Me, Myself and AI: Artificial Intelligence’s Influence On Influencer Marketing, Branded Content and Product Placement

Few things disconnect a viewer from a movie or TV show more than an obvious ad dropped in the middle of an important plot point. The same goes for influencer marketing on social media, when real people try to tell followers they’re, like, super into a product. As such, traditional marketing strategies, such as knowing the target audience and desired tone, must be sensibly applied across both mediums to ensure users aren’t turned off by the brand’s presence. 

With 40 years of experience, Branded Entertainment Network (BEN) connects consumers to global brands by skillfully utilizing the allure of popular entertainment. When James Bond drove a BMW instead of his traditional Aston Martin, it was BEN responsible for the brand’s screen time. When Wonder bread sponsored the racing champ character played by WIll Ferrell in Talladega Nights, that was BEN, too. And now the company has turned to cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help develop its dynamic marketing strategies. 

We chatted with Aaron Frank, senior vice president of strategy and insights at BEN, to discuss how the company has gone high tech, and how it has become a trusted brand in its own right.

What’s the story of BEN? How did the company come about?

Aaron Frank: In 2015, the Bill Gates owned media licensing company Corbis acquired both Norm Marshall & Associates (NMA) and Plaid Social Labs to form BEN. Founded in 1979, NMA was one of the first companies to work in what was then called “product placement,” and Plaid Social Labs, founded in 2008, was one of the first companies to work in influencer marketing. Today, BEN, still privately held by Gates, integrates brands into television shows, films, music videos and influencer content so that they can connect directly with audiences, without interruption. At the heart of our offering is deep learning technology that can predict the success of brand integrations and influencer marketing campaigns before they take place.
How does BEN utilize AI technology?

AF: Over the past few years, we have developed and trained proprietary deep learning algorithms by tapping into our 40 years of historical campaign data. When you look at the sheer scale of the content currently being created, it’s impossible to manage and evaluate it all without a custom-built AI solution that can incorporate both structured and unstructured data. We began actively using our AI solution to predict the results of influencer marketing campaigns last year, and have already seen incredible results for our clients, such as a 170 percent increase in click-through-rates and a ten-fold increase in subscription conversion efficiency for one client.

Can you tell us a bit about how BEN predicts user habits for clients?

AF: For influencer marketing campaigns, we’re using our AI to predict metrics like views, engagements, clicks and conversions. This allows our campaign managers to select the channels that will drive the greatest value for our clients. Because we’ve built our algorithms ourselves, we’re also able to customize algorithms for clients that are optimized on their data and can provide predictions tailored specifically to the KPIs they care about most.

What are some of the key ways you see AI revamping entertainment?

AF: AI is already informing decisions about how content is made, distributed and recommended. For example, last year Netflix switched from a human-based recommendation system to an AI-generated recommendation engine. Influencers are using AI to determine which types of videos are likely to get them the most subscribers or views. And movie studios are using AI to help them create film trailers that are most likely to get audiences excited about an upcoming release. For marketers, deep learning’s ability to bring improved measurement and predictive analytics to influencer marketing and brand integration changes the conversation about those marketing strategies. With AI, you can get a better understanding of which pieces of content are most likely to drive results for your brand.

What are some of the most creative ways you’re currently seeing brands use AI to interact with audiences?

AF: The most important lesson we’ve learned is the benefit of ongoing campaigns. Brands that opt for one-off activations cannot hope to leverage the power of AI because it requires a certain volume of data in order to continuously learn and then improve upon those learnings. The most successful brands invest enough to gather a good amount of data, and then continue to invest as the AI optimizes campaigns based on what worked and what didn’t. 

What role do influencers play in the entertainment landscape?

AF: 88 percent of views on YouTube and 66 percent of views on Facebook are driven by influencers. They’re providing higher click-through-rates than other forms of digital advertising—over 10 percent for ongoing campaigns on Instagram Stories. That’s why influencer marketing spend is estimated to grow from $2 billion in 2017 to $10 billion in 2020. The amount of content being uploaded to social platforms—over 300 hours per minute—makes AI essential to navigate this space. 

What are some smart ways you’re seeing brands take advantage of the explosive growth of esports? how does BEN partner with esports organizations?

AF: Esports is a great opportunity for brands to reach highly engaged audiences that aren’t tuning in to traditional entertainment like broadcast television shows. The best way to reach these audiences is through influencers who are gamers—everyone from dedicated gamers like Ninja to more casual gamers like Casey Neistat. There are different strategies that make sense for different brands, but the most important factor when advertising to the gaming community is authenticity. If they don’t feel your integration or promotion is authentic to their community, they’ll reject it.

How do you see the streaming landscape evolving over the next few years?

AF: Our research shows that 65 percent of television viewers prefer to watch shows on streaming over traditional broadcast channels. These audiences have come to expect the ability to watch what they want, when they want and as much of it as they want, without commercial interruption. Netflix and Amazon Prime will combine to spend over $20 billion in original programming this year, and Netflix alone has announced they’ll release over 90 films in 2019. Expect this incredible influx of content to continue as Disney+, AT&T and Apple TV+ enter the space. As more and more viewers switch to ad-free streaming platforms, using AI to understand which shows are reaching the right audiences for your brand will become essential for marketers.

Your CEO predicted that, one day, AI will change content in real-time, based on the viewer’s facial expressions. Can you tell us a little more about that and if that’s something BEN is working on?

AF: AI has the potential to change the relationship between content creators and their audiences. We’re seeing that with experiments like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. At BEN, we’re currently focused on building predictive models that help brands drive greater ROI from influencer marketing and brand integration. We’re right at the intersection between technology, advertising and entertainment—the possibilities for what that could look like in 3-5 years are endless!

Illustrations by Nicholas Roberts