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Social Native
Marketing Mix Podcast with Karen O'Brien

Karen O’Brien reviews the evolution of user generated content in 2019

December 11, 2019

Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast is Karen O'Brien, VP of Social Media at Signet Jewelers. In this episode, Karen discusses how to activate authentic influencer marketing campaigns, the shift from static image to story content, and the democratization of content creation on new platforms. In taking a look at some of the most successful DTC brands of 2019, Karen discusses the value of building online communities from the ground up. 

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Jeff Ragovin: Signet operates over 3,300 stores in the country and operates multiple brands including Kay and Zales just to name a couple. At Signet, you run social and also manage the Social Center of Excellence. What do you think authenticity means when it comes to influencer marketing?

Karen O'Brien: I think really getting to the heart of authentic influencer marketing and content is when you can align the values of the brand and the values and the voice of the influencer. I think we’ve seen a lot of really good and really terrible influencer marketing over the last few years as everyone believes they are an influencer today. The democratization of content creation has created an at scale way of being able to produce influencer marketing. I think the best and most impactful influencer marketing comes when you can get to that magic spot where your brand stands for ‘X’ and the influencer’s brand and voice is highly aligned. And when you see it, you know it.

Jeff Ragovin: How do you know when content is inauthentic? 

Karen O'Brien: You question if it’s trustworthy. It doesn’t feel right to you. There’s just something wrong with it. We all know that when we see it too.

Jeff Ragovin: When it comes to unlocking the power of creators, what creative freedoms do you think work best?

Karen O'Brien: If the brand has done a great job of picking the right influencer to align with their brand values and brand voice, the next thing you have to understand is the influencer’s audience you are going to reach. Enabling and empowering the influencer to create in the way that their audience expects them to is very important. When the brand gets too prescriptive you can tell because it doesn’t feel like the influencer actually created that content. Keeping in mind what the influencer is going to bring to the table in terms of their own audience and their ability to reach a customer that maybe you can’t and would like to, you’ve got to let them reach their audience in the way that they’re used to reaching them. And, some beautiful collaborations can come about as a result of that. But you have to find that sweet spot of enabling the creator and still having your brand shine through.

Jeff Ragovin: What exactly are you looking for when it comes to picking the right influencers for your brand?

Karen O'Brien: Considering all of the brands that I’ve worked on over the past 10 years, it really varies by brand. You’ve got to really look at what your brand stands for and what you want to further through influencer marketing. When I look at influencers, I first and foremost look at who follows them and who we can reach as a brand through them. Then I look at if they embody the same values and voice that I’m looking to further with my brand. Sometimes that can be their style or even the social responsibility they seem to portray. Once I’ve got that, I look at if they are a great creator. It may not be the kind of content that I would create as a brand, but can they create great unique content that the brand might not have thought to produce yet. 

Jeff Ragovin: Does great content always look polished?

Karen O'Brien: I think it can be either or. What I inherently look for is an ability to create content that works for the platform it’s being shared on. The more real and authentic they can be while still being visually impactful is important, too. Let’s face it, social channels are visual channels. Creators that can create “great content” is a highly subjective statement. What I really look for are things that break through and that are authentic to the social channel they’re being published on. 

Jeff Ragovin: The rise of platforms like TikTok are pushing out new types of video content. Do you have any thoughts on the future of TikTok?

Karen O'Brien: I love TikTok! I love the fact that it’s just an open white board for creativity. I think there’s some very inspirational and innovative creators that are really breaking boundaries. At the same time, as a brand, there is not a lot of brand safety on some of the emerging platforms, but that’s what makes the content creativity great. There’s a balance between can I get something truly creative and innovative and reach a new audience while still protecting my brand? Some of the influencer marketing that I’ve seen come out of brands like Harbo on TikTok has been phenomenal. 

Jeff Ragovin: What opportunities do platforms like TikTok offer for brands?

Karen O'Brien: They give us the opportunity to break through in a way that we haven’t been able to on some of the more mature platforms. They just become a white board for creativity for creators. They enable creators to think about content in a new way. We haven’t really seen even the beginning of what can happen with streaming. Twitch is a platform that I’ve worked with in previous brands before and I think has tremendous potential. The mostly male audience is very attractive to some brands. As a brand, we need to think about how we engage in the right way that respects the community that the emerging platform is based on. So with TikTok, it’s basically music and fun. 

Jeff Ragovin: We are seeing a tremendous amount of movement from static imagery into more stories. How do you think the shift to the story ecosystem will impact brands?

Karen O'Brien: One of the things brands struggle with a lot is how to tell a story in 6 seconds or less and now it’s getting even shorter. But if you look at a mobile phone which is where most engagement happens in social channels, a second or two is actually a pretty long amount of time if you’re really focused on it. I’d say that the platforms are really empowering creators to make great content in ways that they haven’t been before.

You’re seeing stories dominating engagement. Then you’re seeing some of the platforms offer stickers, ability to make things shoppable, animated gifs, so they’re trying to help creators in many ways. I think the more interactive you can be, the more immersive you can be with your audience, and the more that they’re going to want to engage with you.

Jeff Ragovin:: Ethically speaking, is the rise of story content stopping people from living in and enjoying the moment?

Karen O'Brien: Yes and no, and it depends what generation you’re from. My son who’s 18 would not have a problem processing twice as much information as I’m comfortable with every day. It depends on your generation, your nature, and how you are engaging with social today. I think that social is going to massively evolve in the future as we are more integrated with other channels and technology. I think apps will eventually go away and the internet of things will become a lot more pervasive.

Jeff Ragovin: Any insight as to how important social is to retail in general?

Karen O'Brien: The omnichannel experience is very important. We use the term ‘omnichannel’ kind of loosely as brands, but the reality is customers don’t care if they’re experiencing your brand online, offline, in store, through e-commerce, through your marketing, through real life. They expect a consistent brand experience and they’ll talk about it. That’s why social is very important because it’s pervasive on every level. It allows brands to have a 1:1 relationship with their consumer. Social is going to continue to be as important as it is today, if not more so because I don’t think consumers are going to give up that 1:1 relationship.

Jeff Ragovin: Do you think that there is still value in an offline in store experience when it comes to jewelry?

Karen O'Brien: Without a doubt, and I think that what we see today is that the consumer journey in most retail starts online and may end most of the time instore, particularly for Gen Z consumers who really value experiences. 

Jeff Ragovin: Any brands that you think are crushing it right now? 

Karen O'Brien: I am continually amazed by the disruption that direct-to-consumer brands are creating in all industries. In retail I’m really looking at the beauty industry a lot because there are so many direct-to-consumer brands emerging and the way that they operate is so different from established beauty brands. The recent collaboration with Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson was based on taking the consumer through the brand story of how they were creating that line and creating that demand in advance by making the consumer anticipate what was coming. 

Huda Beauty has created its global success through social channels and consumer engagement, just like Glossier has. Morphee does a great job of leveraging consumer UGC and influencers. They collaborate deeply with consumers and continually surface storytelling from their customers. Looking at the special moments consumers have in life with your product is the most authentic way to add context to your brand.

Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.

Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes