From revelations about fake followers and embarrassingly bad sponsored posts, to questions about the lack of transparency and the cringe-worthy rehashing of the Fyre Festival debacle, it hasn’t been a great year for influencer marketing.
In a recent essay about how digital marketing is hurting itself published by The Message, Alexandra Samuel wrote: “The best-case scenario is that influencer marketing destroys itself more quickly than it destroys the internet.” Earlier this month, Gartner L2 posted an article headlined “Are influencers over?”
The short answer is no. More than two-thirds (69%) of respondents in a recent Talkwalker study identified influencer marketing as either a top or important priority for 2019, while 61% said they plan to increase their budget.
Social channels are where people are spending their time, so brands obviously have to be there. And content creators (aka influencers) are developing loyal fanbases eager to consume their content, so why shouldn’t they monetize it?
But that doesn’t mean the system can’t be better. Maybe a lot better.
The Message reached out to five influencer experts at leading Canadian PR shops to ask them what’s going on with influencer marketing and how it can be better. All agreed influencer marketing can be a valuable tactic for marketers to reach consumers. However, there is also a sense that because of the fast-paced growth and lack of best practices in such a new field it’s important to make some changes.
“It’s like the stock market,” said Nadia Beale, senior vice-president, consumer practice leader at MSL Canada. “When it becomes too overheated, a correction happens.”
So what does that correction look like. Four key themes emerged.
Relationships, Not Transactions
This is the big one and it’s tied to a word that gets used over and over when talking about influencer marketing: authenticity. It’s what makes good influencer marketing so effective, while its absence can make bad influencer marketing painful.
Authenticity comes from working with influencers as partners, not commodities. “Start by going beyond the transaction,” said Joe Cariati, a director at Citizen Relations. “Build a relationship with influencers and treat the working relationship as a true partnership between the influencer and the brand, and work towards creating an authentic relationship.”
You can’t shortcut this one. Influencer marketing works best when brands and their agencies put in the time finding appropriate influencers to develop meaningful content for the desired audiences.
“Where I’ve seen the most success is when brands are in it for the long term and establish relationships that bring influencers into the brand and make them part of their marketing strategy,” said Beale. “Bring them behind the scenes.”
That’s the key to authenticity, she said. Making influencers want to work hard for the brand, to feel truly invested and connected to it. When marketers develop those kinds of relationships, the influencers won’t have any problem producing effective content and being transparent about it.
If the most important data being used in influencer programs is followers and likes, we’re in trouble. This was another common theme among our experts.
“The system can be flawed if we rely too heavily on what we see at face value—large followings and astronomically high engagements—without looking beneath the surface,” said Melissa Graham, senior vice-president, client experience with PR firm Weber Shandwick. There has to be more emphasis on measurement, reporting, and ROI. “Use performance data and industry data to better inform the negotiation process, ensuring mutually beneficial and high-value partnerships for brands and influencers,” she said.
It is now possible to track the performance and impact of every influencer a brand works with, said Jordan Markowski, vice-president, digital at Edelman.
“These tools help us not only audit the fit of a given influencer from a brand standpoint, but also the legitimacy of their audience and engagement and the integrity of our final reporting.”
By putting data at the centre of influencer programs, marketers can move beyond “likes or replies” and measure the actual business impact and sales that a campaign generates, he said.
Victoria Freeman, vice-president, social media and digital at North Strategic, refers to the “science” of influencer marketing. A lot of brands and agencies talk about “authenticity,” but they’re using that word too casually. Finding an authentic brand influencer should be driven by data, she said. “We need to stay educated and use data points to make decisions on partnerships, and stop investing in partnerships with influencers who are not legitimate,” she said. “We also need to put some rigour on how we measure ROI for our clients, so we can truly understand the impact this channel has on overall business objectives.”
Be More Demanding
lot of influencer deals are with relatively young content creators, but it’s time to introduce a grown-up concept—accountability—to the system. There also need to be clear and consistent performance expectations, and a willingness to act when those expectations are not met.
“It’s almost inevitable you’re going to encounter situations where a given influencer that seems like a good fit turns out to be less than ideal,” said Markowski. “In those instances, it’s crucially important for a brand or their agency to have the courage to say no and go in a different direction.”
Walking away can be tough with a looming deadline or if a client is determined to work with a particular influencer. “But it’s in those moments that adhering to an unwavering commitment to trust and authenticity matters most of all,” Markowski said.
“Brands and agencies should be holding influencers accountable for the success of the campaign,” said Beale. “We need to be more critical of how we engage, and walk away more often from entering into deals that don’t make sense—especially financially—and question agents and influencers on what value they are bringing to the table,” said Beale. “Make them work hard for the money.”
First, let’s talk about the really bad stuff. Marketers need to stop blanketing large audiences with irrelevant content that is not aligned with the influencer or the audience they appeal to. That means no more awkward product shots, or clumsy attempts at product placement. It may be above board and transparent, but that doesn’t make it okay.
“I don’t know how you stop that if it doesn’t go against rules and regulations,” said Freeman. “I think irresponsible creative is very hard to regulate, but as a user I have the choice to follow or not.”
But brands should be aspiring to more than simply not being bad. “To interrupt the scroll, you need good creative that is exciting and different,” said Freeman. For the most part, influencers have the followings they do because of their creative style and content: the key is ensuring their content aligns with the brands.
“For the most part, we are talking about people who are very young and inexperienced in developing their personal brand. We need to help them develop that further by asking for better content that is truly and credibly integrated into their life,” said Beale. “Let’s ask those questions in the vetting process and ask them audition-type questions so we can uncover if they are truly going to be able to effectively and credibly tell a story on behalf of your brand.
“Posing with the product totally out of context can dilute influence and simply make it look transactional in nature.”