Slashing costs, time and human error, the force and effect of programmatic buying has been unstoppable. In the UK, it stands to grow 31% this year, while in the US, four in five display ad dollars are currently spent via automated bids, but it would seem programmatic’s desire to conquer the digital marketing industry is not yet satisfied.

A number of influencer networks, in partnership with a handful of ad trading marketplaces, have begun trading influencer marketing programmatically, and it’s, of course, an unlikely marriage for a number of reasons, but chiefly given the channel’s wide appeal among advertisers being built upon its inherent organic reach and authenticity.

It’s a recent endeavour; the tail-end of 2016 saw a number of agencies in the US begin to sell influencer marketing contracts via programmatic ad buying platforms. This was led by a company called ROI Influencer Media opening up partnerships with Google’s DoubleClick, OpenX, PubMatic, MediaMath and Rubicon Project.

The result enabled the company – and soon after a handful of its competitors – to tout native social content from vast networks of signed celebrities and “social media all-stars” among the programmatic buying options available to brands. These advertisers could theoretically pre-define the types of audiences they wanted to reach, based on vertical, demographic, product, follower count, etc – and serve up ready-made content on the profiles that fit their criteria.

Reflecting on this development, ROI Influencer’s CEO, Seth Kean, said this marked a movement away from the channel’s “Wild West stage” and the “beginning” of influencer marketing becoming standardised.

The case for programmatic

There is certainly a case for standardisation; no longer is influencer marketing the reserve of experimental media buying by big brands and creative agencies, it’s becoming tried and tested, rigorous, measurable and accessible. In fact, if your brand isn’t spending on the channel, you’re now in the minority. PerformanceIN’s research found that 82% of advertisers had used influencer marketing in 2016, while nine out of 10 intended to ramp this up in the remainder of 2017.

Meanwhile, close to a third (30%) of advertisers claim to spend up to £10,000 a month on the channel, and one in ten put that at £40,000; the demand for that sort of spend to be airtight and accountable is certainly understandable.  

In terms of its place within the performance marketing dialogue, the serving of influencer marketing programmatically brings it to the forefront; the brands buying the ads will pay on a cost-per-view, guaranteed viewability basis ensuring that there is at least some return in the form of their ads being seen.

It’s also not to say that each successful bid is necessarily definitive; influencers on the agencies’ books will have the final say on which ad contracts they accept, agreeing only to those which they deem a suitable fit for their brand, in much the same way as publishers have full control over the inventory they sell.

At current, there’s no standard of pricing to access an influencer’s followers, it’s based on what they think they’re worth, or more realistically, what they can get; the anonymous tip-off site “Who Pays Influencers?” – which, for example, shows claims of what brands such as O2 and Nordstrom have paid for a batch of tweets – is some indication of just how disparate payment in this channel is.

For the advertiser, it can only be an advantage that content bought programmatically will come with a set pricing standard, especially as influencers start slashing rates in efforts to attracts offers, and with its use becoming much more widespread as consumers turn away from “traditional” ads, not to mention the impact of ad blockers, the streamlining of processes offered by programmatic bidding gives the marketer one less thing to worry about.

With all this in mind, the argument to serve influencer marketing content programmatically becomes a logical one, but successful, standout marketing, rarely follows a logical approach.

The case against programmatic

Automated ad serving threatens the most integral principal of influencer marketing; the power of the personality behind the profile. Reducing this to a number of pre-selected “tick-box” criteria for the purposes of automation bypasses the research, communication and relationship-building that enables a brand to naturally embed its product into an influencer’s nuanced narrative, providing them exposure and endorsement to the owner’s hard-fought, organically-grown following.

For those spending the money, it can be easy to forget that these accounts and blogs are not just small publishers offering up ad space, and many of them struggle to just make enough of a cut to make it a worthwhile operation. Few will be likely to turn away a winning bid, even if the content’s not a strong fit for their audience. The result will be an eventual decline in consumer trust, with audiences no longer buying that what they’re viewing or reading is the influencer’s honest opinion – and it may already be happening.

In today’s digital ad ecosystem, fewer and fewer decisions are being made without the pledge of ROI, and while there is certainly a calling for discernible metrics of success within the influencer marketing industry, it’s questionable whether a viewability based one is truly a benchmark of that content hitting home with an audience. If influencer marketing is named for its ability to influence sales, a CPM basis – as digital marketers know all too well – is not the right measurement.

As with any booming industry, reducing associated cost and time is invariably the next step, and while programmatic makes sense to this end, influencer marketing still relies on a vital human element. A system where pre-created content is bought, sold and served on these accounts – potentially without so much as a human glance – does not look to be a sustainable way of securing the channel’s future longevity.

Want to learn from influencer experts in person? Join the new Influencer Marketing Show arriving this October alongside PI Live – register to attend today.