Robert Kozinets: Influencer 101

Sep 11, 2019

Our interview of Robert Kozinets for “The Creative Influencer” podcast is available for download on iTunes, Spotify, and premier platforms everywhere. Robert is the Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair in Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication at USC Annenberg and teaches a class about influencer marketing. Rob has studied the topic since the early days of the internet and is currently writing the first ever college textbook on influencer relations. But don’t let the fact that Rob is a professor put you off; this is not a lecture.

Part one of a special two-part interview.

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A transcript of the episode follows:

Jon Pfeiffer:  I am joined today by professor Robert Kozinets. Welcome.

Robert Kozinets:  Thank you very much, Jon.

Jon Pfeiffer:  You are a professor at USC-

Robert Kozinets:  Yes.

Jon Pfeiffer:  ... and we're sitting in your office at the Annenberg School.

Robert Kozinets:  Yes sir.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I want to get a little bit of your background first-

Robert Kozinets:  Sure.

Jon Pfeiffer:  ... just to put it in context. You are from where originally?

Robert Kozinets:  I'm originally from Toronto, Canada.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So how did you feel about the Raptors?

Robert Kozinets:  Very excited this year. This is a very good year to be from Toronto. I was in Toronto right after the win. I was actually in New York city when they won, which was a bummer, because I remember when the Raptors originally came to Toronto and I'd been a fan on and off and enjoyed the team, but it was a heck of a run. And I watched it in my hotel room and was jumping up and down. It was a lot of fun.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Where did you do your undergrad work?

Robert Kozinets:  In Toronto, at York University.

Jon Pfeiffer:  What did you study?

Robert Kozinets:  I was a business guy all the way through, Jon. I did an undergrad in business, I did an MBA, and then I went back and did a PhD at a university called Queens-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Queens.

Robert Kozinets:  ... University. Yeah, which is right between Montreal and Toronto.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And was that business as well?

Robert Kozinets:  It was a business degree, it was a marketing degree. Yeah. But they made us take two. So I actually did marketing and organizational behavior. Work behavior was an interesting one because that really got me into the anthropology and the cultural stuff that really sort of colored my work-

Jon Pfeiffer:  And that kind of segues into yes, the... In 1995, you invented Netnography?

Robert Kozinets:  Yes, sir. Yeah.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Now, my one sentence description of it is, it's the application of cultural anthropology to digital networks. What does that mean?

Robert Kozinets:  Well, there's something called ethnography that anthropologists use, which basically means participant observation. So, you can look at what happens online as a collection of content or data, and you could download that and analyze that. That's usually the approach that's taken to social media to the conversations that happen online. The anthropological approach is actually quite different, it's to look at this as a cultural conversation, to look at this as an element of our lived experience.

Robert Kozinets:  And what that means is we're looking for things like rituals and identities and hierarchies and the exercise of power. So to look at what happens in social media as a cultural phenomenon rather than just a collection of data, which can be coated or automated, or you can do word counts and these sorts of things-

Jon Pfeiffer:  And this was 1995, so you're just right on the very edge of the internet.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. I've been riding this wave for a while, and it's been a wild one! So when I started doing this, I think there were somewhere on the order of 30 million people, total, on the internet, and now we have... I think it's approaching 5 billion. So-

Jon Pfeiffer:  I still remember the dial up modems in 1995.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, sure. Yeah. Well, I'm in-

Jon Pfeiffer:  It was painful.

Robert Kozinets:  You probably remember Prodigy and CompuServe. I was on CompuServe in 1987 when I was a teenager. I just finished writing the third edition of my new textbook about Netnography, and it has basically about three chapters of a history of social media. If you look, I was so unhappy with the histories of social media that were out there because if you look at them, most of them start with Facebook and Twitter, maybe blogs. So social media started around 2003, maybe 2001, something like this. For me, social media had been going on as long as we had-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Chat rooms.

Robert Kozinets:  Right. Exactly. So I go back 50 years in these chapters and talk about the ARPANET, because the ARPANET was social media too. Prodigy, CompuServe, Minitel in France, they had... Europol had their thing. So this has gone on a long time. And I know we're going to talk about Influencers, but this is not a new phenomenon. And I think that's kind of the perspective that I've taken-

Jon Pfeiffer:  It's just new to a lot of people.

