Episode 254 – Influence with Sara McCorquodale

Sara McCorquodaleNo business can ignore social media influencers these days, they’re part of the fabric of our lives both personally and professionally. But what are the opportunities and the pitfalls for the influencers themselves and for the brands that work with them?

Sara McCorquodale set out to answer that question, and along the way discovered the very human stories behind the public faces. She also discovered that the resilience she’d developed as a journalist stood her in good stead through the research, and shares some tips on how to approach that for first-time writers.

Fascinating from both a business and a writing perspective. (How very Extraordinary Business Book Club.)

CORQ site: https://corq.studio/

Leading with James Ashton podcast: https://www.leadingpod.com/

Sara on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraCorquers

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Business Book Awards 2021: https://www.businessbookawards.co.uk/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sara McCorquodale, who is CEO and founder of influencer intelligence and digital trends platform CORQ. Prior to launching the business in 2017, she spent 12 years as a journalist working on the launch of Mail Online, becoming Tatler’s first digital editor at Conde Nast and heading up HuffpostStyle UK and its sister lifestyle website My Daily. Following this, she led the global B2C content at trend forecasting agency, WGSM. She’s been working on influencer campaigns and projects since 2012, consulted on this and the world of digital for many brands, including Chanel, Estée Lauder and Net-a-Porter, and she’s written for the Guardian and the BBC.

As well as running CORQ, she’s a non-executive director for River Cottage and a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton, teaching digital strategy. Her latest book Influence: how social media influencers are shaping our digital future was highly commended in the Business Book Awards 2020, and it’s just been released in paperback in 2021.

So welcome to the show, Sara.

Sara McCorquodale: Hi. Thank you.

Alison Jones: It really good to have you here. And influencers, let’s talk about that. Why is it so important for business people to understand the influencer landscape today?

Sara McCorquodale: Well, you know, I just think that even before the pandemic, we could see that more and more brands were turning to influencers to market their products, to find interesting and creative ways to engage their target audiences through funny, entertaining, or informative social content.

And now that we are in this situation, you know, we have been fighting Coronavirus for nearly a year. We do not know what the high street is going to look like, what retail is going to look like, when we come out of this and more and more brands are turning to eCommerce, they’re looking at digital and they’re thinking, okay, I really need to make this work for me. And, you know, influencers are most certainly part of that equation.

Alison Jones: They really are, and it’s interesting that you say it’s part of that bigger economic shakedown. So it’s digital disruption, but it’s also broader than that and it’s been massively accelerated this year, hasn’t it? What have you seen changing since you wrote the book? Just given that shift to the online space.

Sara McCorquodale: Well, I think definitely influencers who are able to create video, really good high-quality video, at home, who are able to create content formats independently, that are very entertaining and also informative, they have definitely risen above the rest, if you know what I mean? Because some influencers were very reliant on brand experiences, such as press trips. Or you know, really exclusive events to create content that their audience found very compelling. And what we’ve seen is, especially in the lifestyle space, is influencers who are actually able to showcase product, talk about product in a very consumer friendly way, they are becoming more and more valuable to brands and retailers who are shifting their operations more and more online.

And they’re thinking, okay, you know, say their products have a high price point, how do you allow a consumer to experience a product, a luxury product, online? And actually you need that human touch. You need those influencers who have their audiences trust and who understand, okay, this is what my audience wants to know.

So the ones that have been able to do that, we have definitely seen their popularity and their followings have increased. And then on top of that, we have seen influencers springboard very quickly from Tik Tok, and in some cases Instagram, over the past 12 months to mainstream broadcasters, such as BBC, Channel Four and Netflix. And before the pandemic, it took much longer than a 12-month period for any influencer to get in those mainstream front doors.

Alison Jones: It’s funny, isn’t it? That the COVID thing, well it’s changed everything, but it also meant that people who could pick up on the moment and respond in the moment and capture the mood, suddenly, there was just this hunger for it, wasn’t it? And, it’s really interesting, you know, reading your book, reading about what you say about people’s motivations as well and how they shift over time as they build an audience.

I mean, obviously you wrote the book a while ago now, but presumably what you’re seeing is more of the same?

