Influenster Has Its Eyes on Amazon’s Crown for Product Reviews

Reaching tastemakers who can sway the masses is one way to win the marketing game.

Influenster in New York developed software that links brands to well-connected folks who can talk up products and services to the public. On Wednesday, the company rolled out the newest version of its mobile app, which makes it easier for consumers to have conversations with “Influensters” about products they may want to buy. “It’s like you have a million shopping assistants in your palm,” says co-founder and CEO Aydin Acar.

Social media campaigns and so-called influencer marketing have been around for a while. Basically, brands try to get their products in the hands of people who are very familiar with the items, or have a large following that will listen to their comments. A variety of companies—such as UberVu in Cambridge, MA, which was acquired by HootSuite this year—can show brands what topics are trending in social media and who are the key drivers of online conversations.

Acar says Influenster offers a combination of market research with social media marketing. “We are turning our platform into Yelp for products,” he says.

The app, he says, makes it easier for consumers to use Influenster. The barcode scanner with the app lets people look up product reviews, compare prices, and start conversations around merchandise while they are shopping. Influenster also encourages its members to take photos of products with the app or create a video to share with their networks.

What began as an invite-only service co-founded in 2010 with Elizabeth Scherle has evolved into a place for consumers to gain insight on wares and services, Acar says. Influenster features some 500,000 different products with about 350,000 new reviews posted monthly. “Outside of Amazon, we have the highest number of [product] reviews,” he says.

Influenster is largely bootstrapped, with a bit of backing from a friends and family round. Acar says they are considering raising funding down the road. He says the company will generate $12 million in revenue this year, is profitable, and makes its money through the deals with partner brands.

Since its founding, Influenster has grown to nearly 900,000 consumer users and expects to reach one million in November, Acar says. In addition to the reviews, consumers can earn coupons from vendors such as service companies, retailers, and lifestyle companies. There is also a section where bloggers can post content such as fashion tips, beauty tips, and recipes.

Brands that work with Influenster can choose the type of members to which they want to send products. For example, a maker of coffee brewers may want to reach members who drink lots of coffee and are very active on social media. If chosen, those members could receive a new coffee brewer for free, shipped to them by Influenster, before it goes on the market. Such campaigns come with an expectation that the members will spread the word about the brands.

Initially, Influenster did not include reviews, Acar says. At first, members on the site typically created content about the products just during marketing campaigns. Wanting to make the site more active, the review platform was built in 2012 to include commentary on any product in the marketplace.

Most of the brands Influenster works with are consumer packaged goods companies such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate-Palmolive; retailers such as Victoria’s Secret and Sony; and entertainment companies such as Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks, and television networks ABC and AMC.

But not everyone on Influenster gets free swag from brands. When consumers join, they connect all their social media channels to the site, Acar says. That is used to score their reach with others. As members write reviews, regardless of being sent merchandise by the brands, they earn badges similar to achievements awarded while playing video games. That gives brands a clearer picture of which members are interested in them and helps determine who should be included in future marketing campaigns. “Badges are basically where the targeting happens,” Acar says.

The chosen members then promote the brands by creating user-generated content such as videos that feature the products. At the end of each campaign, Influenster provides brands performance reports showing return on investment, how many people they reached, and social media and video mentions, Acar says. The company also provides a report on how consumers view the brands, their intent to purchase their products again, which features they like, and what features they want added.

The needs of brands vary, Acar says, when it comes to people to target. Some companies just want bloggers, others want to reach all college students or other demographic groups. Influenster collects some 650 data points on each member, he says, based on their social media interaction, surveys answered, and reviews they write. The data may also include how often consumers use certain types of products.

Prior to co-founding Influenster, Acar worked for market research company GfK after graduate school. Co-founder Scherle worked for event promoter and media company Shecky’s Media, doing events for brands that wanted to reach out to women. The events Scherle worked on put sample products in consumers’ hands, but Acar says there was little way to know if they went on to buy the full products. The duo created Influenster to solve that problem.

“Being a data nerd, I said we should build a platform,” Acar says. “We know exactly what brands want. We collect a lot of data from people.”

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