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Influencer Marketing: Caveat Emptor

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Lauded as a key weapon in our marketing arsenal, the capture, curation and promotion of influence is on the tip of every marketer’s tongue these days. But the rigour around its definition, relevance and indeed ethics is far from clear, Sheena Horgan takes a look under the hood of Influencer Marketing.

Influence is about leverage, adding prestige and reach to a brand and endearing it to an audience. At its most organic, it’s about amplifying clout and attraction, ideally swaying their purchasing choices. So a brand’s ability to secure an influencer’s approval and commitment is a valuable thing indeed.

Defining influence in these terms is straight forward enough, but the real task is how do you define the influencer? I’d certainly argue that we use the term less adroitly than we think, assuaging our need to be ‘on trend’ over our need for rigorous application.  It’s understandable than with huge pressure on marcomms to deliver metrics and KPIs, cosmetic figures such as followers are very attractive.  Just as with any media plan, volume and frequency serves a purpose.  Eyeballs and OTS do matter, but engagement really is king. The end goal is for the target audience to actually hear, read, ponder, repeat, and share the brand’s message.

Thinking it through then, the level of influence the person with the most followers has on those followers has often little real brand engagement depth. An ‘influencer’ with fewer but more engaged followers is more likely to wield genuine, more penetrative influence.  It’s more akin to peer-to-peer where the p2p recommendation dynamic offers proven high returns – some 90% according to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Report (2015).  So the premise of influencer marketing has good commercial grounds.

But here’s the rub: there’s a number of reasons why people follow each other. These could include – interest, curiosity or learning. The level of influence imparted varies a lot, but the one brands want, the cognitive influence that motivates the follower to act, is as difficult to curate as it is to secure.

The critical component in all of this is transparency and authenticity. Genuine influencers are not in the habit of being crudely sponsored with non-aligned brands. They know the value of their own brand persona and the tenuous bond they have with their following, which is at the mercy of the content they deliver. Prostituting this content for payment will not bode well.

But where an authentic respect and relevance exists between the brand and influencer, collaboration is possible and indeed valuable. Endorsement has always had a place in the marketing mix and the use of advocates and ambassadors is prolific. But the caveat when using them is how the brand association is positioned and articulated. Declaring the sponsorship shows honesty and where the association is relevant, its integrity will only amplify the impact of the advocacy.

Interestingly in the US the debate is about transparency of a different complexion, because it’s coming from the influencers themselves – the bloggers, vloggers and YouTubers (http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-much-do-influencers-get-paid-2016-5?r=US&IR=T ). They’re calling for fair payment in terms of ‘$X for Y followers’.  A blunt interpretation of the value of influencers.

The debate here meanwhile has moved into tax territory, as Revenue has cottoned on to monies and goods changing hands that might not be disclosed. Both Revenue and indeed the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) are clear on the definition of transparency: payment of any kind, is advertising, and must be declared.

Of course this is all arguing semantics if we don’t consider the metrics. We can see the following, the likes and the shares, but until we can measure the conversion to sales, there’ll be a question mark beside influencer marketing. But even that is evolving as the campaign approach to Influencer Marketing is giving way to a more relationship approach, and the capture of mentions is migrating into Share of Voice figures and traffic requests.

For fear of having cast too dark a doubt over it, none of this in my view, is to say that influencer marketing will die a death. Best illustrated on the Gartner Hype Cycle, where I think we’re at today is likely close to the Peak. I predict as the year progresses, a possible descent towards the Trough of Disillusionment.  But, as per the value and potential described in this article, I think Influencer Marketing will rally after that. So do consider it as an effective marketing tool, just be cautious not to be too cosmetic.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ February Issue 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660