As influencer marketing matures as a discipline what does best practice look like and what are the key influencer marketing themes to master for realising business and communications goals?
Last week I spoke about key influencer marketing themes at a Chartered Institute of Public Relations conference. Instead of ploughing through a slide deck we opted for an in influencer marketing surgery; a Q & A session focusing on the most pressing areas preoccupying public relations practitioners today.
Here I have created a repository of influencer marketing themes which covers influencer marketing best practice.
Inevitably I will have missed some areas. Please add your comments and suggestions below. I will prune and add to these influencer marketing themes.
To pay or not to pay ...
Should brands pay the influencers they work with? It’s a question as old as the marketing discipline itself. The answer to pay or not pay isn't binary, though. It depends on what you're trying to achieve and who you’ve teamed up with to accomplish it.
As a rule influencers should be paid for their time for creating content. But not for their endorsement.
Brands and audiences appreciate that social media creators who work full-time on building an engaged following through consistently creating compelling content need to be compensated financially. When they work with a brand they are working. And work should be paid for.
Some micro influencers, nano influencers and advocates do not expect to be paid. They may be satisfied creating content with brands that they share an affinity with. They may be rewarded with a free product, services or a unique behind-the-curtain glimpse of the brand.
Expect to pay more
Higher demand for social influencers’ creativity has translated into higher tariffs for their services, especially in popular verticals such as fashion and style.
It's a sellers market. Influencer costs are rising accordingly. But savvy brands are responding to price hikes by building performance related pay into contracts.
Good influencers will continue to earn good money. The rest - those who fail to nudge their audience into action on behalf of a brand - will find that the gravy train has hit the buffers.
Expect more brands to ‘amp’ their influencer’s reach with paid promotion as organic reach is squeezed by major platforms (see below).
Consider, too, the hidden costs of influencer marketing:
Increased focus on Return on Investment
With increased influencer marketing spend comes a greater need to demonstrate value return on investment (ROI).
Accurate data and robust, independent campaign performance evaluation, along with industry benchmarking, is becoming a fundamental element of influencer marketing.
76% of communicators cite measuring the ROI of influencer marketing as their top challenge according to an industry survey reported in PR Week.Yet little more than a quarter (28%) of communicators use platform-specific metrics with their influencer marketing programmes. Just 22% use success metrics provided by influencers and only a fifth use social measurement tools to demonstrate ROI, according to a report featured in Econsultancy.
These statistics illustrate a disconnect in the industry. Whilst more than three-quarters of communicators appreciate that effectively measuring investment return is paramount, most lack the tools or know-how to do so capably.
More structured approach
Communicators are running more structured influencer marketing programmes. This due to:
There is a groundswell of opinion within influencer marketing to tighten both contracts and creative briefs. It is right that both influencer and brand agree on what to expect from one another. However, flexibility should be built into the endeavour. Guidelines are just that - guardrails NOT straight jackets that limit influencer creativity.
Communicators are spending more time and attention undertaking pre-campaign and post-campaign measurement. They check:
Video as dominant force
Video content continues to rise in popularity and YouTube is the go-to video platform. But include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and maybe LinkedIn too, depending on where your audience hangs out.
More than one in two internet users (56%) watch video on social each month according to GlobalWebIndex data. These engagement levels (up from 38% in 2015) are set to rise further as platforms concentrate more on their video offering.
Video is also nearly twice as effective in driving sales according to gen.video and Geometry Global research.
Decline of organic reach
In June 2017 Instagram started to roll-out its paid partnership tag. At first sight this seems as though it’s putting its community first.
The flipside might well be that this is the first step in the platform’s long-term aim to kill off organic reach. Just as Instagram's parent, Facebook, has done its brand pages.
More integrated communications plans
Influencer marketing works best when it sits squarely within an integrated communications strategy; not bolted on as a separate element.
Intelligently-targeted paid promotion goes hand-in-hand with carefully selected influencers, given the leeway to produce content which resonates with their audience and which sits on both earned and owned assets.
Influencers part of product development
Bringing influencers into the product development process should be win-win for both brand and influencer. It gives influencers access to brand information needed to create fresh content for their followers, and gives brands the influencers' endorsement and fosters follower trust.
