Episode 8: Brent Robinson
Brent Robinson is a 2004 Walton MBA alumnus and the CEO and Chief Thought Officer of Modthink Marketing, a Fayetteville based full-service digital marketing agency.
00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.
00:28 Matt Waller: Well, I'm here today with Brent Robinson, the CEO and founder of Modthink Marketing. Brent, one thing that's really interesting about your experience is that you got involved so early in this concept of influencer marketing. And I wanna say that today, we're talking about something very innovative that you invented, and it's an offshoot of the concept of influencer marketing, and you call it micro-influencers. And it really is a new invention in the area of influencer marketing, inbound marketing, digital marketing, this area in general.
01:18 Brent Robinson: I'll say yeah, I like invented, we can go with that. I think somebody else actually called it micro-influencer before I did. I don't know, I've heard it before.
01:28 Matt Waller: I haven't.
01:29 Brent Robinson: I invented it for you.
01:30 Matt Waller: In my world, it's invented by you. But we'll accept the fact that there could have been someone else that had that idea.
01:37 Brent Robinson: Maybe.
01:38 Matt Waller: But remember, the idea isn't worth much. What's worth much is being able to implement the idea.
01:44 Brent Robinson: Yeah.
01:45 Matt Waller: And so, maybe other people have thought of it, but you're actually implementing it.
01:49 Brent Robinson: Yes.
01:50 Matt Waller: So let's talk about that for a moment and let's also talk about your background. Would you say the first time you got involved in influencer marketing was when you went to work for Collective Bias?
02:02 Brent Robinson: Oh, absolutely.
02:03 Matt Waller: Tell me a little bit about that.
02:05 Brent Robinson: Okay, so... Gosh! When would that have been? That would have been like 2009, 2010 when they were starting up, and I was fortunate to be a part of that in the very early stages. But that was through influencer marketing. And back then, this was CPG, this was business to consumer, and an influencer was anybody who could blog and tell a good story, and knew how to do the HTML coding to set up their blog to get their social media channels put together, all that. That was an influencer. And the concept for Collective Bias was they had gotten a lot of these mom bloggers together in a collective, if you will, in a group that they were able to connect brands with them with the bloggers and be able to create content that would influence sales. So that's where the influencer side of things started.
03:04 Matt Waller: Yeah. So influencer marketing, of course, it started, really, with blogs, people who were doing the blogging. And now, it's really grown to be well beyond that. Talking earlier, Brent, about the concept of inbound marketing, would you define that term and explain that a little bit?
03:24 Brent Robinson: Okay, so inbound marketing. Now, what everyone our age and older, I guess, that's 25 and older, understand outbound marketing. And that's what marketing was called before... That's the billboard, that's the television advertisement, that's the blast out to the mass market. And with the invention of things like social media now, it's a dialog. And that's pretty much known. Everybody's got that now, but just eight years ago, nobody... You had to explain that to everybody. But inbound is the idea of not having to push content out to somebody, but to create content that's gonna pull them towards you. So if you're able to create value, valuable content that the person you're trying to influence is interested in, when they go through their buyer's journey and they start searching for ways to solve their problem, if you're providing the right content, then you're gonna be pulled inbound to them for them to come and consume your content. So in the general terms, that's what it is.
04:35 Matt Waller: And with social media continuing to grow, the number of people that are using social media continues to grow.
04:43 Brent Robinson: Oh, yeah.
04:44 Matt Waller: And the amount of business that is done through social media continues to grow. So inbound marketing is growing, but there are not a lot of practitioners in inbound marketing or influencer marketing because people still don't really understand it. And that's surprising, given how much... The number of people who are buying product that they find through social media keeps growing.
05:14 Brent Robinson: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
05:15 Matt Waller: It's like at an exponential rate right now.
