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What Does It Mean to Be an Influencer Today?

We Wore What's Danielle Bernstein, Next Model Management's Jennifer Powell, Digital Brand Architects's Reesa Lake and Kate Spade's Krista Neuhaus weigh in.
Krista Neuhaus, Danielle Bernstein, Jennifer Powell and Reesa Lake. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

Krista Neuhaus, Danielle Bernstein, Jennifer Powell and Reesa Lake. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

No one arm of the fashion industry has amassed more power and legitimacy this year than the "influencers." This group of social-media megastars have challenged brands, retailers and publications just like this one to reconsider who it is that truly moves product. But the definition of what it means to be an influencer is evolving quickly, as is the ecosystem of influencer marketing.

At our annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York City on Friday, we gathered four women whose careers are quite influencer-centric — We Wore What's Danielle Bernstein, Next Model Management's Head of Special Bookings Jennifer Powell, Kate Spade & Company's Director of Digital Marketing Krista Neuhaus and Digital Brand Architects' Senior Vice President, Brand Partnerships Reesa Lake — to discuss the occupation as it stands today, and all the highlights and challenges that come with it.

Below, read on for the highlights from their conversation as moderated by Chantal Fernandez.

The term "blogger" is no longer a "dirty word."

Lake noted that, even just five years ago, everyone on the business's brand side knew that working with bloggers was a must, but no one could pinpoint why, exactly. Though at that time, "'blogger' was still a dirty word," she said. "They didn't know why they needed to work with them or how they needed to work with them — they just knew that they did."

Now that the industry has (finally) come around, Lake's newest challenge is to curtail a brands's expectations; no one influencer can be the magic solution to every problem a business might face. "Now, we really try and figure out for a brand, what are their goals and objectives?" said Lake. "For every campaign, someone's going to say the same thing. They want brand awareness; they want to drive sales; they want to drive clicks. But that same person is not going to get all the buckets, so we really try and figure out as a brand, what are the goals and objectives? How do we align the talent with what those are?"

The best influencers only work with companies they genuinely love.

For Bernstein, the panel's resident influencer, it's of paramount importance to maintain an authentic connection with her readers and followers. That means aligning herself with brands and labels she'd promote anyway, even without receiving financial compensation. "The dreamiest collaboration for me is with a product or a brand that I've actually been wearing and loved for years," Bernstein told Fernandez, referencing a recent partnership with Maybelline, which was a brand she had used for years previously. "Saying no has been one of the hardest parts of my career and I think that it's helped to authenticate my blog, but mostly keep a trustworthy relationship with my followers."

Lake echoed Bernstein's sentiments on the agency side, stating that the first question she'll ask her clients — which include Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam, Tanesha Awasthi of Girl With Curves, and Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies — is if they genuinely like the company that came knocking. "If [they] don't, let's not even pursue the conversation.'"

Much more goes into longer-term partnerships than you think.

This authenticity check is especially pertinent for extensive, months-long projects, which Powell compared to marriage. She explained that many of these collaborations — think Aimee Song's ambassadorship for Laura Mercier — often start on six-month trial contracts. This process includes (but is not limited to) a social-media schedule, a blog schedule, appearances and sometimes even capsule collections.

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This varies on the type of brand, be it a cosmetic company, fashion label or something else entirely. "They have to marry the brand if they're going to do some sort of a contract like that. It has to be real. If there's any exclusivities, there's even more conversations." Powell went on to explain that any top-tier influencer can really only marry one cosmetics brand, one hair brand, one skin-care brand and often, one denim brand, one watch brand and one fragrance brand. "You have to really think about who you are committing to in that category."

Danielle Bernstein. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

Danielle Bernstein. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

Most followers — especially those of Generation Z age — don't mind when an influencer tags a post as #sponsored.

Because younger users have grown up with seeing sponsored posts, they don't think any less of the influencer using them; Bernstein claims she doesn't see a drop in a post's engagement if she includes "#spon" or "#ad" in the caption. "The point is for you to show that you really love the product and show it in a way that's so organic to your brand that your followers trust you that that is a product they should be getting, as well."

To Bernstein's point, Lake said that users are fully aware of sponsored content now. "I think influencers have done a great job of telling the story of how they're working with brands and disclosing that in more of a story, and not necessarily like, 'I'm hawking a product for money.'"

Influencers are now bona-fide celebrities with selling power, comparable to any actor, musician or model.

With the involvement of content monetization tools such RewardStyle and ShopStyle — as well as the launch of Instagram's analytics tool, Insights, this past May — there's now clear-cut ways to quantify an influencer's impact. 

"Three years ago, we'd have no idea what someone's conversion rate is and now it's one of a brand's first questions," said Lake, noting that conversion rates weren't as powerful even just six months ago. "A brand's not going to sit in a meeting with," she pauses, "Jessica Alba's manager after she's on the cover of a magazine and say, 'What's her conversion?' That's not going to happen."

For many, a well-rounded lifestyle brand is now the end goal.

As the influencer category continues to expand, what's next for someone like Bernstein, who's already grown her fashion blog to now include menswear, travel and home? "It's all about expansion and becoming more of a household name and not just known in the fashion world," said Bernstein, who recently launched stand-alone lines of overalls and shoes and hopes to expand into other platforms, such as TV.

Meanwhile, at Kate Spade, Neuhaus touched on the company's plans to become much more experimental with influencer marketing. "There's so many new platforms and new types of content that are out there to create these really interesting collaborations," she said, referencing Snapchat, YouTube and live-streaming. "We know there's an appetite for access to the brand in different ways — and access to influencers who are excited about the brand."

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