Or Will the Risks Doom the Tactic?
We live in a world where it matters what other people say. And while this has always been true, it has never been easier to reach audiences that want to listen. Factoring in the internet - with its ability to connect billions from all corners of the globe - and the sophisticated technologies, platforms, channels, and media types that allow for the seemingly infinite creation of content, and it’s easy to understand why influencers continue to amplify their presence in the world of brands and loyalty.
The rise of influencers has permeated and shaped nearly every facet of our contemporary culture. A recent article sheds light on the vast popularity and perennial notoriety of Influencer Marketing. In a study of people aged 13-38 aiming to understand their ideal careers, the admiration of one option stood out from the rest:
- 86 percent of those surveyed have aspirations to become influencers
In fact 12 percent of all those surveyed claimed they already consider themselves to be influencers, and the study concludes by positing that these attitudes will increase as time goes on.
From the perspective of brands themselves, the power of influencers has commanded respect, and marketers have taken notice. 80 percent of marketers acknowledge that influencer marketing is effective for their business; 89 percent even go so far as to claim that the ROI gains noticed from influencer marketing is comparable or better to other communications vehicles. Influencer marketing has become a big business, and swaths of companies are now dedicated solely to connecting these influencers with brands who need to reach specific audiences.
Companies like IZEA build technologies that let businesses wade into the swiftly moving waters of the influencer world simply, efficiently, and independently — replacing the convoluted hierarchies of agency negotiations, which many are perceiving as an artifact of pre-digital times.
Have we reached the point of influencer inundation? In advertising, there is a simple term to describe this phenomenon: “clutter”. Or does the power of influencers stand to continue to fundamentally transform brand marketing and usher in a new era of loyalty tactics?
The answer is unclear, but there are some very clear and salient implications to leveraging the potentially vociferous impact of influencer marketing:
Influencer Marketing Works (But You Must Work Hard to Prove It)
Tapping into popular names and faces to represent your brand is a format that works supremely well in 2019, based on the hard numbers. A study by Nielsen Catalina Solutions sought to answer questions about the efficacy of influencer marketing by experimenting with health and lifestyle products and correlated influencer segments. The results of the study demonstrated some serious affirmations attesting to the quantitative marketing benefits of influencers:
- Influencer marketing generated up to 11X as much ROI as banner ads
- Households exposed to influencer marketing purchased 10 percent more products than the control group
- Audiences for influencer marketing spent up to $285 more dollars on product compared to the control group
This data is persuasive, but it’s important to keep in mind that it was uncovered by Nielsen Catalina Solutions (note: not nielsen the research firm), a media company dedicated to helping marketers measure and improve advertising performance. They’re in the business of demonstrating ROI, and they have a sophisticated toolbox of resources fine-tuned for tracking metrics, optimizing ad performance, and shining their business partners in the best light, so it’s worth taking these findings with a grain of salt. And for practicing brands looking to prove the worth of their influencer tactics, the picture of reality can become a lot more difficult to clarify. 84 percent of day-to-day marketers feel that proving the ROI of influencer marketing can be a challenge. In fact, accurately determining returns will require a concerted effort to collate multiple channels into an appropriate benchmarking architecture that marries all costs to the desired outcomes for these channels, be it number of followers, likes, or click-through-rates. This kind of individualized data tracking can not only be costly for brands, but it is a developing science that still lacks the comprehensive precision of more traditional channel measurement techniques.
Influencers Can Undermine Brand Control
One of the most powerful benefits of influencer marketing is the inherent authenticity derived from the influencer’s distinct voice. Influencers speak their own mind, and their positive associations with brands come from an underlying connection to a resonant product or service. Influencers have their own tastes and opinions, and appeal for distinct cultural facets — when these attitudes reflect those of their audience as well as their brand affiliations, that is when the magic truly happens.
But this dynamic means that control is sacrificed for the sake of authenticity, and when things go wrong, the results can be disastrous for brands. Social media is replete with examples of influencers making mistakes or going against the grain and compromising their brand relationships:
- Supermodel Naomi Campbell, an ambassador of Adidas, ran into trouble when her posted content was not properly vetted by herself or her team. Instead of posting a compelling caption alongside a pair of shoes, she accidentally posted brand instructions from the Adidas marketing team, causing a great deal of embarrassment and inviting the mockery of online audiences.
- Logan Paul, a once heavy weight (in the literal sense these days) in the world of influencers and drawing a fanbase of 15+ million subscribers, caused a stir in 2018 when he posted grim footage of deceased individuals who took their lives within Japan’s infamous “suicide forest”. Completely at odds with the values and morals of the brands he represented at the time, he went into self-imposed isolation after severe online backlash to his antics — not the best news for business.
One of the most difficult balancing acts in all of marketing is trying to administer brand control while simultaneously giving influencers the freedom to generate authentic messaging. Almost half of all marketers feel they should have complete control over all written and visual communications within influencer content.
Conversely, 54 percent of influencers admit they do not trust brands to work with them fairly. These dichotomous tensions threaten to undermine the long-term efficacy of influencer strategies and stand as a barrier to successfully reaching customers.
Are Customers Loyal to Your Brand? Or to the Influencer?
Influencers, in many ways, are like the mascots and corporate characters of marketing years gone by. They are a familiar face to latch on to, and they create a personified voice through which to express brand messaging, cultivating a communication experience that is arguably more humanized. But in many ways, influencers could not be more different than these traditional branding tools.
Influencers are not owned by brands — their opinions, beliefs, and values are merely annexed for a specific tactical purpose. Many (if not most) influencers work with several brands simultaneously and they alone are responsible for amassing a following, rallying their fans, and creating their own brand, distinct from any sponsoring entity. Most influencers will not even be considered for a partnership until they have completed these prerequisites, and in today’s hyper-competitive environment, only the best make the grade. And the “better” the influencer, the more loyal and ardent the followers, but this loyalty is typically prioritized towards the influencer themselves.
The tension between loyalty for influencers and the brands that sponsor them is perfectly evidenced in the recent drama between beauty vlogger James Charles and colleague Tati Westbrook. Earlier this year, Charles posted content featuring vitamin brand SugarBearHair, which is a direct competitor to Westbrook’s Halo Beauty. Westbrook swiftly took to social media and decisively admonished James Charles in a 43 minute confessional video, and loyal fans of Westbrook took retaliatory action against Charles; not only unfollowing and attacking the vlogger on social media, but by disavowing and disengaging from many of his associated brands. It’s a clear example how the loyal fandom expressed by audiences towards their favorite influencers can far outshine the predilections and preferences for the brands these influencers endorse, with direct consequence to the shopping behaviors of customers.
Influencer marketing meets the fundamental conditions required for successful communication with customers. Information is coming from a trusted source, is packed with entertainment, is easy to access (given its digital nature), and is informative. Influencers also generate an organic “call to action”, creating demand just by amplifying an individual product.
At a time when there is substantial customer ambivalence towards marketing in general, audiences still crave to learn about brands. Influencers, whether celebrity or not, can personify a brand to connect emotionally with a potential customer base. Influencer marketing creates the opportunity for brands to engage in natural human conversations — but the strategy carries a high quotient of risk that must be managed.
As influencer marketing continues to proliferate across social media channels, brands may find that without a significant reshaping of their tactical approach, the risks may outweigh the benefits in the pursuit of building long-term loyalty.