Robert Kozinets:  It's new to a lot of people. But if you've been studying it or you've been involved in it, this shouldn't seem that new. And a lot of the same principles are the same.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And you said you just updated the third edition on that textbook, you're working on another textbook.

Robert Kozinets:  I'm working on one on Influencers, yeah, influencer relations. Yeah.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And to my knowledge, it will be the first textbook on the subject.

Robert Kozinets:  I think so. Yeah. Yeah.

Jon Pfeiffer:  You've written extensively; over 150 articles, chapters, case studies, research poems. I saw that put in the string. What's a research poem?

Robert Kozinets:  So I will do interviews or download data from actual people and then try and capture some of the spirit of what went on. And you can do that in text. I do it a lot in text, in prose. But sometimes you want to get the emotionality or the rhythm, and I express that in poems.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Poems.

Robert Kozinets:  So one of the first things I did in that way was I had done an ethnography, like an anthropological look at Burning Man, and I wrote a poem about my experience at Burning Man and set that to some video that I had shot-

Jon Pfeiffer:  How many times have you gone?

Robert Kozinets:  Four.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Four?

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. And you?

Jon Pfeiffer:  I have not been.

Robert Kozinets:  No? Oh!

Jon Pfeiffer:  I've had close friends go. It's like, I don't know. I don't know.

Robert Kozinets:  Go, go!

Jon Pfeiffer:  You also wrote recently about big tobacco's use of influencers.

Robert Kozinets:  Yes. That was a big project.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Basically, there are rules in place about big tobacco advertising to children, but by doing this, they are, in many ways, skirting the issue.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah, that's right. What we looked at in particular was how this happens in countries that are not the United States. So British American Tobacco and Altria, Philip Morris, they do things in other countries that they don't necessarily do here. Like for instance, we found pretty much positive proof, even to the point of having a contract, that they are paying influencers in Italy to have them posed with packages of cigarettes. So this is also going on for sure with the vaping JUUL-type products. We were just looking at combustible cigarettes, but we found..

Robert Kozinets:  We did 10 different countries. I was working with researchers in all of these different regions who spoke the language and who could download the social media and look for it, and we found a lot of different kinds of activities, but all of them basically using influencer or influencer-like marketing in order to promote tobacco.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Have there been studies on--and I'll pick Instagram--on what percentage of people in the United States are looking at accounts outside the United States?

Robert Kozinets:  That's a very good question, and I don't know the answer to it. I don't know if there are studies that have done that. I haven't seen them.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I'm sure Instagram has the statistic.

Robert Kozinets:  They probably do.

Jon Pfeiffer:  They probably won't release it, but they probably have it.

Robert Kozinets:  They probably do, you've gotta think. The internet has always been about language, it's not about geography. So if you're going on Instagram and you're following people, you might follow someone with a British accent. They might have been living in New York since they were six years old, but they still have the accent. Or they could be in London, or they could be... have an Australian accent and be in Australia, or they could be like me and be almost invisible as a Canadian but live in another country outside the US.

Robert Kozinets:  So those boundaries are really ones that are linguistic. I've been writing about Brazilian social media, and Brazilian social media includes a lot of people from Portugal, it includes people from countries like Mozambique in Africa that are Portuguese speaking. And so they all... it doesn't really... The geography tends to dissolve; it's really about language and culture.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And then you also teach a class at USC about Influencers.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Yeah. That's a new class.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I can't not ask you--your take on Olivia Jade. And just for the listeners who aren't aware, she's the influencer who got caught up in the Varsity Blues scandal. Her parents are alleged to have bought her way in. But she was an influencer.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. I think the whole thing is really a shame. I think it's a stain on everybody who was involved in it, but I also think that she was and still is very good at what she does. And I don't think it takes anything away from who she is as a celebrity, as a personality. Unfortunately it's one of these events that's really too bad-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Going to follow her for a while.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah, yeah. It really is.

Jon Pfeiffer:  She did have the best looking dorm room I think I've ever seen.

Robert Kozinets:  RIght! Certainly does not look like my kid's dorm room. No.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Do your kids go to USC?

Robert Kozinets:  I have two sons who are students here. Yeah.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And I'll circle back around about your view of their social media use in a little bit.

