2017 was the year that P&G's CMO Marc Pritchard started the backlash against transparency in digital advertising. This year Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed, took that fight to the world of influencer marketing.
Speaking at Cannes Lions, Weed called for urgent action to rebuild trust in the channel. He said that the company would stop working with any influencer found to be buying audiences and would prioritise working with partners who sought to improve transparency and eradicate dishonest practices.
“The key to improving the situation is three-fold: cleaning up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement; making brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices; and improving transparency from social platforms to help brands measure impact,” he said. “We need to take urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.”
Influencer marketing is growing rapidly. In March, Mediakix estimated the value of the influencer market at $500m, and predicted it would grow to between $5bn and $10bn by 2020, driven by falling TV viewing, the resulting move of brands’ TV budgets to digital, and the impact of ad-blocking.
The following month, the US Association of National Advertisers published a survey showing 75% of respondents were using influencer marketing, and the 27% of those that weren’t planned to do so in the next 12 months. Just over two-fifths plan to increase their spending in the channel next year. The reasons given by ANA for this growth chime with those identified by Mediakix; the need to combat ad blocking, and the desire to reach younger audiences who are less likely to watch TV.
But warning signs were also there in the ANA survey. Only 36% of respondents said they felt their influencer marketing efforts were effective, while 44% were neutral and 19% said they were ineffective.
These concerns were further highlighted in a report published by The Drum in partnership with influencer marketing platform Buzzoole in September. Almost half of the marketers interviewed said that they wanted to see more transparency around influencers, citing particular challenges around measurement, fake followers and content control. Most marketers also thought influencer marketing could be better regulated.
Speaking in Cannes, Weed said “At Unilever, we believe influencers are an important way to reach consumers and grow our brands. Their power comes from a deep, authentic and direct connection with people, but certain practices like buying followers can easily undermine these relationships.
“The key to improving the situation is three-fold: cleaning up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement; making brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices; and improving transparency from social platforms to help brands measure impact.”
It’s the same problem that Marc Pritchard highlighted to such dramatic effect last year. Brands don’t know whether they’re buying what they think they’re buying. How many of influencer’s followers fall within the target group the brand wants to reach, and how many of them are either bought in - and therefore irrelevant to the brand - or bots? A study published last April by influencer marketing measurement firm Points North Group found that 78% of the followers of influencers used by hotel brand Ritz-Carlton were fake, as were 30% for those used by Pampers and 19% for Olay.
In the case of influencer marketing, the problem exists because there is no independent measurement or verification of follower numbers. Advertisers rely on numbers from the influencers themselves, or from third-party providers. As part of his Cannes Lions speech, Weed called together a group for the industry, including the tech platforms, to discuss better ways to detect and deal with influencer fraud.
As with Pritchard last year, Weed’s was not a lone voice. After his speech, The Drum spoke to a number of brands that were already working on their own solutions the problem. Tellingly all three - L’Oréal, Diageo and eBay - described approaches based on long-term relationships of the type Weed too values, rather than short-term transactional media buys.
Each identified a group of potential influencers either with close existing ties to the brand - sellers in the case of eBay, mixologists for Diageo - or relationships that could be developed - beauty bloggers in the case of L’Oréal. For eBay and Diageo, this means greater authenticity. They see themselves working with people who have influencer, rather than “influencers”. L’Oréal meanwhile described an approach based on careful selection of influencers and a two-way relationship that sees the bloggers becoming involved in product development. It also has an internal tool to measure the social media buzz being generated by its influencers and measures the ROI of its influencer campaigns closely.
But this in turn highlights another problem, one that also cropped up in The Drum/Buzzoole report; most companies don’t have the resources in place to support their influencer marketing strategy. Only one in ten has an in-house team, with the rest either delegating it to the PR or marketing team, or not using the approach at all.
So, in order for all companies to be able to take advantage of influencer marketing, there needs to be an industry-wide solution. It could come from a third-party supplier, or from the platforms themselves, but industry insiders who spoke to The Drum described such a move as “long overdue”. But while we’re waiting to see whether Keith Weed has galvanised the industry to the same extent that Marc Pritchard managed last year, smaller brands and businesses remain unable to manage their influencer marketing with any certainty.