Meet the 21-year-old influencing a generation of Instagram influencers
At 15, Influencer founder and CEO Ben Jeffries had already set up his first business. Called Breeze, it was a clothing company of modest success born off the back of a slang phrase him and his friends used to throw around. It was a small-time business, but it provided the spark of inspiration that led Jeffries to build Influencer, one of the UK’s largest influencer marketing companies. He’s now 21.
Influencer’s main draw is that it provides a platform for marketers to access a rich resource of high-quality social media influencers. More than simply a contact book, Influencer provides both influencers and brands with full analytical reports on campaigns as well as offering advice on how to make the most of a partnership. It runs like an agency, but with a big digital platform and directory supporting it – Jeffries thinks of it as a digital marketing agency with a data-driven SaaS platform. This platform is bespoke to Influencer and more comprehensive than anything else on the market.
Conversely, at 15, I was in a wholly unsuccessful band and was far too stressed about my GCSEs to think about starting a business. At 21 I was in a similar situation, but this time worrying about finishing a dissertation and avidly searching for a graduate job. But that’s probably why I’m not quite as successful as some of the young entrepreneurs we’ve spoken to in the past.
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Bringing Influencer to life
It wasn’t a straightforward journey to success, though. At 15, Jeffries realised there was an opportunity within Breeze to try something new, but he didn’t know it’d result in him losing all his money, dropping out of university and then ultimately turning his fortunes around.
“As a young kid, I knew nobody really liked seeing ads,” he explains to me. “One thing almost everybody does love, however, is a celebrity endorsement. If I saw Ronaldinho wearing a pair of football boots, I’d really want those football boots. Trouble is, as a startup, I couldn’t afford Ronaldinho.”
It was then Jeffries realised that targeting small-time stars with keen but small fan bases was a more lucrative opportunity than aiming your sights at the mega-celebrities. From here he reached out to “micro celebrities” to help them endorse his products. “The majority of these small celebs didn’t return my calls, or didn’t know how to cost themselves,” Jeffries explains as we discuss the difficulties of reaching out to this, then untapped, subsection of celebrity society.
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“If I went to a big marketing agency and said ‘look, can you help me reach these people?’ they’d say I’d need a starting budget of £20,000. As a 16-year-old with a startup, I just didn’t have £20,000.”
Having decided it was easier to try to fill this gap himself, rather than simply stick to the current model of social media marketing, Ben went all in on a new business idea – Influencer. His first port of call was to build a platform using the money he saved from working over the summer and through his gap year. And £10,000 later, he spent the money on building a proof-of-concept platform with a development company in India.
It didn’t all go to plan, however.
After months of positive back-and-forth and enticing product designs, communication went silent. Months later he received an email telling him development was “not possible” and that they’d swallowed the money citing labour costs.
By this point, Jeffries was 18, had lost all of his money and was about to start university on a low after a gap year that had ultimately resulted in nothing.
A self-influenced comeback
Obviously, Jeffries’ story doesn’t end there. After building Influencer into a straightforward agency-style concept while doing his Business Administration degree at Bath, he took advantage of his six-month placement term to get his business idea off the ground. After completing a three-month stint at Shell, he turned his attention to Influencer for the remaining three months. It’s these three months that changed his life.
“During that three-month period I put Influencer onto CrowdCube and, within 24 hours, we were fully funded at £100,000,” he explains to me with a sense of glee in his voice. “Within three days [from the campaign starting], we had reached £152,000 from 139 investors”.
It may have been small-time funding, but that money was more than enough for him to realise his early vision for Influencer. It was also more than enough for him to decide it was time to drop out of uni and focus on his dream project full-time.
“Bath University was completely understanding about me dropping out. The teachers said ‘have a two-year sabbatical and we’ll see how things are going after that’.” He never went back, but Influencer has continued to grow.
“We’ve been developing a data-driven SaaS marketplace,” Jeffries replies when asked what became of the money. “It enables brands to directly connect with our content creators, allowing them to have the entire [marketing] process from start to finish within our platform.”