05:17 Brent Robinson: Absolutely. And there's a lot of statistics now that show on consumer behaviors. Think about it, when's the last time you bought anything that cost more than $1 that you didn't go on your phone, Google about it, look on your Facebook, see if anybody had recommendations about it. Any time there's a significant purchase, that's happening. But again, in B2C, that's been that way for a while. It's in B2B where we're really starting to see that difference, is people are understanding that people wanna buy from people they like, and they're understanding that they can be on social media and find somebody through those channels, read the articles that they're posting or the things that they're sharing and go, "Oh, wait a second, I can trust this person," so that when it comes time to do the purchase, they're more inclined to do it from somebody who's been teaching them or been educating them along the way.
06:13 Matt Waller: And the amount of variety of products that are out there is growing as a result of all this. More and more influencers are actually developing their own products and selling them. It's still a relatively new idea, and they can... If they endorse your product even indirectly, the sales will go up.
06:38 Brent Robinson: It impacts it, yeah. Have a Kardashian talk about your sweater and it's gonna fly off the shelves.
06:46 Matt Waller: So that's a great example of an influencer but you see people using YouTube, podcasts, blogs, even just activity on various social media sites, everything from Pinterest to LinkedIn and Twitter, Instagram...
07:08 Brent Robinson: Instagram, your favorite?
07:10 Matt Waller: And you have come up with an idea, it's a little different, a little bit. Would you mind talking about that?
07:18 Brent Robinson: Okay, so the idea of going back to our micro-influencers in the CPG side of this or in the business to consumer side of it you would engage a third party influencer to present your brand. What we're doing is we're looking at the B2B world. And it doesn't, I mean, you could find somebody who might be able to communicate about your product and talk about it but finding that third party person is gonna be harder, why not just find somebody who's internal to the organization who better to talk about your product or service than your senior level people? So what we're doing is we're developing processes to make it easy for those people to be able to create content, share that content, engage with their audiences on digital channels and influence sales.
08:15 Matt Waller: So when you look at this idea of micro-influencer, if you were to take a group of executives in a company and make them micro or it could just be a group of people within the company, whether they'd be executives, maybe one is an executive, one is not, but some group of people, I think a lot of them might be uncertain about how am I gonna write blogs and do podcasts, and this, it might just scare them off.
08:47 Brent Robinson: Or why?
08:48 Matt Waller: Or why, yeah.
08:48 Brent Robinson: Why am I even doing this?
08:49 Matt Waller: What's the ROI on this?
08:51 Brent Robinson: Yeah, what's the purpose? What's the reason? Well, so the reality is that people search when they're making decisions about purchases, so Google is important, having documents, having content, having links for them to go to is what's gonna help them go through that part of the buyer's journey, there's people to talk about it or these executives or high level managers or just subject matter experts. They're not doing it because they are terrified about, wait a second, you want me to be a content creator? So what we're doing is we're deconstructing what a content creator is, recognizing that there's a brain behind it which is the content originator and then if you put people in place that can do the production, the systems and the people to convert that idea into content, then you have another group that can syndicate it across social media. Back in the day, that would have been the blogger doing all those things together and unless you had that combination of skills together, you weren't gonna be a good blogger. Here, you've got other things to do during the day, but if you're not a writer, and if you're not a video creator then you can take your thoughts, your ideas, your message, but you can have other people create that for you. So, it brings that barrier down.
10:16 Matt Waller: This idea of creating micro-influencers. So these people, a lot of times in a company, you have people that are quite talented, internally they may have accomplished a lot, but many times they might serve on the board of a non-profit organization or on a professional organization or even on a for-profit publicly traded company. All these combinations are possible. But whatever the case may be, they're talented people and they have unique knowledge that gives them authority in some ways but they're not able to leverage that authority because they don't have the tools. And so by using this idea of a micro-influencer, creating micro-influencers, you're allowing them to individually and collectively wield influence that can make the company more successful, would you mind talking more a little about that?
11:23 Brent Robinson: Yeah, we have these conversations all the time. It's these folks have influenced within the groups that they're in but they're not seeing these other tools that help them extend themselves into the digital realm where they do, but they're only doing it in a almost passive sense they're not fully engaged. And so by giving this structure to somebody and helping them extend what they're doing in face-to-face conversations into those digital lens does help bring that full circle so that they're able to impact it on the back end. What's really interesting though is when you can bring multiple influencers together to be able to start sharing content, connecting the messages together and doing campaigns specifically around particular seasons or particular products or whatever the situation is, they can participate in that marketing campaign in a whole new way.
