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Is it time to call bullshit on influencer marketing?

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

If you're not already managing an influencer marketing programme across multiple social platforms it would be easy to feel like you've missed the boat.

You must be the only marketeer on the planet that still doesn't quite get it, stood looking out to sea, wondering where did it all go wrong?

Fear not. I'm here to tell you the boat you missed is full of shysters talking absolute bollocks.

There's no denying influencer marketing has become one of the hottest topics in the industry.

Hence the huge rise in specialist agencies springing up to meet your every influencer need.

Tech firms promise to find the right influencer for you to work with, then track every engagement, helping prove beyond doubt the ROI.

Any good social media guru worth his or her salt is blogging about the subject regularly.

A quick search on Twitter chucks back numerous blogs, articles and attention grabbing headlines including:

Top 3 Mistakes Brands Make with Influencer Marketing

4 Challenges With Influencer Marketing And How To Overcome Them

The Biggest Missed Opportunity in Influencer Marketing

Video Content Creation is the Future of Influencer Marketing

#Yawn.

Mainstream agencies are also getting in on the act. Last year Ketchum appointed a senior director to manage its influencer strategy. More on that in a minute. But before I go on, let's agree shall we what influencer marketing is.

What are most people referring to when talking about it?

Wikipedia has a fairly straightforward definition:

Influencer marketing, is a form of marketing that has emerged from a variety of practices and studies, in which focus is placed on specific key individuals (or types of individual) rather than the target market as a whole.

Get it? No? How about this then:

It's the art of finding people who have the ability to talk lots of other people about stuff you want them to know. Ideally once they're found out about it, you want them to do something about it i.e. go out and buy your product.

Better?

Let's be honest, influencer marketing is simply the latest fad in the never-ending pursuit of finding a shortcut.

That's why so many marketing folk are drawn to it.

Everyone wants a quick win.

A less expensive, more effective route to reach, engage and influence their target audience.

We've all grown tired of seeing our beautifully crafted creative flop right in front of our eyes.

'You mean it didn't go viral? But I put a hashtag on it an everything!'

Arun Sudhaman, president and editor-in-chief at the Holmes Report, as ever has his finger on the pulse.

Having recently moderated a panel discussion in London, he suggests brands are increasingly becoming wary of the influencer marketing bandwagon.

"The question of ROI remains the biggest bugbear, with one observer from the floor noting that he simply cannot get buy-in from his superiors, because he is unable to prove the value of Instagram influencer spend."

So how best to navigate this seemingly dark art, and how do you ensure you don't get ripped off or taken for a ride?

Amy Callahan is chief client officer at Collective Bias and oversees its client service department and community. Writing for the Huffington Post, she says influencer marketing is here to stay, so it's important brands invest in a company with proven experience, a targeted influencer selection process, and high-quality measurement capabilities.

Amy effortlessly extolling the virtues of her own company there. Did you notice? Were you influenced though?

Joking aside, last week's 'Confessions of a social media exec on influencer marketing' has brought out into the open what many were thinking but were too afraid to say.

In our rush to not miss the boat, we forgot to stop and ask how much does it cost to get on? Never mind where are we setting sail to exactly.

Or in the writer's own words: "We threw too much money at them and did it too quickly. So in 2014, they were making $500 to show up and take some photos. Then it became $1,500. Now it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars. They no longer value their art."

Call me old fashioned, but I detect a degree of envy in those words.

How can it be that someone without any formal marketing training or qualifications can now command six figure sums for taking a few pics and posting them to Instagram?

That said, I also think the debate is healthy and much needed.

Frankly, it's about time that people questioned the value of giving away thousands of pounds of their client's or brand's money to someone who may not even conform to the basics of marketing regulation.

As Sudhaman notes, rather disturbingly, most of the panel appeared blissfully unaware of the ethical and legal issues at play.

While accepting that transparency was the best option, he says, there was little sense that sponsored posts needed to be marked as such, despite ASA and FTC guidelines.

