Influencer marketing has never been more popular. The third-party endorsement and reach that a successful partnership can offer is so irresistible that almost every brand has incorporated at least some level of influencer engagement into their wider marketing strategy.
As consumer trust in brands generally, especially when it comes to advertising, has declined, the opinions of our peers have become more important considerations in the decision-making process. This is why Influencers have become particularly useful for brands – they help them build 1:1 trust.
However, as influencers become more ubiquitous, scepticism is spreading to encompass them too. Some 75% of countries saw a decrease in trust of social media platforms in 2017 (Edelman, 2017) and as the ASA launches a review into how paid-for influencer and native advertising is signposted online, it’s clear that this unease has filtered into the brand marketing sector too. Couple this with a lack of enforcement procedures and limited guidelines on how brands and influencers should broker successful relationships – a fact which is triggering a media backlash almost weekly – and it’s clear that the marketing practice now needs to mature.
If brands continue to treat influencers like advertising networks, the resulting content will be inauthentic and look like an ad. Audiences will quickly tire of this and trust in influencers will diminish. Fostering a collaborative relationship must be the starting point for change.
Considering these mitigating factors, brands should realise that putting a greater emphasis on quality – of relationship and content – will pave the way to building trust.
Trust is the currency of 2018 when it comes to influencer marketing and beyond, and transparency is a key tactic that must be adopted in its pursuit. There are a number of ways for brands and influencers to showcase this in the absence of an industry standard for regulation and best practice.
As a first step, brands and influencers must stop treating each other badly. Many, from both sides of the relationship, will have horror stories about non-payment, non-delivery on agreed KPIs, or even worse - one half of the party saying something that utterly opposes the other’s established principles.
Like any business relationship, the key is mutual respect and clear parameters. We’re not quite at that point yet, which is limiting how well the value of these relationships can be demonstrated.
A worrying number of brands still view influencer relations as a checklist item, rather than something that requires a significant amount of time and attention in order to get right. Simply sending free products in exchange for influencers’ time is reminiscent of social media strategy from years gone by and is no longer good enough. Both parties must be devoted to fostering a long-term, beneficial relationship.
An example of an influencer marketing campaign that established an emotional connection, while also delivering an authentic, mutually beneficial engagement, is National Geographic’s “Make What’s Next” campaign, that launched on International Women’s Day 2016. Encouraging young girls to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), National Geographic posted 30 images of leading female scientists taken by influential wildlife photographers, illustrating real-life stories. The inspirational campaign demonstrated its effectiveness by generating over 3.5m likes, illustrating how brands and influencers can work together to complement each other’s long-term goals.
Choosing the right influencer
Brands and influencers should see each other as creative collaborative partners, going beyond overly branded, flash-in-the-pan campaigns. For brands, the choice of influencer needs to be based on more than just follower numbers. It is not about going after the biggest and most popular name on Instagram, but instead identifying the right group of influencers to tell your story and market your products in the most authentic way.
When allowed creative input, they can be powerful sales agents which will help prove ROI in a more tangible way. ASOS does this well. It works with individual influencers, known as ASOS Insiders, to grow an organic audience. The online retailer creates sponsored Instagram accounts for influencers. This enables fashion, beauty and lifestyle bloggers to curate and post images showing off the brand’s products, provide styling tips and also give a behind-the-scenes peek at ASOS.
This shows that a targeted approach that enables influencers’ creative input, can have an added value to both the brand and the individual’s reach.
Beyond building long-lasting, positive relationships which can grow and develop, both brands and influencers have a responsibility to consumers, to be honest, and transparent about the work that they are doing together whilst formal regulations are developed. They can do this by co-creating authentic, engaging content that mirrors the desires of their audience, and also by using the correct hashtags - #sponsoredpost, #ad, #sponsored – to communicate when posts are sponsored.
The likes of Erica Davies, Anna Saccone and The Daily Ollie are committed to this transparent approach. This is the only way to maintain trust in a landscape where a vacuum is opening up, thanks to rising distrust of traditional media.
The sooner that brands and influencers change the bad habits they have developed, the better. Whilst consumers have stopped paying attention to banner ads, influencer relationships are still a good way to authentically convey brand messaging. Most importantly they must work together to change the perception that influencers are just a cheap route to advertising.
Whilst they can be profitable, the relationships require research, a certain extent of creative freedom and a clear activation strategy. Taking these steps will help pave the way for success in the future and prepare both brands and influencers for the time when influencer marketing becomes a more mature discipline.