INFLUENCER MARKETING - A NARRATIVE

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As the Department of Health publicly reviews their use of social media influencers and popular insta-models reveal they are not in fact human but rather computer-generated robots, the world of digital marketing has certainly reached an interesting place. Just five years ago “influencer marketing” wasn’t even a term used in industry jargon. Digital thought leaders were still referred to as “bloggers” and even they were like a whole new thing.

And now? Well there is simply no denying its effective. We all check our phones 9048 times a day and so it makes sense that marketing messages have moved to where our attention is. I know that I have taken an action to purchase based on something I’ve seen on Instagram. And so, it’s just powerful, such influence. The entire perception of a brand can be shifted- something not seemingly cool is deemed “ok” because an influencer or digital personality wore it, subliminally effecting our future decision making and purchase behaviour.

To influence you by definition need authority and in a digital world that authority can simply be fame. Influencers are famous because their tribe voted for them with a click of the follow button, giving the consumer control and in turn the influencer approved authority.

This is in contrast to the previous monopoly on brand ambassadors, celebrities, who were rather “pushed” onto consumers instead of being elected. So by following, liking and engaging with social influencers we, as consumers, have created their fame. And so frankly, the ball is in their court. For now.

Modern brand collaborations, as these partnerships with influencers are now called, are more consumer friendly than ever before and level with potential customers by presenting attainable aspiration. The whole concept has been successful because it’s like having a friend recommend a product or service to you not Julia Roberts or George Clooney.

In fact, influencers are now referred to as “the new media” because of the impact the have. Large international brands take their global products and content and make it locally relevant by having smart domestic influencers share it and appear as a seamless integration into their lifestyle.

There is a HUGE focus on this activity at the moment; overseas trips, events and privileges previously reserved for magazine editors are now shared with the new media, often with entire promotional campaigns crafted around their content. Instagram is the platform of choice for influencers and hence brands, but as demand grows they are leaving their native home of social and filtering into other forms of marketing like traditional advertising and events, even appearing on the runway.

They are chameleon personalities that cross media, model and mogul, co-creating brands, products and their own outfits for specific events.

So if brands are to go down this route, as almost 80% are, what are the rules? What are the guidelines? How on earth do you navigate this digital world? The short answer is that there is no right answer and both brands and influencers are still very much trying to work it out. And since this is the case, there is enormous value to be gained from both perspectives. Below I share my thoughts, based on experience and observation, on what I think is the best way forward across approach, costs, engagement, transparency, authenticity and process.

APPROACH

If anyone is going to win here, we need to make it easier. There is a lot of BS that goes on in the negotiation and organisation of these partnerships. Like any collaboration, both parties need to win and on the whole, influencer partnerships are a win/win situation, there are gains for both the influencer and the brand. So I would like to see barriers relaxed and friction reduced, which basically comes down to thoughtfully doing the right thing when it comes to each of the below.

COSTS

A huge challenge for premium brands is growth and expansion without compromising values, heritage or exclusivity. This is why up until now brands have generally produced and shared their own content. Though in a digital world where daily content is king, in house production of such content is expensive and so having an influencer both produce and share branded assets in an authentic voice is an attractive proposition.

As with most good things in life, this attractive proposition does not come cheap when you think about the absolute cost of a partnership in isolation. A one-off Instagram post can cost up to ten or even fifteen thousand dollars. However, when you compare this cost to a standard rack-rate advertisement, the inside front cover of a leading lifestyle magazine for example, which can be in the vicinity of thirty thousand dollars, it suddenly doesn’t look so bad. Especially when you add in potential reach. The influencer that charged ten thousand for a post might have an audience of almost two hundred thousand followers vs. the magazine that might have a circulation (or the number of copies printed in any given month) of eighty thousand.

From a brand perspective, there has undoubtedly been a general shift towards more and more budget being allocated to influencer partnerships but how much is enough still remains a bit of a mystery. It’s the classic “what’s the budget/how much does it cost” playoff. Some influencers are wildly overpriced and some are a comparative bargain because there is simply no industry standard. Even influencer agencies are still figuring out how to price their talent (and then adding up to 25% on top as a management fee).

There is a fairly wide spectrum of price points when it comes to how much these partnerships actually cost. Do your homework, investigate and negotiate. You can get a huge amount of value from an influencer that has an engaged, authentic audience of 7,000 fans by creating a mini series of snaps and stories for $200 per post. Similarly an influencer with 300,000 followers might cost $2,500 per post but depending on engagement, the potential for brand awareness there is huge.

A key to getting this costing business right lies in the KPIs (or Key Performance Indicators) that an influencer campaign is measured against. Brands need to ask ‘why are we doing this?’ ‘What is it that we want to get out of this pursuit?’ And ‘what does an ROI (Return On Investment) look like for us?’

Measuring effectiveness and operational impact is still in its infancy but more and more brands are requesting for KPIs upfront which can only make the whole process better. It is not always easy to connect an influencer’s post directly to sales, which has always been the case with advertising in general. In fact, I believe that it is completely incorrect for brands to measure the success of their influencer campaigns against ecommerce sales alone. Its creating a direct pathway that just doesn’t exist. Advertising has always been about brand awareness and really, that is the role of an influencer as well, to make their audience aware of your brand by way of an authentic e-introduction.

