Much of our modern lives take place on social media, and people skilled in creating high-quality content can even make a career out of posting and engaging audiences. These “influencers” tend to have significant followings and can shape trends and connect with people in ways that traditional media never could.

This is the theory behind influencer marketing: a brand partners with an influential creator to promote a product, service or brand to their followers. They use their position as a trusted advisor to focus attention and lend credibility to that brand. It’s a more personal, targeted form of marketing – and it’s rapidly becoming a staple. 

Nine out of ten marketers that have worked with influencers reported that their campaign was a success, and influencer marketing budgets are growing significantly every year. However, many marketers still don’t feel confident introducing influencer marketing to their work. That’s why I’ve put together this introduction to the what, how and why of influencer marketing.  

Defining influencer marketing 

Influencer marketing is the use of a personality on a social network to provide endorsements or recommendations of a brand, product or service. The exact form that this takes varies between online creators, which is a major part of the appeal of influencer marketing. By collaborating with an online personality to create custom content that promotes a brand, marketers benefit from their unique reach, authenticity and character. 

This is particularly effective for influencers that have built up their following in a specific niche with a narrow target audience. Counter-intuitively, so-called “micro-influencers” with smaller audiences may actually be more effective at reaching audiences than major stars. Smaller creators have time to build a closer connection with their audience, getting to know them and interacting directly in ways that celebrities cannot. This also provides the potential for brands to interact in the comments, further building their presence among an interested community. 

For example, influencers in the photography space are considered trusted voices on topics like photo editing software. Adobe is a great example of this, during its influencer marketing campaign they used a total of 107 influencers around the world to raise awareness of the company’s new editing software. These influencers created their own content using the software and shared the results with their followers in social posts. The campaign generated a record six-times increase in engagement over the industry average. 

Affiliate marketing and influencer marketing 

Traditional affiliate marketing was previously popular among bloggers and other small- and medium-scale media publishers with their own websites. However, these sites often made fairly little from each individual promotion, so they had to take on several to make enough money to stay in business. This produced sites with dozens of competing promotions, clouding their message and diluting trust in their endorsements. 

Influencer marketing is different in its approach and use of affiliates, since influencers are directly dependent on the trust of their followers. According to Nielson’s Consumer Trust Index report, 92% of consumers trust influencer marketing over traditional advertising. This authenticity is central to influencer marketing, and marketers must ensure that they choose the right influencer for the product, service or brand they’re promoting. 

An ideal pairing is one where followers feel the influencer genuinely likes the brand and would use it regardless of whether they were paid to promote it. The public understands that influencers are paid to promote – especially in light of transparency-focused rules such as Instagram’s “#ad” disclosure policy – but this doesn’t have to undermine trust.

The creator-audience relationship is built on completely different incentives and trust is central, so their endorsements carry far more weight. In fact, an Edelman Trust survey found that 63% of 18-to-34-year-olds trust an influencer’s say more than that of the brand itself. 

Working with influencers

With their incredible success – it has been shown to deliver 11 times better ROI than traditional marketing – and ability to make meaningful connections with consumers, it’s no surprise that influencer marketing is a rising power. Brands are set to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by next year.

Getting started with influencer marketing is straightforward and relatively low risk. Micro-influencers are an ideal place to start, with research showing that they have 60% better engagement and 22% higher conversion rates

While there are some pitfalls to influencer marketing, they can easily be overcome. The main things to look out for are authenticity and reliability. As discussed, creating an authentic match between the creator and the brand is essential, and a mismatch can backfire on both the brand and the influencer. 

In terms of reliability, brands must vet their influencers to ensure that they will not draw negative attention. When a brand works with an influencer, they link themselves in customers’ eyes, which can apply negatively and positively. 

To ensure that influencers stick to the guidelines and don’t behave controversially, brands have the option of working with platforms that offer pre-vetted influencers. These platforms also offer a range of additional benefits, such as handling briefing and payment, further lowering the barriers to entry for brands looking to get started with influencer marketing. 

Becoming the norm

Influencer marketing has rapidly established itself as a fundamental part of the marketing mix in our online, social culture. While some marketers have been slow to adopt the practice, the results speak for themselves, and influencers will continue to play a significant role in connecting consumers and brands in the years ahead. So, for marketers and brands that haven’t yet acquainted themselves with influencer marketing, now is the ideal time to get started.