When I was editor of ClickZ, I wrote about “the state of influencer marketing in 2016.” Looking back on that article two-and-a-half years later, nearly every word is obsolete. Swedish gamer PewDiePie is still the most-followed person on YouTube, but Vine no longer exists. And “many brands have specific influencer strategies” seems almost quaint, something so obvious that it wouldn’t even merit mentioning today.
Today, a social media influencer strategy is a marketing mainstay. Last December, influencer marketing platform Activate found that 67% of marketers think influencer campaigns helped them reach a more targeted audience, ultimately helping their bottom line. A search for “influencer marketing” on Glassdoor brings up hundreds of listings from plenty of familiar names such as NFL, Rent the Runway and Colgate-Palmolive.
“There’s such an overflow of people who want to be influencers that the market has flipped from 2015 or 2016. Brands used to fight over them. Now, there are a thousand of them trying to get hired by the best brands,” says Gil Eyal, CEO of influencer marketing platform HYPR Brands. “That changes the dynamic. Brands can dictate the way they work with influencers. If someone is too difficult or expensive, there are a thousand more to choose from.”
How else has influencer marketing changed over the past few years? And going into 2019, what can we expect to see in its future?
In the past, brands looked for authenticity. As Activate CEO Kaimu Lee says, “I think ‘authenticity is everything’ was an escape for people who don’t have metrics.”
Technology enables brands to approach today’s influencer campaigns from a more thoughtful, analytical place. Activate’s vetting process includes an influencer’s audience, the breakdown of sponsored vs. organic content, performance data from past campaigns and fan feedback. In other words, it’s less about if people left comments and more the sentiments they expressed.
Eyal points out that technology also enables brands to automate their influencer marketing campaigns. Soon, HYPR Brands will also release an analytics tool that automates posts and tracks metrics, ensuring marketers are getting their money’s worth.
With HYPR’s tool, marketers can choose target demographics. From there, the system identifies the most appropriate influencers in terms of audience and budgets.
In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission mandated that influencers disclose when their posts are sponsored. However, the issue of fake followers is more challenging to tackle, given how many of them are purchased via wire transfers and anonymous PayPal accounts. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that bots account for 15% of Twitter accounts. InfluencerDB also estimated that 25% of sponsored posts on Instagram come from influencers with fake followers.
Another benefit of more sophisticated technology is that metrics create more accountability in a space rife with fraud. For example, Influencer Marketing Hub has a tool that analyzes someone’s Instagram account in seconds. Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo has the platform’s most popular account. The majority of his followers are both real and engaged.
That ultimately costs brands $500 million annually. Unilever’s Keith Weed, the industry’s influential CMO according to Forbes, is committed to eradicating that. In Cannes over the summer, Weed said Unilever will not work with influencers who buy followers, a move that aims to improve trust and transparency in the space.
Lee defines a microinfluencer as someone whose following is around 50,000, while a nanoinfluencer may have 5,000 followers. These people are often seen as more relatable and approachable than social media stars who have become celebrities in their own right. Jake Paul went from Vine celebrity (like his brother Logan) to starring on a Disney Channel show for two seasons. Michelle Phan parlayed her makeup tutorials into a partnership with L’Oréal and now has a net worth of $50 million.
“We just finished a program for different alcohol brands. One was looking to work with microinfluencers and the other wanted nanoinfluencers,” says Lee. “It was more like a hyperlocal activation in different cities. They wanted to find the right set of people who have influence in their cities but weren’t such big names that they’re traveling all the time.”
Smaller influencers have much lower rates, and fewer agents and managers to get through. At the same time, they still understand the business side of influencer marketing.
As more technologies become available, brands are increasingly taking their influencer marketing in-house. Canon expanded its long-standing Explorers of Light program for professional photographers to include amateur photographers with large Instagram followings. Macy’s now recruits employees to act as brand ambassadors, incentivizing them to promote products on social media in exchange for a portion of profits. The Amazon Influencer Program works similarly.
Lee points out that by taking influencer marketing in-house, brands have the opportunity to own these relationships and build them more over time.
“Influencer marketing is different from other channels. It’s not creating an image or content-plus-distribution; it’s people,” she says. “There’s value in building those relationships over time. Creators will do more and the partnerships will be bigger and better.”
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