Kamiu Lee is the CEO of
In the last 12 months, ACTIVATE has engaged over 75,000 influencers, from nano-influencers to macro-creators, publishing more than 6,500 pieces of collaborated content per month.
Kamiu is an expert in the field of influencer marketing and is frequently quoted and interviewed in publications such as Fortune, Entrepreneur, Digiday, PR Week, eMarketer, BusinessInsider, The Business of Fashion and more.
Resources/People/Articles mentioned in podcast
Stephen Davies: Kamiu, welcome to the podcast.
Kamiu Lee: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SD: Glad to have you on. Can you give us some background on ACTIVATE, what it is, how it got started and what you guys do?
KL: Yeah sure. At ACTIVATE we are an influencer marketing technology and strategy company. So what that means is we have both a fully end to end platform that supports everything from influencer discovery, workflow management, influencer relationship management – a CRM to keep track of all your relationships with different creators, as well as measurement and amplification of that content to the right audience.
On the strategy side of things, we have what we call ACTIVATE Studio. We have a team of in-house influencer specialists ranging from folks who started working with digital creators since the very beginning when it started out with macro much larger creators. Today we tap these micro and nano-influencers as well in very scaled programs.
Where we started out vis-a-vis a lot of the other influencer marketing players that have popped up in recent years, we actually started out quite some time ago as Bloglovin’ which is an influencer platform that started about ten years ago for bloggers and a way for them to discover great content that the community was publishing.
Bloglovin’ continues to be our owned and operated media platform and is a way for us to promote and co-partner with creators within our network. In our mind, as a company we’re really built around the influencer so from a content, promotional and audience development standpoint on the Bloglovin side to various brand partnership opportunities, whether it’s financial monetisation through sponsored content or organic relationships with brands as well, that’s what the ACTIVATE platform really helps to support so we are really influencer centric as a company.
SD: So you guys really cover the full spectrum of the influencer landscape. I can remember Bloglovin’ from when I started blogging in 2005 and I remember you guys in the early days so you’ve obviously been around for quite some time and have seen the industry evolve and chance, what are the current trends you’re seeing in the influencer marketing space. Are we seeing new trends?
KL: Yeah, when I think about what we’re seeing from the Bloglovin’ days until today the emergence of various types of content creators, that has only expanded rapidly over the last few years. What folks call the democratisation of media which is really what the influence space is all about. It’s no longer about certain editors at media companies defining what we like and don’t like. These creators have come through – in the early days it was bloggers and today it’s Instagrammers, YouTubers and a lot of different channels that have proliferated and given a platform for folks with a point of view and some kind of expertise and be willing to share that and grow an audience and have the ability to speak to that audience consistently.
In terms of the trends that we’re seeing, you know, more recently. That kind of expansion or the broadening of influence is starting to happen. We are seeing beyond your standard fashion beauty blogger or vlogger, we’re seeing even folks in the pharmaceutical industry partaking in partnering with various creators that may have personal stories that are relevant. You know, they might be a caretaker of someone with a certain medical condition that they want to raise awareness for.
We see financial brands tapping into key life moment. If you’re an insurance brand and thinking about targeting an audience that’s in the mode of thinking about purchasing a new home or starting a new family when they’re thinking about insurance products, how do you tap into folks that are going through that in real life and have built a sizeable audience to be able to share that story with. Those are just a few examples of how the definition of influence is really broadened – it’s no longer these specific verticals and we’re seeing a lot of different ways in which a brand and an influencer can interact.
SD: So we’re seeing
KL: Yeah. When you think about it it’s consumer. At the end of the day we’re trying to get to the consumer and we’re trying to find the relevant stories to put in front of that consumer at the right time and I do think when leveraged correctly influencer is an incredibly impactful channel to do that.
SD: In terms of the main platforms where brand collaborations are taking place, I’m assuming it’s still mainly Instagram and YouTube but are we seeing an increase in other platforms as well like blogs, Facebook and Pinterest?
KL: Certainly right now, Instagram has done a fantastic job of creating a platform that influencers really flourish on. It’s fairly easy to create content on Instagram whether it’s static content, ephemeral content or video content, the barriers to entry are fairly low for a creator and the size of the audience and the engagement of the audience is very strong. On top of that they’re also fairly proficient in providing proper measurement capabilities to the influencers so they can share that with the brands that they may be partnering with so Instagram has really set themselves up to be a prime platform for influencers.