Eek. Don't tell the compliance team.

So what's really going on here?

Scott Guthrie is the digital director at Ketchum, and is in charge of its influencer strategy.

"Four years ago Brian Solis coined the term 'Pillars of Influence' describing it as reach, relevance and resonance. Today, it’s time to add four more pillars to influencer relations’ lexicon: reception, relationship reality and relinquish control."

Scott makes the point that reach is not the main yardstick in influencer marketing, being popular isn't the same as being influential.

"Influence isn't the same as popularity. Influence drives action. Influencers are change agents'."

Change agents is a good phrase. After all isn't that the point of marketing?

It's also not new.

For years brands have sought out commentators or stakeholders they can engage with. Reliable folk they can brief to act as informal, credible, talking heads on their behalf. Thought leaders was what we used to call them.

The difference now is you can purchase that influence from people who have snuck up in the past few years and now command audiences larger than most print publications, and more viewers than primetime ITV programmes.

Did you know for instance that 2-3m viewers on ITV is considered a success these days for a new midweek show? Zoella only needs to film a sneeze to capture an audience that size in any given week.

Ehsan Khodarahm, another Huffington Post contributor, who has been working in digital strategy and planning since 2006 believes brands need to build communities, where noone tries to influence but everyone adds value.

'People in a community trust each other, everyone's an influencer.'

Responding to the Holmes Report panel discussion, he tweeted 'if you pay your "influencers" to talk about you, you don't have any influencers.'

It's an interesting thought.

Has the act of commercial transaction relegated this to the gutter?

Amy from Collective Bias thinks it's important to build long term partnerships.

"This is not a fad, so treat your campaigns and partnerships accordingly."

Wise words.

So what's my advice. As ever, start with why. Why are you wanting to partner with someone else rather than going directly to your audience? What is the aim? What are you trying to achieve? And ultimately how will you measure success?

When Asda dipped its toe into the world of YouTube vloggers three years ago, it did so having failed miserably to connect with an audience on that platform for years.

We resolved ourselves to the fact we needed to curate not create content.

And to do so we needed to rent someone else's audience.

Like most brands, our corporate channel had dozens of videos that no one ever watched.

So we started a new channel from scratch. And had the confidence to resist the urge to push our brand to the front and centre.

We also accepted that paying someone else to produce content on our behalf came at a cost. That cost was not insignificant and was comparable to media spend budgets, not typical PR budgets.

In addition to gaining reach, what we were really buying was their ability to film, edit and create engaging content.

We were benefiting from the relationship they'd spent years building with their audience.

And if we did our homework, we would ensure their audience overlapped ours.

We then set metrics that were easy to measure and collectively added up to proving the content had worked.

One of the most important metrics to me was whether or not people actually watched the video until the end, and how many thumbs up it got.

As a rule of thumb (sorry for the pun) I wanted to get 10,000 thumbs up for every 100,000 views. And I expected a high click through rate to follow.

After all, if a significant number of people were watching a 10-minute video to the end, and had been informed, entertained and inspired, why wouldn't they click to find out more?

That was it in a nutshell.

We found people who could do a better job than us making content, and could distribute it more effectively, at a price we felt was good value, and comparable to other media spends.

We built trust over time, didn't overly manage them, relinquished control, but always had the power of veto. Then stood back and marveled at the results.

Was that influencer marketing? I don't really care.

Why other brands haven't followed suit though continues to baffle me.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

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Dom Burch

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda.

Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

More recently he was responsible for marketing innovation, helping explore new revenue opportunities. In his tenure he helped build a pipeline of digital assets that unlocked investment from FMCG brands who valued having access to Asda's 18m customers.

This included overseeing the transformation of Asda.com's adserving capability, which will enable Asda to become a credible media publisher. He has also built Mum's Eye View on YouTube, capturing 11m views since launch in under 18 months.

His 'Thought of the Day' column explores the ever changing world of social media marketing.

All by Dom