Room Unlocked, Alex Payne: Authenticity and purpose in influencer marketing

Room Unlocked, Alex Payne: Authenticity and purpose in influencer marketing
Duncan is an award-winning editor with more than 20 years experience in journalism. Having launched his tech journalism career as editor of Arabian Computer News in Dubai, he has since edited an array of tech and digital marketing publications, including Computer Business Review, TechWeekEurope, Figaro Digital, Digit and Marketing Gazette.

Alex Payne, Room Unlocked’s co-founder, discusses the future of influencer marketing and how it can successfully form part of an overall marketing strategy.

Could you tell us a little bit about what the company does?

Well, several of our clients have described us as a cross between Tinder and LinkedIn, which we quite like. Room Unlocked facilitates partnerships between interesting brands and celebrities and influencers – but our point of difference is that it is all mutually beneficial. With us, no brands are buying influence, no influencers are selling themselves – it’s all about value exchange; which leads to more authentic relationships and content, meaning higher engagement and better results.

The influencer landscape has exploded in the last decade, and currently has some well-documented challenges. We believe that influence stretches way beyond just ‘selling something through a social channel’ and we’re passionate about allowing people of influence the chance to talk about the brands they genuinely love, and the causes they genuinely believe in.

Wherever you look, right now, people are looking for truth, transparency and authenticity; politics, news, and media. We like to think we’re generating authentic collaborations, which benefits everyone – the brands, the influencers and their audiences. We live by the mantra ‘for love, not money’, which is getting a lot of cut through. Brands are able to work with influencers who genuinely love their brand, and influencers are rewarded with collaborations and products that they also love.

And we’re about to launch in the US this month, which we’re ready for!

Where did the journey begin?

The idea came from the fact that for 20 years I’ve been a TV presenter. I’ve got absolutely no interest in being a celebrity or an influencer, but because I’ve done weekly television for a number of years, I’ve had a lot of brands who have thrown stuff my way. Most of them I’m not hugely interested in.

But what I began to see was that there’s a huge amount of hit and hope with a brand outreaching to an influencer. You never quite know, as a brand, whether you’re going to find the person who truly loves you and wants to talk about you, or whether they’ll just take the cash and slap it on their grid. And the latter is the problem now in influencer marketing, audiences are becoming disillusioned with an overt transactional approach. 

We’re seeing more and more brands recognise that they need to collaborate with their brand fans, rather than just paying people to talk about them and hoping that it’s the right match. And I think, fundamentally, far too many brands are paying far too much money to far too many people for that recognition. We’re trying to help brands connect with people who say “I love it”, and “I’ll talk about it because I want to”. And, as a result of that, it’s a more authentic connection, because it is the influencer’s choice. The content tends to be more plentiful with a higher engagement rate and greater cut through with their audience, and the brand benefits by not wasting time, money, effort, energy and misplaced adverts.

How does the platform actually work? If I was a customer, would I sign up for a subscription?

We can help any size of business, on their terms. So you can use Room Unlocked on a one-off basis all the way up to a subscription to use it as much as you’d like. You can run the campaigns yourself or we can do it all for you. Our goal is to be a really powerful extension of your team. 

Brands have very clear ideas on exactly who they want to be their face. And it is right to pay them for that relationship. It’s worth saying we’re not just being used by brands for social media exposure. Clients use us to quickly build a bank of user generated content that will really inspire and, ultimately, influence their brand fans. Room Unlocked can help find influencers to showcase or try out products, attend events or even wear clothes on red carpets. We’re trying to redefine the definition of influence from just ‘a paid for Instagram post’ back to a broader offering. We believe advocates can use their own power to make things happen, through their own tone of voice and their own stories. They will talk about a brand or a product, out of interest and passion, which is less prescribed but definitely more authentic.

We track all of the content that’s created, so that brands can reuse it and repurpose it if they wish. Or we’ll evaluate it for you and give you a breakdown on how it’s performed. The results are incredibly powerful.

I heard that charities can list for free. Is that right? 

Absolutely. The first iteration of Room Unlocked has been within influencer marketing. But we’re very keen that we are able to support charities and causes, and that people of influence recognise the need to use their voice for good. 

The charity aspect is huge for us, and we’re going to put the afterburners on that in the not too distant future. The influencers who are most active and most supporting of charities and causes, we will then reward through the platform with ‘concierge credits’; we’ll be able to help fulfil their requests. So it all leads to this powerful community of good brands, good charities and good people forming these really good collaborations. 

