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Under The Influence: The Deepening Relationships between Fair Marketing & Social Media Influencers
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It's long been the marketing reality for fairs and other events that social media leads the annual promotional campaign and overall branding. Through multiple platforms, this new media drives nearly all messaging – from promoting specific attractions to engaging the community. It's where taglines are debuted, flash sales conducted and the majority of website visits generated.

But as with all things internet, social media marketing continues to evolve, and fair marketing has kept apace. Social Media Influencers (SMI) – those internet personalities usually with a reputation of authority or expertise in a particular area – and who uses that authority to engage with large numbers of social media followers – are now an integral marketing component to many of the leading fairs in North America. Bloggers, websites and other content creators have been around for more than a decade and now have morphed into SMIs with multiple platforms: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X formerly known as Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Some of the leading SMI categories are food, family, fun – natural fits for the fairs – but other influencers cover music, tourism, travel, parenting, local and regional issues and interests – even amusement rides – reaching tens of thousands – and often more – potential fairgoers. In 2023, these collaborations between fairs and SMIs showed both signs of expansion and evolution as the scions of the New Media and the upholders of an annual statewide tradition continued their unique partnership.

SMI Fair Events

Minnesota's yearly Great Get Together, one of the largest fairs in the U.S., and often on the cutting edge of industry innovation, was also one of the first to tap into this 21st century communications phenomenon. “The Minnesota State Fair started working with content creators in 2014 by hosting a pre-fair event for bloggers, targeting writers who focused on food, family, local things to do and value,” said Maria Hayden, Spokespeman, Minnesota State Fair. “The event consisted of sneak peeks of new foods, new programs and hearing from fair staff with the goal of generating excitement for the upcoming fair.”

In 2019, the Florida State Fair amped its courtship of SMI's by holding its first “Influencer Taste of the Fair Event” an exclusive and “all-inclusive” reception and tour for regional content creators to explore and share the annual celebration of everything Sunshine State. Cheryl Flood, Executive Director, Florida State Fair Authority, said at the time: “A lot of these “Influencers” had thousands of followers so it was a unique way for us to tap into an audience we would normally not reach through traditional social media buys.”

Food being a major enticement for consumers to become fairgoers and Foodies being one of, if not the largest categories of SMIs, proved to be the most effective get acquainted form. According to Patty Chandler, Director of Marketing & Partnerships. “With new food items being a hallmark of each Florida State Fair, we thought "Why not bring them to social media?" Social media is a key marketing factor for any and every business, so in 2019, we began building relationships with local content creators — not only to give them a unique experience at our fair, but to let them share with their followers all the Florida State Fair has to offer.”

These events have continued each year, each subsequent reception tweaked as the relationship between parties matured and the world of SMIs became larger, and more trackable. “We do still host creators during each fair, and while the event is more of an all-encompassing fair experience now, attendees do still get to try a few of our new foods each year,” said Chandler. “We have long standing relationships with – and we've more recently started working with a larger pool that cater to different guest segments and interests. Every influencer creates content unique to them, capturing their experiences the way only they see them, which is what makes our creator partners so special — there is something for everyone at the Florida State Fair. The event has evolved by becoming more about the fair as a whole, rather than solely about tasting our new foods. While this still plays a huge role in our annual event, we also encourage creators to experience our opportunities for entertainment, agriculture, Creative Living, rides, games, musical acts and more.”

Mining for Metrics

The ability to adapt to the world of rapid change that is Social Media has been key to fairs optimizing their SMI collaborations. “In 2023 the Minnesota State Fair worked with more than 20 creators to create digital advertising videos as well as content for our organic social media channels,” said Hayden. “When working with creators, what we look for depends on the objective of the video. For example, in digital advertising, we are looking for creators who are able to show an exciting fair experience through their unique lens –food they try, date night, visiting with an out-of-town friend, what to bring to the fair, etc. For organic social media content, we look for creators who have content that aligns with one of our message strategies for a year. Some targeted messages we've focused on in 2023 included the value of fair admission, new Grandstand concert venue amenities, showcasing our new foods, tips for first-time fair guests and more. We measure the success of our partnerships through engagement and reach.”

Quantifying the degree of success seems a moving target, evolving along with social media, SMIs, and the fair-SMI partnerships. “Effectiveness can be determined in a number of ways, including content engagement and quality,” said Chandler. “While we enjoy working with a variety of creators, those that typically post lifestyle, event/seasonal, food-focused and local content meet an audience that would be interested in all the fun at Florida State Fair. We may begin to utilize custom links for influencers to include in the future as a way to measure individual productivity and effectiveness.”

