At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in early 2017, waiting to board his flight back to Paris, Olivier Billon noted a forty-something man beside him wearing an expensive Panerai watch and asked how he got to know the brand. The answer surprised him: Instagram. But it also filled him with pride: Mr Billon is a pioneer of influencer marketing — where brands engage those with millions of followers on social media, whether with experiences, gifts or money, to promote their goods.
Mr Billon, fresh out of elite French university Sciences Po, worked on early influencer campaigns first for cosmetics company L’Oréal and then through his consultancy Ykone, founded in 2009 when he was 24. He was convinced, he says, that his friend Betty Autier’s blog — with 400,000 views a month when Mr Billon started his business — “could be of great interest for brands”.
With his choirboy-like manners, Mr Billon advises companies how to create and maintain an engaging presence on social media, from events and product launches designed to be worth sharing — with mandatory hashtags and branded photo opportunities — to ad hoc activities for influencers. His first clients were L’Oréal Professionnel, Chanel couture and Dior couture. “My first project within the watch and jewellery industry was for the launch of the Dior VIII watch in 2011,” he says. For that, he orchestrated “a two-day experience and presentation of the watch for a group of international influencers in Paris” on behalf of the brand.
Influencer marketing was then becoming relevant to the industry as a more mature — and wealthier — audience took to social media; at the same time, luxury goods companies introduced more accessible product categories for younger users. It is now, according to Mediakix, an “influencer marketing agency”, a $1bn market.
“When I started it was all about the blogs. Now it’s all a different story with Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram,” says Mr Billon. Instagram is a community of 800m people sharing and liking each other’s photos, and 75 per cent of Instagram’s users said they had been inspired by a post to take actions such as visiting a website or buying something online, according to a 2015 survey. “Instagram has brought transparency. It is easy to assess the size and quality of the influence by checking the numbers and identities of the influencers’ followers,” he says.
Outside his office, it is Paris Couture Week and influencers — with their Instagram-ready outfits and sponsored luxury goods — abound.
The rise of influencers is linked with fundamental changes in the economics of the luxury sector and the technology of the wider world. A 2017 study by consultants Bain indicated that millennials already make up 30 per cent of luxury consumers. At the same time, dressing down — signalled by increased spending on luxury casualwear — has gone up.
Luxury companies’ investments in influencer marketing have also been prompted by the growing popularity of ad blocking software, nullifying their spending on digital adverts. There are 615m devices which have ad blocking software, according to PageFair, a tech business, which says it serves “unblockable” ads.
Alongside this, companies began to conceive of advertising as an enjoyable experience rather than an interruption. Paid posts on blogs were the first to do this, and such “native content” has spread to magazines and newspapers. A study conducted by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association — whose members are media agencies and global companies — found that word of mouth, even digital, can drive sales anywhere from five to 200 times more than paid advertising.
“The young generation is an important market because it is a big market and it is the market of tomorrow,” says Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of TAG Heuer and president of luxury conglomerate LVMH’s watch division. Mr Biver notes that, thanks to recent partnerships with ambassadors such as footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and model Bella Hadid, who have 118m and 16.5m Instagram followers respectively, millennials have grown significantly as part of TAG’s customer base.
Tariffs vary enormously according to the length and type of projects, as well as the parties involved. Influencers seeking to elevate their status might be willing to work for free for a desirable high-end brand in exchange for an experience that will provide content for their media channels. Sometimes the brand secures media coverage about the influencer as part of the collaboration’s agreement.
An influencer with 100,000 followers on Instagram can charge around ￡2,000 per picture, while celebrity influencers with between 4m and 20m followers can charge ￡5,000-￡13,000, according to Hopper, a company offering an “Instagram planner and scheduling tool”. Selena Gomez’s social media posts to her 132m followers, however, are worth $550,000 each, Hopper says.
From the perspective of watch and jewellery houses, collaborations are more successful when the influencers develop a genuine affection for the items they have been gifted and wear them beyond the contractual period. In this sense, Olivier Billon recommends that brands work with influencers “who have a real passion and interest for a brand and commit to create authentic posts”, rather than choosing them on the basis of crude numeric figures.
Mr Billon explains the importance of focusing on “achieving high engagement rates (above 5 per cent) in likes, comments and shares” and adds that often micro-influencers (those with fewer than 50,000 followers) offer higher levels of engagement. “It’s peer-to-peer marketing. Influencers may not be our friends, however they are constantly present when we look at our social media feed.”