WHEN teenage girls start earning more money than company executives just by posting a photo on social media, you know this burgeoning industry means business.

We are now seeing a new breed of models - and supermodels for that matter - but the closest some have come to a casting and professional photographer is their bathroom and iPhone camera.

Search engine optimisation and search engine marketing are buzz phrases of the past.

Now social media product placement is taking the spotlight, and like its predecessors, it's attracting the right returns to make known it's here to stay.  

In only a couple of years, social media product placement has already triggered a restructure in advertising budgets even among blue-chip corporations, and spawned a new sector of businesses as social media influencer agencies.

John Scott (pictured right), founder of social media platforming agency Platform Me, says his agency has seen significant growth in the almost 18 months since it opened and has since negotiated contracts with companies such as Diesel, Levis and Victoria's Secret.

Scott, a publicist by trade, runs Platform Me as a standard talent agency, except for social media influencers rather than models or actors.

"One of our catchcries is 'you don't need to be super to be model' - we make ordinary people extraordinary through our platform," Scott says.

"I can tell you now that we have social media influencers on our books who earned more in the first three months of this year than they did in the entire 2014."

From Platform Me's uptake, more and more people are commercialising and monetising their social media accounts, and in terms of return on investment, he believes social media is far more transparent and reliable than traditional advertising.

While some may argue scrolling and tapping is less active than watching television or reading a magazine, or the missing call to action on Instagram is an issue whereby you can't hyperlink on a post, Scott says the benefits of new channels far outweigh anything traditional advertising can claim. 

"Instantly, our top influencer can post a picture in a dress, skipping over an enormous lead-up time like in traditional advertising, and that dress is guaranteed to sell out within 48 hours," he says.

"The return on investment is unbelievable comparatively.

"We work with a fashion brand that had exhausted all PR avenues and didn't know what else to do - this influencer got involved and did a couple of shout outs in a tailor-made dress [pictured left], the reaction was crazy, the business asked if they could put it into production - the dress sold out and the designer was out of fabric before it even went into production."

The influencer in discussion is Mimi Elashiry, who was the initial inspiration behind Platform Me and now sets the agency's premium.

Elashiry started her Platform Me journey with 4000 Instagram followers and has since grown this into a fan base of 725,000.

To put this in perspective, Cosmopolitan, which targets a similar demographic, had a readership of 300,000 in the 12 months to March 2015 according to Roy Morgan Research.

Lorraine Murphy, founder of another blogger talent agency The Remarkables Group, knows this story all too well.

She has seen the impact on small business to multinationals like Woolworths, who signed up five Remarkables bloggers as annual ambassadors in 2013 and has since renewed the contracts, and Olympus, who has hosted a series of reader lunches with four Remarkables bloggers.

Murphy, who sometimes advises the use of dedicated discount codes to better measure return on investment, draws on the case study of Brisbane Remarkables blogger Nikki Parkinson (pictured below left).

"We always evaluate the level of interaction the content receives such as likes, comments and shares, and then we can go one-up to track an exact return on investment for certain types of products that can be labelled with dedicated discount codes," she says.

"Nikki, who runs the blog Styling You, worked with a fashion brand to find her content had generated an astonishing $300,000 in sales on its website alone, which is obviously much more than she charged."

This is a highly tangible outcome, but what about situations where everything is a little less obvious?

That's where Brisbane-born startup Scrunch can step in, which relocated to New York last week, the heart of the growing industry.

Scrunch founder Danielle Lewis is rolling out a marketing analytics software that enables brands, retailers and agencies to measure the return on investment on their social media spend.

The business started as a service that would provide virtual change rooms for online stores, before Lewis realised the market wasn't ready for the idea and decided to repurpose the wealth of data she had accumulated along the way.

"We had aggregated a whole lot of blog content and curated the top 99 fashion blogs on the web as the idea was a core social network for fashion where you would be able to shop the content and dress a virtual model," says Lewis.

"Over drinks we discovered there was a much better market in the B2B space and from there pivoted Scrunch around what it is today.

"Now we are operating a software as a service in beta mode before launching mass market in coming months, where brands and agencies pay for a subscription and access to the data analytics software."

Like Lewis (pictured right), Murphy and Scott fell into this line of work by looking at their industries in a different way only a couple of years ago.

Murphy left her traditional public relations role in 2012, with the last straw being another blogger asking her how to negotiate a brand deal.

Platform Me was born out of frustration with the existing marketplace, where 'ancient paradigms' prevailed, and through Scott's inkling the industry was morphing into a different kind of beast.

"I was representing Mimi and taking her to meetings where people would say 'she is beautiful but...' - the head of a big modelling agency I had worked with before basically sat me down and said I was irresponsible to be filling this 5'6 girl's head with the idea that she could be a model and it was never going to happen," he says.

Now, to flog product with Elashiry, brands must spend a minimum of USD $1500 per post.

However, other influencers on Platform Me's books earn anywhere between $50 and $1000 per post through strictly negotiated contracts. This might range from a one-off post to a three- or six-month stint promoting a particular product.

"It's not just about numbers for us though, people think you have to engage the people with big followings, but that's actually not the smartest way to work," says Scott.

"You could have 1000 followers and 12 per cent engagement, while the guy with 10,000 followers could have only 2 per cent engagement - who is more relevant here?"

Scott understands it's scary for some businesses to entrust and invest in a teenage girl with essentially no 'real' marketing experience.

However, agencies like his have little reason to not deliver a win-win for both the influencer and brand. 

"We are upfront with brands and try to engage them over a period of time - if Nike buys one post and Adidas buys four, then who is the winner?" says Scott.

"We also always make sure the influencer has the final signoff on the product - there is no point engaging them with a product that isn't suited to them - it will harm their credibility, reduce their relevance and just waste the client's money."

Lorraine Murphy (pictured left) says her agency turns down work all the time for this reason.

"Brands are often surprised at the number of campaigns our influencers decline," Murphy says.

"Influencers are brands in their own right though and need to be careful which clients they partner with.

"Audiences are getting smarter and can spot a campaign that doesn't fit with the blogger's usual content within a mile off."


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