Robert Kozinets:  Okay. Well, that's interesting. I have three children altogether. My daughter is a senior in high school now, and the three of them are very different in their social media use.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I would think. We'll come back to it. How do you consume content? When you're not researching, how do you consume content?

Robert Kozinets:  Good questions you're asking, Jon. How do I consume content? Voraciously, I would say. I read a lot on my phone, and I'm constantly... When I'm writing, which is pretty often, I am constantly reading too, pulling down articles, people are sending me stuff. I use Google Scholar a lot, but I'm also... I subscribe to a lot of major media; The Times, The Post, ProPublica-

Jon Pfeiffer:  I know I'm going to go down a rabbit hole here, but I'm going to go down it.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Let's go.

Jon Pfeiffer:  What's your process when you're writing? Are you analog, do you do it on the computer, do you do it in Word, you do it in Scrivener? What do you use?

Robert Kozinets:  I love Scrivener for larger stuff. I do use Scrivener, and I think it's a great product. But I write on the computer. I cut and paste and change all the time, but then when I think, I scribble notes in notebooks. I have notebooks all around my home and my office as well. You can see...

Jon Pfeiffer:  You caught me looking around!

Robert Kozinets:  There's a lot I still... I'm very relying on paper. And I'm a bit of a visual thinker, so I'm always sketching out diagrams and ideas and trying to see how they connect. So I would say I'm very multimodal, very, very multimedia in the way that I digest content and the way that I write.

Jon Pfeiffer:  How much time, and now I'm talking for pleasure as opposed to research, do you spend on YouTube?

Robert Kozinets:  For pleasure as opposed to research? I'm not sure that I can divide those two down because I really enjoy my job, and I really-

Jon Pfeiffer:  So how much time do you spend on YouTube a week?

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. On YouTube a week? Maybe two or three hours.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Instagram.

Robert Kozinets:  An hour a week.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Twitter.

Robert Kozinets:  Too much, probably. Yeah. I don't know, probably four or five hours a week.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And that is your platform of choice, Twitter?

Robert Kozinets:  Currently.

Jon Pfeiffer:  For your personal use at least?

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah, for my personal use, yes.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And why Twitter?

Robert Kozinets:  I had a blog for about 10 years, and it's like having a baby; you have to keep feeding that thing, and it was just so time consuming. But I love the idea of getting raw ideas out there. And as a professor, I'm writing stuff usually, for very small audiences using very sort of, erudite terminology, let's say, that is not all that accessible. And I really like having a forum where I could translate ideas that I thought were important and share my thinking on things that I thought mattered, things like big data and artificial intelligence and things that affect us all, but in a way that was not scholarly and more informed by a scholarly thinking, but more accessible.

Jon Pfeiffer:  More immediate.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Exactly, sort of translated. I think that's the key, is to take complicated ideas and to be able to translate them into terms that regular people can understand. And so Twitter was one way to do that. The word limit, I don't love, but it forces me to be precise.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I actually am on the other side of that. I love the word limit.

Robert Kozinets:  I think it's a good thing, but it's also... it's a challenge. It's definitely a challenge. To get my ideas into little boxes is not so easy.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So as a researcher now, how do you keep up with the changes in the platforms? Is it just purely from your use, or do you go to a source?

Robert Kozinets:  That's where teaching comes in so handy, because I don't have to tell you, the students are always on the cutting edge of things. Having taught for over 20 years really means that I stay on top. Things like Snapchat, I have to say, and now TikTok, my kids... having children is also... So that front guard of having young people who are really involved really, really helps. When my kids grow up, I'm going to have to hurry them into having grandkids so I can stay ahead.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And for me, it's my clients. We just did a TikTok deal. So as part of figuring it out, you actually have to play with it.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. It's a very interesting medium too. In a lot of ways, not so different from some of the things that we've seen, like Vine for instance.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Well, when Vine was still in existence, I got a call from a mother saying this fellow by the name of Morris wanted to call and represent us. And it was the William Morris Agency.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, right! [Laughter] A guy named Morris.

Jon Pfeiffer:  A guy named Morris. And it's like, okay.

Robert Kozinets:  Heard of him.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So now let's take a deep dive in your class. You were kind enough to send me the syllabus before we started.