Creating data, Kathy Allen, Marketing Director of the South Carolina State Fair, admits. “This is a tricky one. To date, we have not asked for the influencer to give us metrics. At this time, the effectiveness is making sure the influencer has a large audience on a social page or website that fits our business, that the influencers posts as agreed upon and that the posts are fun and showcase the fair in a way that meets our objectives.”

Adapting to Change

The South Carolina State Fair began utilizing influencers in 2018 and that relationship has evolved so the fair can better strategize SMI utilization. “Our program is more formal now, including having signed agreements that state specifically the deliverables from both parties and the deadlines,” said Nancy Smith, Fair Manager. “We handle the program internally, but our advertising agency gave us the idea along with a list of suggested influencers. We have used a handful of their suggestions, but most of our influencers come from people that love the South Carolina State Fair and have contacted us.  We have a social media plan and we have an influencer plan and the two do not overlap.  The only thing in common is same platforms and same Director overseeing them.”

Typically SMIs receive free admission, food coupons and other considerations, not dissimilar to what is typically provided to members of the mainstream press. Of course, the relationship between SMIs and the fair is a contractual component atypical for news reporters. What has changed the most about the SMI/Fair relationship? “To be specific within our agreements,” said Allen. “And to follow-up on proof of performance.”

The Florida State Fair follows a similar formula. “It's quite simple — we connect with the creators and invite them to our event,” said Chandler. “They will receive a package of related merchandise and materials with tickets and details for a great experience. On our end, we work to ensure everything from their arrival to their departure is excellent.”

The Ohio State Fair has been working with SMIs both pre and post-lockdown, hosting its first SMI VIP event in 2019. The fair also “partnered with a local influencer who is involved in the agriculture community, runs her own recipe website and recipe blog, and does marketing consulting to help us find influencers and launch this program,” said Jess West, Public Information Officer, Ohio Expo Center & State Fair.

After the dabbling experience proved worthwhile, the Ohio State Fair deepened that relationship. “We still work with influencers but in a different capacity than we did initially. We shifted our focus away from the VIP event and began casting a wider net to recruit new influencers, as well as enhance our partnership with a few key influencers. We still invite influencers to attend the Ohio State Fair by providing free admission, parking, and assets to a large group of influencers in and around Ohio. We focus on metrics and social engagement. We believe our program works because we invite all different types of influencers to participate including parents with their children, foodies, ride enthusiasts, farmers or those in the agriculture community, event goers, people looking for a bargain, and many others.”

The Ohio State Fair feels an open-ended. ultra-cooperative approach in their SMI partnerships. “Our rule of thumb is to give people the tools they need whether that's links, information, photos, b-roll, etc. and allow them to tell our story from their perspective. It is important to us that the influencers have an authentic experience that shows the fair from their unique lens – for example, a foodie influencer will focus on unique food offerings, while a family-oriented influencer shares their experience with kid-friendly activities. We work with a diverse set of influencers so they can all share the story of the Ohio State Fair from their angle.”

Background Checks

What fairs marketers also emphasize is that in conjunction with formalizing the agreement in terms of posts, etc., the fair's team must research SMIs beyond just numbers of followers and other deliverables. Image and brand integrity can be compromised by an unsuitable SMI. Agency GWL – the advertising agency for the Arkansas State Fair – implemented that fair's SMI program in 2022. Dan Sawyer, Senior Director Of Accounts & Business Development, Agency GWL, explained in using SMIs that the agency is “very protective of our client and their image/brand while choosing which influencers will be part of the marketing efforts. It's not always based on the followers and their numbers. Many of them can't tell you who or where their followers are from. They serve no purpose or add value if they are not potential customers. Everything that our agency does is targeted at results and putting people through the Fair's gates.”

SMIs are not the mainstream press, so fairs must devise programs that fit these New Media representative's scope of interests while also integrating them into the overall marketing campaign for the fair. “”Our influencers are treated even better than the mainstream press,” said Sawyer. “They are given special access to areas, rides, etc. and have intimate access to key fair personnel. Our agency works directly with the influencers to promote the special discounted days at the Fair to help push attendance on the days and times that need a boost in revenue generation.”

He added, “Any fair that is not working closely on content with the influencers is wasting money. Followers don't generate revenue. Followers that are engaged with your product and the message you feed your influencers and attend the fair generate revenue. The agency – influencer relationship is the key to successfully marketing your product and event.”
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