Conflicting Views On Influencer Marketing
TL;DR — Everyone seems to have an opinion on the value of influencer marketing. It’s just media: measure it, optimize it and compare it to other options.
Having spent the last decade of my career focused on influencer marketing, I avidly read about the space constantly. This weekend I saw several conflicting articles about the efficacy of the industry and its future. As with any form of media going through a maturation process, there are varied viewpoints, and what worked just months ago might not work now, or what works for some doesn’t work for others. This is especially true of all digital media as most of the distribution platforms are constantly changing the underlying algorithms and subsequently changing the performance of media on those channels. Being a modern marketer requires constant emergence in, and experimentation with, organic media to understand how it works. Set it and forget it marketing will result in suboptimal results.
What caught my attention was the diversity of opinions. Influencer marketing is more than just the practice of working with influencers. It’s also a source of content creation and distribution that encompasses all of the paid media elements (one of the most overlooked and misunderstood dynamics of this media). Quite simply, influencer marketing can be compared side by side with other types of media so that marketers can make informed decisions about the value of the investment and appropriate media mix modeling. As with all of digital media, influencer marketing can and must be measured. Any suggestions to the contrary are misinformed.
Influencer Marketing is Advertising
No matter how you slice it, influencer marketing is an ad. Quality influencer media is paid and accomplishes the same results as any other kind of advertising including reach, frequency, engagement and conversion. Despite the fact that influencers are a business, there is a lingering idea in some quarters that they shouldn’t be paid. This is preposterous, as they build and nurture audiences, create content, and provide a service like any other media property. Why would they work simply for ‘exposure’ when their brands are often larger and more engaging than the brands that engage them. Digital advertising has become saturated and quality inventory supply is far outstripped by demand. Nicholas Michon of Upfluencence points out in a recent Forbes article that the major digital platforms are already maxed out with ad capacity, and that additional attention can’t be created out of thin air. More ads equal more spam.
Influencers Don’t Influence?
Elinor Cohen writes in a Medium post that influencers don’t actually have any influence. The data would suggest otherwise as influencer media receives higher rates of engagement (especially micro-influencers) and lower overall costs, than does branded media. Additionally, studies show ROI of 6 to 1 and higher for influencer media, much higher than most media alternatives. Several articles point to the problem of fake influencer numbers or fraud in distribution. Again, this is a problem with ALL digital media. Recent studies by the industry itself, estimate that a third of digital media ($16 billion worth) is fraud. Let that number sink in for a minute. At least with influencer generated content there is ACTUAL content (vs. a fake ad that no human ever sees) that can drive ongoing SEO if posted and supported properly. No matter what the source, fraud is unacceptable, but ultimately the buyer is at fault if they are not measuring and verifying the delivery and effectiveness of media buys. There are a multitude of resources to measure the authenticity and composition of influencer audiences such as Tru-stats. There is also a notion among some practitioners that some influencers are fraudulently engaging with and sharing each other’s posts. This has been something that most influencers have always done because it helps to drive increased frequency, reach to broader audiences, and triggers algorithm-driven interaction. A smart strategy expands upon this practice by creating cross-posting, and story integration, so that readers can pursue more viewpoints and information should they choose, along with targeted paid media matching against engaged audiences.
Brand and Influencer Tension
As brand usage of influencers has grown, so have challenges with working relationships. Some of the friction is driven by the intermediaries seeking to help organize and manage influencers, some is created by the brands, and the influencers themselves, cause some. I believe part of the confusion exists because influencer media is treated as earned media value (PR), when in its commercial form it’s actually paid media. People (including influencers) organically talking about your brand is a wonderful thing, but in reality happens less often for most brands than they would like. Smart marketing helps to drive talk value, but still, it’s rarely scalable. Many marketers are taking control of their own destinies by developing their own brand relationships with influencers, the way we did at Walmart in 2008 with the Elevenmoms program. The huge benefit of direct relationships is the invaluable amount of feedback and insights provided by a vibrant group of brand-relevant influencers. This “always-on” focus group not only supports marketing efforts, but also helps brands to understand activity happening on social media platforms. The influencers are on the front lines of using social tools and apps for their daily audience engagement. When something changes, they know it first!
The bottom line is that any form of successful media quickly gets saturated, overused, and misused, by marketers. Remember when email had a 30% open rate and banner ads received high single-digit or even double digit click-throughs? Quality, relevance, and relationships become paramount because human attention is finite. Marketers should use “free” influencers, other than their hand-raised brand advocates and employee advocates, as they would late night ads on obscure cable channels, the results will likely be similar. #RetailRelevancy