The Problem with Influencer Marketing
by Harley Schachter, founder and president, Travel Mindset
It’s no secret consumers are becoming increasingly wary of digital advertising, with the more sophisticated of the bunch even resorting to ad blockers. At the same time, mobile phones make it easy to tune out commercials and paid subscriptions on services like Hulu and Spotify make it possible to skip them all together.
But a popular blogger willing to endorse your product in a feature-length review? An Instagram user with 80,000 loyal followers? To advertising professionals, influencer marketing sounds like a refreshing way to reach tired eyes.
While that’s certainly true, there’s a level of risk that comes with any relatively new strategy. Like the SEO and PPC gold rush of the early 2000s, influencer marketing can skyrocket revenue, gives entrepreneurs a way to compete with global enterprises, and has been tarnished by early guesswork, algorithm hacks, and “black hat” manipulation.
Marketers struggle to measure return on investment.
Everyone agrees the work you put into selecting an influencer needs to produce tangible results, but many people continue to put the cart before the horse, forming relationships based entirely on gut and intuition. This is one reason why three out of four marketers say tracking ROI is their top challenge when it comes to influencer marketing.
It’s been said, but it bears repeating: every new marketing campaign must be based on measurable objectives that define what amounts to your brand’s success. Are you looking to increase revenue? Awareness? Your own social media following? These goals lend themselves to distinct partnerships and messaging strategies.
Only after the goal of a campaign has been identified can you determine how you’ll track your KPIs and analyze how an influencer or piece of content has performed. The good news is many of the same tools we’ve been using to track digital and traditional marketing also lend themselves to influencer marketing, including UTM parameters, vanity URLs, Google Analytics, contests and giveaways, and promo codes.
Most importantly, every influencer marketing campaign must include consistent and reliable reporting, and subsequent ad spend should be based on data-driven decision making.
Fraud is rampant, and vetting is trickier than it seems.
Having said that, numbers alone are deceiving. Let me say that again: numbers are deceiving.
A recent New York Times article explored the rise of fake accounts and just how common the practice has become. According to the story, roughly 15% of Twitter profiles are fraudulent accounts designed to appear like real people. These followers are purchased by celebrities and “fake influencers” for the appearance of a wide social reach.
According to twitteraudit.com, the most-followed person on Twitter – singer/songwriter Katy Perry – has more than 41 million fake followers.
When it comes time to start evaluating potential influencer partners, it’s not enough to determine suitability based solely on the amount of followers connected to an account and an influencer’s perceived target demographic. Yet many marketers use this quick litmus test and then proceed to invest tens of thousands of dollars.
Before launching an influencer marketing campaign, it’s important to spend time assessing the quality of an influencer’s reach. SaaS platforms claim they can automate this process, but after managing hundreds of influencer marketing campaigns, my team has come to the conclusion that complete vetting is as much of an art as it is a science. It requires a mix of data analytics and a human touch.
Software has a purpose – no doubt about it. But would you allow an HR platform to hire your next employee without reviewing their Linkedin profile or interviewing them yourself?
I admit it’s tedious to scroll through a follower list, but it’s worth it to verify follower accounts have pictures and posts of their own, the influencer’s comments and likes are spread out across posts, and engagement comes from what appear to be consumers as well as other influencers. This also gives you a chance to see how influencers interact with their followers.
You should also consider the start date of the account relative to the number of followers it has and question significant spikes in the account’s growth. In other words, has the profile been around long enough to justify a hundred thousand followers? If not, is there some reason this person – perhaps a Bachelor contestant – developed a following seemingly overnight?
And if that’s the case, how likely is it that a significant portion of his or her new followers feels enough of a connection to act on that person’s recommendations? Notice I didn’t call this overnight star an influencer. That’s because….
Followers do not equal influence.
There are lots of people – again, not influencers – with thousands and even millions of legitimate followers. Those people do not necessarily have any impact on their followers’ purchasing decisions.
Sometimes this is an obvious distinction, and sometimes it’s difficult to spot the difference. In many cases, accounts can be very influential in one aspect but not in another.
For example, most people realize following a meme account is a signal that a follower wants to be entertained. There’s no obvious purchase intent. This is why the savviest meme curators have started monetizing their work by selling entertaining apparel and partnering with TV shows to promote an entertaining season premiere, like in the Instagram post seen here. It would feel disingenuous – and probably result in a ton of wasted ad spend – to suddenly use that account to promote consumer-packaged goods.
So how do you identify an influencer who consumers see less like a digital performer and more like a trusted friend? It’s in the content, tone, and passion of their posts. Consumers ultimately respond to honesty, even if they can’t tell you why.
To successfully align your brand with the interests of an influencer means they are never in the position of having to sell to their audience. They are genuinely invested in your campaign and feel like they could endorse your brand without being paid to do so. They naturally exert influence on the merit of their reputation.
If there’s not an authentic relationship between the influencer’s passion and the brand’s product, no amount of real or fake followers can justify a relationship.
Let’s make sure influencer marketing is here to stay.
Influencer marketing offers the third-party credibility of PR, the strategic positioning of traditional ads, and the unmatched potency of good old fashioned word-of-mouth marketing.
One of the reasons it has grown so fast is that 83% of consumers say they trust recommendations from family and friends over advertising. Influencer marketing as close to the real thing as you can get and still retain some creative control over the message and audience.
Still, the challenges that come with influencer marketing are easy to overlook, and it’s difficult to adopt best practices when they’re only beginning to emerge. I’m confident these challenges will be overcome, and influencer marketing will continue to grow as the strategy evolves. But it won’t be easy.
If we want decision makers to take influencer marketing seriously, we must demonstrate measurable returns, insist on repercussions to fraud, and treat it with the same sort of careful consideration we apply to other digital marketing strategies.
Looking for more insights? Learn how to measure influencer marketing ROI and choose the best brand partners.