YouTube continues to be a strong platform. There are higher barriers to entry for YouTube. There’s a certain segment of influencers that may not be comfortable with video and may not be adept at video. The cost of fully producing a YouTube requires more of everything so from a barrier to entry standpoint it’s higher so you don’t see a huge over-proliferation like on Instagram.
What’s interesting to me there’s, also thinking about other channels as well. And really thinking about why you tapping them for certain reason. If you think about the consumer journey and bucket it into brand awareness, consideration and intent and conversion. Those are three very different parts of the consumer funnel and depending on what you’re trying to achieve against each part of the funnel you may employ a different content strategy and a different social platform to do so.
A really quick example, Instagram Stories provides the brand awareness and engagement and also traffic generation. Pinterest is very much consideration and intent part of the funnel. Blog content as well is
Let’s say you’re needing someone to subscribe to your product or perhaps it’s a mattress that’s a thousand dollars, that’s still fairly large dollar value, you can’t ask someone to convert of an Instagram Story, you know, swipe up. But you can get someone to convert if you are leveraging the proper consideration and intent platforms and channels.
So a really good example of that is, we’ve seen high dollar value or high commitment products actually funnelling the consumer traffic through a consideration platform. Let’s say you have an Instagram Story swipe up
So it’s about being more thoughtful around your product, what is your price point and that will lead you to various social channels. Beyond just thinking “this is the best channel to be on right now.”
SD: There was a point where everyone thought blogs were dead because of social media so I guess to your point you’re saying blogs can be a good partner to an Instagram campaign.
KL: Yes, I think, again, it depends on the brand and the product and how much story needs to be told. Blog content can be extremely powerful if you’re leveraging it the right way but it’s for higher commitment situations.
SD: Back to your point on Instagram, is there a danger that Facebook might do what they do with the newsfeed and turn off that organic reach for influencers, could that happen?
KL: Yeah, not necessarily as extreme as what happened to the Facebook platform. There are always tweaks to the social algorithms. When we sit down with influencers we talk a lot about various channels and the difference between a rented channel and owned channels. Social platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube are by and large are channels you are renting space on. You’re putting out great content and have amassed an audience but the social channels can change direction as to where that traffic funnels through.
If you have a good mix of owned channels like a blog or email or other ways you can have control over the audience it’s good to have that mix. There are certainly many benefits to being on those platforms but it’s good to have that balance and I think a lot of creators who are thinking about this from a long-term perspective are certainly diversifying and are not putting all their eggs in one basket.
SD: Speaking of creators, I’ve heard a few podcasts with you on before and you tend to use the term ‘creator’ over ‘influencer’. Is that a conscious use of the word and if so what’s the difference between the two?
KL: It’s not a conscious differentiated term in my mind. We just use it interchangeably. I do think if you’re a truly influential person and not just a celebrity. If you are a truly an influencer in the definition of how we define it, you are a great creator of content. You’re a mini media company essentially. What I mean by that you have honed your ability to speak to your audience, you know instinctively because you’ve worked on it and understand how copy can affect your engagement. You understand an image with X in it will perform better than one with Y in it. You’re constantly testing different channels and you know why you’re working with different platforms and why you create certain content for different platforms.
That to me is a true influencer than someone who may just have a big audience for other reasons, say, for being a celebrity.
SD: Celebrities tend to have a big audience because of what they do in their day job I guess. If you’re a movie star, you’re subject to millions of people around the world so by definition you’re going to have a big audience but you’re not going to create content like an influencer would.
KL: Yeah and I’m not saying all celebrities are not influencers if that makes sense. You have something you stand for and that’s why the audience is following you versus they’re following you because they saw you on a TV show or on a movie, and you’re a different character in all them.
SD: Do you think we’ll see a social media influencer who has grown their platform purely through social and they cross over to become an A-list celebrity?
SD: Justin Bieber, he started on YouTube right?
KL: Yes, he did but I don’t know enough about his history but he was discovered there for sure.
SD: So in terms of the industry, there’s an ongoing debate about where influencer marketing sits. Is it with brand, creative, PR, SEO or all of the above? In your view where does it sit exactly?
