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ICSC Shopping Centers Today: Landlords Embrace Influencer Marketing

March 1, 2019 (ICSC) In mid-December, high school senior Ava Jules visited Pearlridge Center, in Hawaii. About 500 of her online followers showed up too. This gathering was no flash mob, but rather part of an extensive and carefully planned social-media-influencer marketing campaign by the mall's owner, Columbus, Ohio–based Washington Prime Group.

A Hawaii native and fashionista with some 1.4 million followers on her social-media channels, Jules is one of 20 influencers from across the country who participated in Washington Prime Group's very first influencer campaign, rolled out during the 2018 holiday season. During her meet-and-greet at Pearlridge Center, Jules gave out hugs — along with holiday-related fashion and gift ideas — and posed for selfies with many of her fans, some of whom arrived hours before her scheduled appearance.

What led Washington Prime to pursue influencer marketing? Like other shopping center landlords, the firm has sought closer connections between its properties and their surrounding communities, to spark excitement and employ technology for greater foot traffic.

"Our focus was to have a strategy that positions our properties as town centers and provides dynamic experiences for our guests, as well as a platform for both digital and physical experiences," explained Jennifer Moretti, Washington Prime Group's senior vice president of marketing. "It's really about having an omni-channel strategy."

Those whose area of expertise is not marketing may wonder: Who are these social-media influencers, and what is an influencer campaign?

In general, influencers are ordinary people — as opposed to well-known entertainers or athletes — who have large numbers of followers on their social-media accounts. Many have gained Internet fame for expertise or acknowledged good taste in a given field — fashion, for example, or vegan food. Some influencers leverage their clout to earn money by striking deals with companies to promote products or services over social media and/or through public appearances. Like advertisements, influencer campaigns are a form of paid media.

Influencers often collaborate with their clients to decide what kind of content they will post to their social-media accounts. The influencers who participated in Washington Prime Group's campaign worked with the firm to generate ideas that ultimately resulted in the creation of about 400 pieces of content — think videos and photos — documenting their holiday-themed experiences at shopping centers. They documented themselves shopping for holiday gifts, taking their children to visit Santa or participating in sip-and-shop events. Seven influencers appeared at meet-and-greets, including in-store events by some of the campaign's tenant sponsors.

The campaign also had brand sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, which got product placement at some influencer-attended events. Some social-media posts showed influencers stopping to buy a Coke from cashless Coca-Cola vending machines at various Washington Prime properties.

In all, the campaign generated nearly 6 million "impressions" (individual views) and upwards of 452,600 "engagements" (public shares, likes and comments) during the critical holiday shopping season, according to the company.

Influencer marketing has gained popularity over the past decade, says Barbara Jones, CEO of Greenwich, Conn.–based Blissful Media Group. Unilever, Procter & Gamble and other consumer-products companies were early adopters of this marketing technique, and many other types of companies, including major retailers, have followed suit, she says. Influencer marketing has made its way into the shopping center industry in part because it is a powerful tool that landlords can use to court young shoppers, says Jones, whose firm worked with Washington Prime on its recent campaign, in partnership with influencer-marketing platform Julius. Influencer marketing "is a way to demonstrate to younger shoppers that you understand how they live, shop and think," said Jones. "It's a way to be perceived as in-the-know."

It may not be hard to see why influencer marketing has caught on: Some 30 percent of U.S. and European consumers say they have purchased a product or service based on a social-media-influencer post, according to a 2017 study commissioned by influencer-marketing platform Olapic. The survey polled about 4,000 active social-media users between the ages of 16 and 61 in the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany.

As with many other things in life, it pays to do one's homework when creating an influencer campaign, experts say. It is important, too, to work with influencers who reflect the demographics of the target market, they say, and to consider not only the total number of followers, but also their engagement rates. "You want to consider how people are engaging with influencers: through likes, comments, shares and views, for instance," said Jones. "That helps you determine who has fake or embellished follower counts. It's a factor we consider."

Sarah Grap, director of public relations at Mall of America, notes the importance not only of teaming up with influencers that reflect your brand, but also of working with them to develop content ideas that align with their interests and individual style. Not surprisingly, consumers tend to be more receptive to influencer content that seems authentic, observers say. "We get to know each influencer we are working with on behalf of Mall of America," said Grap. "When I work with a journalist, I want to go out for coffee with them and find out what makes them tick, what they are passionate about. With influencers, we do the same thing."

Mall of America has several social-media platforms, including an Instagram account called MOA Style, which features fashion-related content developed almost entirely by influencers. Launched about a year ago, MOA Style focuses exclusively on fashion, trends and the mall's 520 retailers. Mall of America's other social-media accounts have a broader array of content. "We noticed that, through our other accounts, we weren't able to give as much love to a major part of what Mall of America is: our retailers," said Grap in explaining the thinking behind MOA Style.

Initially, the content on MOA Style consisted largely of photos of models wearing clothing sold at the mall. But Grap and her team noticed that influencer-generated content tended to get more views and higher engagement, so they changed their approach. "The influencer photo always performed better and looked more natural and authentic," Grap said. "You could tell that our audience wanted to be able to see themselves on the platform." Click here for the online feature. In addition, the feature will be included in the April print issue of Shopping Centers Today. By Brannon Boswell, Executive Editor/SCT