Influencers and The Wild West
It has been predicted that Influencer marketing on Instagram alone could be a US$10bn business by 2020. Which is why it is misleading to view current concerns about fake followers, lack of transparency, metrics or regulatory framework as just a problem. For while these are issues that must be addressed, they also present major opportunities for those platforms and brand owners that move influencers out of marketing’s Wild West.
Influencer marketing is here to stay.
True, some have described it as a bubble about to burst. But the fact remains that we now live in a world of ‘seemingly stagnant distrust’ with consumers’ trust in business, government NGOs and media in decline – and well below their trust in peers, according to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer.
Against this context, the value of genuine recommendations and endorsements – which for brands have always been the Holy Grail – has never been so high.
Some 70% of social media users are influenced to make a purchase after seeing content on social media, according to research which also suggests that consumers are 7-times as likely to trust someone they follow on social media than a traditional celebrity. Small wonder, then, that some 75% of marketers now actively work with influencers, according to another study.
In the fashion sector, for example, three quarters of fashion brands now actively use social influencers, according to Fashion and Beauty Monitor. Social influencers – small-scale, micro-influencers, especially – are also playing a growing role in the beauty sector, where many brands have been inspired by L’Oreal.
By associating itself with up-and-coming influencers at a global level across various beauty segments, L’Oreal has, in effect, secured itself an influencer for every audience. Over and beyond this, however, it has encouraged the beauty influencers it works with to critique its products, even when they don't love something – a move that has allowed influencers to ‘stay honest’, and the brand has benefited from that authenticity.
Influencer marketing has helped smaller brand owners, too, turning players such as NYX and Becca into multimillion-dollar brands.
In the alcohol sector, meanwhile – where brand loyalty is in decline, and Millennials comfortably migrate between different alcohol categories rather than sticking to just one – influencers now play an important role in brands’ growing emphasis that brands like Pernod Ricard and Stella Artois are placing on experiential marketing.
As well as rapid growth, however, influencer marketing has undergone another important shift: away from its origins – celebrity influencers with millions of followers – and towards everyday citizens creating content about their passions, including brands, for smaller groups.
Much has been said of the rapid rise of micro-influencers – defined as influencers with tens of thousands to a couple of hundred thousand followers. But everyday social influencers also include so-called creators – a fast-emerging group of influencers defined not by numbers but by their creative passion.
Non-celebrity social influencers may have a smaller audience than, say, a Kardashian, but they have cultivated a level of trust with their communities which goes far beyond that of celebrities thanks to their authenticity. They are protective of their followers and take care not to lose them. By building their own tribe post by post, they have secured high levels of engagement few celebrity influencers can surpass. And by tapping into their passion and creative potential, brands can access a rich source of active partners willing and able to create great work for them.
For a powerful example, look no further than Samsung’s on-going collaboration with YouTube star and filmmaker Case Neistat – recently dubbed by Samsung’s Chief Marketing Officer the company’s ‘creator in chief’. Back in 2017, after working with the brand for 18 months, he marked the 2017 Oscars by platforming creators (rather than Hollywood luminaries) in ‘Allow me to introduce the rest of us’ – a powerful and uplifting commercial.
Influencer marketing, as it currently operates, is not a perfect model, of course.
Concerns about fake followers and lack of track-ability have generated a number of media exposés about a so-called ‘fake follower economy’ in recent weeks in the wake of a New York Times exposé. And the underground market in which fake social media followers, fake likes and comments are bought and sold has long been an open secret.
But moves are afoot to bring greater regulation and transparency to the influencer marketplace, and more will come.
In March 2017, the Advertising Standards Authority and CAP published new guidelines around the disclosure of affiliate marketing links by online influencers. The key points to the guidelines – honed with help from, and supported by, a number of major social influencer players eager to see their marketplace legitimised, including Gleam Futures, which represents YouTube stars including Zoella - were to have influencers clearly identify links that would gain them revenue if readers clicked through and made a purchase.
Stateside, similar initiatives to regulate influencers have been introduced by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC also recently filed its first case against individual influencers (not just brands) after discovering that 93% of top celebrities on Instagram do not follow its influencer marketing guidelines.
Progress is being made. But more education is needed. Here in the UK, an influencer marketing survey published in February 2018 revealed 71% of the UK public do not know there are rules around the use of influencers in advertising – such as the hashtags and the language requirements influencers must meet to indicate their commercial relationships with a brand.
With many influencers having no more knowledge of marketing regulation than the general public, observers now insist that it is the brand owner’s responsibility (and in their interest) to make further efforts to better ensure transparency in influencer marketing – and better educate influencers in how best to partner the brands they choose to work with, of course.
Brands are increasingly aware that influencer platforms have to be transparent. These platforms offer brands access to networks of individual influencers and broker deals for them to work together.
The message is unequivocal – if the reputation and value of influencer marketing is to maintained it needs to be authentic.
Meanwhile, the influencer marketplace is set for further development with the introduction of additional tech and tools – including simpler micropayments, which will be enabled by the coming-of-age of cryptocurrencies.
Taking all this into account, influencer marketing is already maturing towards becoming more accountable and effective. As other countries follow the UK and US’s regulatory lead, it can only become more so. And looking ahead, it won’t be long before the influencer marketplace is a healthy ecosystem – not just fit for purpose, but also to prosper.
Ria Campbell is Head of Content at Southpaw