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, yeah. I mean, the thing is, I think that when it comes to influencers there are constants, there are things that remain consistent across platforms and across periods of time. And at the end of the day, you know, the influencer is trying to create what their audience wants to see. It’s very much a supply and demand relationship.

So if the influencer sees very high engagement on a makeup tutorial on YouTube, they’re going to keep making makeup tutorials because that’s going to keep their audience happy. And I think being able to read their audiences at different times and different contexts, understand what they want, understand what would annoy them, is really, I suppose, the skill and the success of the influencer, because unless they create a community in which they are popular it makes their working day extremely difficult.

Alison Jones: It’s a sort of microcosm of what companies have been trying to do with marketing for years, isn’t it? But it’s instant feedback.

Sara McCorquodale: Yes. I mean, I think that any brand who is thinking about working with an influencer, I always say you should definitely check out the comments on their Instagram, on their YouTube, on TikTok, see what people are actually sayin. Because, I think that’s the thing, you know, some influencers definitely rub people up the wrong way, a proportion of their following is there because they want to, you know, I suppose feedback negatively to them.

And then you see other influencers who have just really, really efficiently built these large, positive communities around their content and which, you know, everyone’s talking to each other, they’re all there because they enjoy the content. But actually these great conversations start under the content.

And for me, you know, if I’m advising a brand, I’ll always say to them, you know, that is the valuable influencer because they’ve created something functional. And if you can find a way in which your brand message intersects with their content, I think that you’ll be onto a winner.

Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s about that authenticity, you talk about that in the book quite a lot, isn’t it? It’s that they are, not all, I mean, one of the things that comes across is actually a lot of influences have a lot of different motivations for what they do. But there is this real focus on authenticity and I’m guessing it probably doesn’t work so well if you’re trying to be something that you’re fundamentally not for any period of time, and there’s gotta be that authentic connection with the brand as well, hasn’t there?

Sara McCorquodale: I think so. I mean, you definitely see influencers’ followers kind of, you know, cringing and feeling sort of a bit exploited when the influencer is continually trying to sell products to them, which either they don’t believe that the influencer cares about or they feel like, you know, no one in your audience wants this product. Like, why are you making money off of your popularity here in a way that doesn’t benefit any of us except you? So that’s the thing, it really is a two-way relationship. And that is what makes it such a tricky space.

Alison Jones: I’m laughing slightly because it’s a bit of a naive question, isn’t it: ‘What was it about that six-figure cheque that was so appealing?’ Yes.

Sara McCorquodale: Exactly. And that’s the thing where you do see, you know, there’s so much in influencers  comments and in blog posts about influencers, where their followers are saying, Oh, that person has completely sold out. I first started following them, they were just like me. The kind of ‘just like me’ relatable quality of the influencer is actually really fleeting because, you know, once they achieve a degree of success, they’re not like their followers anymore and trying to maintain that normalcy and reality is actually not possible.

So you know, what they need to do after they have achieved that success is actually deliver really, really good content to keep their audience happy. And if they’re just cashing in for the six-figure cheques all the time, you know, they are going to experience negativity and we’ve seen that time and time again.

Alison Jones: It’s funny, I’d never quite seen the parallels between the lifecycle of an influencer and the lifecycle of a company, but it’s that kind of gritty, real startup energy. And how do you translate that into a bigger business without losing the raw energy of it. They’re doing that except in the period of about six months, rather than six years, aren’t they?

Sara McCorquodale: Yes, I mean, in some cases, and that’s actually a really good point, like scaling an influencer brand is phenomenally hard. Maintaining that connection is so hard. There is a quote in the book from an influencer called Jack Harries and it’s actually from a talk he did for the Do Lectures.

And he says, you know, when he had achieved this enormous audience, he just suddenly had this realization, how do you keep this many people happy? And the answer is of course, that you can’t and you won’t. And I think that’s the thing, you know some influencers, I think the influencers who have built their audiences incrementally in some cases over a decade, I think that their relationship with their audience is pretty solid and their audience will sort of accept quite a lot, based on the fact they’ve been in a sort of relationship with that person for a long time. But even then, you know, that element of scale inevitably has a negative impact on how the audience feels about the influencer.

Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. Isn’t it? Be careful what you wish for.

