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How did you get your start in marketing?

Ryan Stern: Actually, I started out in editorial. I was an editor at Architectural Digest at Condé Nast, and in my spare time, I blogged about food as a hobby. I fell in love with social media, blogging and the immediate community of online creators I was getting to know. Since my career wasn’t scratching my entrepreneurial itch, I took a job in San Francisco as a digital content manager at Foodbuzz, a food media start-up with barely any funding and no revenue model at the time.

It was both the riskiest and best decision of my career. I had a front row seat to building Foodbuzz alongside the CEO and was given a lot of leeway to learn and grow. Three years later, our start-up was the third largest food media property online, second to Food Network and Allrecipes.com. When our advertisers wanted to create integrated content with our food bloggers, I merged my editorial background with influencer-driven marketing content and switched to the marketing side.

Alexa Tonner: I got my start in marketing when Ryan hired me! I was pretty fresh out of school and had done some internships prior to being hired at Foodbuzz, but working there was my first real exposure to marketing. The funny thing is, at the time, I thought I was taking on a role that would bring me further from marketing. But our team was small and all our revenue came from advertisers, so there was a lot of opportunity to learn the marketing side of the business.

How did your early experiences in marketing affect how you decided to launch Collectively Inc.?

Tonner: We were both tired of seeing content programs be treated as an afterthought. We were always at the end of the game of telephone; by the time requests for proposals got to us, there wasn’t much room to be creative. We left digital media company Mode Media—formerly known as Glam Media, which we worked at after Foodbuzz—in order to take a break from that world.

We wound up consulting for a start-up here in San Francisco, helping the brand gain ground with fashion influencers. While we were working on that, it a light bulb went off—we realized we could ditch the banners and content model and just focus on the content.
We’re helping brands tap into a very personal relationship that influencers have with their audience.

How has influencer marketing evolved since those early days?

Stern: When we saw ad networks declining and demand for influencer marketing increasing, our innovative and adaptable background was the driving force in bringing an entirely new model of influencer marketing to clients. We’ve been at the epicenter of the emerging and rapidly-evolving marketing space that has been the byproduct of social media’s popularity. When we started at Foodbuzz in 2007, influencer marketing was very different. It was really tied into blogs then, but today the influencer marketing network includes Instagrammers, Viners, YouTube celebrities and Pinners.

Influencer marketing is also shifting to include an integrated layer across the larger landscape of marketing teams and channels. Today, influencers do much more: they support product development insights, create sponsored content at launches, appear as cameos in broadcast spots—or all of the above!

What does an ideal influencer look like?

Tonner: We embrace so many different kinds of influencers. But we do look for people who have unique points of view and are actively growing their follower base in an organic way. 

Stern: We look for great storytellers and creative communicators, people who have both a deep respect for their audience and an understanding that their often 20– or 30–hour a week content efforts need funding. They must embrace advertising partnerships with a collaborative spirit and commitment to finding authentic ground.

What makes influencer marketing campaigns so successful today? 

Tonner: We’re helping brands tap into a very personal relationship that influencers have with their audience. And because influencers care tremendously about their audience, they typically only work on partnerships they feel genuinely excited about, and that genuine enthusiasm shows in the resulting content.

Stern: It’s a great way to reach and impact an audience in a tasteful, non-intrusive format. You can skip commercials. You can block banners. But you choose to read and follow your favorite social media creators, and they, in turn, thoughtfully integrate their advertising partners into content that doesn’t alienate. 

One example of a successful influencer-driven campaign is Pandora’s Thumbprint Radio launch. About 30 influencers of all types shared a creative “that’s my jam” dance moment through videos on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. It was a very fun and high-energy way to capture that ubiquitous moment when your favorite song comes on the radio.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the advertising field? 

Tonner: If you’re willing to put in the work, hard skills can be earned. But it’s the soft ones that are impossible to teach. It’s vital to have a great work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and enthusiasm.

Stern: Be curious, ask questions and start to educate yourself. With the tons of amazing resources to learn from, there’s no excuse to not know what’s going on in the larger industry!
Ryan Stern (right) is cofounder and CEO of Collectively Inc. Prior to her role as an editor and vice president of lifestyle brands at Glam Media, she also held roles at Federated Media Publishing, Foodbuzz and Mekanism.

Alexa Tonner (left) is cofounder and head of partnerships of Collectively Inc. Prior to founding Collectively Inc., Tonner held roles as the senior director of social content, products and strategy at Glam Media, and in similar capacities at Federated Media Publishing and Foodbuzz.

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