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  • Seed University trains influencers to represent the brand
  • Seed University trains influencers to represent the brand
    Seed (2019) ©
CASE STUDY

Seed University: creating a new breed of influencer

Seed University has turned the influencer model upside down. Rather than sending out free samples to recruit ambassadors, the probiotics company is making people pass a course to become experts on the products they’re backing. Could this be the answer to influencer fatigue?

Location United States

Scope
When a woman known as ‘Rawvana’ was unknowingly filmed eating seafood, the backlash she faced was something nobody could have predicted. Having amassed more than three million Instagram followers who turned to her for raw vegan diet tips, the 28-year-old influencer was going against everything she apparently stood for. Essentially, the jig was up. She later published a video explaining that she’d had to change her diet for health reasons, but that only made it worse, as critics accused her of peddling a lifestyle that was actually making her sick. The furor that erupted was a wake-up call to the fact that influencers, so long seen as the ultimate playing card for marketers, are losing their power.

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Seed, a direct-to-consumer probiotics company based in Venice, California, is seeking to shake up the influencer world with its new program. People who sign up will be schooled in the science behind probiotics, FTC guidelines, and how to market their products in an authentic and accurate way. In order to be successful, candidates must sign an ‘#accountable influence manifesto’, enroll in a six-unit course, which is taught entirely over Instagram Stories, and pass a final examination. “In our Seed University application, we ask all potential partners to pledge to live more scientifically, to inform themselves before misinforming others, and to commit to a practice of learning and questioning,” says Seed co-founder and co-CEO Ara Katz.[1]

Thanks to instances like ‘fishgate’, influencer fatigue is very real, with only 4% of people trusting what influencers say online. [2] By launching a ‘university’ program, Seed is hoping to give the brand an authentic edge, which will enable them to earn trust and differentiate themselves from brands that use influencers to recommend unvetted products to their impressionable followers.

Candidates must sign Seed's #accountable influence manifesto
Candidates must sign Seed's #accountable influence manifesto
Seed (2019) ©

Context
The global market for health and wellness is expected to grow to $788 billion by 2021, and the industry now represents a whopping 5.3% of the global economic output. [3][4] As the lines between lifestyle, wellness, and health continue to blur, brands are exploiting people’s insatiable desire to look and feel good at any cost. From ‘Skinny Tea’ and appetite-suppressing lollipops to ‘hormone-balancing’ vaginal eggs, social media is rife with unsubstantiated health claims and unregulated ‘wellness’ products. “In today’s internet climate, being an ‘expert’ no longer requires training, a certificate, or degree – simply a social media account and an audience,” says Katz. “As a result, misinformation can spread, especially when it comes to choices for our health.” [1]

At the same time, influencer marketing has become oversaturated with inauthentic content, as brands attempt to create instant social proof. Companies spent an estimated $2 billion on influencer marketing in 2017, but nearly 25% was put toward content that people perceived as untrustworthy. [5] The reason influencer #ads are no longer resonating is that “it isn’t doing anything for the brand other than creating a moment of awareness,” says Amy Luca, CEO of influencer agency theAmplify. “Brands actually need to take the time to get to know who these influencers are, not just look at a profile and some data behind their audience.” [6]

All that being said, influencers do sell. Nearly a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds made a large purchase after seeing an online influencer endorse the item, and 39% of brands plan to increase their influencer marketing budget. [7][8] The secret is to target the right type of marketer: micro-influencers and nano-influencers. Despite their smaller followings, micro-influencers achieve seven times more engagement than bigger ones. [9] It’s also important to make sure their values align with those of the brand. “Make no mistake: there’s a lot of effort in nurturing influencer communities,” says Luca. “You want to make sure you’re spending the right time and effort nurturing the right people.” [6] Flipping the influencer marketing strategy on its head is nothing new, especially in the beauty industry; Glossier’s peer-to-peer model has been going strong since its inception, and #SephoraSquad hires diverse brand ambassadors from their own fanbase.