12:33 Matt Waller: Absolutely, and when you think about the fact that most companies aren't really even considering this as an option. Does not even cross their mind.
12:47 Brent Robinson: Not even on their radar.
12:48 Matt Waller: I mean, backing up a second. Many of them aren't even considering using influencers.
12:54 Brent Robinson: Oh yeah, I wouldn't think they're thinking about it at all.
12:57 Matt Waller: Right. And so now we're talking about micro-influencers, so it seems like there's... There's an opportunity to build competitive advantage through marketing whereas I think that if you use just influencers, regular influencers, you might be able to gain a little competitive advantage because of the fact that so many people still don't know about it but it won't be long and all the major companies will be using influencer marketing, most are probably now, I guess, I don't know, but probably almost none of them know about this idea that you've come up with of micro-influencer. And the other thing that's interesting about it is, with the processes that you're developing, you could take a company and get executives or managers involved in being micro-influencers fairly quickly, but as time goes by, they develop a competency in making this process work and that's what can't be replicated immediately. Whereas I can go out tomorrow if I've never used influencers and hire a... If I have enough money, I can hire a great influencer, right?
14:16 Brent Robinson: Sure.
14:17 Matt Waller: But I can't go out tomorrow and say, "I've decided that we're gonna use a micro-influencer strategy." I can, but the more I use it, the better I get at it, there's a learning curve kind of approach to it, and that effect causes a sort of economies of scale if you will.
14:37 Brent Robinson: Definitely.
14:38 Matt Waller: And on top of that, the more micro-influencers you have in your organization the more of the network effects kick in, so it's like it creates economies of scale and economies of scope which are well-known barriers to entry and so whole idea of using marketing to gain, to create a barrier to entry to gain competitive advantages kind of unusual, but it seems like this could be a strategy to do that.
15:06 Brent Robinson: Matt, take it a step further if... When we're doing our research, a real simple way to research it is, what is my consumer? What is my ideal client? What are they searching for when they're trying to make a decision about purchasing this? And if you go and you search for those things and you get the results on your Google, you're gonna see what advertisements are on one, at the top and at the bottom, you're gonna see the organic results. You may see a knowledge panel on the right or something like that, depending on what you're searching for. If you're searching for that, and you don't see any ads or you don't see any knowledge panels and you know that that's what your consumer is doing, is they're searching for these things, you can own that, you can own that real fast by doing just these basic things we're talking about with content, with inbound and with micro-influencers who are creating content, creating interactions on a regular basis. So I think when we say there's a lot of folks that... A lot of businesses that aren't even thinking about this, there are, there's a lot of industries that have not even been touched by marketing much less any of the advanced digital marketing that we're talking about. So the companies that decide to do that and start doing some of these strategies that have these barriers to entry cannot only be ahead of the game, they can be light years ahead of the game.
16:31 Matt Waller: We know the other thing about this that's interesting is it used to be only primarily head outbound marketing, the number of ways you could combine the marketing variables was limited, but now we've got... We do have outbound marketing, we have inbound marketing, we have digital marketing...
16:50 Brent Robinson: Search engine.
16:51 Matt Waller: Search engine optimization.
16:53 Brent Robinson: Paid.
16:53 Matt Waller: Yup.
16:54 Brent Robinson: And the traditional, all the traditional in real life events.
16:58 Matt Waller: Right. So now that there's so many variables in marketing there didn't use to be. Companies can create their unique fingerprint in how they use this. I think based on the internal capabilities of a company the right combination of these variables could give them a competitive advantage 'cause it would match their core competencies and their skills and capabilities that another company may need to use a different combination in some way. And I think companies today really need to be using all the variables, but how they use them together gives them lots of flexibility and the ability to innovate in marketing that didn't, I don't think used to exist quite as much.
