Influencer marketing is hitting a dead end

Influencer marketing is hitting a dead end

One of my clients built his business entirely on influencer marketing. His revenue has grown explosively through a combination of both paid and organic relationships with powerful influencers who specialize in “un-boxing” and product reviews. “We’re in trouble,” he told me. “Influencer marketing is hitting a dead end. It’s crashing everywhere.”

He explained a consistent pattern he’s seeing among the most successful influencers:

  • They start as passionate creators, enthusiastically publishing content about products and people they love and believe in.
  • The creators build a loyal audience due to the quality of their content and fair product reviews.
  • Once their audience hits critical mass, brands notice and begin to offer money for exclusive sponsorship deals. Of course, this is what they’ve been waiting for — the payoff for all their hard work.
  • Their revenue is now tied to promoting products, not delivering fair reviews. They become more limited in what they can talk about. And they can’t stop or even take a break. There are no days off. The content has to keep coming every day, without excuse. The passionate hobby has become an unforgiving treadmill.
  • Eventually, the influencer burns out and stops publishing “to take a mental health break.”

“It’s completely predictable,” my customer said. “We see this pattern happening with every influencer we work with.”

Why influencer marketing is hitting a dead end

influencer marketing is hitting a dead endInfluence marketing has been around since the 1930s when the silent film Charlie Chaplin started appearing in ads for Cadbury’s and other brands. Sponsorship income was built on fame.

Starting in the social media era, anybody could build an audience by creating content like blogs, videos, and podcasts. Influence had been democratized.

In 2012, I wrote the first book on influence marketing called Return On Influence. The first social media influencers were subject matter experts. First through blogs — the first digital publishing platform — and later through video and podcasts, early creators published about their love of cars, fashion, art, crafts, business, or whatever their passion might be.

A new business model emerged. Instead of developing a product to sell, a large and loyal social media audience could be monetized through brand sponsorships, merchandise, events, books, appearances, affiliate marketing, and other revenue streams.

A profitable creator economy emerged, and it took a new twist with the popularity of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Many creator audiences were built on entertainment value instead of any particular skill set.

A Search Engine Journal article listed the top 100 Instagram influencers. The influence categories included lifestyle, travel, fashion, and beauty. Essentially, these Instagram influencers are monetizing their lives rather than any particular skill set.

Similarly, on YouTube and TikTok, star influencers like MrBeast or PewDiePie are entertainers. And they have to bring the thunder every day.

Online influence began as sharing hobbies. Much of influence today means being a daily entertainer. No wonder people are burning out.

“What should I do today?”

I’ve observed the burn-out trend all over the web.

  • One teen TikTok star earned 3 million followers through her dances and stories. One day, she wearily looked at the camera and said, “What should I do today? I’m running out of ideas.”
  • An Instagram megastar created a vulnerable video, cautioning others not to follow in her path. “It never stops. I’m so tired. If I worked at McDonald’s, I would at least have a day off.”
  • “I’m tired of making everything about myself. My job requires me to look at myself, talk about myself, post myself, and reply to comments about myself. It is way too much of a self-obsessive job”
  • “On TikTok, you have to talk in short sentences. TikTok has brainwashed me into just giving blurbs with zero explanation because the less you explain, the shorter the video, and the more comments you’ll get. I’ve gotten in the habit of giving less information”
  • “I went on vacation and it was the first time in three years I was able to exist without that little voice in my head telling me you should be taking a photo right now. It was liberating”

Another problem faced by the newly-famous is stalkers. One young woman went underground after a troll — who had threatened to kill her boyfriend — broke into her parent’s home.

Pulling back leads to influencer failure

Three academics published a study showing how these parasocial relationships can turn sour, with love and adoration replaced by feelings of hostility and even hatred.

The tipping point for hostility comes when influencers begin to impose boundaries on the content they share online to protect their privacy and mental health.

The absence of personal details from the influencer’s life breaks the illusion of intimacy with the follower. Affection turns to animosity. The follower may feel betrayed, excluded, scorned — like wronged friends — and they seek revenge.

New influencer success formula

In a streaming economy where people don’t see or believe ads like they used to, there will continue to be huge opportunities for creators who amass large audiences. The money will attract scores of young people who want the influencer lifestyle.

We are still in the early days of the creator economy, a force that couldn’t have existed 25 years ago. We are starting to see the limits and clues to future success.

  • Many young people ask me for advice on becoming a creator. I encourage them. I think they should go for it and have no regrets. However, I also tell them that only the elite rise to the top, and their chance for life-sustaining revenue is low. Success depends on more than being cute or funny. You must have the disciplined work ethic of elite stars like LeBron James or Michael Jordan. If you don’t enjoy the “grind” you’re not well-suited to this kind of career.
  • Creators need to set boundaries from the start. What are the limits of privacy — not just in this moment, but after you have a significant other or have a child? What are the limits of sponsorship? The shackles of exclusive deals can lead to misery.
  • There must also be boundaries on the sponsor side. Demanding too much air time or exclusive control might end a creator’s career prematurely.
  • I also advise any budding creator to take college classes in business law, accounting, and marketing. Look at the most successful stars like MrBeast. Jimmy Donaldson is an incredibly savvy entrepreneur. Anybody can be entertaining. But when it comes to business, he really is a beast.
  • Seek help. Superstar Juanpa Zurita reached out to me for help when his career was beginning. “I need to find somebody I can trust,” He said. “Everybody just wants a piece of me.” Finding support for business issues and mental health can be difficult when the vultures are circling. Find support early and keep them close.

The key to long-term influencer success requires a mindset shift from “I’m a creator who wants to make money” to “I’m an entrepreneur building a business.” Building a business requires education, support, trusted partners, and boundaries.

Need a keynote speaker? Mark Schaefer is the most trusted voice in marketing. Your conference guests will buzz about his insights long after your event! Mark is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books, a college educator, and an advisor to many of the world’s largest brands. Contact Mark to have him bring a fun, meaningful, and memorable presentation to your company event or conference.

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Image courtesy of MidJourney

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