Beauty brand Glossier has started creating packaging and labels that help products look good when their customers photograph them and post them to Instagram.
Influencers in every part of the customer journey
Buyers are increasingly seeking out products on their own, whereas in the past, the majority of products were broadcast to them. Customer journeys are becoming increasingly self-driven, which raises the importance of effective marketing.
Customer journeys are also becoming more fragmented. We turn to our smartphones to help us with our decision making. We bypass traditional marketing touch points.
In these micro moments, customers are the most open to influence and engagement. Google found that 90% of mobile-first consumers are brand agnostic in a micro-moment and that 73% will make a decision about a brand based on which is the most useful or helpful in each instance. Effective influencer marketing can help brands engage with customers susceptible to being influenced - during these micro moments.
Influencer marketing continues to be important at the awareness and interest stages of the customer journey. Influencers play an important role in creating captivating content which piques interest and then answers questions.
Influencers drive desire, too, through shared experiences i.e. reviews. Their experience becomes our evidence. Increasingly influencers are used at the decision and advocacy stages of the customer journey - driving sales before becoming ambassadors for the brand through long-term relationships.
Increased focus on compliance and transparency
There is mounting talk within influencer marketing about disclosure regulations. Particularly about laws becoming stricter. I don't think there is growing regulation. I do think there is growing pressure to abide by existing regulations, though. Effective disclosure of a material connection between brand and influencer is a key influencer marketing theme.
Lack of effective disclosure erodes trust with an audience. Regulators are getting tougher with those flouting disclosure regulations. The ASA recently announced a review into how paid-for influencer and native advertising is signposted online
Recent figures from the ASA, the UK advertising watchdog, reveal there were 1,824 complaints about content on social networking sites in 2016, up 193% from 622 in 2012.
Expect to see higher penalties for influencers, brands and marketers who ignore them.
However, satisfying influencer marketing disclosure regulation is good for brands, good for influencers and good for their audiences.
ASA tightened up its CAP codes last year and is reviewing them again at the moment. The FTC in the US is cranking up the pressure with influencers now as well as with brands.
This heightened scrutiny on regulation will force brands and influencers to up their game. Truth is, as consumers, we don't care whether content is sponsored or organic - with two important provisos.
- We don't feel hoodwinked into believing paid-for content is organic
- It's good quality content. Something that entertains us, educates us, most importantly content that prods us into doing something.
If you’re a member of a public relations industry body such as the CIPR or PRCA, you also need to keep in mind the ethics of the respective Codes of Conduct too.
Differences between advertorial and sponsorship
In the UK we differentiate between sponsorship and advertising. The ASA oversees advertising whilst the CMA oversees sponsorship. In the US both advertising and sponsorship is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission - the independent agency of the US government tasked with promoting consumer protection and regulating influencer marketing.
Identifying influencer marketing content
The advertising rules require that all ads are obviously identifiable as such. When it comes to advertorial content, the onus is on the publisher/influencer just as much as the brand.
All advertorial content should use an appropriate label, which should be placed somewhere consumers will be able to see it before they choose to read, watch, or listen to that content. That means the hashtag must be used, be obvious in its intention to flag the type of content is not organic and mustn’t be hidden below a sea of other hashtags.
Statements such as ‘brought to you by’, ‘in partnership with’ and ‘thanks to our friends at…’ are all ambiguous as to whether the content is advertising or is sponsored material. As such, these should be avoided as well.
CAP guidance on different kinds of vlogging advertorial explains when and where such labels should appear, and is relevant to all forms of social media.
The ASA explains the difference between advertorial and sponsorship in its article: Here’s why 'Spon' is not 'ad' (CAP News 27 Oct 2016)
“What is an ‘advertorial’?
“An advertorial (or ‘advertising feature’) is a piece of content in editorial space which is paid for by a brand and over which they exercise some degree of editorial control. If a confectionary brand gives your favourite blogger a goody-bag on condition that they write positively about it, that’s an ad. If a travel company sends a vlogger on a free trip to the Andes on condition that they have final editorial sign-off for any videos made about it, those are ads. The ASA recently ruled on a Twitter ad for Alpro, with helpful references to the elements that meant it was covered by the advertising rules (CAP Code).