Robert Kozinets:  Sure.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And I started to kind of divide it up in my own way and I realized, no, you know, I think you've already really done a really nice job of segmenting out the different elements, especially towards the end when we start talking about social media in other countries. I found that fascinating.

Robert Kozinets:  Thank you.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So I want to ask you about that. Okay. So here's our cliff notes version.

Robert Kozinets:  All right.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Okay. Class one, you walk in, one of the questions you have is, what does it mean to be an influencer? So now having taught it, what do you think it means to be an influencer?

Robert Kozinets:  I think it means that you command a particular audience on a media platform, and that you understand that audience and that you're somewhat strategic in the way that you use it. I think it's really tough to decide whether that has to involve financial compensation or not. I'm still a little on the fence about it. But these things are really... they're still very much evolving. And I think the term influencer, as I don't have to tell you, is a very contested one. It's pretty controversial and a lot of influencers don't like the term.

Robert Kozinets:  A number of the influencers that I brought into the class, because they are professionals and they're dealing with contracts and offers all the time, they don't mind it; they've come to terms with it. But a lot of people feel like it's a little bit dirty when you get the commercialization into it, unless-

Jon Pfeiffer:  They get over that pretty quickly.

Robert Kozinets:  Well, this is from a lawyer. Right? But the ones who don't, you don't see, probably. Right? But there are some who... Like for instance, I've never taken... I had a blog for 10 years, and I never took any advertising just because I didn't want to have that out there in the... And I didn't need it. I felt like I'm getting paid by a university, there's public money involved, and my job is to communicate what I've learned to the public, so I'm not going to try and make extra money.

Jon Pfeiffer:  We made the same decision with the podcast, that I didn't want to monetize it because I didn't want that to be where a guest would not want to be on because it was monetized, or they might want to be... I just didn't want to have that issue.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. So going back to your question, I think the idea of an influencer is someone who's strategic about managing their content creation on some sort of a platform.

Jon Pfeiffer:  You also had the term of "micro celebrity," which I had not heard before, which I think is very accurate.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, really? Yeah. Kim Kardashian's an influencer, but she's also a celebrity, right? Will Smith is a celebrity and he's also an influencer. But there are people out there who have gained a certain level of celebrity, but only among particular audiences or in particular platforms, it doesn't necessarily translate, as far as we know, to other media. And so this wasn't a term that was mine. This was... I believe her name is Seft who came up with this idea of a micro celebrity.

Robert Kozinets:  And I think these micro, nano, we got a lot of these prefixes now, because I think what's happened is, there's a whole menagerie of different kinds of influencers and different kinds of influence out there. And we're still at the stage of... We're botanizing what the different things that are similar and the species are and we're trying to understand that. So every year... I'm sure when I teach again in January, there'll be new terms and new principles that start to come out, and that's what makes this field so interesting and exciting.

Jon Pfeiffer:  What do influencers do? That's like asking why is the sky blue? It's very broad, but from your view, and from what your students say, is it that they entertain?

Robert Kozinets:  Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Sometimes.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And you have a whole class on PR and marketing. How much of it can you even divide out?

Robert Kozinets:  I think they do what human beings do, which is we express, we connect, we communicate, we vent, we make people laugh, we amuse. And there are as many different kinds of influencers, I suppose, as there are people out there. And so I think what influencers do that is unique to them is they create content around that. They don't just sit home and pound the wall. If they're upset, they pull out a camera and they start talking. That can have good effects and it can have negative effects as we all know.

Robert Kozinets:  But other people are out there and they're... Some people are listening. And I think once you start to get strategic about building that, then you become... this starts to become something that's more managed and more like a business.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Right. And there are those who actually try to reverse engineer the algorithm on YouTube, some successfully and some not successfully.

Robert Kozinets:  Even if you're going to reverse engineer it, you still need to know what to do with that-

Jon Pfeiffer:  With the content, right.

Robert Kozinets:  ... information. There are different definitions of success. Success for some people can be large audiences and a lot of money. For others, it can be having a thousand people who really understand and care about what I do; that could be a terrific incursion into other people's lives.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Now you've taught... you said 20 years?

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Total.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Do you consider yourself to be an influencer?

Robert Kozinets:  I like to think I'm somewhat strategic, but probably no. If my kids are listening to this podcast, no, dad does not claim to be an influencer.

