When filmmaker and photographer Sam Ciurdar was hired to post about his experience with the Mazda brand at SXSW this year, he never actually drove the sporty CX-5. But that was OK with him.
"It didn't make sense at SXSW because it's all events. There wasn't a lot of driving involved," he said.
He will be behind the wheel of one of the new Mazda crossover SUVs this weekend, however, when he drives one in the LA area as part of another social media influencer campaign. Ciurdar was one of a handful of people chosen by Influential, an agency that pairs brand clients with so-called influencers, with the aid of data analysis and natural language processing.
As brands burn out on celebrity endorsements and the legion of social media power-personalities multiplies, it's become increasingly difficult to find so-called influencers for their campaigns. A handful of tech-centric agencies and platforms are using artificial intelligence-informed approaches – similar to those employed to model audience segments for ad targeting or enable chatbots -- to pluck potential influencer mates from the dating pool on behalf of brands like Mazda and Gerber.
Using artificial intelligence and machine learning to discover and link social media's popular kids with brands "is not something the majority of influencer marketers are doing," said Kristin Hersant, VP of marketing at Linqia, an influencer marketing firm that has built various components of its data-crunching tech platform in-house over the past couple years.
AI is "definitely a sexy thing to talk about," said Jonathan Pollack, Linqia's VP of product.
Influential runs on IBM's Watson AI technology. Mazda enlisted Influential to help brands find influencers to to send to SXSW to promote the new CX-5. The technology parsed the posts in the social ecosystem to determine common words used alongside the Mazda brand to find appropriate influencers. The brand was looking for artsy extroverts with a flair for excitement -- signaled by exclamation points and emojis, for example.
For the SXSW effort, four Mazda influencers were selected to cruise around Austin in the CX-5 and hang out in a branded Mazda Studio, then post about the experience on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The data-driven approach gave Mazda the ability to refine its influencer marketing targeting in a way that aligned better with the brand's values, suggested Eric Watson, director, marketing operations at Mazda North American Operations.
Now, Mazda is finalizing the traits it will seek in a new group of influencers who will participate in ride-and-drive events planned through July in cities such as Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, considers the company's data-centric search process for finding brand matches the "opposite" of a traditional talent search through agencies like William Morris or Creative Artists Agency. Rather than charging clients based on the number of followers an influencer has, or on a fee-per-post basis, Influential uses metrics reflecting engagement from among the targeted audience defined by brand clients to determine cost.
Influential said payment per influencer can range from $500 to $10,000 or more, based on a stock price that changes dependent on Influential's brand match score. That score is determined by the demographic, contextual and psychographic relevance between the influencer and brand.
Better Matches, but Risks Remain
Big-name celebrity-focused brand endorsements are under scrutiny from regulators. The Federal Trade Commission sent letters to 45 celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Sean "Diddy" Combs alleging that they promoted brands in social media without disclosing paid relationships with the advertisers. J-Lo, for example, posted a photo of herself in a shimmery gown perched on a table alongside bottles of Beluga Vodka on Instagram, thanking the brand.