The Hyde Park Angels “New Investment Series” profiles our most recent investments by examining the portfolio company and its future trajectory from two perspectives: the portfolio company’s CEO and the HPA leader who made the deal happen. This edition focuses on Popular Pays.
Popular Pays is the largest and most active marketplace for brands to connect with creators to develop branded content. It is also the newest addition to the Hyde Park Angels portfolio. We spoke with HPA Deal Lead Chris Henger, current SVP of Product Development at Undertone who has served in diverse digital advertising leadership roles over the last 20 years, and Popular Pays CEO and Founder Corbett Drummey to learn more about the company, the evolution of digital marketing over time, and the influencer marketing opportunity for both brands and creators.
Corbett, will you share how you first thought of Popular Pays?
Corbett: In the early days of Instagram there was no way for you to advertise. So influencers represented the only way to kind of buy eyeballs in that network because that network was nascent and hadn’t made its own ad tools yet. The evolution of that is that as time moves on, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest made their own ad tools. But although brands can scale the impression side of it, there’s no way for them to create content at that same scale. The idea then evolved into connecting brands with these content creators. It’s almost like hybrid paid, owned and earned media because the brands then own the content, which allows them to boost the content and increase the reach further and further.
Could you both define what influencer marketing is now and how that fits into a brand’s overall marketing strategy?
Chris: In terms of influencer marketing, I think it’s a very longstanding, established method to break through in advertising by having some level of celebrity endorsement. You can look back in history to brands that would associate themselves with certain people and certain products and how that allowed them to establish their brand image.
What has happened in the social realm, because it is much more of a two-way conversation, is there certainly are celebrity influences across social media, but there’s also a whole other layer of influencers who aren’t necessarily the celebrities. They’re just the true brand fans: enthusiasts of fly fishing or travel or whatever it might be. There are pockets and pockets of millions and millions of people who are true enthusiasts of a particular interest and brand. So Popular Pays is creating a method for brands to create content to get in the hands of true fans.
Corbett: Previously, endorsements were done by major agencies, but the age of social is so big. To democratize this area, we’ve had to create this marketplace where brands can connect with celebrities all the way down to people who typically don’t have an agent. In that way, Popular Pays is their agent. These people aren’t always famous for being famous, or even famous because of some other talent, they just might have a following online because of the content they make. We are empowering the creator community by democratizing this experience.
It makes sense to empower this creator community that has the potential to make meaningful impact for brands. But how does that look in practice? How are Popular Pays brands using that community?
Corbett: We have this large retailer who generated 1,600 photos last year from well over 100 content creators. [The retailer said] that because of this content, they were able to place Facebook and Instagram ads from their smaller brands in their portfolio that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to without this content. They were also able to work with dozens of different people and photographers and models which would have been impossible in the traditional sense. This has really helped them get hundreds of points of view that they wouldn’t have had before, as well as enabled them to place media dollars for their smaller brands.
Chris from your perspective, have you noticed other differences between the social influencer model and other traditional models? How is the space changing?
Chris: I think social has changed the dynamic of publishing. The publisher ten years ago was spending all of their money to drive audiences to their portal. They would then get advertisers to associate with that audience. What has changed is that now the consumer doesn’t necessarily think about typing in a URL, they actually consume content naturally or organically in social feeds. So now the content has to go find the consumer rather than the other way around.
Once that content gets to the consumer, presumably there has to be trust and quality to motivate that consumer to take action. How does Popular Pays ensure quality content comes from its marketplace?
Corbett: We looked at cues from all the great marketplaces like Airbnb and Uber, and we found that our content creators [could] get a rating. This has really helped us scale quality in a way that we just couldn’t otherwise. When the brands are viewing the creators not only can they see previous work and social stats but they also get this rating. Pop Pays also has some basic filters to exclude people that might not be in the right category or have explicit content.
Clearly, the ratings are a key piece for Popular Pays in terms of differentiation. Do you see any other cores areas that differentiate Popular Pays?
Chris: Well for one, the influencer role has moved from major media companies that define popular trends to the individual. There is also a big trend for on-demand labor across many different industries, and Popular Pays is definitely aligned with that trend in their space. Popular Pays is operating in the major social media channels, and that’s where the eyeballs are right now. Markets with tailwinds are always better than headwinds.
Corbett: That’s good context on the larger industry, Chris. We find ourselves with this product not only competing in the narrow scope of influencer marketing but also in the larger media industry. One way that I think we stay competitive is that we remain very much tech-focused – about half of our team is on the tech team – and we always think about how to automate everything we do. In this way, we’ve built up this development speed that’s really hard to keep up with.
What do you see as a challenge in terms of gaining that market penetration?
Corbett: If you have the right partners on your team, you can find your way into the right doors to the right events and agencies. It’s finding these agencies that is the hardest part. These agencies control the keys to all of the business.
Chris, from your standpoint how are you helping Corbett navigate these challenges and how have you been using your experience to help Popular Pays scale?
Chris: Corbett and I are going to work through what we believe are the primary business indicators that we need to watch closely to make sure the Popular Pays solution is delivering. My initial areas of focus are going to be around win-rate and retention rate. Corbett is right that the agency world is large and has a lot of choices, so when Popular Pays is down to the final stage of getting a commitment from an agency or brand, what’s the win rate? How do we monitor that metric and understand all of the inputs to that metric? We will also need to pay a lot of attention to proof of value. And the best indicator of proof of value in the media space is retention rate of clients. Coupled with growth rate in terms of spend of the retained customers.
Corbett: Exactly. I’ve heard from mentors all over the place that true growth is retention. Retention is the most important metric for true growth, if it’s leaking out the bottom then, [the company’s] not going to go anywhere.
What do you see in the future for Popular Pays?
We’re adding more and more features that empower the content creation piece itself. Right now, content creators might want to highlight pieces in their portfolio to showcase something for a brand their applying for; we’re giving them more tools to work with. We also are working really hard logistically to make it easy for brands to boost that content.
Story edited for length and clarity.