Jon Pfeiffer:  It's like being a little league coach for your kid.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. I'm very much at the little league level of-

Jon Pfeiffer:  No, I meant that it takes a third party.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So for your students, I guess it's that you are an influencer.

Robert Kozinets:  Hmm. Well, if I tried to pass myself off as an influencer in my influencer class, probably not. When I'm talking about something like Netnography, for example, I am an influencer because people know that that's an area that I know; marketing, marketing research. Yeah. But in the area of... In this area, I feel like I'm very much a novice and still very much a beginner's mind.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Okay. So now, we've just finished our introductory class. We're a week down the road.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, wow. We're doing it week by week.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Yeah, we're doing it week by week, because there's some... there's really some great questions that are raised by each of the little subject matters.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, great. I'm glad to hear.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Okay. So the ecosystem, the influencer ecosystem is class two. Ranking them order, how would you rank the major platforms?

Robert Kozinets:  Well, I think Instagram is King, still, followed very closely by YouTube, and then everybody else. They're all vying, and they all offer different things, but really Instagram seems to have this position of dominance.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Everybody's using it.

Robert Kozinets:  Look, I'm a marketing person, and now I teach in a PR school as well as the business school in marketing. And for those purposes, brands have flocked to Instagram. YouTube as well. And there's different purposes that they use things like Facebook and Snapchat for and these other media-

Jon Pfeiffer:  But Facebook was the giant that suddenly is like 'Nah.'

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. It's not a place where people necessarily go for that kind of commercial content. And I think it's something about the kind of social network that people build. They don't want to be sold to, they want to communicate with their friends and maybe share news and things like that. That's where Facebook really is strong. Facebook serves advertising as advertising a lot of the time, Instagram serves advertising as something else. Right?

Jon Pfeiffer:  Beautiful people doing fun things.

Robert Kozinets:  Right, right. And fitting in interesting products into lifestyles and, 'Oh, I want to know more about that.' Whereas Facebook, it's an ad. It's not that different from a billboard.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And YouTube, the whole unboxing videos, fascinating.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh yeah.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Because it's like it's five minutes of ad.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, it's great.

Jon Pfeiffer:  But watch it over and over and over.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Well, I've done quite a bit of work with a cosmetics and health and beauty companies. And all of these makeup videos where people are putting on... Jeffree Star, a lot of people follow a guy to find out how to put on makeup properly. And it's not stuff you would've guessed would happen 10 years ago, but that's what makes it so wonderful, and I think so cultural and rich, right, is that it's very unexpected what emerges and it reveals a lot about us and who we are as a culture right now.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Have you found that there's different influence depending on the platform?

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. I think the style that people take when they're influencing is very different based on the platform. The visual platforms like Instagram and Snap are very different. And then if you even just look at the two, what a Snap filter does versus what Instagram does with its sort of production values and everything else, I think they're quite different. I think Marshall McLuhan had it right; the medium does have its own communication, its own message.

Robert Kozinets:  So when you post something on Instagram versus posting it on YouTube or on Facebook or on Twitter... Some people will post the same thing everywhere. And I think the influencers that we had in the class and the people who work with influencers, they all had the same message, which was, don't do that. You should always tailor-make your-

Jon Pfeiffer:  To the medium.

Robert Kozinets:  ... message to the medium. Yeah. It needs to fit, because the audiences go there for different reasons. Even though they might go to all of them, they're going there for different reasons, and they each communicate something different and differently. And you have to know how to... Each one also is a language. If we think about each one as a language, learning how to use a hashtag on Instagram is different from using a hashtag on Twitter, for instance.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Right. Or the arranging of the photos on Instagram so they look visually pleasing when you're looking at several photos from each day's post. I hadn't even thought about it until my client was talking about how many hours-

Robert Kozinets:  That's amazing.

Jon Pfeiffer:  ... she spends just deciding what photos should be juxtaposed with other photos.

Robert Kozinets:  And the order and how it's going to look. There's a lot of art to it, and there's a lot of science.

Jon Pfeiffer:  In the syllabus, you raised five questions on how will the internet of things change influencers, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Robert Kozinets:  Oh boy. How much time do we got in the interview?

Jon Pfeiffer:  Especially the virtual reality is kind of my pet issue, so I'm going to start with that. Where do you think virtual reality... how will it change influencers, how will it change social media?

