What’s the state of influencer marketing in 2017?

A recent panel discussed the latest in influencer marketing.

According to a study from market research company eMarketer last year, influencer marketing is rapidly growing in part because it can yield more authentic content – and it can help combat ad avoidance among consumers.

At a recent panel sponsored by influencer marketing platform Julius, in partnership with The Drum, influencer marketing experts gathered to talk about what influencer marketing is today, who is doing it well – and even how to measure it.

Per Jared Augustine, CEO of Julius, influencer marketing works when it is authentic, but it can also be easy to make mistakes sometimes because of a lack of transparency.

And, for her part, Shan Lui, director of programming and influencer relations at marketing and event company Superfly, called influencers “modern storytellers.”

But Ian Schafer, US CEO of creative agency Deep Focus, noted it’s also hard to measure influence because in part not all followers are real people.

Amy Tunick, president of Grey Activation and PR, added that as more influencers come on to the scene, authenticity fluctuates, which can also be challenging. So, too, does the level of professionalism exhibited by influencers themselves, which range from digital influencers to A-list celebrities and that, in turn, can be scary to clients considering influencers as a media channel.

What’s the difference between a celebrity and an influencer?

A key difference between the two is that celebrities are viewed by brands and marketers in terms of how likeable they are across populations, but influencers are viewed in terms of their audiences and the potential impressions they can generate, Schafer said.

“A lot of influencers today are more creative than the celebrities that predate them because they are physically making more stuff,” Schafer added.

Lui pointed to a blending of celebrity and influencer as brands like Airbnb tap celebrities/influencers like Lady Gaga by giving them places to stay in exchange for thank-you posts.

“There’s a definite melding between the two,” Lui said.

And Schafer brought up George Takei, who has developed his own social personality and may be best known by younger generations “as the guy who shares funny shit on Facebook” rather than from Star Trek.

“Influencer marketing is closer on the spectrum to celebrity [endorsements] than it is to digital display advertising,” Augustine said. “As a company that provides software to marketers, [we know] customers are more successful when they get to know the influencer and, if you’re smart about midrange and micro-influencers, it can be more cost effective.”

Who is doing it well?

Schafer said the fashion industry has taken a leadership role in influencer marketing, like, say, retailer H&M.

“The influencers in fashion are no longer the writers in Vogue,” he said. “It’s the people on the street getting photographed. Limited marketing budgets mean you have to get creative.”

Tunick cited one of her own clients, camera brand Canon USA, and its Tag You’re It challenge, which she said used 13 influencers to create visual content.

And Lui picked retailer Revolve and its Revolve Around the World campaign, which takes fashion bloggers on exotic trips and provides “a cool setting to hang out and wear the clothes,” as well as actress and model Arielle Vandenberg, who posted about late check-outs at Holiday Inn Express.

“What I loved is it was very her,” Lui said. “She doesn’t always post branded content, but when she does, there’s so much of her.”

Augustine said some brands like Adidas are sending out influencer-based content on messaging applications. Further, Schafer added, Adidas has taken a significant chunk of business from Nike in the past year.

How should brands work with influencers?

When working with influencers, Tunick said brands have to consider the motivation of the talent and whether they want the freedom to create content in their own voices or are dying to work with a particular brand – as well as whether there is an organic connection between the two. The latter can also help brands with smaller budgets get the most bang for their buck when they find talent passionate for their brand and who are motivated by more than money.

Schafer also recommended making influencers feel like creative partners – but, he added, they have to earn that, too.

And Lui said that Superfly believes the most impactful influencer stories are rooted in live experiences. So, for example, health and nutrition retailer GNC sought out influencers willing to participate in a challenge to run a marathon in four months.

“That weeds out a lot,” she said. “They have to be motivated and believe in the brand.”

How is influencer marketing measured?

Per Augustine, the brand decides what success is, but it’s generally something like generating conversions or interesting content.

“One great piece of content might be the goal rather than conversions,” he said. “It becomes clear reach is not the primary reason for working with an influencer – you should be looking at engagement and conversions.”

Tunick said Grey partnered with actor Adam Devine for a 2016 back to school campaign for Best Buy.

“He has a cousin who was a freshman in college, so it was much funnier,” she said. “There was a script, but improv made it amazing and all of that was on massive paid media, which drove sales…it’s picking the right platform [and] content and putting something out that speaks to those fans that will yield engagement.”

And Lui said it’s really about brand consideration and awareness.

“Take the example of Arielle and Holiday Inn Express,” she said. “For me, I don’t like or comment, but if the goal was to drive awareness of late checkouts, I think there was success there. The message stuck with me and many others. You can measure impressions, but consideration/awareness is harder to define.”

Earned media is also a big desire, Tunick said.

And while Schafer agreed most clients say earned media is the goal, he called that “bullshit,” and said most simply want free stuff, but it means nothing unless it is working for a given brand.

“The more integrated the planning is…the more unified the team, often the better the results,” he added.

How does a brand find the right influencers?

Tunick said her first question to brands is about what they are trying to achieve with influencers.

Lui said her agency likes to start out with an asset mining exercise to see what already exists in terms of press exposure, products and creative collaborations.

“Those are valuable assets,” she said. “If you don’t have the budget to pay [at least some] influencers…enormous fees…look at those assets and what you bring to the table.”

Where does opportunity lie in influencer marketing?

Per Augustine, Julius wants to help solve the problem of identifying pockets on messaging apps where influencer content might be valuable.

For Lui, it’s all about video content.

And Schafer said the future is influencers as business partners, like 50 Cent, who invested in Vitamin Water or Justin Timberlake with Bai.

“It’s looking at ways to make influencers more long-term business partners so they share in the upside,” he added.