It’s a pay to play economy for sure. But the main issue I’ve seen is influencers pricing their posts based on their entire following, not their engagement.

ENGAGEMENT

An influencer’s engagement rate is a measure of how interactive their audience is with their content. Are they producing content so amazing that it is inducing some kind of immediate action from their audience.

On social media this action is a like, comment or share and the engagement rate is calculated by adding the number of actions together and then dividing it by the influencer’s total number of followers.

The trouble is that given the saturation of Instagram influencers and the copious amounts of corresponding content now on social media, it actually takes a lot for an audience member to hand out a virtual clap. It’s taking more and more to impress us.

And so, on the whole, engagement is low. An acceptable engagement rate is 3%, just 3% of an influencer’s audience taking action. I don’t know about you but I think this sounds low. Especially when you start to think about that ten thousand dollars.

On the other hand, this is the best opportunity for advertising data we’ve ever had because at least consumers are taking an action on this ‘ad’. The game has changed and the goal posts have not just shifted, they’ve been moved onto the next field. We just expect more. All of us. Brands expect low costs, high engagement and access to beautiful content. Influencers expect to work with fabulous brands, get paid a fortune and travel the world. The answer to making it easier lies somewhere in between all of this but an element that is absolutely crucial to making influencer marketing successful is authenticity.

AUTHENTICITY

I think authenticity could be the marketing ‘word of 2018’. It gets thrown around a lot and in some ways that’s good because its evidently gaining traction and making people, both running brands and influencers, think about it. If as an influencer you have an audience who genuinely loves you, who follows you because they feel drawn into your world and relate to you in some meaningful way then it’s quite likely that your followers will heart everything you post no matter what it is. Your engagement, because you have an authentic profile with an authentic audience, is, authentically, high.

If I can see a huge difference in the influencers who genuinely love a brand vs. those in it for the cash, then everyone else can too. Customers are smart and are becoming more and more savvy when it comes to this influencer caper. Anything that isn’t authentic is so obvious in the resulting content. So then from a brand perspective, it is simply essential to choose influencers who share your values and genuinely want to help grow your awareness without compromising these values.

Like taking out a single random ad in the middle of one magazine is a waste of time (and money), I find it hard to see that a one-off post and payment will have any lasting impact. Rather than this ‘drop in the ocean’ approach, a good idea is to have a roster of regular ambassadors that you use time and time again, from season to season. Multiple posts mean more of an opportunity for more of their audience to see your brand. If you see a friend wearing a certain brand time and time again, you generally assume that they quite like that brand and it genuinely makes them happy. Humans are creatures of habit and they like consistency and so it simply makes sense to play into this when it comes to influencer marketing on some level.

The most successful influencer strategy I think is a tiered one. Take your regulars or roster influencers, add some new authentic faces into the mix each season across different price points and audience size, throw in a wild card or two and don’t forget about the original brand ambassadors – your staff.

TRANSPARENCY

There is no doubt about it, finding the right influencers is still largely manual and hence extremely time consuming. Time is probably the thing that people value most and so has influencer marketing gone too far when time, effort and resources have been put into an influencer campaign and that influencer turns out to be a robot?

An entire account was built to look, feel and sound like a real person but when the followers reached 1M it was revealed that the 19-year-old from California was not in fact a model but a computer-generated program. I would argue that this is deliberately deceptive for the fact that it was set up to look “real”, with that intent from the beginning.

However, isn’t this the very nature of influencer marketing? As I mentioned before, the goal is to seamlessly integrate products into an influencer’s lifestyle so it appears as though a friend is recommending the product to you. And further, even paid brand ads on Instagram are organically viewed as part of the feed. There is no “advertising” section like there is at the front of a magazine.

If nothing else this extremely interesting experiment (which you can read about here in more detail) raises the important point of transparency. In my view, sponsored or gifted influencer posts are like traditional “advertorials” – a combination of editorial and advertising. And because of this both brands and influencers need to take equal responsibility for ensuring customers know the nature of their partnership. The more the partnership makes sense, the more authentic it is and the less likely customers are to “care” that it’s a paid relationship. Both brands and influencers need each other, and so as I raised before there needs to be an underlying responsibility to simply do the right thing and make it all as easy as possible.

PROCESS

So, what to do from here. Historically, from a brand perspective, the responsibility of managing influencer relations has been passed around in-house teams, from PR to marketing and back again. Now, depending on the size of your brand, you will likely need a dedicated point of contact with standard practices and processes. If you’re a small brand you could have a specific email address for influencers to reach you on so all related correspondence is kept and recorded in one place. On the selection process, go with your gut and then layer in the data – it has to be a combination of both. Know that its time consuming and the details really do matter.  Influencers might be the new media but they are actually humans and so these delicate relationships deserve attention, respect and thoughtful planning.

 

Erin Fraser