The Future of Influencer Marketing:
Is Influencer Marketing's 15 Minutes Coming to An End?
Influencer marketing is dead. The day of the social media influencer is coming to a swift end. Ride it out while you can because soon, the money will dry up for so-called influencers. Will it? If you happen to be a marketer who's still grappling with whether Instagram-powered influencer marketing is the real deal - and if it isn’t whether the jig is up this post is going to help you organize what's going on in this space as it relates to the future of influencer marketing. If you're a blogger or would-be influencer you can stick around, too because you may be wondering if it’s too late to become an influencer.
That’s a good question, and a valid question. And I’m going to answer definitively with a resounding, “No, it’s not too late to become an influencer. Don’t be ridiculous.”
There are caveats. (Come on… you knew there would be right, or I wouldn’t have to write an entire article on this topic.)
So, in this post, I’m going to provide data that supports my point that social media-powered influencer marketing is evolving and maturing, but not dying. And how new best practices and laws are helping to formalize influencer marketing as an industry, not just another growth hacking strategy.
The Trouble with Becoming an Influencer
For all the social validation you get from your online community - whether from friends, followers, or brands - becoming an influencer is hard work.
Real influence is about more than just having a large following
Earning sway on social media is all about creating the right content - the right types of posts, images, and words - to move your audience to do something.
Do something? Yeah, do something. If they’re not moved to DO something, it’s not influence, and you won’t make much money as an influencer... if that’s your goal.
It takes longer than you hoped, but not as long as most people think
Growing your following is great, but it’s just a first step... sort of like deciding you want to become a doctor, but first you have to finish high school. Growing your audience doesn’t make you an influencer (looking at anyone who’s ever “bought” influence), just like finishing high school doesn’t make you a doctor. But you need the audience if you want to become an influencer, just like you need that diploma if you’re ever to become a doctor. And both tracks - whether you’re shooting to be a doctor or an influencer - take time.
It’s A LOT of work… and that work never really stops
Thankfully, becoming an influencer isn’t going to take you a decade to accomplish, but trust me when I say the late nights of curating your feed, compressing images, styling trendy looks, sourcing inspiration where you can find it, figuring out which pictures people like vs which ones they don’t like, launching and managing a pristine blog, figuring out how to cross-promote to other platforms in a way that’s authentic to THAT platform, and planning content weeks in advance are all tasks requiring consistent mental, physical and emotional energy.
And after you do all of that, you’re going to have to learn to do it for the brands you work with as well if you want to make money as an influencer.
So… no. Not an easy side hustle.
Contrary to popular belief, influencers have to put in a lot of work before they ever get to the point where brands seek them out for partnerships. Plus, the greater their reach and influence, the harder they work to maintain it.
If any of that turns you off, you’re probably not going to win as an influencer. I’m going to talk later on in this post about what happens when you try to skip the hard work and just buy followers.
Reason #1 It’s Not Too Late: More Brands Are Turning to Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing is a growing sector of digital marketing, in and of itself. In 2015, brands spent $500 million working with social media influencers. In 2017, that number exceeded $2 billion, with campaigns in the fashion and beauty verticals accounting for 40 percent of total spending on influencer marketing.
Not only are more brands launching influencer marketing campaigns, brands are also upping their influencer marketing budgets. According to Statista, 39 percent of marketers planned to increase their influencer marketing budget for 2018. Across the board, brands boosted their budgets specifically for influencer campaigns by as much as six percent last year. Why? Because earning media through user-generated content works.
Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook - the two platforms marketers favor when it comes to running influencer campaigns - provide users with the opportunity to create textual, visual and multimedia content about anything. When that content happens to be about a brand, it can easily shape how others see that brand. That’s what marketers are banking on, too.
Earned media has been a highly-valued marketing channel in the digital marketing space for decades because it helps marketers find the right audience at the right time, it provides brands with a pool of pre-qualified prospects (i.e. folks who are interested and willing to buy) and it leverages the opinions of strangers for much-needed social proof.
