LONDON — Of all the figures that luxury analysts and investors constantly crunch — top- and bottom-line growth, cash flow and cash reserves - there are two that are becoming ever more important, although it's unlikely they'll ever appear on a balance sheet.Social media share of voice — and engagement — are two of the hottest figures on the big brands' books, with banks such as Barclays, Bernstein and Exane BNP Paribas reading the number of likes, followers and posts as indicators of brands’ health and future success.True, a brand's popularity online doesn’t always spell higher sales, and it’s often difficult and expensive to determine the quality and provenance of the "likers." Are they from America? Iceland? Kazakhstan? But that's not the issue. In many cases, it doesn’t even matter which part of the brand the likes like, as long as they’re engaging with it and keeping the conversation alive.“Online share of voice defines the value of a brand, and the higher the price points, the more your likes are worth,” said Aline Conus, managing partner at E-Notam, an online marketing agency based in London. She compares digital chatter around a brand to the number of customers on a shop floor. “It’s better to have a full store than an empty one.”Alison Levy, chief marketing officer of Launchmetrics, which recently released a report analyzing social media trends from the spring-summer 2018 international runway shows, said engagement today is just another way of saying "word-of-mouth."“As a brand or a company, you want engagement and participation, even if a lot of that audience isn’t your customer. Consumers want to be involved in the conversation. They want to have a voice," Levy said.She pointed to some of the Launchmetrics research showing that while influencers’ show coverage and share of voice was minimal – well under 10 percent — they sparked the most online engagement, ranging from 33 percent in London to 57 percent in New York.The brands themselves have cottoned on, using the most powerful online voices to promote their products. “Luxury brands now see influencers as the key marketing lever for product launch and content promotion and distribution,” said Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, in “The Shopping Guide 2017: With Chiara Ferragni, The Blonde Salad.”“Many brands are starting to integrate influencers outright in their advertising campaigns," Solca said, noting Instagram is the place to be in the West, and brands are continuing to grow their follower base.Bernstein said, based on its own research, digital spend can account for “up to 45 percent to 50 percent of a brand's total advertising budget. This is up from 10 percent only a few years ago.”According to a report by Celebrity Intelligence, “The New Face of Luxury,” digital influencers overtook celebrities as the most popular choice for brand endorsements in 2017. Together, influencers and celebrities are a potent force. The report said that for every $1.34 spent on a talent-led campaign, brands are getting an average of $23.08 back.In November, Barclays drew up a 40-page report looking at brands’ popularity on Instagram, WeChat and Weibo, underscoring just how important social media numbers are becoming to the investment community.The report pointed to the importance of engagement, using Burberry as an example: “On Instagram, we are somewhat disappointed by the lukewarm reaction to its September fashion show, with photo posting noticeably outpacing photo likes, which means lower engagement per post.”Barclays also underlined the fact that people are talking about more than just product. Louis Vuitton, it said, achieved record-high Instagram "likes" in October thanks to 99 posts linked to the announcement that its “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” trunk exhibition, which had kicked off in Paris two years ago, was traveling to New York.“This is even more powerful evidence of the brand value, in our view, as the consumer interests were not linked to specific products, but the brand per se.”Barclays spills much ink over Gucci, which is surging ahead on Instagram: In September and October, the Italian brand surpassed the ten million mark for photo likes, notching 12.3 million in September and 10.2 million in October.Gucci is also fast catching up to Louis Vuitton in terms of followers: In September, it had 17.7 million followers, compared with Vuitton’s 19.2 million. In October, Gucci’s figure rose to 18.4 million versus Vuitton’s 19.7 million.The bank said that Gucci’s most liked post between mid-September and mid-November was one featuring its sneakers. “Rather than solely relying on handbags, they are gaining momentum with other product categories, which could be a natural transition to the next ‘it’ products," Barclays said.Gil Eyal, chief executive officer and cofounder of Hypr Brands, the influencer marketing platform that works with brands including Levi Strauss & Co., Nars, Michael Kors and Pepsi, said that by playing the social media game well, both Gucci and Vuitton have succeeded where so many brands of their generation have failed.“They’ve stayed relevant, and relevance is important because it drives sales, but not directly. What these brands are trying to say is, ‘We’re still cool, here’s a reminder that we exist.'”Are all those people buying? “Probably not,” he said. “It’s very hard to track complete conversion on social, because who knows what else they saw?”According to a report from Bernstein Research earlier this year, 74 percent of luxury sales in 2015 were affected by online influences. That said, pure online purchases still account for only 6.3 percent of total luxury sales, so there is ample justification for brands to keep spending on social.It added that ready-to-wear and beauty products have the highest online penetration, both at 7.2 percent of total sales, while watches and jewelry have the lowest penetration at 4.1 percent. "By price point, we note that online penetration rises as the ASP (average sale price) decreases, with online sales only representing 3.6 percent of absolute luxury sales."Eyal said he believes luxury is still a difficult sell on social media. “The rule of thumb is, the more expensive the product, and the less available it is to buy online, the lower the correlation between likes and sales," he explained. "Very few people are going to buy a Cartier super-expensive whatever off a social media post. You can’t really see a direct correlation.”Yet brands at all luxury levels and price points have been consistently refining their influencer strategies and working with an increasingly curated and refined range of influencers, some of whom are only known to the target audience.According to Celebrity Intelligence’s “The New Face of Luxury” report, niche or unconventional talent is set to become the new “sweet spot” for marketers in 2018.That could be good news for smaller brands that don’t belong to Kering or LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and don’t have the budgets to throw at celebrity influencers or big, buzzy marketing campaigns.Levy of Launchmetrics said brands need to look at their communities, decide whom they should be speaking to and what interests and engages their audience. Then they can choose the appropriate voice to telegraph their news and brand values.“Dig deeper into that instead of trying to compete with everyone. Find an authentic way to talk to your audience,” she advised.
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