KL: It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot and we talk about internally a lot because finding the right person to interface with within a brand is challenging because it does sit in different teams for different companies. Certainly
So that you understand the social team will likely have to touch upon influencer, the PR team will likely have to touch upon influencer. Brand, content, acquisition marketing, that’s the reality and what they’re doing is centralising certain things for an influencer marketing person or at least organising themselves in a way that if they’re tapping into an external agency or technology there’s a centralised view of:
- How to contract with influencers
- Who’s working with which influencers across the organisation so teams aren’t reaching out to the same influencer with different terms and rates
- What content do you have the rights to and which content you don’t have the rights to
- How do you best leverage dollars spent to go beyond organic exposure from the initial program are you re-leveraging the content for your own channels, website, product pages and things like that
So we’re seeing this trend of centralisation of influencer within the organisation.
SD: Just listening to you there, it seems like it’s more complex than presumed. As you said, you’re dealing with all these different types of people, developing and maintaining these new relationships it will get muddled and complex if you don’t have that central authority managing it all I guess?
KL: Yeah and most folks who have grown up in those various marketing departments may not have direct experience with dealing with influencers and knowing what is
SD: You would advise if a brand is going to work with an influencer they should be thinking about the long term and working with them not just once but over a number of times?
KL: Oh for sure. This whole conversation around influencer fraud, the fear around that is that you work with an influencer once and you may find out that some of their followers
Fraud is one piece of the vetting process when you’re thinking about who to work with but over time you need to weed out the folks who are just not impactful. They could be not impactful because of fraud or it may be because their audience is not right for you. Having this longer-term point of view and building relationships because someone who’s a micro influencer today but is fantastic and you’ve identified them early you can grow with them as a brand, you’re early with them and rise with them. That’s real value and thoughtful with influencers instead of paying a premium to work with someone once because they’re already at the top of their game.
SD: Speaking of influencer fraud, there have been quite a lot of incidences and news stories where the media has highlighted cases of influencer fraud or where an influencer hasn’t agreed to the terms and conditions of the contract. What’s your view on influencer fraud? Is it as prevalent as what we think and how do we stop it?
KL: I think with influencer fraud the space has grown so quickly and there’s growing
If I look at my own Instagram account, I’m not an influencer and have a few hundred
You’re looking at the trend lines of how they’ve grown over time, what is the quality of engagement on the content? Are they actually having a thoughtful conversation with the influencer? Which quite frankly is a real mark of a great influencer is that they’re constantly engaging with their audience. Even the folks who have gotten really big, I see them responding to their audience. Instead of trying to invite a “nice outfit” type of comment right?
So I think there’s that piece to it. Looking at spikes in activity, spikes in engagement, spikes in followership, looking at the audience data and the breakdown in terms of geography – where is the audience coming from and does it make sense for this particular creator. Those are indicators that most tools including ours employ.
The second part of it, in terms of influencers not following through, there is a lot of that that can happen and it can happen on both sides so I don’t want place blame purely on the influencer side. You may have a brand that comes in initially asking for X and having agreed to the terms with the influencer midway through the program asking for Y. For example, a brand might say it doesn’t want the rights to the content and midway through the brand says they want the rights. At that point, there’s a different negotiation happening and the influencer knows they’ve created great content and they’re not able to agree to terms as they want.
On the other hand, what you referred to where a brand may be asking an influencer to do X and the influencer just doesn’t do it for it whatever reason. Again, I think
For the influencer, this is the timeline, this is what you need to abide by, you know, it’s business and even though it’s
So all of these little things – and there are so many more – really needs to be built into the process so you’re not worrying about this stuff. You’re worrying about the content strategy, platform strategy, picking the right influencers, the parts that really push the needle for you.
SD: Are you starting to see influencers become more professionals in their approach? Are they taking a more long-term view, are they bringing in agents and companies like yourself to help them?
KL: For sure there’s definitely a point in time where someone who started creating content about things they’re passionate about
We do see smaller creators working with talent managers. Before there was a higher barrier to entry and that reflects brands wanting to work with creators that are smaller. We’re seeing a lot of brands want to work with one heavy hitter and 300 hundred nano-influencers.
SD: Let’s say I’m a brand and I want to work with nano-influencers, how many would a brand want to work with? Are we talking hundreds or thousands?
KL: It would be hundreds. I think you know the topic of nano-influencers is very interesting and it’s certainly come up a lot in our client conversations. Quite frankly I think it’s about being thoughtful. When you think about creators as a pyramid, there are the large megawatt influencers at the top down to nano-influencers.
There are different use cases for different types of creators. You work with a megawatt influencer you get PR value, you get much broader reach, you’re probably able to a much deeper collaboration that you can’t do with smaller influencers. For example, doing a co-branded clothing collection is very different to do with 50 micro-influencers but easy to do someone who is very large and has that creative POV.