There’s a huge body of influencers in the book space, of course, book bloggers and book vloggers, and so on. I’m interested, I mean, obviously you’re writing about it from the outside looking in, in a sense you’re analyzing it and particularly you are doing the takeaways for businesses.

It really surprised me. I was chatting to a chap who runs a talent agency who worked with quite a lot of influencers. And I sort of said, jokingly, ‘Oh, you know, books of course are real old tech for these people, they’re completely irrelevant.’ And he said, ‘You’d be surprised, so many of them see a book as a really important part of who they are and what they do and something tangible and in the real world rather than on a screen.’

Is that still true? I mean, that was a couple of years back, but I’m just really interested in how books play a part in this world. If at all.

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, yes, definitely. I mean, it’s all about legitimacy and I think that’s the thing, for a lot of YouTubers and I guess Instagrammers too, they’ve started in this space, which honestly really wasn’t very valued until recently. You know, people still had bit of a sneer when they talked about influencers, when they talked about YouTubers and Instagrammers.

And I think only perhaps now, and maybe in the next couple of years, will we really start to have this widespread appreciation for what these people bring to the table. Or, well, certainly some of them. And I think, you only have to look at news in the past week of Amber Gill who, you know, she was actually, I think she was the winner of Love Island 2019.

And she came out of there, she’s an Instagrammer now, I think she’s got a YouTube channel and she’s just signed a deal with Mills & Boon to write a series of romance novels. And, you know, you kind of think, well, with all these other jobs that she’s got, why does she need a book deal?

And I think these people, they really do want to be taken seriously across every field of media. And I think perhaps some people see a book as a route to,  I suppose, legitimacy in a mainstream lens, you know?

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s really interesting. And I love that Mills & Boon/Love Island hookup, that was, of course, I mean, why did we not all see that coming? That was an obvious connection.

Sara McCorquodale: Yes. You know, the thing is me and my team, we talk about why the publishers go in for this and why certain brands work with influencers. And sometimes it’s a surprise, but the thing is, a lot of these influencer books, people may not enjoy the content. They may find the content not very cerebral or perhaps it’s simplistic. But at the end of the day, actually that influencer’s following and their fans will really enjoy that book. It’ll mean a lot to them and for the publisher, it actually really helps to drive sales. So, I think we have to weigh things up and say do you know actually, that’s a great deal for Mills & Boon, it will probably be a massive success for them, which is brilliant for publishing.

And then at the same time, you know, the influencers fans who maybe they wouldn’t necessarily have picked up a book by Mills & Boon, maybe they wouldn’t have read that kind of literature, maybe they’re going to ‘dip a toe’ and they’re going to love it. And that means more readers.

And in my view, that’s a good thing.

Alison Jones: Yes. I am not going to argue with that. I think you’re dead right. And it’s very easy to be sneery, but actually you’re right that publishing needs all the help it can get. And it’s great to have those cross-platform connections.

Rather than reading, let’s talk about writing for a minute, because you’ve done this a lot, you know, through your life you’ve been a journalist, you’ve written, I can’t imagine how many words you must have written in your lifetime, but tell me what it was like writing the book. How different was that to journalism, or was it just more of the same on a bigger scale?

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, well, I really loved it because by that point, I sort of left being a journalist as a day job in 2015 because I had had my first son and actually the amount that you get paid to be a journalist it’s just so little, even when you’re at quite a senior level. So I kind of found that my wage was only just covering my childcare and I thought, this is insane.

So I kind of shifted then, but I always really missed it, I loved being a journalist. And so by the time I came to write the book, I’d actually been a CEO for two years and I hadn’t been writing as much. And then I spent about six months doing the interviews, so talking to all of the influencers and doing all of my research.

And by the time that I came to write the book, it was actually, I think it was about two or three weeks before I was due to give birth to my second son. And so I quite like a specific deadline.

Alison Jones: So that was a hard deadline.

Sara McCorquodale: Yep. My husband, who is fantastic, took our older son, Dylan, and they went to Suffolk for like a week and I just sat at my kitchen table and I wrote the book and it was wonderful and I loved it and I felt just so, in the way that I’ve always felt about this space, it really excites me. I am so fascinated by it. I think the stories that come out of it are just so human and I think that’s what makes so many people buy into it. So the process of writing the book was just marvelous.