The analytics Influencer’s platform pumps out cover everything, detailing individual cost per-mile or per-engagement of each influencer used in a campaign, along with just how successful that campaign has been on return on investment. “[Our platform] is all about helping the head of marketing show their CEO what they’ve achieved via Influencer.”
But who are these “influencers” that Influencer is providing brands access to? “I see [influencers] as the new cool kids in school that everyone aspires to be. They’re not really famous for being on a TV show or a sports team; they’re famous because they provide content that’s interesting and inspiring to others.
“If they provide a recommendation, you act on it because you want to be like them.”
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His summary hits the nail on the head rather neatly. One look on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see these personalities everywhere. Thousands of followers and yet not one of them is known for being anything other than themselves – albeit a monetised version of themselves. “All of these influencers gain large followings within their specific niche. They become specialists at appealing to these target audiences – that’s why they’ve got these large followings.”
The Influencer difference
Influencer marketing isn’t really anything new to marketers operating today – so what sets Jeffries and his company apart from other services out there, such as Takumi? For one, Influencer has a wider remit than this Instagram-focused influencer marketing startup, but Jeffries also picked up on the influencer trend well before it had become a marketing norm. He’s still very much ahead of the curve now, and his intense passion for what he does is palpable – even via a Skype call.
For Jeffries, Influencer is about establishing a balance and a dialogue between influencers and brands. Instead of simply enabling brands to buy an influencer’s time and account access, his business is all about creating lasting bonds and helping improve marketing campaigns.
“One thing we’ve noticed is that influencers are becoming a lot more specific about the type of brand they’ll connect with,” he explains in response to why it’s so important to pursue this brand partnership. “[Influencers] don’t want their followers to feel used by promoting brands that aren’t normally linked to their feed. If they start promoting the wrong products, their followers will just go elsewhere.
“It has to be a win-win-win situation for influencers, brands and the followers.”
Not wishing to name names and point fingers, Jeffries also makes a point that many of his competitors tend to force influencers onto brands. “Brands say ‘we have £2,000’ and the agency says ‘here are the influencers you can afford to use’ – which is just wrong.”
Jeffries’ approach to influencer marketing means he’s seen a lot of retention in both brands and influencers using his service. Many recommend others to the platform and some brands refuse to work with influencers who approach them unless they go via Influencer first – and vice versa.
“We have a strong relationship with our influencers. It’s quite easy, as you scale up, to lose contact with them – which isn’t good. We have chats to find out what brands they’d like us to target for them. It’s all about keeping them happy as well.”
It’s all about quality over quantity. Having a high number of influencers available to brands would be a great figure, but nobody wants to run sloppy campaigns. “We don’t want to just let anyone onto the platform,” Jeffries explains. “We have a specific quota of 10,000 or more followers with an engagement rate of above 3%.
“I’d much rather have a platform filled with quality rather than quantity. I don’t want a brand coming to our platform and struggling to find an influencer they want to work with while simultaneously clicking through pages upon pages. I’d rather they were struggling to choose between three or four individuals.”
Influencing the future
Influencer is on an upwards trajectory. The team has recently taken on a number of new employees and their platform has moved into its next stage of development since I initially spoke with them. But, as I’m sure you’ve already realised, Jeffries has bigger dreams for the business.
“[Influencer marketing] is a massive marketplace and, the fact that [Influencer] isn’t simply a directory – we’re an agency – [means] I can see us expanding even more over the coming years. We’ll be there for the hands-on support or run the campaign ourselves on the platform – we enjoy the agency side of things as well.”
He has visions of new social platforms springing up and Influencer swooping in to help nurture the influential people using these platforms. And in the short term, he’s got his eye on integrating Instagram Stories and Facebook Live opportunities directly into the platform.
He’s already got the SEO keyword down with the brand name, but that’s not enough for him – he wants to be the one-stop shop for influencer marketing. “I can genuinely see us becoming the go-to place for student influencer marketing.”