For nano-influencers, you’re really thinking about more organic relationships quite frankly. It’s very difficult to have a formalised relationship with them because they’re just starting out because, to me, they’re just influential consumers. They have maybe larger than average consumer following but a good majority may be just friends and family. These are not folks who have spent a significant amount of time creating content to their audience so leveraging them for hyper-local, targeted organic programs and then you can identify which ones really drive impact for you.
We recently ran a program within the same vertical in the beverage space.
The engagement rate on the nano-influencers was super high but you’re looking at smaller follower base. But that doesn’t get you to where your end goal needs to be. Rather than think “I need to hit this kind of creator” instead think about how you grow the relationships over time and how do you layer this so you’re not a one-trick pony.
SD: On your point on nano-influencers vs micro-influencers, I guess it’s one of those ‘it depends’ answers, but would you recommend that a brand works with tens of micro-influencers or hundreds or nano-influencers? Is there a difference or does it depend on the brand and the campaign?
KL: It really depends on the brand and the campaign. More often than not, a recommended tiered approach so you can have a more organic program that can be activated through the nano-influencers but you probably want a layer of micro-influencers as well. Depending on what you’re trying to do. If you’re launching a product, you may need something different and you may need to work with a larger creator and get something splashier.
What you don’t get with a smaller creator is brand value. You get to reach an audience and probably receive higher engagement but a smaller influencer hasn’t spent a significant amount of time to build up his or her own brand to be able to offer that to you. We do not advocate recommending the same thing to everyone because it depends on what your brand and what your goal and what your product is and what exactly you’re trying to do. It’s not as much plug and
SD: Let’s say I’m a brand and I haven’t done any collaborations or any kind of influnecer marketing before but I want to, where would you advise that I start?
KL: We have this conversation a lot. There’s a few different things. If you have someone internally who can really take a look at influencer as a channel then I recommend you start small and test it it manually, essentially. You know reaching out to a few influencers. You do want to test enough so you can get a feel of what works and what doesn’t work, what kind of creator works and what doesn’t work.
Take a look at your other channels and what resonates with your consumer segment and what doesn’t. Whatever it is that resonates and what drives it home to the consumer, think about that should be translated to an influencer. You certainly can’t have an influencer regurgitate that message but you can get them to get that point across in their own voice. Think about that piece to it and make sure it’s aligned with what you’re doing.
Again, think about what your goals are. Is it brand awareness? Is it consideration and intent? Is it conversion and driving traffic for sales? Heading on from that you want to think about different channels and formats. But I think starting out for sure, you know, testing 20, 30, maybe 40 influencer relationships and getting a sense of what works and what doesn’t work before you throw a ton of money at it makes sense.
Think about what you’re going to do with that content after the program happened. Are you re-leveraging it for organic social? Are you using it for programmatic advertising as well? All of that certainly makes sure you’re getting your value out of the influencers.
Once you have a handle around the type of creator that really works for you and the type content that really works for you. For example, we’ve had brands that found Facebook Live really crushes it for them and they’re really looking to scale that more. Then I think looking at a technology and influencer marketing platform makes a lot of sense.
I think having your own POV is important and finding a partner that can be honest with you to work through it. It also depends on how much internal resource you have as well to help you execute on this.
SD: In your experience of the present day, where are most brands at in the lifecycle of influencer marketing? I assume the market still quite immature. I guess more consumer brands are further ahead than B2B but it would be good to get your perspective on it.
KL: We only work with consumer brands. I would that it’s really all over the place but certain verticals are more sophisticated than others. When we look at the beauty vertical which is very sophisticated, so is fashion. I would say it’s not just verticals as well, it’s really the type of company it is. We’re certainly seeing when it comes to direct-to-consumer brands move very quickly when it comes to influencer.
We have a number of those brands that are self-serve on our technology platform and they’re running their own influencer campaigns directly through that. They’re using the technology to find the right data, to find the influencers and inform their casting lens to run data. Then we have some brands that we’re sitting down
It really is all over the map and bi-vertical and then also size of company, we do think some of the small companies are more nimble when it comes to influencer.
SD: OK, so you guys have relationships with thousands of influencers. Let’s say I’m an ordinary person, which I am, but I’m wanting to grow my influence online, what kind of advice would you give to someone like me who wants to build a platform and get brand collaborations. Where would someone start?