17:46 Brent Robinson: Yeah, and the great thing about it too is especially when it comes to the paid side of this, the paid media side of it, if we can have impact with a $100 right now in a day for a campaign in a particular region, and have a significant impact, whereas 10 years ago, if you said, "I'm gonna spend $100." people would be like, "That's a waste." But there's so much data behind what we're doing. If the search engines, the SEO, the data that comes back from analytics, all of those things can help us really focus that energy and pull whichever levers makes sense to do it but you can do it. It's such a, in a micro level that you can get really hyper-targeted with that stuff.
18:32 Matt Waller: It's interesting, again, the other barrier to entry kind of concept here is that although there is... It's true there's a lot of people out there, young people, that really know how to use Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter, or whatever, right? But it doesn't mean they really know how to use it from a marketing perspective. And I think this is something I didn't fully appreciate 'cause I think sometimes companies might hire people because they know how to use these tools, but they don't really know how to use them necessarily from a marketing perspective, it's almost like you've really gotta understand marketing concepts in general, regardless of how you're doing it and then understand the new forms of execution and then when you combine those two you can really... You've just got so much horsepower, it's unbelievable.
19:24 Brent Robinson: Cross-mentoring. Cross-mentoring.
19:25 Matt Waller: Yes.
19:27 Brent Robinson: If you can bring the experienced old guys like you and me and we can bring in the young students, the people just out of college who know have forgotten more about social media than you and I have ever learned, then if we can cross-mentor each other, then you can really do some amazing things.
19:46 Matt Waller: There's a book called, The New Leadership Literacies, written by a guy that started with the Institute for the Future in 1973, so he's a futurist and he says... And I won't go into all the details, we don't have time for it. The leaders of the future need to be masters at media, various types of media, everything from video to audio, to written.
20:19 Brent Robinson: Since 1974.
20:21 Matt Waller: He's been there since 1974 and he's saying this now.
20:26 Brent Robinson: Oh, okay.
20:29 Matt Waller: He wrote a book, like I said, called New Leadership Literacies and Johansen is his last name. And it's because leaders... Think about... And he doesn't go into all this in the book as clearly, but leaders need to be good at visioning, inventing, sense making, sense making in the sense of trying to understand what's going on around them.
20:57 Brent Robinson: Right.
20:58 Matt Waller: And then being able to bring that back home and say, here's what this means and relating. Well, when you're doing all of those things, it's very tempting. When you're an executive, you travel a lot, but with new media, you can almost appear to be ubiquitous if you learn how to leverage it properly. And that appearance of being ubiquitous improves your ability to lead because people want leaders that are present, and so the reason I bring this up, is if you look at your concept of micro-influencers, one hidden benefit of using an approach like that is that the leaders who are involved in that wind up either they may start out doing almost nothing, if you start getting involved in this eventually you start realizing oh, I can do that, I can write a blog, I can write a LinkedIn article, I can make a podcast, I can create a YouTube video, because now there's so much you can do. Like a former student of mine called me one night... He didn't call me, he sent me a email, but he's a logistics executive with a large company, and he said, now, would you make a one-minute video and I want you to talk about these topics. And I was out of town, I was in Dallas in a hotel. I'm like, well, I can take a shot at it.
22:41 Matt Waller: And so I wrote a script, I practiced a little bit, I got my selfie stick [laughter] and I found a painting in the hotel that was really futuristic-looking, and I went down in the lobby and I stood in front of it. I took my selfie stick and I made a video of myself saying this and then I went up to my room and I thought, I don't know how to... I got the video, but how do I put a nice front end on it? I wanted to include the Walton College branding on it, and nice back end and I Googled it, and I found this app and it took me 15 minutes to learn how to use it and I made this really high quality video that was just little over a minute. They had a nice... It comes up and you see the Walton College logo, and it's kinda moving around a little bit and then you start hearing me talking and it fades into me, right? And then it's the same thing on the back end. But I was doing some of that just for fun, but I thought my goodness, you can do everything in your iPhone.
24:00 Brent Robinson: You can.
