A struggling Los Angeles comedian, his PR-savvy brother and a UNLV computer-science whiz make an unlikely business trio. But that happens to be the team behind Influential, a startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to connect social media personalities with brands interested in promoting their goods online.
The practice is known as influencer marketing.
And Influential, which has already raised $14 million from investors and employs a team of 34 in Las Vegas since opening shop in 2014, is quickly becoming an industry leader in the digital advertising trend.
“I was a wannabe comedian and wasn’t very funny onstage, but I was very funny on Twitter,” says Ryan Detert, founder and CEO of Influential. After moving to Los Angeles in 2007 to work at his brother Chris’ public relations firm while perfecting his comedy, Ryan started accounts on Twitter, parodying everyone from President Obama to Santa Claus, and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. He realized that brands were willing to pay him to post sponsored content to his social media feeds, but with the accounts he had, he couldn’t promote much more than Christmas trees.
“I ran a few campaigns without technology, and I saw the amount of money we could potentially make. But I also saw the amount of headache it was causing.”–Ryan Detert, Influential CEO
So, he started acquiring more marketable Twitter and Instagram handles such as @automotive and @travel. With a lineup of accounts, Ryan says, he grew his followers to 30 million. When approaching brands for advertising partnerships (for example, reaching out to Marriott to sponsor posts for @travel), Ryan realized these companies were also interested in reaching other influencers’ social media accounts, but there was no organized way to do so.
“In 2013, I ran a few campaigns without technology, and I saw the amount of money we could potentially make. But I also saw the amount of headache it was causing,” Ryan says. He was coordinating campaigns primarily through text messaging, telling the influencers what to post. To simplify the process, Ryan contracted Piotr Tomasik, a UNLV grad and locally-based software engineer, to create the first Influential app in 2014. Ryan told Tomasik, “I wish I could just push ‘Notify [influencers]’ with a cash register sound—‘Kaching!’—and they would respond back to me.”
Tomasik answered the call. That same year, Chris joined to oversee marketing.
Today the Influential app still rings out “Kaching!” when there’s a new influencer campaign, but the technology is more complex. Influential is now able to identify influencers who not only fit a certain demographic and personality but also have not spoken negatively of the brand in the past. The company does this with the help of its developer partner, known as IBM Watson.
“Are you familiar when Watson won Jeopardy!?” asks Tomasik, now Influential’s chief technology officer. “It’s not that,” but the idea is similar. Watson is a collection of computer programs that process human language and understands, reasons and learns from a wide range of data. For Influential, Watson starts by analyzing every piece of content a person has ever posted to social media to find the best influencer for a brand based on personality, demographics and context. As campaigns run, Watson’s AI continues to learn who makes an ideal influencer for a brand by incorporating feedback on results. Influencers are not the Kardashians of the world, who actually have low engagement, according to Ryan, but folks such as Chloe Lukasiak (@chloelukasiak), who was one of the dancers on the reality show Dance Moms.
The results have led the founding trio to exciting places, from Mike Tyson’s old mansion (their first Vegas office) to this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where Ryan and Chris met with potential clients. One of their most successful campaigns was for Kia. Ryan notes, “We were seeing posts from our influencers that were tagged ‘#ad’ outperform organic content [that was not paid for] by a considerable factor. It was the equivalent of consumers watching TV and fast-forwarding to commercials.”
And, as more companies look to influencer marketing as an advertising strategy, Influential plans to make its technology available for smaller companies. “We are always hiring more developers. If you have a background in tech and development, we are trying to bring on more people in Vegas and get paid,” Ryan says. Kaching!
Learn more about influencer campaigns and the guys at influential.co.