Photos by @photobyvincent

This is Part Two in an ongoing series UNFILTERED, where Curalate Marketing Director Brendan Lowry interviews influencers and marketers that are shaping the future of e-commerce. Enjoy it with your morning coffee. (Check out Part 1 here.)

Meet Mario Moreno. A self-proclaimed “social media nerd,” Moreno has spent his career helping some of the most well-known brands reach wider audiences. It all started eight years ago at Loyola Marymount University, where Moreno worked as a tour guide while studying Communication and Media Studies. He almost didn’t make one of his tours because of a trip to Chipotle with friends — but luckily he did, because the nice guy showing his daughter around campus happened to be Maurice Marciano, Co-Founder of GUESS Inc.

That chance meeting turned into a career-defining moment. Moreno worked at GUESS for more than six years, first in various communications roles then as the brand’s Global Social Media Manager. As an intern, he suggested that the company join an up-and-coming social media channel called Instagram.

Fast forward to present day and Moreno is a bonafide Instagram influencer boasting more than 18,000 followers on his personal account @followmario. He’s now the Senior Manager of Global Social Media for Forever 21 and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising teaching social media for business marketing.

I sat down with Mario to ask about working with some of the biggest names in fashion, whether he considers himself an “influencer,” and the future of digital marketing.

You have a personal Instagram account with a great aesthetic. Did that help you land your current role?

Although it was never brought up in the interview, I know it definitely helps. To truly understand social media, you have to be in it. You have to build up your following, but also your own content strategy. It’s about practice and keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s trending. I also love the curation of images, so I always try to tell a visual story to my followers.

How have you handled building your personal social channels while also handling the growth of corporate accounts?

It’s tough, but in order to not burn out, you genuinely have to love social media. I am a huge planner, so I plan my content in advance. I typically spend Sundays taking photos with friends or photographers and then plan them out for the week. It’s become more of an automatic process for me, which doesn’t sound fun, but it is. I’ve made so many friends through social media, it’s been cool to express myself with others and grow my photography skills. However, social media for a brand is different, you think of it through a customer perspective and you have to be a bit more calculated. It’s a challenge, but a fun one.

Would you consider yourself an “influencer?” If so, is there ever a conflict of interest with brands you work with in your day job? How do you balance it?

I don’t really consider myself an “influencer” per say but more of a content creator. I know I have some influence when I show off clothing or products to my followers, but I don’t think overall my feed is similar to that of a true influencer. People aren’t tuning into my feed for #sponsored posts — they care more about my lifestyle and what I’m doing and where I am. I rarely push clothing unless I purchase it or it’s a brand that I believe in, therefore avoiding any conflicts. I try to be as authentic as possible, but I will always prioritize my professionalism over my own social media, I just do it for fun and have an audience that senses that.

Let’s talk about how marketing has evolved in the past few years… How have goals and objectives for the social media and marketing department changed within the industry?

I think KPIs have become significantly more crucial and are being looked at as an indication of overall product success. Some social channels generate significant traffic to the site which leads to conversions, therefore, when key stakeholders in your organization notice how much revenue and traffic you drive (both online and offline, paid and organic) they start to pay more attention and invest more resources. I think social has evolved to go down two paths: branding and revenue drivers. It’s not about just having pretty pictures anymore.

How has social gone from being its own silo to something that is crucial to organizations and something that gains more respect from upper management?

I never understood companies that took a siloed approach with social media. Although you have owned channels, your social media strategy will only thrive if you amplify across all of your available omni-channels. I like to think of social as a method to amplify efforts. If we have a huge product launch, I want to make sure I align my strategy with the press release, e-mail cadence, web presence, paid digital marketing efforts, in-store windows, etc. It needs to all come together to tell a complete story. Social media marketers need to understand what it means to be a cross-functional partner with a truly integrated marketing strategy.

How is Forever 21 leveraging content and the insights learned from social to create an impact offline or outside of social? Can you give us an example?

We utilize social listening as a sort of SWOT analysis. We aren’t perfect at everything but we are starting to do more with the information we receive. Whether it be campaigns or product feedback, we are leveraging social insights to dictate what our buys should be and how to react to what customers like and what they don’t. These insights can impact copywriting, signage, events, collaborations, product, etc. The best example I can give is when we launched our @forever21plus Instagram. We immediately recognized our followers didn’t want campaign/model images, they wanted to see product on real customers, so we listened and threw away our strategy and developed a new one. The customers/followers appreciated it and engaged more.

What does the future of influencer/brand relationships look like? How will it evolve past social media?

This is a very interesting question. I think brands will start to use influencers as the new models. Video content is where I see a lot of brand partnerships heading. In addition, I also see brands doing more curation and styling of pieces which I find fascinating. The “influencer” world is so oversaturated now, brands will need to evolve their strategy in order to succeed. The purchasing power of an influencer post has somewhat diminished, it’s about content and presentation now.

How do you currently find influencers? Does it help that you have a large Instagram following yourself?

Aww, shucks – thanks! I wouldn’t say my following on @followmario is large, but I do take my Instagram very seriously. I feel like in order to be a good social media manager and influencer sourcer, you have to understand how to do social media from all sides. The way that I find influencers based on their content. I am routinely looking for new influencers who inspire me and do something unique. I don’t pay attention to follower counts anymore, you can have 100 followers or 1 million, it doesn’t matter to me, what matters is you take an awesomely cool photo or have great style. This is one of the blessings of Forever 21, we already have the reach and mass appeal, we don’t necessarily need to search for that like some other brands.

How does Forever 21 measure and maximize ROI with influencers?

We utilize UTM tracking through Google Analytics to ensure that we are monetizing and measuring ROI with influencers. This allows us to have data behind which influencers our fans love and which ones simply don’t drive results. This is something I learned very early on in my career, you should always track and measure everything you do.

It would be great to work with influencers that have millions of followers but we’re seeing data that says micro-influencers (1,000 to 10,000 followers) get better engagement. Does Forever 21 work with micro-influencers? What do those partnerships look like?

We typically only work with micro-influencers. Forever 21 is and has always been a brand about discovery. Discovery of fashion, your lifestyle and more, the same goes for our influencer strategy. We are a community that wants to introduce you to people or styles that we think are cool. We see great success in utilizing these types of influencers because it starts from a very authentic and organic place with purpose.

What are the expectations from influencers? Do they expect a lot of money and/or merchandise for what they get — or are they pretty reasonable?

A lot of times people are simply grateful for the exposure. Forever 21 is such a powerhouse in social media and is globally known, so influencers understand what the brand can do for them beyond a paycheck or free product. This is why our hashtag #F21xMe is so popular, people want to be associated with the brand and get discovered. This is part of the ethos of our social strategy. #InstaFamous

What advice would you give other social media marketers?

I would suggest that Social Media Managers break down the idea of silos and really understand all parts of the business. Social media can only thrive when you lead a strategy based on being a part of the larger brand story. You should make a conscious effort to understand your company’s overarching objectives and how you can support other team and help them reach their independent goals. With social you have to learn how to be good at content, analytics, driving traffic and staying innovative. It’s a lot but spend time focusing and getting better in all areas, not just one.