Alison Jones: Now you say the process of writing the book, but actually writing is a kind of catch-all word for lots of different processes, isn’t it?

So, which are the bits of writing that you particularly love? Is it the research, the planning, the first kind of exuberant, crappy draft or the rewrite, you know, which are the bits that you love and which of the bits not so much?

Sara McCorquodale: Well, I remember when I nailed the first chapter, that was great because there had been like several attempts to try and sort of do it in snatched hours and that kind of thing. And it wasn’t until my son and my husband left that I actually just got it out of my body, you know? And that felt amazing, but, you know, I actually think the thing that I really enjoyed was the interviewing because I found myself kind of suddenly fully understanding what it was like to be in these influencers’ shoes, you know, and why some of them make the decisions that they do, which sometimes can seem very bizarre to outsiders. You know, like if you’re watching how influencers live their lives and the way that they talk to their followers, and sometimes you just think, God, like, what is this person about?

And then suddenly, talking to them when they’re away from the cameras, essentially we’re having a private conversation and I think as well, when it’s for a book it’s such a personal thing anyway. And I just, I suddenly felt like talking to all of these real people I loved hearing their stories and asking them the questions, which I thought this is going to help everyone understand you in a way that some people may not be able to at this point.

Alison Jones:  Yes, I love that, and I often think actually, that people never say this as a reason for writing a book, but maybe they should, that it allows you to just have really, really interesting conversations.

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, honestly, and I would get so excited and because when I was in news journalism, I covered all kinds of weird stories, especially when I was working on the regional papers. You know, I went to interview a guy one time in Felixstowe who had been struck by lightning three times and stories like that just always, I love those, you know, because you’re just like, I need to talk to you to find out what this is.

Alison Jones: You’re a born journalist, aren’t you?

Sara McCorquodale: Yes. There was things like, I would get really excited when I’d be talking to an influencer and all of a sudden their story would take this turn that I absolutely did not see coming. I mean, there was one YouTuber called Sam Betesh and he was one of YouTube’s first gaming influencers.

And we were talking about why he had started and why he quit. And then he said, yes, and then I quit and then I went to live with Justin Bieber and I was like, what? And you know, things like that. It’s the surprising elements, which…

Alison Jones: Oh, that’s hilarious. I love what you said about the children thing as well. Because I have very strong opinions on women and books, as you can probably imagine. But I think one of the things that I find really hard is focusing when people are in the house, when the family is in the house.

And I think when you have children, you almost never have your entire attention on what you’re doing if the children in the house, do you? In a way that men just don’t seem to have a problem with that.

Sara McCorquodale: Well, I think it’s the constant interruption. The other day I was doing an interview about the book and I’d taken myself away to my bedroom and my husband came in four times looking for the same coat and the baby decided, my baby Jonah, he came in cause he wanted to say hello and you know, and it’s just like, you’re just constantly interrupted.

Alison Jones: Yes, I hear you. I only managed to finish my book because I left my family. I did it the other way around, you know, I couldn’t get them to leave me, so I took myself off for a weekend and did it. But yes, there’s a lot to be said for it. You need supportive, domestic partners. Don’t you?

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, God. Yeah. I mean, I honestly, I wouldn’t be able to have done the business and the book and everything else if I didn’t have a husband who wanted to be an equal parent.

Alison Jones: And maybe that’s why we have a paucity of books by women. Just putting it out there, because we have a paucity of supportive, domestic partners. Mine’s brilliant as well, but you know, we’re in the lucky minority, I think.

I always ask people, Sara for a best tip. So it always feels a bit unfair when I’m speaking to somebody who, you know, has a career as a professional writer, but you know, what can people who don’t have that background, learn from you if they’re really struggling with their first book, what would you say to them?

Sara McCorquodale: I think that you have to find a way to bring the human story into your book, into what you’re saying. I think that, you know, too often books, especially business books, can be written in a way where they can be quite jargon-y. They can be very data filled, very fact filled, and actually there needs to be texture.

So you need to bring in those stories, either case studies , short interviews from people where you can do like box outs, where you can just really bring what you’re trying to say to life. You need to illustrate the information that you’re putting across. And, if anyone is struggling with that first chapter or they’re reading through their pages and they’re like, Oh, I just don’t feel excited by this, my advice would be call someone who you admire in the field that you’re writing about and say to them, can I interview you? And I promise you that is going to bring your book to life.

