SMSsummit producer Breanna Jacobs had the honor of meeting with Danielle Sway, CEO of Sway Group, an influencer marketing agency with offices with headquarters in San Francisco and staff across the country. In her interview, Danielle shares about how Sway Group started, how they work with their network of influencers, and what she’ll be speaking about at our upcoming Social Media Strategies Summit in New York City.

You were at Edelman for a number of years before starting your own agency. Tell us a bit about how Sway Group got started.

Danielle: I was at Edelman for almost seven years. When I first started working on social media and influencer marketing for them, it was just bloggers. At first, it was super easy because everything was in its infancy, so influencers weren’t getting paid to cover products. They were excited to get free stuff and write about it, like journalists.

As the industry matured on both sides, there was this realization that the vast majority of influencers – there are of course some exceptions – are not like journalists. They’re really more like spokespeople, and so it made sense to have a payment exchanging hands so that both the brand and the agency could really ensure that the influencer was doing everything that we needed and getting key messages correct.

And from the influencers’ perspective, there was a lot being asked of them. Being at a big agency, we had very strict guidelines, which you would never expect from journalists.

So we started paying them. And the first programs were pretty simple. For example, bringing in three bloggers to join the Turkey Talk Line for Butterball. Or bringing in six bloggers to Kraft to meet with the R&D team in the Kraft kitchens. It was easy and fun. Then, the programs started expanding, and soon we were working with 25 or 50 influencers at once. Negotiating and executing on all of those individual contracts got very messy and time-consuming!

There was no one I could call for help. No one was providing services in the way that we needed it.
There was always some kind of caveat like it had to be bundled in with an ad buy or they weren’t vetting the influencers to our standards.

For two years, I was just kicking around the idea of starting my own agency. Eventually, the time was right to do it, and I launched the company in a very different way from how it runs now. We launched with just 25 mom bloggers, borrowing the model of a talent agency, and representing them with exclusive relationships, taking a percentage of any work that we negotiated for them. We’re different now. No one’s exclusive with us anymore.

We have access to over 100,000 influencers in our email database and it’s all campaign-based. We recruit for a program, they apply, and we pay a flat fee.

You’ve built quite the influencer marketing network! Are there prerequisites for influencers to be able to join your platform? Or do they just apply and are accepted?

Danielle: No, it’s open to anyone. You don’t get from 25 to 100,000 just by flipping a switch. We actually ended up acquiring a community that had about 25,000 members in it. That community was built originally as The SITS Girls, a place for women to access community, education, support, and sharing of best practices. We were built on this philosophy of education and support that’s still really important to us today.
You don’t have to meet any specific requirements to get our newsletters or to take advantage of our education. The selection process gets specific when we’re working on a particular campaign. But you can still get work from us even if you’re small because sometimes brands do need very niche influencers!

So to start the matchmaking process, you put out a bid for a campaign and influencers apply based on brand specifications?

Danielle: Yes, they apply through our dashboard. There’s certain information that we have about everyone. So you fill out a profile and you join. We know how old you are, where you live, when your kids were born, what pets you have, what categories you write about. And then we can ask specific campaign questions. We had a client once who only wanted people who had previously written content that demonstrated a sense of adventure. So within the recruitment for that campaign, we were able to ask for links to posts that had that adventure element.

Earlier we were talking about about the explosive growth of new influencer agencies. How does Sway Group differentiate themselves?

Danielle: The community is a huge point of difference. The other big thing is that we’re super hands-on. We do a lot of work with nano-influencers now. For a lot of them, this will have been their first paid program. It’s a real art and it takes a lot of time to get good at creating sponsored content. So we spend a lot of time working with influencers to refine their posts and helping them get to the right place. I mean, my CFO would probably say, “Spend a little less time.” But we’re very hands-on!

When a brand starts working with us, they get a really big robust team. There are about eight to 10 people working on their campaign. We have the recruitment team, the QA team, analytics, account management, the instructional designer who crafts our detailed post instructions. All of those people will be on a kickoff call with the client because we want to make sure that everything is executed correctly.

