Q & A with Zak Stahlsmith: On Google Vaping, Fake ROI, and Real Influence

Wednesday Oct 9th, 2019

Zak Stahlsmith

When it comes to advertising, there’s always a new trend. Rewind far enough, and you’ll see a time when billboards were groundbreaking, radio spots were mindblowing, and TV ads were bleeding-edge. While pay-per-click ads have been around since the late 90s, no company has popularized them quite like Google. In quarter four of 2018, Google Ads sales soared to $32.6 billion, a 20% increase over the previous year’s Q4.

Similarly, the interest in influencer marketing is at an all-time high; just about every phrase containing “influencer” reached “breakout status” in Google Trends. Year over year (YOY), influencer marketing growth has shown an average 57% increase since 2016. Today, it’s a $6.5 billion industry.

Despite the increased search frequency for influencer marketing terms, a lot of brands still aren’t putting their money where their interest is. It’s as if they’re addicted to and dependent on Google Ads. Put another way, or as Founder and CEO of ApexDrop, Zak Stahlsmith, says, “They’re Google vaping.”

Turning off their paid search means losing their top spots on search engine results pages (SERPs), saying goodbye to their display network impressions, and all the beautiful charts and graphs that come with advertising through Google. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with paying to play, but it does become an issue when you’re completely dependent on one marketing strategy. To learn about the dangers of “Google vaping,” fake ROI, and the power of real influence, we sat down with Zak Stahlsmith to clear the air.

Matt Flowers: What is Google vaping?

Zak Stahlsmith: When you think of vaping, you also think of addiction. Brands are addicted to Google Ads. They're spending the majority of their ad budgets on paid search and paid social. It's sometimes more wasteful than you’d think, but brands are hooked.

There's a repurposing side of organic content you don't get with Google. You can’t repurpose a Google ad. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. But if you stop working with influencers, that content still exists.

It's almost like it's a hit. Every time brands take another puff, they get traffic. I want to inspire people to think outside of that approach, break the addiction, and get released from the beast (a.k.a Google). 

A lot of brands started using Google Ads with good intentions, thinking, I’ll just pay to play until I don’t need it anymore. But after a while, they forget about that original intent, and they lean into it, because they see ROI.

MF: How can brands organically maximize traffic and sales?

ZS: Everybody knows Google likes contextual, relevant, timely content. There's nothing more contextual, relevant, or timely than social posts and blogs. When content creators are talking about you every day, Google likes you.

So, you can get hooked on Google vaping (Ads), or you can get hooked on the good stuff: which is organic content. It’s like taking your vitamins. By investing in your brand and inspiring people to talk about you naturally, Google starts to see you as more relevant, contextual, and timely.

Zak Stahlsmith 3

CEO of ApexDrop, Zak Stahlsmith

MF: Moz recently updated its thematic clusters for Google's algorithm. Now quality and quantity of social posts actually weigh in on search ranking.

ZS: That’s right. It's good for everybody, including the end-user. I don't know how it took Google this long to realize that social creators create content that people love. If they’re making great content about a brand, how could that not count?

And it doesn't actually have to be your content. In fact, the best content is stuff other people are producing for you. But to get lots of people saying good things about your brand is very difficult. That’s why making social posts your primary investment in a content strategy is extremely smart.

When you're a small brand, sometimes you have no choice but to pay to play. But if you're an established company, you should be able to wean yourself off of the addiction and rank organically for your particular keywords.

MF: Are there brands that shouldn’t use influencer marketing?

If you're a good brand, offering a good service or product, with great pricing, and everything lines up, you're naturally going to grow. But it's going to take a long time. Influencer marketing accelerates the growth of good brands.

Influencer Content

Just a sample of ApexInfluencer's Content

On the other hand, brands that make crap products don't like real influencer marketing. They don't want people talking about it. They like influencer marketing where they pay someone to say something. That’s a different kind of influencer marketing.

MF: Why don’t paid endorsements work as well?

ZS: Everybody can smell BS from a mile away, and the BS detectors of social media users are strong. The Millennials and Gen Z's have grown up with ads in their social feeds. They have a knack for knowing when influencers are paid to say things.

