Brands need to stop the insanity and invest in true influence


By Avtar Ram Singh, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Influencer marketing is becoming a crowded space. There’s barely any loyalty between influencers and brands, especially in smaller cities and geographies.

It’s also becoming confusing and controversial. A brilliant piece of journalism from The New York Times cast some light on the rise of social media bots and the inflated follower counts that we see on Twitter.

If you’re working in influence marketing today, you probably don’t know how to measure success, or even what, exactly, to ask an influencer to do for you.

Today, I want to introduce a radical idea of where this needs to head. We need to be investing in the influencers themselves, not their audience, content, or reach.

What are marketers doing with influencers in 2018?

Let’s start this discussion by exhuming a few of the problems in the field.

Research from Linqia, an influencer marketing platform has revealed some interesting trends in terms of how marketers are thinking about influencer marketing in 2018.

One of the stand-out statistics is that 36% of marketers plan on using influencer content with e-commerce to drive product sales.

The wording there is important.

Brands don’t plan on leveraging influencers to drive product sales, they plan on using influencer content themselves, to do so.

In essence, engage the influencer to create content, and then use their content in their own paid advertising to drive product sales. It’s almost like they’re outsourcing their creative work to influencers.

Can we trust influencers? 

Which leads us to an interesting place in the influence marketing evolution. Can we truly count on the influencers of today when trying to drive sales? When working with influencers, there are a couple of obstacles that almost always come up:

  • Influencers not wanting to give access to their page insights / data to check results.
  • Influencers refusing to use UTM tags to track website traffic and conversions.
  • Influencers refusing to use Bitly links to track performance.
  • Influencers trying to justify their worth by reach / impressions data, or engagement in terms of likes / retweets.

It can be frustrating. When you eventually do manage to find a solution and implement proper tracking, you suddenly realize that the results based on the investment, are frequently … underwhelming.

Influencers as Media Vehicles

Agencies have turned influencers into contract-based engagement services, and it’s driving the wrong behavior in our field.

Findings from Captiv8, a platform that connects influencers with brands – show that as you move up the chain of influence, acquiring more followers (and more influence?), you can demand greater compensation from brands for spreading the word about their product:

Captiv8's findings on influencer pricing.

In fact, reports suggest that if you’ve got a cool half million lying around, you could get Selena Gomez to endorse your product for you. If you’ve got twice that amount, Beyoncé would be happy to talk to her followers about your B2B lead management tool. A dollar? I bet Mark Schaefer would pick up the phone (sorry Mark I couldn’t resist!)

This is a relevant model, and something we can understand because it is so similar to the way the ad world has always done things. Success has always been based on audience numbers: When you approach a magazine, a newspaper or a radio station for a promotion spot, their pricing usually hinges on the size of their audience. A 5:30 “drive time” spot at a radio channel costs more, because they promise you greater reach.

A newspaper with greater circulation can charge more than a competitor with a lot less circulation. They promise you more eyeballs.

As a result, wannabe-influencers have been inflating their follower counts and engagement with bots, faking it in the hope they’ll make it. We stopped asking them for influence, we stopped asking them for business results – we asked them for reach.

Heck, we said we’d pay them based on how many people they’d help us reach.

So who’s really to blame for this fake follower controversy?

A Shift in Thinking

But influence is not in the numbers.

How cool would it be, if an influencer said, “Hey – I’ve only got 8,000 followers and they’re all from Chicago, but each and every one of them trusts my choice in sportswear. If you want to promote those running shoes, I could pretty much guarantee you some sales in the next month.”

Real influence doesn’t hinge on the size of an audience, it hinges on the level of trust they have with their audience on a specific expertise.

Mark Schaefer, whose blog you’re on, is incredibly influential in the marketing world. But if he endorses a brand of toothpaste, how many people would buy it? Sure – his Alpha Audience might give it a punt, but it’s not going to do much for the toothpaste brand.

If he endorses a product like Brand24 however, there’s a certain level of guarantee that the product will see a significant level of movement.

How do we create an influencer marketing model that creates mutual value, trust, and results based on true influence?

The solution? Investing in influencers

In 2011, Nike signed an 11 year long contract with Brazilian soccer star Neymar Jr. At the time, Neymar was 18 years old, and a rising star in Brazil with Santos. His move to world superstardom would arrive two years later, when he’d sign for FC Barcelona.

When Nike first sponsored Neymar, he was just an up and coming athlete, making the occasional headlines. Today, he boasts an Instagram following of 88 million and regularly garners between 3-4 million interactions per post.

Patrick Kluivert, a famous Dutch soccer player that spent his glory years playing for Ajax and Barcelona, recently oversaw his youngest son, Shane Kluivert, sign a contract with Nike.

Shane is 9 years old.

Sports brands often make these sponsorship bets on rising stars, hoping to lock them in before they become world-famous to keep their sponsorship costs low in the long-term.

That kind of sponsorship can also provide those athletes with the resources and platforms to succeed.

That’s the approach marketers should take with other types of influencers as well.

There are lots of struggling artists, writers, designers, athletes, performers, etc. out there who could use a grant of some kind to get to the next level and bring their small but influential audience with them.

What if in exchange for providing a platform for their work, elevating their awareness, providing some financial support – they struck a long-term deal to continuously work with brands, utilizing their native expertise to be an advocate for the brand?

Of course, the brand would have to be closely related to the kind of things they are working on but instead of brands looking at “reach” like the ad days, what if we invested in real influence and helped these people along?

The point is – I’d imagine an influencer, whose potential value was recognised early by brands, rewarded, and elevated – would be incredibly devoted to helping the brand succeed.

Brands need to be able to think long-term about influencer marketing, place a bet on the stars of tomorrow, invest in them early, and reap the rewards 3-5 years in the future.

But in today’s instantaneous digital world, asking marketers to invest in a visionary strategy with high risk, no guarantee of success – but incredible reward, is easier said than done.

I’d love for a brand to be bold enough to take a punt on it though, and become champions for the true influencers in our world.

avtar-profileAvtar Ram Singh is the Head of Strategy at FALCON Agency, a performance-led, business results oriented marketing agency that operates in South East Asia. He’s built marketing strategies and performance frameworks for brands on global and regional levels, across a variety of industries. You can find him on LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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