The H Hub is pioneering a new system of decentralized content creation with their community-driven content engine — replacing influencer marketing in the process.
Influencer marketing has been heralded as the ‘Next Big Thing’ in marketing; in 2015, brands spent $1B on sponsored posts on social media. In 2016, that number jumped to $2B, then $4B in 2017, and it’s projected to double again to $8B by this year’s close.
Many see this as evidence that the burgeoning marketing category is booming, but according to James Cole, the Founder of The H Hub, it’s proof of the exact opposite; influencer marketing has already sealed its own doom.
“Brands are drawn to influencer marketing because it leverages an existing relationship between follower and influencer,” Cole said in an interview with the author. “It’s a media buy with an implicit endorsement.”
Influencer marketing has found success over the past few years because it taps this ecosystem built on trust. Influencers generate followings through ‘authentic’ content. This situates them with a marketer’s most desirable commodity: consumer attention. The surge in spend on influencer marketing can be attributed to brands and agencies increasingly turning to influencers for this type of high-engagement, authentic reach that’s unavailable through traditional channels. According to Cole, though, as spend has increased, the quality of content has vastly diluted — and in a few short years turned influencer marketing into a “skyscraper on soft ground”:
With every #sponsored post and every soulless endorsement of a product you don’t truly love, your followers trust you a little less. Then, they buy a little less. Then, the brand trusts you a little less because your followers bought less of their product. Then, the brand pays you a little less. Then, you trust the brand a little less in return….it’s a death spiral, and no, I am not being dramatic.
This race to the bottom is exacerbated by an influx of influencer marketing agencies designed to match-make influencers and brands. According to Cole, these companies often similarly prize speed over quality; prioritizing any match over the appropriate match. In this model, a travel influencer might endorse a watch; a mommy blogger, hair vitamins. This could be a contributing factor to recent Linqia findings that even though the number of branded posts has tripled since 2017, the number of “likes” on those posts has remained constant.
Enter: The H Hub. Cole sees H as a new breed of dot-connector, one that emphasizes community, creativity, and decentralization to take the good aspects of influencer marketing — quality content and quality relationships — and rebuild them into a powerful ecosystem where all parties benefit. The “H” is intended to represent the shape connecting creators to brands (i.e. |-|).
H has been in operation since 2016, but Cole has used that time to focus on building a community specifically comprised of content creators (not influencers) before offering access to brands and agencies via a marketplace. In those two years, the H Hub has become a place where creatives of many different backgrounds can find like-minded collaborators, as well as discover what aspects of their work are resonating with audiences and peers. And the results speak for themselves. In that time, The H Hub has formed into a curated, connected community, with nearly 40,000 members across the country — while maintaining a selectivity rate of 30 percent.
“Though we present like a database, we function more like a creative roster,” Cole said. “We know and have relationships with our entire roster. We have hosted over 500 events, and 186,000 collaborative (non-paid) shoots happened between our creators last year alone.”
The platform will remain free for creators, with a recently launched brand/agency portal starting at $2,000 per month.
“Now, we are opening up our community to brands and agencies that need our help,” Cole said. “Brands and agencies use The Hub as a content engine – a tool to find the best creators, to create the best branded content, in seconds.”
Though the approach is novel in the current climate, Cole explained that it’s a strategy rooted in the early days of the media structure we currently take for granted.
“In the early 1900s, ad agencies were creative shops and media buyers; that is, they would create the ads and place them into newspapers,” Cole said. “Recently, creative and media have separated – different businesses with different specialties. Influencer marketing, if done correctly, is an opportunity to re-merge the two and ‘flatten the ad stack’ again.”
This is where The Hub really separates itself: how it supports its community — both as individuals and a collective.
At the individual level, creators on The Hub are equipped with robust data about their content and audience. They can see what type of content drives the highest engagement – including the most relevant brands to their creative output.
By empowering creators with these metrics, rather than sharing them only with brands, The Hub emphasizes quality over quantity. For example, a newcomer photographer with a specific niche is now more empowered to make the case to related brands that her style is better for engagement than a more general-interest photographer with a higher follower count.
On a community level, the Hub empowers it’s creators by encouraging them to connect (and create) with each other. The result is a wealth of data on how the 40,000 creators on the Hub interact, and naturally collaborate.
“If you understand how creators authentically make content and with whom you can pair groupings of creators with brands authentically, trust is not eroded,” Cole said. “[This occurs] between brand and influencer or between influencer and follower when there is full alignment between what the brand wants to say, what the influencer says, and what the creators ultimately ‘hear.’ The easiest way for this to happen is for the brand to cede creative control to a collection of passionate creative talent. To honor the creative vision of the creator(s). Their followers follow them for a reason. Protect that reason, leverage that reason; don’t undercut it with your own agenda.”
When this purity of vision is maintained across all levels, it also feeds into another value add of The Hub: the positive association among creatives on the platform.
“My favorite campaigns we have done are those that function like quilts – that is, dozens of creators each make their own, highly personalized patch that is woven into a larger fabric (a campaign),” Cole said. “The Hub community works best when 40 or 50 people all create something authentic to them and the chorus of voices makes something authentic to the brand for whom the content is being made. These quilts are made not by disinterested, segregated creators but by a living, breathing web of creative community.”
And this ‘quilt marketing’ approach has proven its sea legs – creators from the Hub have shot for Sotheby’s, Allbirds, Abercrombie, and others. Recently, when Brooks Brothers came to Cole to help rebrand a jewelry holding called Carolee, Cole and H Collective Head of Marketing Shannon Bray assembled 35 female creators from their community to produce a new type of creative campaign centered on forward-thinking female empowerment.
The result was 120 unique images taken across 28 shoots, three video assets, and 28 posts on Instagram that reached 1.4M people with over 8 percent engagement — all produced in under two weeks.
This is where the power of a genuine community really announces itself, delivering a type of marketing that has never before existed — decentralized creative marketing. Notably, this counteracts an increasing trend of distrust and distaste for existing advertising models. It’s why we see hearty year-over-year increases in the adoption of ad blockers; Millennials and Gen Z resent being spoken to, preferring to be spoken with.
While this might initially feel counterintuitive to brands hoping to tightly control their messaging, the lack of trust in the very creators they hope to work with limits the success of their efforts.
“The difference between this and every other type of media buy that’s ever existed is that this is a person with a pulse — you’re leaving chips on the table by not letting the people that are delivering ads put their own spin on it,” Cole said. “Their followers trust them in a way that they don’t trust billboards or 30 second spots.”
This buy-in from creators — which engenders trust and authenticity — is what will ultimately bridge the gap between brand and consumer.
“Everything is decentralizing — transportation with Uber, accommodation with Airbnb — whatever industry you look at there’s a decentralized play, where the supply can find its way to the exact demand, or the demand can find the unique supply very quickly,” Cole said. “That’s what my community aspires to be for content. We’re elegantly introducing the right creative voices to the right microphones, allowing creativity to flow freely.”
For more technology and media coverage, follow @JesseDamiani on Twitter.