But even in the past, it was pretty obvious when you saw the Instagram booty girl with the detox tea who was perfectly turned toward the camera. We're able to spot this fakeness. And, that kind of influence doesn't really work to get engagement or increase interest in your brand. In some cases, it can actually be detrimental to your brand. 

It does work in the commercial space, so I don't put it down completely. Even still, the goal should be to make ads that people want to see. If you can get into the feeds of your audience and create content that people like, you’re golden.

we are okay with influencers being paid. We encourage them to get to a point where they can get paid to do things they love. There's nothing wrong with that. But let's call it what it is. That is celebrity endorsement. That is not influence.

Our goal is to make that happen as authentically as possible. There's still going to be a little bit of bias, but if we paid influencers to do it, it would be super biased. As soon as cash comes out of the pocket and you say, "Leave a review," it's going to be biased.

That being said, we are okay with influencers being paid. We encourage them to get to a point where they can get paid to do things they love. There's nothing wrong with that. But let's call it what it is. That is celebrity endorsement. That is not influence.

MF: How do you think brands got “addicted” to Google Ads? Why aren’t they investing in influencer marketing the same way?

ZS: There's nothing wrong with paying for some traffic. It's an essential part of most marketing strategies. But the most appealing part of Google Ads is the promise of “ROI.”

The problem with ROI is how marketers measure it, handle content creation, and consider their branding. ROI reports for Google Ads and organic content creation shouldn’t be measured the same way.

You can prove ROI for branding; it just takes time. I like year-over-year (YOY). But who has the patience for YOY in this day of I-need-it-now?

The other problem is fake ROI. Fake ROI is when you're paying for traffic that you would have gotten organically. If you would have made the same investment from day one, but used it to build up content that puts you on the first page, how much would you be saving now?

But you can't measure the “how-much-did-I-not-make ROI.” You can't know what you don't know. That's part of this addiction; you can't see the pain because all you see is the pleasure—you see the fake ROI.

Every time you take that hit, you’re hurting your brand in the long term. If you take your vitamins and create good content, you'll ultimately see the results you're looking for. But it won't happen overnight.

MF: I think a lot of brands forget that when they stop paying Google, their paid search ranking and content comes to an end.

ZS: There's a repurposing side of organic content you don't get with Google. You can’t repurpose a Google ad. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. But if you stop working with influencers, that content still exists. If you stop paying for content creation, the content you have still exists. But it’s long term thinking, that’s why YOY is our best measurement.

MF: How do you recommend brands test whether influencer marketing is working?

ZS: Integrate our influencers' content into your brand's product pages and measure the conversion rate. If that conversion rate is worth the investment in lifestyle content, it's working. Let's say you have a 3% conversion rate on a product page. After including the lifestyle content, that rate increases by 50%, bringing you up to 4.5%.

Fake influence is one of the most prominent issues in the industry.

Figure out how much more money that is off that particular page in a month. Then take that number and multiply it times 12. You'll get your ROI for the year off that page. Then, assuming your brand will be around for at least ten years, you multiply that number times ten because good content pays off forever. When you do this for every page on your site, those numbers become big, really fast.

CEO of ApexDrop, Zak Stahlsmith

CEO of ApexDrop, Zak Stahlsmith

MF: If an influencer is getting something in return, whether it’s money or a product, what is the fundamental difference between the two approaches to influencer marketing?

ZS: Influencers do get something in return. The theory here is that if micro-influencers are paid more than the value of their followers, they might fake it. What I mean by that is, the trust they've built is precious. They wouldn't sacrifice that trust to make a small amount of money, but they might sacrifice it for a lot of money.

So what's a good amount of money? ApexDrop did a survey and found out that once you cross $100 in value, bias increases in micro-influencers unless you have a system and agreement with a third party that helps you reduce bias like ApexDrop has created.  

MF: Can you tell me a little bit about your vetting process?

ZS: Fake influence is one of the most prominent issues in the industry. It's so easy to buy followers. In five minutes, I could put 10,000 followers on your account. That's very dangerous for our industry. 