Robert Kozinets:  I'm writing about an article right now and I'm talking about... I open it up with a Lil Miquela who, as we know, is the product of a somewhat mysterious Los Angeles based agency, and she is a virtual influencer who has a... I believe it's a Latina identity. She has a political identity, she has a series of narratives. She interviews people, both real and also virtual like her, and has, I believe, over a million and a half followers now on Instagram and is one of the most highly paid influencers. And also, was just... I love this part. She was just recently rated one of the 25 most influential people on the internet.

Jon Pfeiffer:  People.

Robert Kozinets:  People. And she's not even a person. So The Gorillaz also. I don't know if you know this band, it's-

Jon Pfeiffer:  No.

Robert Kozinets:  ... an animated band. They'd been going for many years, and they give... They're chart toppers, they're a major musical force, and they give concerts that are 3D hologram concerts where they interact. There must be like puppeteers there. They interact with the audience. We as a species, human beings I mean, are becoming much more fluid and comfortable with interacting with non-human agents and agencies.

Robert Kozinets:  And as these things combine, AI and virtual reality, for example, it will become, and it already is in video games, environments where we are used to having social relationships with nonhuman actors. And I think what's so interesting and also a bit frightening about this is that if you have a powerful nonhuman influencer, like Lil Miquela, for instance, they're completely under corporate control, they don't really get to say no to the deals!

Jon Pfeiffer:  There's no freedom of speech.

Robert Kozinets:  Right. There is no freedom of speech. They'll say what you want. And I think as we get used to it, we... Number one, are we replacing human relationships with nonhuman virtual creations? Is that necessarily a bad thing? And what consequences does that have for us as a society, particularly given that they may be under corporate or government control? There are big issues here, as we start to place our trust in things that are not necessarily human but appear human or human-like. And I'm just opening the door here-

Jon Pfeiffer:  No, it is-

Robert Kozinets:  ... we can go on.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Yeah. Where do you see VR in three years?

Robert Kozinets:  In three years, I think it will be more present in the gaming world, probably more present in the wider entertainment world, but I don't think it'll be-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Everywhere.

Robert Kozinets:  No, it's not going to be something that someone's riding on the subway with VR goggles. I just think it's a little... the technology's just too intrusive. But for home use and for entertainment use, it might start... Let's talk about 3D television for a moment, right? How many people still use their 3D TVs that they bought-

Jon Pfeiffer:  I am so glad that went away!

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah, right! But I still put it in the realm of that. I was around probably as you were in the late 1990s when virtual reality, Jaron Lanoue and all these people were really saying that this was going to be right around the corner. And so to me, it's more sophisticated now. It's certainly better, but it's still like-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Like they were always saying streaming media would be around the corner, and look how long that took.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. It took a long time. It took a long time. I think VR has got a lot of really interesting applications to the entertainment world, but it's more of a... It's a sit back and occasion--It's occasion based. Yeah. In a theater, in a particular place, in a gaming environment. But will it replace our regular sort of surfing and watching television? I don't think in three years... That was your question.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Yes, three years.

Robert Kozinets:  In three years, I don't think it'll be there.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So then we jump to class three.

Robert Kozinets:  Okay.

Jon Pfeiffer:  It's looking at influencers from a PR perspective. I see it on the marketing side all the time. Do you draw a distinction between the PR and the marketing because really, you're really just changing public... It's public relations and marketing--it's kind of two sides of the same coin.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah, I think people do see it that way a lot, but public relations people see marketing as a subdiscipline of PR and marketing people clearly see PR as a sub discipline of marketing! But the truth is that a lot of PR professionals report to CMOs and marketing types. I think what happened in the real world of operations was public relations was quicker-moving when it came to social media and managing accounts like Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts and Instagram accounts, and they got the tactical side of that operation and marketing came in much later and started to try and figure out, how does all this fit together in a strategic way with all the other things that we're doing with television and with print and everything else?

Robert Kozinets:  And I think that's been what's happened in the last seven or eight years in the world of influencers. The money started to really pour in when marketers started to realize that this was strategic. So back to your question, what's the role of PR? PR is-

Jon Pfeiffer:  And thank you, you're the most focused, on top of the case... [Laughter]

Robert Kozinets:  Well, I think PR is very... it's very tactical and it's very broad. And so marketing is often looking for ROI, whereas public relations-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Which is return on investment.