KL: Start creating content. It doesn’t have to be big but start talking about what you’re really passionate about and find your niche basically. I talk to a lot of creators who are really big today and that’s how they got big. You can’t be a broad lifestyle influencer from day one. That’s just impossible. You have to find whatever your niche is. We work with people who have been really passionate advocates around, for example, mental wellness. Topics of meditation and how to eat well for your head.
You slowly build your audience on the depth of that content and you become an expert and from there you can always move into incremental topics but you really have to start with a real passion around one topic and really dig deep to build that audience. And see how the audience reacts to that content and go from there. You really have to figure out what you’re trying to say and why would someone elect to follow you and engage with that audience.
I love to use as an example Lauryn Everats over at Skinny Confidential, she responds to everything and she’s on every social channel. She’s constantly publishing content and there’s a real passion behind the creation of that content. Inevitably, when you start a blog, an Instagram account, a YouTube channel there’s going to be a long period of time when there is no audience. And you are putting content out there and you’re not passionate about you’re probably going to stop and give up. So you need to get through that and the best way to do that is creating content for a specific audience. That’s really how to get started. If the goal is to make money then, quite frankly, there are better ways to do it. There has to be some real passion there.
SD: Yeah, that’s a great point. I listened to a podcast with yourself and Lauryn from the Skinny Confidential and I think I heard her say in the past that she started off doing fitness and moved into more broader lifestyle of makeup and fashion. As you rightly said, she really is a person who did the influencer thing well. For the first three years she said she didn’t make any money but was solely focussed on building a brand and reputation. Yeah she’s a great example of an influencer.
KL: Yeah you know you need to win the trust of the audience to become a lifestyle influencer. If you go ahead and say “I’m going to become a lifestyle influencer” there’s a healthy amount of ego behind that. You’re saying people want to hear about all facets of your life right? But if you prove yourself of being a really great creator and starting out with a really great vertical then you prove your POV, then you have a licence to expand. You have the ability to talk about other things and see how it resonates
SD: Are there any verticals that are saturated now that you would advise “Don’t’ go down there. There are too many established players in that field”?
KL: There are certainly a lot more content creators out there.
SD: So the key point is, be different and provide something different of value from what everyone else is doing. Like you said, if you’re doing makeup do it with humour if you’re funny and combine two things?
KL: Right, I mean you have to be actually funny if this is what you’re good at.
SD: Moving on, in terms of the future. I’d like to get two predictions from you on the future of influencer marketing. The first one being, where do you see the industry heading in the next twelve months as we come into 2019 and where do you see it in the next five years?
KL: The topic of measurement and saturation is becoming more prevalent. We’ve actually built it into a our technology to see what percentage of content an influencer creates is sponsored vs organic. Having that be part of the process of casting influencers and understanding what that means for a certain brand. Brands no longer are OK with just tapping a bunch of influencers. Spray and pray as they say and hoping it turns out well. Instead they want to see what was the return on this and know that they’re doing this the right way will become more and more important.
I said earlier this broadening of influence and what makes an influencer. I think that definition has really expanded. It could be just relevancy or some sort of expertise like an interior designer or a fabric textile designer, for
Again, because of that passion and expertise. I think that is definitely a more prevalent theme and something we think about as we’re building out our network. You know, we have a proprietary network of 150,00 creators authenticated on our platform. We’re less thinking about the
The final thing I would say is, as brands think about the value of influencers than broader than just sponsored content. There’s potentially PR value, there’s potentially SEO value to the content, there’s potentially product innovation – we’re seeing brands who are tapping into groups on influencers who not only get their POV on product design but they’re also asking the creators to tap into their audience and get their audience POV on certain things. What do people like or not like about something or even tapping into certain trends that people are talking
Again, you may start with more organic or seeding or more light touch type relationships to more formalised, there might be a contract, there’s exchange of compensation to something really deeper and co-creation of products. Or having them come into launch events and hosting events for you. Being able to be consistent about how you graduate influencers through that funnel of relationship between the brand and the influencers. That’s something we’re seeing more of and really blossom in the next few years.
SD: What’s the one book you recommend everyone should read?
KL: I started out in the finance industry and I’ve always been a huge fan of Warren Buffett so two of my favourite books are related to him. It’s called The Snowball and it’s a quick read about how he started and how he got to where he is today. The second book is The Outsiders which is profiles of CEOS that are unconventional many of whom worked directly with Warren Buffett.
SD: Thank you very much for your time, Kamiu.
KL: Thank you. This was great. Thanks for having me.