However, our vetting process is very strong. When we created the company, we also created 40 metrics that help us vet influencers. For instance, we look at any spikes in an account’s followers. If we see any spike in follower count, we test it in our algorithm. If the spike can’t be explained through an event, a mention, or something like that, they don’t get into our network. We also look for organic growth curves. If we don't see a growth path that looks natural, then they don't get it.

There's no such thing as a “perfect” system. But I'd say we've come pretty close to figuring out true influence. Based on those 40 points, we can find people's true influence scores. If their score is high enough, then we have one final step, which is the human look. We have a person analyze the account because there are some things that robots can't do: robots are not good at determining the quality of content and how it can perform in the real world.

We even look for what we call first-shot versus staged photos. We have a scoring system based around it. Some brands want candid lifestyle imagery, and others want images produced by a photographer. We created a photography network of over 40,000 amateur photographers so that we can have them shoot pictures of whatever brands are interested in.

ApexDrop Photographers


MF: What are your thoughts on working with influencers with even lower follower counts?

ZS:  We call people with under 5,000 followers on Instagram nano-influencers. We've been in that space and we've even explored follower counts below nanos, like your everyday person. It’s not a bad strategy, it just works differently. I would say that's a great space for the coupons.

If you want to get true influence, though, then we’ve found the sweet spot. Specifically, on Instagram, we believe it to be between 5,000 and 50,000 followers. It’s where both engagement and trust are high but there are some tricks to knowing who to work with and who to avoid that we've learned. The average influencer in our network has 15,000 followers.

MF: How did you find that sweet spot?

ZS: We kept testing different areas to see what kind of effects it had. We found that engagement rate was a really strong indicator of true influence. We also found that as soon as you cross the 50,000 follower mark, you typically see that the influencer starts to feel entitled to payment, and for good reason.

Brands are attacking them for posts. Again, there is nothing wrong with getting paid to do the things you love. So let me be clear, that's a good thing. I want to encourage every influencer that ever works with ApexDrop to get to a level where they can get paid to do what they love.

However, I do encourage them to stay genuine. Don't listen to the brands that say, “Post on Tuesday, wearing purple, and say exactly this thing.” If you're going to do that, you’re selling out. Stay genuine, and speak from the heart.

MF: How do you know ApexInfluencers are honest about their reviews?

ZS: We align brands with smaller influencers who give genuine opinions. We really mean that. We don't want them to be biased whatsoever.

If influencers don't like a product, we want them to say as much. We want the criticism, but we just hope they don't do it publicly.  Our system is so strategic that we've never had an influencer in our network complain publicly about a client's product, but because authenticity is at our core, it could happen and we accept that risk as part of the cost of true authenticity.  We've had 350 clients, hundreds of thousands of posts, and not one bad review. Why? Because we've set a tone of trust.

We ask influencers, "Hey, if you don't like it, would you be nice enough to just tell us why you don't like it privately?" We make it easy to share honest feedback and we let them know that we appreciate criticism. The brands like it too. It's how they get better.  But by having a third party manage it, you can actually keep authenticity at the highest level.  Sometimes when a brand works direct with an influencer, the influencer feels obligated to be "nice", instead of honest.

MF: There's this thought that influencer marketing is a bubble that's about to burst. What do you think?

ZS: I hope the word "influencer" dies a terrible death!  But seriously, I do hope it goes away and gets replaced by a better word like content creator.  You aren't born influential. You make great things and have a unique voice, and your content becomes influential.  To call yourself an influencer is like saying everything you do influences people.  This is just not true.  The reality is that influencer marketing in one shape or form, has existed for over 100 years.  So it's not going to go away anytime soon, however it might get a new name.

We're never going to get away from word of mouth either. People like recommendations and referrals. So let's just be real, the word influencer should die. It's not really about someone being born with influence. It's about people creating interesting content. That's where the eyeballs go. That's never going away. 

MF: What do you want people to do if they're interested in checking out ApexDrop?

ZS: The easiest way to get information is by scheduling a call or by checking out our ApexDrop case studies at ApexDrop.com. If it looks interesting, and you have a product that needs to get into the hands of the right people, then you should have a chat with one of our agents. I would recommend trying out one of our campaigns to see if it makes sense for your brand.