Course content is delivered via Instagram Stories
Course content is delivered via Instagram Stories
Seed (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
If influencers are no longer the trusted experts, who is? The simple answer: real people. Globally, 58% of consumers agree that user-generated content is the most authentic form of content, and only 17% are motivated to buy a product following an endorsement from a celebrity. [10][11] According to Luca, treating influencer relationships as collaborations – rather than transactions – can help build a strong community around a brand. The most effective influencers, she says, are in it for the long-haul. “They’ve met the brand team, they’ve spent time in the brand offices, they’re involved in the co-creation of content, events, being a part of the success of the brand beyond just, ‘here’s a couple hundred bucks, can you take a photo with a product.’” [6]

Allowing would-be influencers to come to the brand rather than vice-versa also creates a greater opportunity for diversity – something that the influencer space is lacking. [12] Some 47% of consumers feel fatigued by the repetitive nature of influencer marketing, and almost 80% of Gen Zers like it when ads show real people in real situations. [13][14] Ambassadors who actively choose which brands to represent based on their personal values can tap into groups that are harder to reach, instantly broadening a brand’s audience.

Make no mistake: there’s a lot of effort in nurturing influencer communities. You want to make sure you’re spending the right time and effort nurturing the right people

Amy Luca, CEO of theAmplify

Other influencer marketing techniques gaining traction are AI, big data, and Natural Language Processing (NLP). Influencer marketing platforms like Influential use AI to help brands target appropriate ambassadors by streamlining and automating the process. So far, it seems to be working. In a 2018 survey of more than 500 marketers, 52% said that they’ve seen an increase in sales since introducing AI capabilities, and 51% have seen an increase in customer retention. [15] Of course, there’s a debate to be had over whether over-automating influencer marketing will lead to less authenticity, rather than more.

In this climate of ever-growing online skepticism, Seed is in a tricky spot. The science around probiotics is young, and there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about its health benefits – or lack thereof. By distancing itself from the ‘wellness’ category, emphasizing the scientific rigor behind its products, and recruiting authentic, educated influencers, Katz says she wants Seed “to steward initiatives towards a more #accountable future.” [1]

Sources
1. Interview with Ara Katz conducted by the author
2. ’Only 4% of people trust what influencers say online’, The Drum (May 2019)
3. ’Wellness: just expensive hype, or worth the cost?’, The Guardian (May 2018)
4. ’These 10 market trends turned wellness into a $4.2 trillion global industry’, Fast Company (August 2018)
5. ’New Research Reveals Inauthentic Influencer Content On The Rise As Consumer Skepticism Grows’, PR Newswire (April 2018)
6. Interview with Amy Luca conducted by the author
7. ’Influencer marketing 2019: Seven key stats you need to know’, ClickZ (January 2019)
8. ’The State of Influencer Marketing 2018’, Linquia (December 2017)
9. ’The Influencer Marketing Statistics You Need to Know’, Social Media Today (May 2019)
10. ’Bridging the Gap: Consumer & Marketing Perspectives on Content in the Digital Age’, Stackla (February 2019)
11. ’Global Consumer Insights Survey 2019’, PwC (2019)
12. ’Diversity In Influencer Marketing: Why Representation Matters’, Forbes (June 2019)
13. ’Content called out; 47% of consumers fatigued by repetitive influencers’, BazaarVoice (August 2018)
14. ’Getting to Know Gen Z: How The Pivotal Generation is Different From Millennials’, Barkley and FutureCast (January 2017)
15. ’Lessons of 21st-Century Brands’, Quantcast and Forbes Insights (October 2018)

Featured Experts

Ara Katz

Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed.

Amy Luca

Amy Luca is the CEO of theAmplify, a global influencer marketing and content firm. She is also an adjunct professor of digital marketing at the University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business.

Author

Margot Peppers is the insights editor at Canvas8, which specialises in behavioural insights and consumer research. Her background is in journalism and copywriting, and she's written for publications and brands in the US and UK. Outside of work you'll find her either writing poetry, spoiling her cat, or playing board games like there's no tomorrow.

Canvas8

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