Alison Jones: Absolutely brilliant tip. And of course a lot of people would go, well I couldn’t do that cause they would probably say no, but they tend not to, they tend to say absolutely, don’t they, because people are really keen to be interviewed and excited by that.

Sara McCorquodale: Yes. And if they say no, just call someone else.

Alison Jones: Right. Nobody dies.

Sara McCorquodale: You know, I mean, like that’s the thing. I cannot tell you how many journalists, sorry, how many influencers said no to me, it was dozens, but at the end of the day, you know, who cares, I’m going to call someone else. I’m going to call people until I get my interview.

Alison Jones: And do you know, that actually might be the best tip ever, because we don’t see that, you know, you look at a book and you’re like, Oh, she got to talk to these amazing people. Nobody knows that there are all these people who said no, and that’s what they’re experiencing right now. So I think you’ve probably just really helped a huge number of people right there

Sara McCorquodale: Oh, yeah, well, that’s great. And the thing to remember, I think as well is, and it’s easy for me to say this as journalists, because when you’re a journalist, you go through a ton, you get given so much flak and you go through a ton of rejection. But, you know, I think that’s the thing people will say no for their own personal reasons it’s often not about you. It’s not about your book. It’s not about what you’re trying to do. It’s not that people think it doesn’t have value. It will be for a reason which is personal to them. You know, it’s in your interest to keep going and finding the interview. And often what you find is, you know, you might not get your first or second or third choice person on your list.

But the person you do get maybe the best person, because they’ve responded to what you’re trying to say. They’re like, Oh yeah, I know what to say for this interview. So yeah, you just had to keep going and not take anything personally. Unfortunately.

Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. And there must be some sort of school of tough skin for journalists out there. Just arm yourself with that even if you haven’t gone through the training. That’s brilliant. Love it. And I always ask people, Sara, as well to recommend a business book. Now, clearly everybody should read Influence, but apart from that, what would you recommend?

Sara McCorquodale: So there is a book called How to Think Like an Entrepreneur and it is published by The School of Life. And it’s a little red book and it’s got a yellow bolt of lightning on the front. And the man who wrote it whose name has just escaped my mind, which is so annoying. But with that information, you should be able to find it.

And actually my former client, an interior designer called Rita Konig, who’s wonderful. When I started consulting for her, she said to me you need to start your own company. You need to build a business. This is what you need to do. And I was always really, really scared of that. And then one day she bought me this book and I carried it around with me until lockdown because I would just always pick it up, I’d reread a chapter.

I’d have all of the pages bent back where there was a bit of information that I have found really helpful. And it’s really aimed at people who are starting to build a business and, you know, they’re struggling with problems which they have never faced before and they don’t really know the solution for, and you realize that you just have to work through it.

It’s just a really phenomenal book and it’s got great stories in it. So I’d really recommend it.

Alison Jones: And I just had a quick Google and it’s Phillip Delves Broughton. Does that sound right?

Sara McCorquodale: Yes, that’s it. Yes.

Alison Jones: There you go. And I will put that up on the show notes, obviously, at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript and the links where people can find out more about you, but tell us what those are. Sara.

Sara McCorquodale: Well, you can go to CORQ.studio and that’s my business’s website and we publish comment about digital culture and the influencer industry almost every day. And you can find interesting influencer content there as well. You know, take you to the most relevant YouTube videos and TikTok videos of the day.

I’m on Twitter @saracorquers. And although I mostly just tweet about things that my son has said to me, I post on Instagram using the same handle, but I’m a very erratic publisher on social media, because it feels like a busman’s holiday.

Alison Jones: I was going to say, it’s like, yes, when you’re on that, you must be so hyper self-conscious.

Sara McCorquodale: I just want to read a book at the end of the day, I don’t want to look at any screen.

Alison Jones: Good, well, that’s probably very healthy. Wonderful. Thank you so much, Sara. it was really fascinating talking to you and I love that everybody who’s been listening has got insight into how to develop their career as an influencer, as well as, as a writer. So double, double value. Thank you.

Sara McCorquodale: Hurrah. Thank you very much.

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