Our biggest influencers are no longer just distant Hollywood stars; they’re people who look and act like us. And there’s a whole industry out there dedicated to helping marketers get the most out of them. So, how can brands hit the mark with influencers?
Celebrity sells, or so the age-old marketing axiom says. In a mass media world, courting the stars of stage and screen has oft proved an effective way of reaching a wider, more engaged audience, lending credibility by virtue of third party endorsement. A super-charged word of mouth, if you will.
But we live in social times, and earning trust in the digital economy requires a different set of tools. Both the nature of celebrity and the means of communication have radically changed: old-school celebrities are transforming themselves into media channels and the rising elite are digital first.
A single tweet from singer Katy Perry can reach almost 90 million followers; Selena Gomez has 86 million Instagram fans. Justin Bieber, before he deleted his Instagram account, sent his many fans into meltdown with risqué selfies of him in “#MyCalvins” (he is a ‘face’ of Calvin Klein).
It’s indicative of how consumers themselves communicate; plugging into networks big and small, creating, publishing and sharing information to both their friends and the wider public. We’re all influencers now.
A study last year from US digital advertising solutions firm Rhythm One showed that average earned media value for every dollar spent on influencer marketing programmes was $9.60 – 1.4 times higher than 2014.
Money can’t buy integrity
Why, then, are industry voices starting to question the value of influencer marketing? Has the hype over-promised and under-delivered and, if so, why?
The reality, say experts, is that too many so-called influencer marketing campaigns are ill-defined, poorly executed and superficial – at a time when integrity counts more than ever.
Traackr’s marketing director for EMEA Delphine Reynaud says today’s influencers are influential because of the relationship they have built with their communities. Brands looking purely in transactional or reach terms forget the ‘relationship’ aspect at their peril. The very attributes that make such social media exchanges appealing to their audiences – such as trust, transparency and authenticity – are, paradoxically, at risk.
Trade and legislative bodies are now putting into place laws, principles and guidelines to safeguard consumers from undisclosed endorsement.
In America, the Kardashians have been pulled up by TruthinAdvertising.org, a nonprofit that fights deceptive advertising. It believes the sisters violated guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission which say it should be “clear and conspicuous” to consumers if a person endorsing a product “has been paid or given something of value”.
Indeed, last year US regulators ordered an Instagram post featuring Kim Kardashian promoting a morning sickness treatment to be taken down for breaking ad laws. Mondelez’s Oreo brand has also been pulled up in the past, by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2014, for failing to make clear it was paying vloggers to promote the biscuit in their videos.
An even bigger #fail of such chequebook marketing came from Kardashian cohort, Scott Disick. He invited ridicule on Instagram by posing with a Bootea protein shake, accidentally copying and pasting the suggested message from the company not only telling him what to say about the product – but when to say it. Supermodel Naomi Campbell did something similar with Adidas.
Not just a breach of the implicit contract between star and fan, but a lazy one at that.
Director of W Communications Sophie Raine warns:“Paying an influencer is good for awareness, but it doesn’t allow the brand to earn genuine influence. And this chequebook marketing mentality risks undermining the value of an influencer, turning them into robots churning out disingenuous brand messages that today’s consumers are savvy enough to see straight through.”
Cultivating true resonance
Hence the rise of the home-grown social media stars and the so-called micro-influencer. Micro-influencers can offer a lower cost and often more effective alternative to paid celebrity endorsements with a higher potential for relevancy, engagement and true resonance with the audience.
A recent survey by Markerly suggests Instagram influencers in the 10,000 to 100,000 follower range offer a sweet spot between broad reach and engagement, with both ‘like’ and ‘comment’ rates exceeding influencers with higher followers. “You’re still getting a large audience,” it recommends, “but you know those followers are keyed into what your influencer is all about. These micro-influencers will move the needle for your brand and cost a fraction of what you would pay a mega-celebrity.
These micro-influencers are typically more engaged – as is their audience – particularly if they have built their influence themselves from the ground up.
A recent study commissioned by Twitter in partnership with Annalect aims to demonstrate how modern endorsement has evolved.