I want to make sure you didn't miss the part about earned media helping brands to get in front of the qualified prospects. This is especially true of brands working with micro-influencers whose audiences tend to be niched-down and more interest-focused, as opposed to "everybody-follows-me" mega influencers with 500K+ followers.
The rule of thumb here is micro influencers are usually followed by people who are interested in that which interests the micro influencer. With mega influencers, however, sometimes you follow just to follow.
I mean, I follow Spike Lee because he's SPIKE FRIGGIN' LEE! He's a cinematic legend and cultural icon! Not because I particularly enjoy the Knicks or Brooklyn-inspired apparel, or super-dope hats, or wacky glasses. Okay, I would rock the hats...
Outsell’s analysis of earned media vs paid media reports 81 percent of small firms and 73 percent of large firms say earned media is as effective or more effective than paid media. The report, The Earned Media Opportunity (which you can download yourself by clicking here), says of the three types of media analyzed:
Brand-owned media (usually a website) is most effective for both B2B and B2C marketing
Earned media offers authenticity brands can’t get with paid or owned media
Millennial marketers see earned media as more effective than do Boomer marketers
Influencer marketing is an outgrowth of earned media, which may help explain why younger marketers and marketers in tech-savvy industries are more likely to rely on earned media and influencer marketing as a channel for generating leads and boosting brand awareness.
Reason #2 It’s Not Too Late: Because Influencer Marketing Still Works
Influencer marketing isn’t a niche thing anymore. In a survey of 600 fashion industry professionals, more than three in four brands (78 percent) reported running an influencer campaign at some point during 2017. By comparison, two in three brands (65 percent) ran influencer campaigns in 2016.
Big brands have been successfully leveraging influencer marketing on social for years. Companies like Target, H&M, Adidas, Live Nation (our client), Lord & Taylor, Marvel (remember their Valentine’s Day campaign promoting the DVD release of Doctor Strange?), Samsung, American Express, Toyota, Hanes (our client), Fairmont, Famous Footwear (client), Neutrogena (client), Microsoft, eos (client), and Ticketmaster (client) are just a handful of the brands partnering with influencers to reach audiences, and here’s why…
Word-of-mouth still works.
I found an Internet-ancient Ad Age article from 2011entitled, “Five Reasons You Need to Focus on Earned Media” while I was researching this post. The article reports that up to 92 percent of consumers trusted word-of-mouth recommendations, while only 24 percent trusted online ads. Then, like now, people used social media to share ideas and document experiences instead of making phone calls and writing letters but, then… the sharing is what matters because the sharing is what converts.
Eighty-one percent of consumers surveyed say their purchasing decisions have been influenced by social media, and about the same percentage of marketers (80 percent) who have used influencer marketing campaigns found them effective for driving engagement and awareness. Nearly half of U.S. adults (48 percent) say they have purchased a product after learning about it from a online influencer, according to YouGov’s Influencer Marketing Report.
A whopping 89 percent of agencies and brand marketers say influencer marketing can positively affect how people feel about your brand
That Ad Age article I referenced in the previous paragraph also says that a recommendation from a trusted friend was 50 times more likely to convert than other recommendations.
At last tally, influencer marketing delivered an ROI of over $7 for ever $1 spent. That number jumps to $11.74 for beauty brands. And influencer marketing doesn’t just impact online engagement and sales. The Forbes Agency Council reports:
When measured with loyalty card data, influencer content can drive sales and increase basket size.
Influencer marketing directly impacts sales through redemptions for promotional offers.
Using point of sale (POS) data, influencer marketing can drive true measurable sales lift.
When measured with foot traffic data, influencer marketing increases engagement.
But folks can't decide how to measure its effectiveness
If proving the effectiveness of influencer marketing has been tough for you, you’re not alone. Historically, determining and proving ROI has been a tough sale for adventurous marketers ready to put corporate dollars toward influencer marketing, only to have the CMO require stats and numbers.