What is ‘sponsorship’?
“Sponsorship only has the ‘payment’ element and leaves editorial control entirely with the creator; these are not ads for the purposes of the CAP Code. If a computer company gives or lends a vlogger a PC on condition that they give an honest review, that’s not an ad. If a car company financially supports a series of news articles, but has no editorial input, that’s not an ad.
However, such arrangements are still subject to consumer protection laws and the attention of the Competition and Markets Authority.”
Fewer, but more meaningful longer-term relationships
Savvy brands and influencers alike are forging fewer, but more meaningful relationships with each other.
One-off campaigns are being replaced with longer, often episodic, co-created content which mines deep insight and understanding about both the interests of the target audience and knowledge of the brand’s product or service.
Finding the right fit between brand and influencer goes far beyond follower numbers. It includes identifying shared values, tone of voice, future aspirations and genuine advocacy by the influencer for the brand.
Ditch the tactical and the temporary in favour of long-term business growth partnerships with influencers.
Much of the hard work connected with influencer marketing is front loaded. Setting goals, identifying a long list of potential influencers, screening the list to whittle the potential down negotiating building a creative brief.
Real influence is accretive. It strengthens over time. There needs to be consistent, long-term content and, in addition, honest recommendations from sources that consumers trust.
Extending beyond the single campaign benefits influencer marketers with:
Outsource influencer marketing or keep in-house
The interplay between in house teams and agencies is evolving as influencer marketing matures as a discipline and brands become more knowledgeable.
When you're trying something out, testing the water, it makes sense to de-risk the trial as far as possible and outsource the function to an agency.
Once proof of concept has been made it's time to bring facets of influencer marketing practice in house. How much a brand pulls in-house can only be determined on a business-by-business basis. Both agency and in-house teams have valuable roles to play. The decision depends on the brand's available budget, time, resources, expertise and strategic intent.
The argument for in house
As we’ve seen above, savvy brands are forging longer and more meaningful relationships with influencers. In house teams are best placed for nurturing these relationships - maintaining them between campaign 'spikes'. Fostering long term trust-based collaborations with the view of creating authentic understanding and advocacy.
In house influencer marketers within large enterprises need to be boundary spanners, too. Linking networks both internally and externally.
Linking networks internally to build alignment with other departments - it might be PR, product development, digital, brand, marketing, social, SEO, however the firm is organised. Linking networks externally - to work better with agencies.
These in-house teams create corporate memory around influencer marketing.
The argument for using an influencer marketing agency
Agencies can add value in 5 ways:
- Making data-driven recommendations on new and rising influencer talent.
- Looking over the ‘brow of the hill’ to what’s likely to happen next in the influencer marketing space. Counselling their clients accordingly to grab opportunity and swerve issues .
- Advising on best practice
- Helping marry communication goals with corporate goals
- Providing an extra pair of hands in campaign execution
Waking up to the reach myth
It's understandable that brands embarking on their first influencer marketing campaigns become seduced by social media stars purporting to shine via their stellar amounts of followers.
But, social media ‘influencers’ with large follower counts aren't always ‘influential’. Big is not always better. Here are six reasons why reach is often a myth:
- Fake followers
- Bought followers
- Follow4follow system
- Inactive accounts
- Social media platforms killing off organic reach
- Big numbers but either wrong demographic or audience is located in wrong country for your purposes
Influence is contextual. In terms of influence it's the context of relationship an influencer has with their audience which is more relevant than the number of followers. This context of relationship is measured in authentic engagement rates.
Audience size as a key metric is fast giving way to genuine engagement, as brands get smarter about the real value generated from influencer campaigns.
Power middle and micro influencers
Being popular is not the same as being influential.
Being popular is about being liked or admired by many people. Being influential is an ability to change something. Be it altering behaviours, changing opinions or adapting actions.
Influence is context based. Unless the influencer has a strong connection with your client’s audience, that influencer is creating noise, not action.
Gaining large numbers of followers, impressions or visitors (REACH) doesn't always translate into greater influence. A smaller, more targeted following may generate proportionately higher engagement rates.