24:00 Matt Waller: And my niece who lives in Plano, she was seeing some of my pictures I was posting on various things, and she's like, "Uncle Matt, you need to learn about this app and 'cause you can make your pictures look so much better." And so I downloaded and I don't even know anything about photography but it's so self-explanatory and plus you can experiment, you can try something and see what it looks like and you don't have to keep it.
24:29 Brent Robinson: You're cross-mentoring right there...
24:32 Matt Waller: Yeah, yeah, that's cross-mentoring. But there are so many tools, even this podcast, we're using this little machine in front of us, normally 10 years ago, we would have needed a big studio.
24:45 Brent Robinson: A big studio. Yeah.
24:46 Matt Waller: And now we're using a little machine, it looks like a phone almost, an old phone, it's too big for a new phone.
24:54 Matt Waller: It looks like one of those phones I used to have. But nevertheless, you're really able to do... People think there's bigger barriers to overcome in content creation than there actually is in production, and even syndication. I keep finding tools out there for syndication as well. It wouldn't be take long, I've only been involved in social media for a little over a year now but I've discovered it doesn't take long to learn all of this and so, people I think sometimes don't wanna invest in it, but it's a unnecessary fear. You can use a process you've created to make it really easy for somebody who really just doesn't wanna do it, ever. But for someone who, maybe they never wanna do it today. Maybe after a few months they think, "Well I would like to use that because I could use it for this, that, or the other, something else."
25:53 Brent Robinson: Well I think with the work that we've been doing together you've seen where once we get somebody to do a couple of things, we've got all the structure in place for them and if we can just help move them forward, posting an article on LinkedIn, all of a sudden they're like, "I'm getting phone calls. I'm getting connections. I'm getting emails." You know so it doesn't take long at all to see the results that you get from it. So yeah, I think you're right. You are different. I mean you'll try anything and everything. So you're gonna have to show me that app that you've got. I think I might wanna get one too. But people are still gonna be concerned about this. They're gonna have apprehension and those kinds of things, and it doesn't take long for us to show the value that comes along with it.
26:42 Matt Waller: Right. This is what I hypothesize. I hypothesize that it won't be long that, see right now this could be a sufficient condition for winning in the market place. But it won't take long and it will be a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Just like other things in business get that way. So in some ways this is a good time to get in it really while it's still new and there's a land grab still.
27:17 Brent Robinson: Well yeah take that a step further. We're looking at the digital assistants, Google Assistant and Alexa, and it's just coming out that you can start to create the skills and some of those things. So being able to get syndication that way.
27:33 Matt Waller: Oh gosh, I just love how I can say, "Alexa, play Phil Collins" and I get Phil Collins music. "Alexa, play my flash briefing" and I get what I picked as my flash briefings. Most people don't even know what an Alexa skill is and yet...
28:00 Brent Robinson: And it's really highly curated right now, but there's an API and there's tools that you can start too, and if you wanna invest the time and energy into it, you can be on the front end of being able to be a part of that curation and be a part of that advance.
28:15 Matt Waller: My hunch is it's one of the bigger opportunities in the next five years, and I think the sooner people get involved right now, the better. Just in my little, I didn't even know it existed four months ago.
28:31 Brent Robinson: Yeah.
28:31 Matt Waller: I just didn't. I even had a Echo, Amazon Echo and I still didn't know it existed.
28:37 Brent Robinson: Yeah but honestly it hasn't existed that long. There was a very select few pieces of skills that were available to you, but as that technology's evolving more and more of it showing up Google Assistant's trying to catch up to what Alexa is doing and Google's not gonna ignore that.
28:58 Matt Waller: Yeah, Alexa's got a huge market share right now. I think it's like 75%.
29:05 Brent Robinson: Yeah, I'm not sure what it is, but I know it's huge. Of course that's a different conversation with Amazon.
29:09 Matt Waller: It is. It is. Well Brent thank you so much for introducing this new concept of micro-influencer, very interesting.
29:18 Brent Robinson: Glad to be a part of it.
29:22 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe, and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic Podcast, one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now be epic.