I have a theory: Initially, I think most brands went into influencer marketing like it was another PPC campaign - tell our customers about our great deal, provide a link, and measure clicks against purchases.
That’s not exactly how influencer marketing works.
While PPC is more about transacting sales, influencer marketing has always been more focused on branding - boosting awareness, gaining followers, growing engagement, and the other things that eventually lead to sales, which brings me to my next point...
Earned Media Value
Influencer marketing is great at amplifying the intangible.
Neat idea, Stone. Now how do we make it tangible so we can measure it? One way is earned media value.
Earned media value (EMV) assigns an actual dollar value to the impact of word-of-mouth and media attention. The highest value Instagram influencers are generating millions of dollars in EMV for brands. In fact, influencer marketing is estimated to offer a return of $7.65 in earned media value for every $1 spent on campaigns.
For instance, on influencer platform is said to work with a formula of $5 per 1,000 followers an influencer has. But this formula isn’t an industry standard, which is why earned media value is such a controversial measurement of the success in this space.
Remember what I said about finishing high school to become a doctor? Yeah… that’s the rub. EMV isn’t a sufficient ROI if your campaign goals require followers to take some sort of action like engaging, clicking a link, redeeming a coupon, or visiting a website.
Still, EMV is a big deal because if the numbers are there, influencers and marketers only have to focus on compelling followers to act. According to Media Post, the top 20 brands created more than $650 million in earned media value from their 11,000 paid influencers. But these brands also got another 158K posts from unpaid influencers who have at least 15,000 followers.
Remember, the value of influencer marketing is being able to run highly targeted campaigns with the help of someone your target customer like and follow (i.e. listen to), and the goal is usually to get the audience to take at least one specific action.
In May, I published a post to LinkedIn about how it came to be that I actually saw Avengers: Infinity War when I hadn't planned on rushing to the theatres to see it. Seeing the movie wasn’t the result of my love for Marvel, though I do LOVE Marvel movies. What drove me to see a movie that I wasn’t super-excited to see was the social media response to the film - the people in my network who saw it.
I could tell from their posts that many of them only saw the movie because they’d seen Black Panther. I saw posts like: “Worst superhero movie ever…” and “I’m devastated…” going through my Facebook feed opening weekend.
Instagram, Facebook and Twitter convinced me that something was terribly wrong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's what actually moved me to take my family out to see the movie.
(I was devastated, by the way. My world was a little upside down for a day or two.)
Marvel’s Infinity War campaign was one of the best-performing EMV campaigns this year. The social media movement that got me to buy tickets to a movie I didn’t want to see (I couldn’t figure out what the damned thing was about from the previews!), created an EMV of $40.5 million, largely made up of organic content from folks like me who shared memes and wrote non-spoiler reviews of the movie using the #infinitywar and #guerrainfinita hashtags.
“More than 1.6 million Instagram posts have the #infinitywar hashtag. In the last 24 hours (between April 30th at 10PM and May 1 at 10PM), #infinitywar has shown up on Twitter more than 279K times, and the movie opened a week ago. That means someone on Twitter mentions the movie using that hashtag three times every second, or 11.6K times an hour.
Heck, I even refrained from posting any spoilers, because there were so many memes out there reminding moviegoers not to spoil it for others."
The hashtag #ThanosDemandsYourSilence currently has more than 83K posts on Instagram, and #infinitywar, more than 2.7 million… just on Instagram.
All of this… and only one percent of the content using the #infinitywar hashtag was paid content.
But UGC and earned media value aren't the only metrics for determining the success of an influencer marketing campaign. UK and US brands and marketers also use things like number of online mentions, number of shares and press coverage generated as markers of success.
Reason #3 It’s Not Too Late: Brands Still Have a Hard Time Finding Legit Influencers
Separating the real influencers from the fake ones is one of the challenges marketers report having with launching effective influencer marketing campaigns. Buying followers is still very easy and it’s very cheap. But it’s misleading for brands and marketers, and without the proper tools to detect fraud, brands can end up losing time and money paying someone with fake followers to wield influence he or she doesn’t really have.
