, so they need to effectively collaborate by empowering content. As a result of trusting, not controlling, the influencer, sponsored content is natural and authentic to the creator, and the audience responds positively by engaging with the brand.
Tubefilter: In what ways have brands successfully adjusted to the pandemic?
JM: The coronavirus pandemic has presented many challenges for the marketing and entertainment industries. With many mainstream productions on pause and travel restricted, brands have had to think outside the box and push for innovative solutions to overcome these new hurdles and maintain a steady drumbeat of engagement with audiences. As consumers spend more time on their mobile devices, laptops, and televisions, brands have a unique (and more timely) opportunity to redistribute marketing dollars and experiment with influencer marketing and brand integration.
Many brands have taken advantage of this, partnering with influencers and traditional celebrities alike to integrate their products into content that’s being filmed at home. Ultimately, the brands that will find the most success during this time are those that keep empathy at the heart of their campaigns. During trying times, brands must be cognisant of their tone and evaluate how they’re approaching their audience. Instead of conducting business as normal, companies should create products, provide aid and communicate resources that solve problems caused by the crisis. For example, when the pandemic first hit and hospitals were facing equipment shortages, fashion brands like Hanes and Zara stepped up to manufacture face masks and protective hospital gowns. To help the struggling restaurant industry, Samuel Adams started giving out $1,000 grants to workers impacted by restaurant closures. Campaigns that led with empathy and humanity will be those that win the hearts and minds of consumers.
Tubefilter: How are you using AI in your process?
JM: AI is at the heart of everything we do at BEN. With so much information in the entertainment industry, and more becoming available every day, marketers need technology to help them sort through the noise and make targeted decisions. Our AI has the ability to sort through oceans of structured data—such as comments and likes—and unstructured data—information like video, images, audio, and text within the content—faster than any human possibly could. With this data in hand, we create custom algorithms for each client and campaign, and the AI makes data-driven recommendations on who to work with based on that brand’s unique goals, as well as insight into how many actual results they will drive–guaranteeing ROI on every campaign. Our deep learning neural networks allow the AI to learn and grow after each campaign, allowing it to make even stronger recommendations the more it’s used.
Tubefilter: How can brands create long-lasting integration partnerships with social media creators?
JM: In order to establish an effective partnership between brands and creators, marketers must first train AI with a broad set of influencers to truly gauge which partnerships bring measurable value and impact. While testing, the AI will gain a deeper understanding of the optimal channels, audiences and messaging that fit the brand’s unique goals and voice. Once this baseline is established, AI will be able to identify individual creators that will result in the most successful partnerships.
When this connection is made, marketers should be collaborative and lean on the creator’s expertise, trusting them to guide the creative process based on their deep understanding of their audience. This trust is especially important when it comes to brand integrations, which should seamlessly fit into social media content, make sense with the creator’s personality and typical content genre, and enhance—not disrupt—the audience’s viewing experience. We call this kind of optimization between brands, creators, and viewers the “consensus triangle.” Integrations are the most successful and authentic when the brand, creator, and viewer all have their needs met throughout the content experience. Creators know their platform and viewers better than anyone else, and will work to ensure an integration feels as natural as possible. Brands and creatives must work together to determine the best placements rather than working in individual silos. This way, the two parties will ultimately produce engaging, impactful content for audiences, therefore achieving the consensus triangle. Once that trust is established on all sides, future integrations within the partnership will be easier to execute, and all sides will benefit from the partnership.
Tubefilter: What is the strength of running a cross-platform campaign on, for example, TV and digital?
JM: BEN has done a substantial number of cross-channel campaigns for clients. The opportunity of being able to integrate your brand POV authentically across a multitude of pieces in streaming, TV, film, and influencer content helps make the brand top of mind for consumers, especially around a targeted campaign. And they allow brands to reach consumers in different intervals: TV and film integrations are longer-lead, whereas influencer campaigns can be turned around quickly. Cross-channel campaigns are definitely becoming more popular within entertainment, especially as awareness continues to be segmented across various entertainment channels. It’s extremely effective for increasing brand awareness, and when paired with the right digital strategy, can boost overall campaign ROI.
Tubefilter: From your experience, are there any characteristics that set the best social media creators apart?
JM: First and foremost, the best creators are personable, and have a genuine connection with and affinity for the brand. This ensures that the content creation process will be authentic and ultimately resonate with their audiences. When they have done integrations before and can align on holistic goals that are shared by all parties, they’re going to be creators that brands want to work with again and again. From a more technical perspective, the most successful creators have excellent channel health. It’s not something that you can gauge by looking at followers, likes, or comments individually. It’s a benchmark you arrive at by assessing the history of that creator’s channel, and analyzing the trends in growth, engagement, and quality over time, while taking into account any violations of brand safety guidelines and unusual or fraudulent bot activity. Our AI analyzes channel health for every creator we partner with, so that when we engage with brands, we’re able to put forth the best—and oftentimes, unexpected— creators for that particular brand and campaign.
BEN is an entertainment AI company that integrates brands into influencer, streaming, TV, music, and film content with guaranteed ROI. With its proprietary AI and platform, BEN is the first and only company using machine learning and deep learning neural networks to identify high-impact opportunities for authentic, non-disruptive brand integrations. BEN combines its AI with 40+ years of experience and a team of industry experts to connect brands with the right audiences and content opportunities in meaningful ways. If you’d like to find out how BEN can increase your sales by 10x (like we have done for our other clients), then get in touch with us today.