Innovator Interviews: BEN Group's CEO Ricky Ray Butler Talks About The Future of Influencers

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As the world of entertainment becomes more decentralized, BEN Group is working even harder to navigate platforms and target consumers, using AI technology and data to identify trends and key content creators. Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of BEN Group, talks about the future of influencer marketing.

As the world of entertainment  becomes more decentralized, BEN Group is working even harder to navigate platforms and target consumers, using AI technology and data to identify trends and key content creators. 

“The entertainment ecosystem is undergoing a phase of rapid growth driven by decentralization,” said Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of BEN Group. “There is an ocean of content available across social media and entertainment today, and understandably, it’s far too vast for any human to comprehend. With millions of creators producing and releasing content every day across platforms, the biggest opportunity we see is for brands to lean on AI to really make sense of brand integration opportunities.”

BEN Group, a Bill Gates company, serves as an entertainment AI company that works to integrate brands into influencer content, streaming content, music, TV, and film. 

BEN Group helps brands focus on key strategies across different content platforms to get a true return on their advertising spend. The agency aims to lead with “consensus and empowerment,” rather than trying to “disturb and disrupt.” Butler hopes to empower both the brands and the content creators he works with – whether it’s a Hollywood producer or a Tik Tok star.  

“Right now, we are experiencing the era of the creator. The renaissance of art through digital media has empowered content creators and artists alike to launch businesses and brands in a way that’s never happened before,” explains Butler. “It’s an exciting shift in the balance of power, and ultimately gives creators the tools to truly shape our culture. While culture has historically been preserved through physical art, the mediums for expression are now incredibly vast and accessible, enabling creators to make a big impact whether it’s in Hollywood or on social media.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Butler from his home in sunny Los Angeles to discuss cross-platform marketing, using AI to scale data-driven systems, and the future of Hollywood and influencers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

From a channel perspective how should brands be thinking about influencer marketing? 

First and foremost, I always recommend that brands be platform agnostic and have a holistic strategy, because the reality is, there are so many different platforms out there that create a range of opportunities – you have live-streaming platforms, short-form video platforms, YouTube, and many others. What we are learning is that a lot of these creators are diversifying their audiences and building followings across different platforms. When you work with a creator, rather than think about a single YouTube video, explore ways you can integrate your brand into their content across platforms. At BEN, we believe in doing this in an empowering way so that creators can make content that feels authentic and audiences see this partnership as something positive.

Every platform has a specific strategy associated with it, but generally, it’s important to empower creators to really guide you on how to best communicate with the audience they have built up. The creator is ultimately the expert on their audience, so they should be the creative director and decide how to position sponsored content in a way that feels authentic to their personal brand. By allowing them to prioritize consistency in their programming, you mitigate the chances of alienating their audiences with content that is disruptive or out-of-character. 

How should brands be incorporating influencers into their brand marketing?

There are three key considerations that brands need to be mindful of when it comes to influencer marketing. First, when facilitating campaigns, it’s important to integrate into the community and really build relationships. There are millions of influencers with their own unique audiences who can be your spokespeople. Rather than treating campaigns as a targeted all-or-nothing, try and engage with a diverse set of communities to build broad stroke awareness.

Second, invest in measuring attribution. As an example, we have worked on a number of influencer campaigns for a specific CPG brand where the product ended up selling out across stores all over the US and Canada, and saw a significant lift in EMEA and APAC. This company had attribution processes in place to understand where their growth and sales were coming from and could pinpoint which specific campaigns helped, and which were falling flat.

Third, brands need to utilize technology that can learn like a human, but scale like a machine. Even as a business, we were forced to become an AI company because things were growing so fast and becoming so decentralized that it was impossible for us to navigate everything on our own. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in technology to build algorithms that can leverage our performance data to make predictions about which creators we should prioritize. 

As an agency, in order to scale and advance, you need relationships, you need attribution, you need the right technology, and you need the data-driven systems and processes to empower everything else. 

Can you talk about how data plays a role in your industry? 

One of the limitations of our industry, and in Hollywood overall, is that there has been a lack of data and scalability. As a company, we are building technological infrastructure to enable the industry to level up. 

Annually, companies spend $657 billion on advertising and media, of which about $14 billion is spent on influencer marketing and only about $1 billion is being spent on product placement across television, movies, and music video. The fact is that viewership habits have completely changed. People are not watching TV like they used to, they are watching content on streaming platforms or social media where they are not getting the same exposure to ads -- so why have advertising and media spending habits and budgets not followed suit?

What we’ve found is that, in order to really leverage content creators, in Hollywood or on streaming platforms or on social media, you have to look at the data differently. You need to understand the audiences you’re trying to reach and what content will reach them. From there, you can determine what type of integration will be most effective.

AI is a trendy buzzword right now among brands. How does BEN Group use AI to achieve meaningful goals? 

There’s a lot of hype around AI, but for many companies, there is a lot of false advertising around the almost magical powers that AI provides, which is simply misleading. So what can AI actually do? For one, it analyzes massive amounts of data more efficiently and effectively than humans can, and can use that data to make accurate predictions. 

There are different types of data, structured (metadata) and unstructured data. Structured data is what you can put on a spreadsheet – views, clicks, engagements. What we’ve seen is that over 90% of brands aren’t looking at the unstructured data. Unstructured data is actually what’s happening in the content – the visuals, the audio, the images, the sentiments, the text. That is 80-90% of the data we capture. We have built AI to predict how to sell a product, online sales, installs on apps, or getting large amounts of native, organic viewership. 

The game changer is not the structured data. While helpful, you are only getting 10-20% of the picture. To really make breakthroughs in predictions, companies need AI to analyze the audio and visual data and find correlations and patterns within all existing opportunities. We use AI to identify the trends, identify creators, look at all performance data, and figure out what to monitor and prioritize. 

Where do you see influencer marketing going in the next year?

I think we are at the tip of the iceberg. One trend we’ve seen is increased investment in local creators — i.e. someone who is famous in a certain city like New York or San Francisco. They have insight into local audience behaviors that is tremendously helpful to brands that are looking to target a specific geographic region.

We’re also seeing a growing interest in live streaming. With it, we see the decentralization of content, where there is more variety in platforms, and more diverse content than ever before. With new video and live streaming platforms available, brands will need to build out infrastructure to better navigate this new world of video content. It is the biggest form of media out there today and there are a wealth of opportunities that are virtually untapped at this point.

The last area where we’ve invested heavily is inventing technology to scale manual duties. Influencer marketing and product placement are two traditionally manual, relationship-driven industries. You have to be inventive to take it to the next level. Our goal is to build the biggest infrastructure for the community to make it easier to navigate across the board. 

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