Robert Kozinets:  ... return on investment. So they're looking for, "If I invested this much in that, how much am I going to get back?" Whereas public relations is very focused on this relations part of it; how do we build longer term relationships? So marketing has talked a lot about relationship marketing and it's still very important area there, but public relations, the professionals and people who work in that world seem to really... They live that.

Robert Kozinets:  And so for that class, I had some speakers come in who spoke about some of the nonprofit uses of public relations. Amy Tenderich came in and she started a site for people who have diabetes, the kind that is sudden onset; I think it's... Is that type 1 or type 2? Now you're going to have to edit this part out, because this is where-

Jon Pfeiffer:  This is where we get into science. That's where you see your healthcare provider.

Robert Kozinets:  Yeah. Yeah. What she did was she started this site because she had diabetes and wanted to play an advocacy role, started a blog that became so influential it got a mass audience and started to influence and speak back to the manufacturers of equipment. So it's a very tough disorder to have because you're really at the mercy of medical companies for things like insulin, which is extremely difficult and expensive and essential to you living.

Robert Kozinets:  So now these communities... and they recently... She and her husband, who's one of my colleagues here, he's a professor in the PR department too, wrote an article about how people online are collecting together and basically hacking existing equipment to build an artificial pancreas because the FDA won't allow certain kinds of equipment to be experimentally released. But they're figuring out how to get around those rules and do it-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Themselves.

Robert Kozinets:  ... themselves. And it's really interesting. So they're providing all kinds of support using these communities. I'm not expressing it as well, but the reason why I'm mentioning this is that there are a lot of uses of the power of influencers that don't necessarily have to be cashed out. They can be-

Jon Pfeiffer:  To get messages messages accross

Robert Kozinets:  Right. In the public interest, for healthcare, for simple empathy and understanding. And that's where, I think, the power of the relationship in public relations really starts to come in. So the PR practitioners had a different sort of angle. They're talking about the same thing than the marketing people in my class. They really introduce how you build a long term strategy through longterm relationships. This was not about hiring someone to do your advertising, this was about getting to know a particular person who's creating content, and their audience and their relationship with their audience and understanding how you can build on that in a way that's not so intrusive, that is not so commercial.

Robert Kozinets:  The marketers are still at the stage where, I think, they see this as a lot like a media buy, and they're looking to purchase a certain audience, with a certain demographic for a certain price.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Which is the perfect transition to the next class, which is the marketing.

Robert Kozinets:  Right. Right.

Jon Pfeiffer:  And how close is it to a media buy? Hiring an influencer, isn't it like a media buy?

Robert Kozinets:  It's very much not a media buy. It's not a media buy.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I threw you a soft ball! [Laughter]

Robert Kozinets:  Oh, yeah. That was a good one. It's a very different thing. If you want someone who's going to read your message the way you wrote it and get it right, then just go straight to advertising, because that's what advertising is. These are unique creative individuals who have their own view of the world and their own view of your product. And I'm of the mind that a number of influencers can and should, I know many of them do, turn down deals because they don't like the product or they don't like how it fits into their-

Jon Pfeiffer:  Their life.

Robert Kozinets:  ... life. So I think influencers are managing their own brand first. They see, they put, they have to--good ones have to put their own brand, the brand-

Jon Pfeiffer:  We qualified it, the good ones.

Robert Kozinets:  Right. The good ones put their own brand first. And that's what makes them good ones, I think. It's one of the strong things; they have that integrity and they have that sense of honoring their audience. And their audiences, they respect their audience. And I think when they stop respecting their audience, and we've seen this a number of times, I'm not going to name people, their audience stops following them and stops watching them and moves on to someone who does.

Robert Kozinets:  And so again, this is not about reading your message or doing a media buy, this is something different. This is something new that we're still figuring it out. And I think as marketers, they want to push a message, they want to control things, and they use people like you and contracts to write in a lot of these specific elements. The art of the game, I think, from where you sit is to try and make sure that someone can get the value that they're putting, because a lot of the times they're spending good money on this, but that they still maintain the integrity of the process without necessarily interfereing there.

