Vogue – With Zyper investment, VCs are betting on “influencer fatigue”

July 29, 2019
By Maghan McDowell

With backing from Forerunner Ventures and Y Combinator, Zyper is positioning “super fans” as an alternative to paid influencers.

Vogue Business

Key takeaways:

  • Zyper, a marketing platform that connects brands with top fans instead of traditional influencers, has raised $6.5 million from Talis Capital, Forerunner Ventures and Y Combinator.
  • This marks an endorsement by the investor community in “influencer fatigue” among brands who fear that consumers are losing trust in influencers.
  • Although influencer spending continues to rise, some anticipate that brands will invest more in “grassroots” communities that speak more directly to customers.

Zyper, a marketing platform that purposely eschews professional influencers, has raised $6.5 million in a Series A round led by London’s Talis Capital. It marks one of the first formal investments in a company that aims to capitalise on industry pushback against influencer marketing.

The San Francisco-based company was founded by Amber Atherton, whose star turn on British reality TV show Made in Chelsea revealed the less palatable sides of becoming an influencer. “There were no product placement laws in the UK, and brands were willing to pay me [though] I’d never heard of them,” she says. “They were throwing silly money around. It was eye-opening.”

So she founded Zyper, which aims to connect brands with “super fans” instead of paid influencers. The company identifies the top 1 per cent of a label’s fans by analysing social media posts. Brands can then chat with those fans, who also provide product feedback through Zyper’s app. They can also sign up to be “brand advocates” on social channels in exchange for product and access to events. Partners include Dior, Calvin Klein, Topshop, Banana Republic, Boden and Dollar Shave Club.

The influencer economy is increasingly in flux. Fraud is the no. 1 concern among US and UK marketers who work with influencers, according to eMarketer. There is also evidence that consumers increasingly distrust them. Even Instagram is worried: To incentivise more authentic, trustworthy content, the platform recently began testing the ability to hide the number of likes a post receives.

“Real brand fans are the true voice of the consumer, and that’s much more relevant for both brands and consumers,” says Nicole Johnson, a principal at Forerunner Ventures, which participated in Zyper’s Series A round along with Y Combinator.

Zyper’s marketing for Cannes Lions (pictured at top), took an “anti-influencer” approach. Zyper founder Amber Atherton (pictured here) previously founded a computer vision-based app that generates captions for Instagram.

© Zyper

The search for super fans

Zyper uses computer vision and natural language processing to “read” both images and text on social channels and combines that with predictive analytics to identify the brand’s top fans. It also looks at metrics including comments, followers and engagement rate. A scan of a customer’s 12 most recent shared images allows Zyper to place them into one of 12 aesthetic categories, from “normcore” to “hype bae”.

Brands can access insights via a live dashboard. It has helped Dior discover that its community associates the brand with Paris travel tips, for example, while Dollar Shave Club’s fans are passionate about music.

Talis Capital’s Kirill Tasilov likes the company’s ability to commercialise technology and its popularity with “unicorn” direct-to-consumer labels like Hims and Dollar Shave Club. When Hims, a men’s personal care brand, targeted its top 100 fans, the subsequent user-generated content resulted in a 39 per cent increase in public social media conversations involving the brand. Customers acquired through Zyper spend three times more over a three-month period than a customer acquired via Facebook ads.

“Brand fan” images for Dior (left and right)
© Zyper

Influencers by another name

Investment in influencers is still growing, with 30 per cent of brands planning to increase their spend on influencer marketing this year, according to eMarketer. Venture capitalists poured $140 million into influencer marketing startups in 2018, compared to $50 million in 2015, per Venture Scanner. It also works: 41 per cent of US millennial women rely on influencers for fashion recommendations.

Atherton doesn’t see professional influencers as competition. Instead, she anticipates that brands will shift to create community-based teams who focus on building “grassroots communities” of users. “While brands are starting to wane on their influencer model, it won’t die any time soon — it will evolve,” she says.

The “super fan” model is also an opportunity for brands to do inexpensive marketing at a time when mega-influencers can charge six figures. Beyond paying Zyper, other costs for a brand like Calvin Klein are gifting denim to fans who then share it on social. (Fans have to include tags like #diorpartner or #partneringwithdior if they are posting as part of an ambassador programme.)

“All I see here is a company who has decided to jump into the ‘influencer is a bad word’ pool,” says influencer and brand strategist Mandy Ansari, who’s consulted for Bumble and Mastercard. “What Zyper is doing is influencer marketing, but they want to remove the stigma that brands may have felt because [brands] didn’t spend enough time finding the right content creator to amplify their message.”

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