Some of the brands you have worked with are Mars, O2 and Samsung. More recently, Red Bull, B&Q and Virgin. You must be doing something right.

I hope so. Some of the ones you mentioned are our longest serving customers. And they’ve understood our mission from the start. They are very aware that they have got to be working with their brand fans, as well as influencers. 

I think it comes down to authenticity. As a brand you’ve got to have several plays in this space. You’ve got to be brave enough to put yourself into the hands of people who say “I love you”. And you’ve got to be able to be brave enough to let them tell your story in their own words. We see that if you reward your brand fans, you’ll get genuine brand love with real cut through. And that will register with their audience better than you controlling the content they put on their platform. 

We’re seeing an increasing confidence from our clients to say “we know these people are fans of ours, and we are going to let them tell our story in their own words, and that will be beneficial for us”. And that’s a really exciting development. 

I think also, when you’re that sort of size of company, you’ve got so many assets and ways to reward your fans with. O2 is a really interesting example, because they’ve got to bring out new hardware, they’ve got sponsorship of England rugby, they’ve got gig tickets, they’ve got a huge number of sponsorship assets. And by using Room Unlocked they will find people to say “I’d love an England rugby shirt”, or “I really want to go to the Mumford and Sons gig at Shepherds Bush next week”, or “I’m going abroad for six months. And I’d love to take your overseas tariff with me”. 

Are there any marketing campaigns that you have helped with or you’ve helped connect people to work together on that you think are particularly good, or that you’re proud of?

We’ve run nearly 5,000 campaigns, so there’s a fairly broad church to choose from. But I think the moment we realised we had something powerful was when Mars created an opportunity for fans of M&Ms. And they had interest from household names who said ‘I love them! Hook me up…’

If Mars were to pay those people to talk about m&ms, they’d be paying out a huge amount of money. But when those people are passing by, and they’re using our platform to unlock opportunities they want to be a part of, it’s really interesting to see that sort of brand love is a motivator enough to talk about the things that you’re interested in. 

Are there any particular trends that you’ve noticed developing in that area?

I did an interview recently where one of the questions was “Is the global recession going to affect how much micro nano influencers get paid?”. And I actually think it’s a much broader answer than that. Inevitably, the financial crunch is going to have an impact. But, actually, I think the world of influencer is going through a bit of an iteration. Having exploded, I think we’re seeing almost a little bit of a settling of the marketplace. 

Moving forwards, I think those people who will sit at the very top of the influential tree are those who’ve got other stories to tell and naturally come across very authentic. They stand for a cause or a charity, and they continue to talk about the things they love. The more rounded individuals and the more rounded the content, I think the higher up the tree you will sit. We don’t go to social media to be sold to. We go to be entertained, informed, challenged, amused and to learn – that’s what authentic influencing is!

How important do you think influencer marketing is as part of a wider marketing strategy?

I think it’s an increasingly important piece of the jigsaw. It can be a very, very powerful way of engaging an audience very rapidly. But I think you have to be able to engage them in the right way. I think there is a far greater understanding, and almost a greater nuance, to influencer marketing now than perhaps three years ago. It has to be the right person. It has to be the right message. It has to be the right fit between brand and influencer. It can’t just be pay, post and run.

What advice would you give to companies that are starting out with influencer marketing?

Be brave enough to work with the people who say that they love you.

What do you think the future holds for influencer marketing?

I think that is a very interesting question. The short answer is a broader definition of ‘influence’, a broader range of content and a broader range of channels.

Firstly, if I ask you “what is an influencer?” you will say it’s someone who creates paid-for content on social media. But, if I say to you “who are the people who have most influenced you?” I’d be surprised if a social media star is in the top 10. It’ll be family and friends and those around you; teachers, politicians and sports stars, and it’ll be actors and actresses. True influence comes with talent, achievement and purpose.  

Influencers will need to be mindful of the things they love and believe in within their content mix – so the best will carefully mix commercial, contra and cause related activity.

Not only will influencer’s content need to be more rounded, but so too will their offering – obviously, social media but those with podcasts, blogs, vlogs and additional channels will continue to rise.

I think the best influencers, and this is where we’re trying to get to, will also pay into the pot as well as take out of it. And they will recognise that, at times, their voice of authority needs to be used for the right messaging at the right time.

In truth, moving forwards the less hungry you are to ‘influence’ the more influential you’ll become. 

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person? Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.

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