Jon Pfeiffer:  It's so interesting because I'm on both sides of the fence. I represent a lot of influencers-

Robert Kozinets:  Great.

Jon Pfeiffer:  ... and I represent a PR firm who hires a lot of influencers. It's a very different approach to each transaction. Because as the hirer, you want to make sure your message is out there. The point you were making about the good influencer: representing the influencer, you want to make sure they stay true to themselves. Because frankly, the FTC requires that you give an honest opinion. And if you're not going to give an honest opinion, you're just setting yourself up for failure.

Robert Kozinets:  And yet it's so tempting.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Oh yes.

Robert Kozinets:  100,000 for one post. I may not love this product, but I'll post it.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Yeah. I've been to better hotels, but you know...

Robert Kozinets:  Right, right. Because it is tempting, you know. But I think in the longterm, those decisions catch up with people. So this is as much about managing your own brand as any brand management experience. And the professionals that I brought into class were as good as the best brand managers I'd seen out there for companies like Procter & Gamble and so on at managing their own brand and understanding their own audience.

Robert Kozinets:  And in fact, I would say they're better, a lot of them, in terms of understanding who they were speaking to, their audience and what matters to them than the people who work at Procter & Gamble, who are very isolated a lot of the time from the consumers who are using their product.

Jon Pfeiffer:  Because if they did it themselves, or they did it organically, it took five years, six years, 10 years.

Robert Kozinets:  The ones that I had in class, they're still scrolling through the comments and replying to a number of them every day. So a number of them spend hours reading through the feedback that they're getting and meeting with people. And so they've got a real sense of the human beings who are on the other side of that content.

Jon Pfeiffer:  So one of the topics you cover is word of mouth. And my first comment was, word of mouth, who wouldn't... But then I was a business major. Would know what word of mouth is?

Robert Kozinets:  It's an old term.

Jon Pfeiffer:  It's an old term. But how much does word of mouth marketing play into the influencer social media context?

Robert Kozinets:  I think they're the same thing. When I started teaching a course on social media marketing... 2007, I was one of the first ones I know of anywhere. I called it word of mouth marketing, because that's what people were calling it. When I was researching it in 2006, 2007, before we had the term social media, was calling it word of mouth marketing. So word of mouth goes back to, I think, the 1950s. And Everett Rogers, who was actually a professor here at USC right here at Annenberg.

Robert Kozinets:  And Everett Rogers basically looked at how new forms of seeds for farmers spread and were adopted or not adopted. So it was one of the first original new product adoption things. And what he found was a lot of this had to do with people recommending to each other. So if an influential farmer in the neighborhood in Iowa was using this new kind of seed, a lot of people would start to adopt it.

Jon Pfeiffer:  I grew up on a farm. My dad sold seed corn in the winter-

Robert Kozinets:  There you go.

Jon Pfeiffer:  ... and that's exactly what it was.

Robert Kozinets:  Yep. So they knew that there were certain people who had a certain ability to influence other people in the 1950s in that particular market. Now you could have taken refrigerators and housewives, you could have taken office locations and business people. Whatever it was, things aggregated in a way that someone had more power over others. If someone was looked up to, this is just... We're hierarchical primates, basically and so we were always looking at, "Oh, what's the alpha doing?" And then we want to follow that. That's just instinctive behavior.

Robert Kozinets:  So we called this, in marketing, word of mouth, for a long time that, and it sort of happened organically. Then marketers, once they became conscious of this, then they started celebrity endorsements and things like this, all forms of trying to get something in between organic and prompted word of mouth. But social media exploded this, because people were all sort of engaging in different kinds of word of mouth behavior.

Robert Kozinets:  And then around 2000-ish with blogs and the rising up of certain bloggers, people realized, "Ah, this is an organic place where word of mouth is sort of rising to the top." Influential doctors have blogs, influential veterinarians have blogs, influential moms have blogs and so on.

Jon Pfeiffer:  The so-called mommy blog.

Robert Kozinets:  Right. The good old mommy blog, which is still going and still a big source of income for a lot of people. And that became the basis of what this business is today.


The Creative Influencer is a weekly podcast where we discuss all things creative with an emphasis on Influencers. It is hosted by Jon Pfeiffer, an entertainment attorney in Santa Monica, California.  Jon interviews influencers, creatives and the professionals who work with them.

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