But brands have caught on. They are looking beyond vanity metrics when choosing influencer partners, but it takes some digging. I penned a post for Social Media Today here that identifies the five metrics you need to look for when evaluating influencers. They are:
Organic follower growth - To ensure followers are real, engaged and offer the potential for you to garner future sales
Content on all social platforms - To determine the verticals in which an influencer actually wields influence
Audience demographics - To figure out where your two audiences overlap and market specifically to those people
Brand affinity - To understand where your influencer and his / her followers actually show
Product analysis - To get a better idea of how much they spend when they shop
These signals - not follower count - are the ones that matter.
THOSE CGI INFLUENCERS, THOUGH
Another development we’re watching closely in this space is the growing number of CGI influencers like Lil Miquela and Shudu (whose IG bio pegs her “The world’s first digital supermodel”). They're both works of art... technically, they are computer-generated imagery or #3Dart. But you get my point.
This area gets a little sticky, because while Lil Miquela has already been tapped by Prada, the FTC laws governing transparency in endorsement marketing are yet undefined when it comes to digital art promoting actual products. And despite the 1.3 million+ accounts following Lil Miquela, it remains to be seen whether her creators can convert followers’ fascination with “hyper humanism” into a CTA that delivers an ROI.
Reason #4 It’s Not Too Late: Fakers Are Losing Ground
In June, Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s very public announcement (made at Cannes) that the company would stop working with influencers who use fake followers was a big deal in the world of digital media marketing. It officially marked the end of an era.
We’ve been preaching for years about the need for brands to vet influencers… beyond follower counts and number of Likes. The reason being, both followers...
can be bought for a few bucks.
No doubt big brands like Procter & Gamble and Unilever have already wasted lots of money on fake influencers with inflated follower and engagement counts. So… brands are starting to call BS.
But I wouldn’t lob all the blame onto influencers.
Historically, follower counts and number of Likes have been the deciding factors for brands in whether they will work with influencers. So, it makes sense that savvy users looking to cash in on the influencer marketing carze would buy followers to boost their follower counts.
But I think both brands and influencers missed a key piece of the influencer marketing puzzle - influence springs up from trust, and bots can’t trust.
So, for the last few years, influencer marketing really has been sort of an anything-goes, see-if-it-sticks marketing trend for the large majority of brands, with just a few of them successfully implementing social proof techniques and marketing strategies that can deliver consistent and specific returns.
Last month, the media went crazy when Twitter began indiscriminately purging fake and locked accounts from the platform. Reuters reported that Twitter got rid of 70 million accounts during the sweep, and dropped follower numbers for everybody from Joe Blow across the street to heads of state.
so, Are brands ditching influencer marketing?
Forty-one percent of agencies and brand marketers would say influencer fraud is holding back the growth of influencer marketing. But are they ready to ditch it as a marketing channel? No way. The returns are too good to ditch it. What they are doing is bringing influencer marketing in-house by building teams to manage campaigns directly, or hire an intermediary who can work with influencer marketing agencies or influencer platforms like The Shelf to hammer out strategies and roll out campaigns. Ultimately, the goal for brands is to maintain better control over campaigns, and to build ongoing relationships with social influencers.
Reason #5 It’s Not Too Late: Influencers As a Whole Are Being Held Accountable
Another clear sign that influencer marketing is maturing is the fact that influencers are being held to business standards more often. There’s a lot more contractual talk in the blogosphere being included in posts about how to run influencer campaigns. Agencies are beefing up their contracts with influencers to include more details that will help ensure brands and influencers know what to expect from one another, what is expected of them, and when to deliver it. More detailed contracts mean influencers have very little opportunity to miss milestones without risking their contract (and reputations).
There’s also public outcry when influencers step on toes. People recognize that social media influencers can sway people’s thinking, and brands recognize that what an influencer or content creator says and does in the public eye can shape the way people perceive their brands.
I don’t want to spend too much time naming specific influencers who lost contracts because of something they said or did. Just do your own research.