Not to mention your social content studio where you can execute on all of the creative assets!

It can be a big challenge for brands to find the right influencer. But switching to the influencer perspective, what do you think are some challenges for them when trying to break into the space?

Danielle: I used to do it. And I’d say it’s easier being a CEO than it was being an influencer!

It’s hard work. You have to have an editorial calendar. A lot of the bigger influencers have virtual assistants. You have to plan everything out. The posts take a lot of work. We’ll frequently come back and ask for changes to that. Standing out in the crowd when you’re applying for a campaign can be difficult. We tell influencers, just like with anything, it’s all about relationships. Getting to know people on our influencer management team, reaching out, and being part of the community and commenting on other people’s content are great ways to get started.

Do you work with influencers that have a targeted brand they really want to work with?

Danielle: We don’t really facilitate that because we have too many influencers. It just doesn’t fit within what we do. A lot of our brands hire us to be that filter and help manage those relationships. From the brand perspective, it’s very overwhelming because some of them are just getting bombarded with influencers asking for free products, asking to work with them. Best Buy has set up their own influencer network themselves just because the volume is so high. Sephora just did that too.

What types of campaigns have you seen to be the most successful?

Danielle: It depends. We’ve been doing a lot lately with a diaper brand where it’s all about driving clicks. It’s all Instagram and we’ve been having a ton of fun with that. We’re working with almost all micro and nano influencers, playing around with the mix of organic content, how much paid boosting we put behind it, watching follower counts. It’s a pretty fun analytics game to figure out. With this combination of influencers, how do we get to this goal number of clicks? There’s just a ton of finagling on the back end to make it happen. We’ve done a number of programs with them, and that’s been super fun.

So most of your campaigns feature micro-influencers?

Danielle: Yeah, the vast majority. Every campaign results study that we do, the ROI is just so much higher. We’re not having to deal with managers, making it impossible to talk to the influencers themselves.
There is a time and a place for the larger ones, but we love our micro-influencers. Especially now that we’re putting paid boosting behind all of our programs, you can get the right number of eyeballs on your posts.

What do you feel are the broader trends, beyond just relationship building and authenticity, that really enabled influencer marketing to take off?

Danielle: I think a lot of it has been a decrease in other ad spending. Especially with all the streaming, TV’s becoming less and less relevant. Our head of sales comes from a TV background, which is super interesting. She’s moving from this place where she was pitching, “Trust me, you’re getting all these viewers,” and now she can say, “Here’s exactly how many.” She loves it. So I think that’s part of it.

I think technology improvements have also enabled a lot. The fact that we can do paid boosting to get in front of exactly the right people. Local TV has traditionally taken so much money and as an influencer, we couldn’t compete with that. Let’s say we were trying to promote a car dealership that’s only in the Dallas area. We could work only with Dallas influencers, but we couldn’t necessarily guarantee that everyone seeing it lived in Dallas. Well, now we can.

And there now is much more alignment between a brand’s product and the influencer really supporting that product.

Danielle: Yeah. It has to be somewhat organic. It can’t be totally fake.

You’re speaking at our event in New York in October! is there anything about the case study you’re presenting that you’d like to share?

Danielle: We’ll be sharing the story of one of the brands we work with – OXO. What’s great about them is that they have their own relationships with influencers and do a lot of campaigns on their own. They pull us in for larger campaigns if there’s a higher volume or something very specific to recruit for. I think a lot of brands see it as an either-or. Like, “I outsource this or I do it myself.” And we’re seeing increasingly that most of the brands that we work with, it’s a combination. So they might work with all of their year-long brand ambassadors on their own, and then outsource some of the larger volume microprograms to us. We’re hoping that we can show that there can be this really nice, symbiotic relationship, and they can integrate really well. We can just be an extension of the team.

I’m really looking forward to the case study! Thanks for sharing your story with us.

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