The digital evolution

It began a number of years ago with ASOS choosing to weaponise their on-site models to take their pieces into ‘real’ life, evolving into something far more sophisticated in recent years. We no longer see product SKUs sitting in captions, but shoppable content utilising the brand’s shopping feed, ‘swipe up’ outfit links, and even bespoke landing pages of each ambassador’s key picks.

From beauty counters to home design services, brands are redeploying their in-store staff to serve as ambassadors. Where this brand of marketing has really come into its own is within the beauty industry. Brands like Charlotte Tilbury and Urban Decay are utilising their in-store make-up artists to showcase the products in reality.

In some cases, we even see members of digital and social teams serving as influencers for their own employees. Lauren McDermot, Social Content Editor for Bobbi Brown, for example, has amassed a following of over 100,000 beauty-obsessed followers. Brand partnerships outside of Bobbi Brown exist – and very beautifully so – but what you’ll struggle to see is a beauty world allegiance anywhere other than with Bobbi Brown.

In ‘reality’

In recent times, we’ve seen a raft of surveys and reports back up the concept that consumers best respond to a product being displayed within a realistic context. Whilst it may still be an #ad, it hasn’t been created by the brand itself. Audience buy-in and trust is higher when they’re watching the product be handled by someone who has gained their trust.

Make-up artists take the brand’s products and create their looks, showcasing the results in unfiltered Stories and IGTVs. The most persuasive of all, showcase the before and the transition, backing up the belief that the products do what they say they will. We believe it. We trust in this real-time use of a product more than a Photoshopped ad image that claims just the same. It’s a dynamic shift in the advertising world that almost no one saw coming.

Whether or not this form of marketing ultimately has longevity as a ‘free’ medium remains to be seen. The past year has seen make-up and skincare brands specifically move their employee influencers across into the world of affiliate marketing, rewarding their work outside of their classic nine-to-five with commission and bonus elements. Charlotte Tilbury is a great example of this. The brand’s rewards programme, Magic Makeup Stars, not only offers an introductory discount for employees’ clients but also rewards partners with £5 per new customer they introduce to

While some brands continue to use employees as ‘free’ influencers, it’s arguable that the approach taken by Charlotte Tilbury is better for both brands and their employees. With brands leveraging employees’ platforms and audiences in very much the same way they would an influencer’s, offering reward above and beyond simple recognition, whether on a commission basis or otherwise, is crucial.

Content from employees receives eight times more engagement than content shared by brand channels, and brand messages reach 561% further when shared by employees vs the same messages shared by official brand channels. A commission or bonus scheme will not only boost a brand’s engagement, but it will also significantly incentivise employees to drive more sales – a win-win scenario for all involved.

Innovation within the space – John Lewis & Partners Stylists

John Lewis & Partners’ plans to utilise their most creative members of staff began in 2019, taking a huge leap forward during the turbulent retail landscape we saw develop in 2020.

The ambassador-come-influencers largely sit within the brand’s styling teams; from home stylists you can book appointments with to advise on your new decor, to those who can help you select the building blocks of a new wardrobe.

If you take a look into John Lewis & Partners digital content you’ll begin to see the multitude of ways the brand has chosen to harness the creative nature of these particular members of staff. A quick scout through their Instagram page for example will lead you to content created by several of their Stylists; all of whom operated under the same “@jl_insertnamehere’ format on the platform.

Their followings vary from several hundred to several thousand. Their content varies from IGTV styling tutorials featuring the latest arrivals to seasonal content that speaks directly to the site’s marketing focus at that time. You can of course also click the link in their bio to go straight to book a styling appointment with them at their respective store.

It’s an interesting move, not least because of the ASA guidelines it appears to skate along. No brands other than John Lewis & Partners or Waitrose & Partners can feature, effectively making every piece of content an ad and providing audiences with a feed entirely dedicated to the products offered on-site. We don’t have insight into their system, so it would be interesting to see how their commissioning operates.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, these social ambassadors are being utilised by the brand’s PR team for their experience in digital press events. Here, they offer styling tips and collection overviews to those we’ll ironically classify as ‘traditional’ influencers.

Final thought

While we’re currently seeing employee influencers primarily sit within fashion, beauty, and homeware, it’s not hard to see how they could benefit areas from technology and gaming, to food and drink. In the case of the beauty counters, this online presence of staff provides loyal customers with branded content 24/7. They can see products used by someone whose opinion they trust.

Harnessing the social media power of someone that already knows a brand as thoroughly as an employee is a huge opportunity – and not one that forward-thinking brands are likely to want to miss out on. Global Affiliate and Partner Marketing Agency, Silverbean, are working with brands to harness the social power of their employees, applying performance KPIs and measurement as with any other channel.

The crucial aspect for brands looking to enter the employee influencer space to consider is how to reward staff for their efforts, which will not only drive incentivisation – it will undoubtedly boost results for the brand, too.

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