It found that influencers rivalled friends in building consumer trust: when looking for product recommendations, 49 per cent of respondents said they relied on influencers. That was second only to Tweets from friends, which 56 per cent of consumers sought for guidance.
Creator Robby Ayala created a Vine showing how HP laptops did things that his laptop couldn’t. His stunt earned him (and the brand) more than 22,000 retweets. Some creators even become break-out stars, such as Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, who has transcended the social to the mainstream.
The cannier micro-influencer (and celebrity) is protective of his or her brand and will often not – for fear of a fan ‘sell-out’ backlash – simply shill for the money. Even here suspicion is never far away, as shown by a recent tweet from Zoella following the launch of her homeware and lifestyle range: “When will some people realise I don’t just slap my name on things. I work bloody hard at everything I chose to bring out.”
Today, the likes of Justin Timberlake or Will.I.Am are more likely to ‘partner’ with a brand and curate ‘experiences’ than simply pose for an ad or post an endorsement. It is reminiscent of how so-called traditional ‘sponsorship’ has evolved as a deeper relationship platform rather than a mere badging exercise.
A light-hearted campaign for Nissan promoting its support of Team GB Olympians demonstrates just this. It was supported by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity, while its ambassadors were encouraged to share the activity across their channels. Many such deals today include influencer or ambassadorial components within them rather than as standalone activity.
James Tollington, account director at Fuse Sport + Entertainment, says that such ambassadors have a positive effect on a brand, internally as well as externally, although he warns: “You’re only one tweet away from disaster.” Well thought-out contingencies are a must for any brand engaging with individuals.
He says many of their relationships grow organically in scope, such as that which Nissan has with Sir Chris Hoy (he is now a certified Nissan racer and competed in Le Mans 24-hour race for the team). His relationship with the team, and by extension with his fans, goes beyond a mere badging exercise.
Such interaction, says Carat Global strategy partner Charlotte White, helps boost the “weight” of influence. “The breadth of influence is almost your classic marketing ‘reach’,” she says. “It is very easy to buy, but it is the weight of influence which will help provide the action or outcome you want.”
Trust in the crowd
A new Carat report, ‘Building Trust in the Digital Economy’, shows how that, as trust in institutions such as brands has declined, the growth of social media directly correlates to trust in “people like us”.
The report, authored by White, notes: “Trust in ‘people like us’ is not built through faith [in established brands]; it is built through collective experience… Consumers do not have to believe what brands tell them, because they have immediate access to the experiences of ‘people like us’.”
From Amazon to Tripadvisor, Apple to Uber, consumers increasingly rely on each other’s experience and content, rather than brand communications, to inform their purchase behaviour.
The potential influence of “people like us” has led to the rapid rise of a third category; that of the everyday influencer. Digital, data and the rise of programmatic and intelligent technologies means that brands today can leverage ‘ordinary’ opinions at scale.
Says Johanna Jones, director at Dunnhumby’s consumer advocacy marketing arm BzzAgent: “Consumers have a captive audience of friends and family through social networks. The content they’re generating is incredibly impactful and you are more likely to believe someone you know or have a degree of connection with than even a celebrity.”
She points to a peer-to-peer campaign for yogurt brand Danio. BzzAgent sent 2000 ‘agents’ – people who signed up to the platform and met the right brand profile – branded influencer packs and dared them to take the Danio Yogurt Challenge, sharing the results online. Overall there was a 48 per cent increase in brand opinion in a campaign that saw almost 4,000 pieces of content created.
American Eagle Outfitters sought to further engage its active brand following online. It worked with Olapic’s Ambassador Community to pinpoint valuable brand ambassadors and utilise their influential content as part of its online campaigns. It saw a 66 per cent increase in conversions after building ambassador relationships and a five-time increase in user generated photos.
Perhaps as social platforms and influencer marketing become more commonplace, a brand’s most fruitful and honest exchange lies in the everyday influence of every one of us.
Celebrities or social media stars on their own are not a shortcut to business success: brands must look beyond the transactional and remember one other old marketing adage: “truth in advertising”.