Why I bet my career on influencer marketing and the creator economy after years of dismissing the industry, now valued at nearly $14 billion

2 months ago 34
IZEA president and COO Ryan SchramIZEA president and COO Ryan Schram

Ryan Schram

I was very skeptical of influencer marketing when IZEA CEO Ted Murphy founded his company in 2006. In 2011 I had never heard of the "creator economy," but Murphy convinced me to join IZEA.  US influencer marketing spending is expected to pass $3 billion this year and nearly $14 billion worldwide.

This as-told-to essay is based from a conversation with Ryan Schram, president and COO at IZEA, an influencer marketing company. 

When IZEA's CEO and founder, Ted Murphy, first told me in 2006 he was setting up shop to pay bloggers to create content for brands on platforms like LiveJournal and MySpace, I told him that was an awful idea — that no one would ever want to do that and he was wasting his time. But when he approached me to join as chief marketing officer five years later, the influencer marketing landscape already looked a little different. 

Terms like "macro-" and "nano-influencer" still weren't in wide use in 2011, and everyone's idea of a successful influencer marketing campaign back then was throwing a "Twitter party" where influencers tweeted out a series of pre-approved questions that their followers answered. Still, the smartphone was taking off and newer platforms like Instagram and Pinterest offered compelling glimpses into the future of social media. 

When Ted was looking to scale IZEA to eventually go public, he called to ask what I was doing one weekend in April 2011. 

"I'm going to buy you a flight down to central Florida," he said. "I would like for you to just hear me out." 

Truth be told, I was happy where I was, as group vice president at Merkle — a company focused on improving the customer experience for organizations — working in the interactive promotions space on the digital equivalent of sweepstakes. But I went anyway. 

For much of that weekend, Ted and I floated around on inner tubes along the JW Marriott's Lazy River in Orlando while he pitched me on what he called the "creator economy" — which was the first time I'd ever heard that phrase used. The proliferation of social media platforms is not going to stop, he argued, and more money will pour in just by virtue of there being more and more users on these platforms. 

I don't know if it was floating around counterclockwise for eight hours or the Captain and Cokes I had while I was in there, but I got out of that Lazy River, took the elevator back up to my room, and I called my wife. I thought I would end up saying "no," a bunch of times, I told her, but I think I'm going to say "yes" and do this. 

Ted, it turns out, was very right, and I was very wrong. Influencer marketing spending is now predicted to pass $3 billion the US and nearly $14 billion worldwide this year. IZEA, which went public in 2014 and now has a market capitalization of nearly $111 million, partners with big brands like Barilla, Clorox, Guess, and Ikea to find the right influencers and work with them on marketing campaigns. Customer engagement can be eight to 10 times higher when the content is a creator's sponsored post on behalf of a brand rather than just an ad from the brand itself. 

When I first joined IZEA, consumers' move from desktop to mobile was really accelerating and content was becoming more snackable and shareable. Our company ran individual properties that were platform-specific: We had one that did sponsored Twitter campaigns and another that did sponsored blog posts. 

But during one of the first campaigns I worked on, it became clear brands wanted a more integrated marketing solution that worked across multiple platforms. So by early 2013, we started developing a set of software that had the ability to do all the things that today we just appreciate as being foundational — like a discovery engine to search for creators, collaboration tools, electronic payments, and analytics. 

What influencer marketing does for brands is a cadre of things that, I believe, remain unmatched in advertising — the ability to provide traditional media metrics in terms of reach and frequency, the ability to drive public relations metrics, the engagement and storytelling. And influencer marketing is not only efficient in its ability to reach consumers, but it's also cost effective as an investment compared to mainstream media and advertising tactics.  

Influencer marketing also checks the final box of being a good human mission, because the money that we're helping secure isn't just going into paid search algorithms or celebrities, who may earn "x amount" on sponsorships. There are also the millions of other people who have engaged in campaigns that those billions of dollars are flowing to — and the economic impact on their lives is significant.  

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