Marketing news sites and blogs have been lighting up in the last couple of weeks with a discussion about influencer marketing being “over” not long after many outlets declared that 2016 was the year when it would really hit its stride. With over 75 percent of brands engaging in this forward-thinking strategy, it was inevitable that some people would write provocative articles in order to draw clicks. Plus, who among us doesn’t like to be the canary in the coal mine? The problem with this discussion is that it’s arguing against influencer marketing from a couple of years ago, when the concept was in its infancy. They aren’t talking about real influencer marketing in 2016. The strategy has evolved into something much more useful and effective.
Tracing back the conversation, the fussing began with an anonymous observation on Digiday that the industry grew too fast for its own good. Many have now complained that high-end influencers like PewDiePie (the King of YouTube with over 45 million followers) are being compensated at rates that startle most brand managers. These folks are also quick to dismiss the value of influencer marketing because quantifying the gains from these campaigns requires some new concepts. They’re struggling with content that needs to stay authentic to a creator’s vision, which happens on channels they may not control and where they may not be able to include traditional CTAs. There’s also the FTC ready to come after them if disclosures are not in place.
The situation described in the Digiday article does sound terrible. Confused marketers desperately paying top dollar for some random YouTuber with a lot of subscribers to talk up a product they do not use sounds like a bad plan all around. The complaint itself is not new and many influencers actually got there first. This is the kind of pay-to-play influencer advertising that drove Instagrammer Essena O’Neill out of the business last year. This kind of quick-buck product placement will not give brands any kind of lift if the young audiences viewing the content resent their inclusion in videos and social posts. What is the point of distinction, then, that makes marketing with influencers into actual influencer marketing?
Influencer Marketing: A Clear Definition
At ION, we have a simple definition for influencer marketing that is functional but also philosophical. Influencer marketing is about relationships, trust and shared interests. We think the only reason a social media creator should be speaking about a product or service is because they believe in it. They may or may not work directly with a brand to create content and align the message but it should be clear that they actually love what they are recommending to their audience.
“The frustration you are hearing from some marketers is because they approached influencer as something akin to a media buy,” says Vincent Juarez, principal at ION. “Since we have long experience in both media buying and influencer marketing, we’ve helped our clients understand that this is a different animal. Influencer marketing isn’t about an ask in the content that sounds unnatural. That is bad for the brand as well as the creator’s sense of authenticity.”
There’s a reason why product placement with the biggest influencers feels like a celebrity endorsement – that’s what it’s become. YouTubers with millions of subscribers speak to an audience larger than most traditional television stars do. A year ago, Forbes noted that placement with PewDiePie was a relative deal versus broadcast commercials on TV’s highest-rated show, The Big Bang Theory. Now, the industry is looking at ROI and stepping back from that notion. But are we looking at it in the right light?
Placing product messages with the biggest social media creators is more like how Verizon is using traditional celebrity Ricky Gervais to promote their services. While audiences may have a perceived relationship with celebrities with this kind of reach (and Gervais has a social presence with his real personality and plenty of followers), it isn’t possible for them to maintain the kind of interaction with audiences that is part of the appeal of influencer marketing. Sure, there’s an aspirational effect, but there isn’t the trust and real connection that an influencer with a small to mid-sized audience can achieve.
Indeed, that trust is challenged when you see a slip-up like this recent one when celebrity influencer Scott Disick (16 million Instagram followers) simply did a copy/paste from brand instructions in an email. This isn’t influencer marketing.
In which Scott Disick copied and pasted the email from the skinny tea marketing team onto his Instagram caption pic.twitter.com/ocVdxi4jaZ
— frank (@frankiegreek) May 19, 2016
Influencers with a smaller audience would never do that. They don’t want to feature ads with direct brand instructions like that. They cannot afford to lose their audience with inauthentic ads. They have a bond with their followers from shared interests, from interaction and responses to their content and even direct outreach. The biggest YouTubers, Instagrammers and Snappers may have started with these principles, but the sheer size of their massive audiences makes it impossible to maintain.
If someone actually buys Verizon services because they like Ricky Gervais, they aren’t going to refuse to see his next movie if the service isn’t ideal. Of course, when Gervais got caught in a Twitter exchange with Sprint about the accuracy of the ad’s information, it might have hurt both brands (Verzion and Gervais) a bit. The risk is greater for a social media creator who looks like a shill for a brand. They are far more protective of their content because if they lose the personal relationship with their audience due to a perception that they will abuse that relationship in the name of something they don’t believe in, they will drive their audience away and reduce engagement. Brands will not benefit from this either, since their message will not resonate if it is not a good fit and if audience members react in a hostile way to something that feels inauthentic.
True influencer marketing takes this into account for both the brand’s sake and that of the social media creator who wants to make a living creating content. “This is why Brand Soulmates was built,” says Kai Mildenberger, CTO at ION, “Much like using eHarmony to find a real relationship versus what we like to call ‘Tinder transactions’ for influencers, we help match up brands with their ideal social media creators that have a natural affinity for their products. This is a win-win-win situation because even the audience benefits from finding out about products that are more than likely to be of interest to them because our matching goes down to the audience level.”
The frustrated exec that confessed to Digiday was clearly not working from this playbook. With real relationships as the basis for collaborative content creation and distribution efforts between influencers and brands, the focus is on authenticity and ROI. These campaigns are judged by audience engagement, as ION tracks with use of the Ayzenberg Earned Media Value Index, and the strength of the relationships with the influencers, who become partners for sustained campaigns, not just short-term gains in vanity metrics that don’t help businesses grow.
Like most concepts, influencer marketing has developed over time. While it started out with a fuzzier definition, the smarter end of the industry has moved on from that outdated concept of simply paying for placement on influencer channels. Influencer marketing in 2016 is about developing and sustaining real relationships with social media creators and their audiences to drive real value through actual audience engagement. Influencer marketing is more than the antidote to ad blocking because it isn’t just about being seen. Influencer marketing is about taking hold and engaging an audience so you can connect with regular partners and long-term customers, not just one-time buyers.