Reach gives you potential numbers of eyeballs. Influence shows who is listening - and what action they're taking (RTs, shares, comments).
The benefit of using influencers is their ability to take your key message and craft it in a way that is more relevant to their audience (which should also be your client’s audience), so that it actually resonates with them.
A look at the numbers:
Influencers with 1,000 followers might attract an engagement rate of around 8% (depending on the platform and what industry vertical they post within). Influencers with 10,000 followers might earn an engagement rate of 4%.
On this basis it might be better to marshal five influencers with 1,000 followers a piece which combined might generated 400 engagements rather than recruiting one influencer with 10,000 followers who might produce the same level of engagement
As follower counts rise the theme continues: Influencers with more than 100,000 followers might earn an engagement rate of around 1.77%.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionising every industry, from finance to farming. Influencer companies will increasingly embed AI technology into their platforms, providing marketers with identification, activation and real-time measurement.
Many agencies and platforms now claim to use AI, but few offer something genuinely groundbreaking. Why? Because it’s expensive. To roll out an AI product you probably need engineers to build the tech infrastructure, product developers to implement best practices and data scientists to monitor, test and tweak the product’s models and algorithms.
AI is not confined to influencer marketing platforms. Lil Miquela is a prime example of the new phenomenon of CGI influencers. Miquela Sousa is a young Instagram Influencer. She models, has released a top 10 Spotify single and produced her own clothing range. She's also computer generated. The number of CGI influencers will swell on the back of Lil Miquela’s success.
Investors see the growth potential in these computer-generated creations becoming mainstream fashion influencers. Proof of concept has been made de-risking their investment. Lil Miquela, for instance, has worked with Prada on its Autumn Winter collection. She’s posed wearing Diesel and Moncler, too
Fake followers, gamed engagement and bought credibility
As more money flows into the influencer marketing discipline expect to see more fake influencers.
Buying followers instead of organically building a loyal community is just one fraud issue influencers are using to grow their visibility. It’s becoming one of the biggest challenges marketers and platforms have to face when working with influencers.
Look out, too, for fake engagement via Insta pods and attempts to buy credibility by paying thousands of dollars for Instagram verification.
More influencers are building their own brands, selling their own products
Influencers are building their brands beyond content, converting their audiences into consumers. Rather than earning money solely from the promotion of established brands, more influencers will start to create their own products and services.
Kylie Jenner, who is probably best known for starring in reality-TV show ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’, conceptualised, founded and leads Kylie Cosmetics. The company is forecast to hit 1$B revenue company by 2022. This is an extreme example of the phenomenon.
Keep an eye on brand extensions like the Amazon Influencer Program, which, similar to the Amazon Affiliate programme, offers influencers commission on products sold, but is not open to the public. Also, see Amazon Spark and Shopify VIP which aim to help influencers scale their eCommerce offering.
Instagram will pass 1 billion active users
Instagram is the powerhouse platform driving influencer marketing revenue. User numbers have accelerated throughout recentmonths. The image-lead platform, owned by Facebook, currently has 800 million users engaging with the service each month. The site added 100 million users between April and September 2017, alone. 500 million users login each day.
Influencer marketers should understand the nuances of this social media platform to succeed in the discipline.
Future of influencer marketing marketplaces lies in UGC
I struggle with placing self-serve influencer marketing marketplaces within the influencer marketing cadre. For me their business model promotes one-hit-wonders rather than long-term relationships between brand and influencers.
It's possible I'm looking at their benefit from the wrong angle. The essence of these self-serve firms is that they're not influencer marketing marketplaces at all; rather they're influencer advertising platforms. Their strength is twofold:
- Marshall micro influencers at scale enabling marketers to spark the creation and distribution of user generated content (UGC) from brand advocates around a campaign hashtag.
- Ability to source the creation and production of studio-quality, influencer generated content at scale and at low cost.
Key influencer marketing themes
This list of influencer marketing themes is a work in progress. As the discipline matures I'll edit the list, pruning the no-longer-relevant and adding new themes. Let me know what themes I should add in the comments section below.