Like new players in an old game, influencer startups are beginning to find their ground in the region’s digital marketing industry.

In conversations with founders of influencer startups, Wamda recorded three base variables used to determine a social media influencer: Followers, content quality, and engagement rate. When a combination of these metrics is applied to a brand brief, an influencer and a brand relationship are born. The current business of the region’s influencer startups is to broker the relationship.

From awareness to sales

Earlier, brands turned to influencers to drive consideration awareness, said Akanksha Goel, founder of influencer agency FrontRow. Hence, brands sought influencers with millions of followers and paid little heed to their content.

“Brands now want to pull influencer marketing down closer to sales, measuring the success of [their influencer marketing] campaign on the back of hard [sales] metrics,” Goel said. “What an influencer brings to the table is a deep understanding of the target audience, which is why the audience follows them. [Brands now] use influencers as collaborators,” Goel explained.

Startups like FrontRow use technology and human monitoring teams to connect the right influencers with the right brands for the right marketing campaigns. Goel’s team created FrontRow as an in-house tool for her digital and social media agency, Socialize, before opening access to brands and agencies. Instead of referring to ‘the usual suspects’ of influencers to brands, Goel wanted a database of a range of influencers vetted by the company.

Anyone is an influencer

Nour El Shar, founder of InHype, a company that allows brands to reach clients and increase their market share, extends the definition of an influencer to anyone with a social media profile. Once users register their profile on the InHype iOS app, the internal  team employs an algorithm to screen the profile for fake followers, offensive content like “extreme political or religious views”, inappropriate images, or illegal activities, before matching influencer to brand.

Comparing influencer marketing to Tupperware parties where recommendations from family and friends led to global product sales. El Shar says the industry is “going back to basics of marketing which is word of mouth, where everybody is [an] influencer, but everybody influences a certain number of people.”

At a time where over 600 million devices run adblock software globally and 62 percent of which is on mobile devices, influencer marketing also helps brands overcome the customer diversion to advertisements. In the UAE, 71 percent of the country’s residents said they would take advice from social media influencers before buying products.

Global influencer marketing companies like indaHash and VAMP have launched offices in Dubai and partnered with local agencies to help brands. But “wanted to create something locally for the local market that wasn’t a foreign company coming here and using their technology,” said Feras Arafe, CEO of the company. The startup works with micro influencers i.e. social media users with 25-100K followers.

Inspired by the likes of Adwords and Airbnb, Arafe said is a marketplace for any sized company or marketing executive looking for an influencer to boost their campaign.

Rating and cost

“The main volume [of demand] is driven by the startups and SMEs,” Arafe explained before noting the high prices of influencers. “You don’t have to have a $20,000 or 40,000 budget, which is simply not affordable for smaller scale companies.”

Sharing an anecdote of an influencer who charged AED 40,000 (US$ 10,890) for a single post, Arafe highlighted the struggle of picking an influencer with a unique follower base and engaging content relevant to the brand.

“You don’t necessarily want to associate with somebody who has a million followers, out of which 900,000 are irrelevant to your local business because you only service people in Dubai in Business Bay for instance,” he said.

Magali Poesz of the popular Market Girl Blog relies on the charts set for influences from agencies to determine her rate.

“I talk to friends who also work on this,” Poesz said. “Many times it also depends on whether the relationship with the client is short or long term. What we do can be considered [as] an art, so this work is based on the demand. If you have more clients than space on your agenda, you can charge more.”

The key ‘trio’

Authentic content, loyal followers, and consistent posting are the dominant traits of a successful influencer. Investing in long term partnerships, letting go of content control and ensuring the brand appeals to the influencer is the secret to a successful client-influencer relationship.

Ibrahem AlSuhaibani, marketing & sales director of Domino’s Pizza MENA & Pakistan,  hired Starfish Agency, a Dubai-based influencer marketing startup, to drive sales for a campaign creating awareness of Dominos’ new ordering app. According to Starfish’s emailed figures, the campaign resulted in 4,000-5,000 downloads per day and a 35 percent increase in orders daily with the help of 25 influencers.

“If you look at them in general, [influencers are] not big contributors,” AlSuhaibani said. “But, when we evaluate them from an ROI’s perspective, they’re paying much higher and faster than other channels.” Domino’s assigns three percent of their marketing budget to influencers. Al Suhaibani said influencer agencies are important to campaigns because “coordination with influencers [is] a full time job”.

Besides, an increase in client spend towards influencer marketing is at the root of the rise of influencer startups says Amer Massimi, CEO of Starfish Agency.

“Influencers are increasing every day, and there is a need to have a focal point in aligning between brands and influencers,” Massimi said. “Clients are looking for specialized agencies or agents who can provide a full fledged service starting from having the best strategy for the campaign to shortlisting the influencers, to the closing reports.

“Like we saw the rise of social media agencies five years ago, we will see a solid growth in influencers marketing agencies,” he added.

View the article on Wamda.