Changing your company's name is a big step – especially if that company is online. You need to change your domain name, the names of your various social networking profiles and somehow make sure search engines point to both your new and your old name.
Many web companies don't bother, but not TapInfluence – until last week known as BlogFrog.
"We re-branded to have a more mature name," says Holly Hamann, TapInfluence co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). "BlogFrog is a great brand to have when you're serving bloggers and your product is free...but one hundred percent of our revenue comes from enterprise companies and agencies."
The Boulder-based company connects "influencers" – bloggers and high-profile social network users – with high-profile brands – Coke, ABC News, Lego, Oreo, Kraft and P&G, to name a few. These companies actually sponsor influencer's content, provided it meets their specifications and mentions their products. Brands who use the service receive access to a vast database, outlining over 100,000 bloggers and other influencers they can potentially pay for a post. The company's received $4.1 million in funding and works with "75 brand, agency and media company customers," according to Hamann.
I met with Hamann in the company's east Boulder office. The floor plan is open – no one has a private office, though there are conference rooms with doors that close. There's literally a bucket of snacks in the kitchen ("Less than usual" I'm told, "Time for a CostCo run") and the main conference room is devoid of tables or chairs. When I walk in there's only a TV for teleconferences.
"People just role their chairs in here," for staff-wide meetings, Hamann tells me, adding that their team in New York joins the meetings using Google Hangouts.
As with any company, certain words came up again and again – "influencer", most prominently. The term refers to anyone with an established social media presence – on a blog, on a social network or elsewhere online – that people turn to for expertise.
"People who have organically created audiences on those channels are becoming influencers," Hamann explains. "They have bigger audiences than brands, and consumers trust them more."
The trust is key: brands want people online to read about their products from the perspective of trusted third parties.
"What's happening is that brands are realizing that the way to influence consumers isn't to shout at them from the side bars," says Hamann, referring to online ads. The way to influence consumers, she says, is "to be a part of the content consumers are relying on anyway."
So influencer marketing is a sort of online product placement.
It's very transparent – every sponsored post is clearly labeled as such (per FTC rules). And TapInfluence tries to prevent what it calls misuse.
"A misuse would be a blogger being a champion of a product that they're really not a champion for, or, on the brand side, it would be a candy bar manufacturer that reaches out to a diabetic blogger because they have a lot of traffic," says Hamann. "You have to do your homework."
When this works as intended, Hamann tells me, everyone wins: bloggers are paid by brands to write content they would write anyway and brands get a positive mention online.
"One the reasons [influencers] love our company...is we're partnering them with brands that are a great fit for their content," says Hamann. "They generate revenue by doing what they do best. Get compensated for content they would have written anyway."
To traditional journalists this sounds like a blurring of the lines between editorial content and advertising, but Hamann says she's never heard complaints like this from bloggers using the platform.
"They're not journalists," Hamann says of the company's influencers, "although they are content creators. They want to actively participate with these brands."
The Plan All Along
Every company evolves – sometimes guided by circumstance, sometimes because of a plan. To hear Hamann tell it, TapInfluence had a plan from day one. The first phase: attract bloggers to the platform by offering free software. The second: find brands willing to pay those influencers for content.
"Our first software was designed to help bloggers engage with each other," said Hamann, explaining that the software pointed out to bloggers who their most influential readers were – and helped them keep those readers engaged. The idea: help bloggers become more influential.
"We were transparent about long game all along," says Hamann. "The more influential the bloggers became the more they realized that they could generate revenue from their content."
Which brings us to the second phase of the company: convincing brands to pay influencers. This was harder to do online – big brands generally prefer to be pitched in person – so the team imposed a geographical limit on itself.
"We couldn't afford to hop on planes," said Hamann. "So one of our first strategies was to pitch every brand and agency that we can drive to in a 60 mile radius."
The radius included most of Denver, and at first the company didn't pitch any further than that – they even neglected Colorado Springs to save on travel costs. The plan paid off: the company's first five big clients were all local to Denver/Boulder, and included the International Delight line of coffee creamers.
Today the company's New York office does a lot of the pitching, and other brands find the company independently.
Startups Are Like Raising A Child
Starting a company, Hamann tells me, is a lot like raising a child.
"It's like having a baby," she says. "You're doing things and nurturing for them...until they start doing things for themselves."
Continuing her analogy, I ask how old TapInfluence is today.
"I would say we're about to get our Masters Degree," she responds. "What happens then is you get your degree and then you go out and do big things in the world. You've got a critical mass of knowledge under your belt. We're at a place where we're going to take off. It feels fast in the last couple of years but I have a feeling that we haven't seen anything yet."