Heck, just last week Apple, YouTube and Facebook removed the accounts of a popular content creator because enough people complained that his content crossed the line into hate speech and fake news. I will also tell you that just this morning, I was reading a post about advertisers boycotting YouTube again this year over lingering brand safety concerns. Brands feel YouTube just isn’t doing enough to ensure their ads don’t run on channels that promote hateful, controversial, violent, or explicit content.
If advertisers are foregoing the world’s second largest search engine as an advertising partner because doing so many weaken the integrity of the brand, you can see how an influencer can be dropped by making insensitive comments about her maid, or filming within view of the site of a suicide, or making racially insensitive remarks on social media.
The thing to watch for here, however, is how the influencer aligns with the brand. Here's what I mean.
According to Media Post, Fashion Nova is KILLING IT on social media. With $125 million in paid and organic EMV this year alone, Fashion Nova is the top-performing brand on Instagram. This win is credited in large part to their long-standing partnership with chart-topping rapper Cardi B.
Now, transparency… I’m more of a Kem / John Mayer / Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings kinda girl. So, I actually don’t know any of the words to “Bodak Yellow”.
But folks love Cardi B, and her public persona seems to be right in line with large segments of Fashion Nova’s 12 million+ Instagram audience. In fact, according to InfluencerDB, each one of Cardi B.’s Instagram posts, delivers $128,198 of EMV to the fast fashion site. And because her relationship with Fashion Nova precedes her fame, her posts ring authentic.
I grabbed a couple of screenshots to show you how valuable the right influencer can be to a brand’s campaign. The picture below, I grabbed from Fashion Nova’s Instagram feed. As of this writing, it's 12 days old. With 92.3K Likes, 630 Comments and 915K video views the engagement for this post is right around eight percent (which is phenomenal for an account with 12 million followers).
Now, let’s look at the same video from Cardi B’s Instagram feed. She posted this to her audience of 30.3 million. It has two million Likes, 22.1K Comments, and nearly 13.2 million video views. In 12 days.
And engagement on this post over 50 percent.
As smart and pretty as she is, as well-liked as she is, and as much engagement as she gets, she would be a terrible fit for lots of other brands. But the Fashion Nova - Cardi B. partnership is gold.
I blurred the feeds to keep the trash-talk out of view.
Reason #6 It’s Not Too Late: Governments Are Formulating Laws to Formalize and Legitimize This Space
It’s been pretty big news of late that governing bodies have stepped in to ensure what happens online adheres pretty closely to what’s allowed offline. This year, Facebook’s had to answer for data sharing and privacy violations on the world’s largest social media platform.
The EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation to ensure brands and marketers aren’t hoarding and misusing the personal data of EU citizens that they may collect from social media, websites, and marketing funnels.
The FTC has been at work creating more comprehensive and easy-to-understand Endorsement Guides for running an influencer business and doing business with influencers. It’s far easier to understand than previous guides released by the FTC, and outlines clearly that if there is a material connection or pre-existing personal relationship (like friend or relative) between an influencer and an advertiser, “that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed…”
India is making sure Indian influencers adhere to cultural decency laws.
And the UAE now requires local social media influencers to be licensed as content publishers, or to join licensed influencer marketing agencies in the UAE. If an influencer doesn’t do one or the other, he or she can no longer accept any kind of payment to promote products.
All steps toward standardizing a cottage industry (it's totally a cottage industry) that's digging in its heels.
Recap and Wrap-Up
So, there it is. Five signals that I believe are evidece the influencer marketing space is evolving and maturing, but not disappearing.
Is it too late for you to become an influencer? Nah. The real question is do you have the behaviors and skill set to build a strong, profitable digital marketing business ethically, because that’s what influencers actually are - digital marketers.
If you’re ready to become an influencer, we have several really good posts to help you forge your first careful steps. There are resources on the market, too like Brittany Hennessey’s book #Influencer that are written specifically for bloggers who want to become influencers. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will.
I wish you well out there.
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