No, it's not time to call bullshit on influencer marketing

Like many of you, I read Dom Burch's insightful piece about his experiences working with social media influencers. I have to say I agreed with many of his points, but I couldn’t help feeling many of the problems raised were down to a poorly structured marketing ecosystem and lack of experience in this space, rather than a point-blank dismissal of the notion of influencer marketing.

Having spent the best part of the last three years running one of the UK’s largest and most successful influencer marketing networks, I felt like I could contribute a more nuanced analysis of what is still a nascent industry.

*Some of the names of people and brands have been changed to protect their identity!

I should start by saying outright that I have no doubt that influencer marketing absolutely works – when done right. But I want to focus on some of the reasons why it often doesn’t work – and here’s where I agree with Dom’s insight that brands are seeking a ‘shortcut’ to success.

1. Having a social media following doesn’t make you an Influencer

Just because you have a million followers doesn’t mean you’re necessarily an influencer. This is a trap we see brands fall into all the time. Getting someone with a huge following to place your product in their Instagram feed has absolutely zero marketing value.

So how do you tell the difference between someone with a following and someone with influence? We always advise brands to look for a few key things. Does the influencer have a high engagement rate on their content? Are people sharing and commenting on what they post? This tends to indicate that their fans are looking for a relationship with that person, rather than just consuming their content.

We also look for a super-niche audience, in fact their audience should mirror that of the influencer as closely as possible – and get one year older on average every year. The reason for this? At the heart of the notion of influence is the concept of shared experience. I follow you and trust your opinions because you are just like me, and when you recommend or use a product I believe it will work for me too. Reach does not equal relationship.

2. But at the same time, everyone is an influencer

The reason why influencer marketing can never be dead is because we are human beings, and we are influenced by the people in our lives all of the time. Our friends, family, colleagues and celebrities will always impart some sort of bias on how we see the world, and inevitably the products we buy. I discover most brands from people I know personally. This is no different in the social media world, except for the fact that one person has the ability to influence many more people that they could face-to-face. We always think of social influencers’ relationship with their audience as a virtual friendship group, having a constant conversation.

3. People and brands communicate in different ways

Imagine how weird it would be if a friend you’ve known since school suddenly said “Did you know that Coca Cola now sells 42 per cent of its drinks without sugar and is making efforts to be a healthier product as part of an active lifestyle?” You’d be like “OK…”. It’s the same thing with social influencers – it’s always a personal conversation taking place over a large scale.

The point here is that brands are not people, and they communicate differently. You might be very proud of the new brand-messaging that’s been in testing for 24 months, but people do not speak in that way.

This is important to remember because marketers often have a temptation to try and script or stage-manage influencer campaigns in the same way they would a TV commercial or press release. But people don’t speak in this way and neither should influencers.

4. Related: people trust people much more than they do brands

Social animals that we are, humans have evolved what’s called a truth bias – a presumption towards believing what someone is telling us unless we have evidence to the contrary.

As capitalist animals, we have evolved the opposite approach to brands – we instinctively distrust brands’ claims unless we have evidence or advice to the contrary.

The notion of trust is the commodity on which this market operates – get in right and brands have the ability to build trust in a way they cannot through traditional advertising alone. Get it wrong, and both the brand and the influencer are mistrusted for good.

When a brand partners with an influencer it is not a two-way exchange; we often forget that there is a third person in the relationship – the audience. And in fact the audience's relationship with the influencer is the trust on which successful influencer partnerships pivot.

The thing about trust in influencer marketing is that it’s not even on the brand’s radar. I’ve been asked for some crazy things by brands – “can we get a YouTube video/ Instagram post / Snapchat story / her face on the packet / can she attend my daughter’s graduation” (true!) – but never have I been asked what is for me the most crucial question: “How can we maintain and build on the trusted relationship this influencer has with their audience?”

An example: at StyleHaul we have really firm rules around which products an influencer can and cannot collaborate with. If that person has never featured that brand before editorially, or if they don’t actually use that product, we do not allow them to recommend it for money.

5. The only thing that matters is what the audience thinks

My definition of marketing is the deliberate effort to change the way people think, act or feel about your brand. The customer has not read the brief. This means that brands can produce a beautiful piece of creative and still fails because the audience are like “WTF?”

You might have seen that ad on the telly at the moment where a few beauty vloggers are blind-testing a make-up product and they "love" it and then it’s revealed which brand it really is and they are like “oh wow I didn’t expect that”. We didn’t do this campaign so I can’t speak as an expert on the brief, but I can say what all of their fans are thinking. Am I really expected to believe that these busy influencers turned up to a TV shoot, committed to the campaign, signed their rights away to TV ads and agreed a fee without actually knowing what the brand was? Come on. Worse still, the fact that they have not used or spoken about that brand before or since tells me (and the fans) a lot about the real motivation behind the collaboration.

6. You can’t blame them for taking the money!

If someone offers you a cheque for briefly talking about their product, OMG of course you would take it – I would. The impetus is clearly on the brand for policing bad sponsorships and collaborations.

Pure product placement on social media has no value. Even if it’s seen by a million people. A million is nothing, the thing about the internet is that content is produced ad infinitum. There is no scarcity. What is scarce is trust.

7. Social media feeds brands’ vanity addiction

In the absence of any real brand-building metrics, social media today runs on the crack that is a like or follow. I call these vanity metrics because they look amazing in a post-campaign report, and flatter the marketer, but have no relation to what the brief was meant to achieve.

This is not a criticism – you measure what you can measure. One million likes is better than 1,000 likes, sure. But to correlate the volume of likes to an uplift in consumer sentiment is too much of a stretch for me.

Two things need to change for this link to be viable. Platforms like YouTube and Instagram need to get much better an providing consumer insights for brands beyond scale and simple likes. Brands equally need to move away from thinking that these simple metrics are enough, and demanding that any investment in these platforms (media or content) has a direct cause-and-effect relationship on either short term sales or long term brand equity.

So in summary – no, of course it’s not time to call bullshit on influencer marketing, but it’s 2016 and it’s no longer enough to call social media “emerging”. Our customers will forever be discovering brands online, and the opportunity to influence them through meaningful relationships with influencers will forever exist – but we must get better at turning a trend into a structured marketing discipline.

James Stafford is senior vice president Europe at StyleHaul, the leading global multi-channel network where YouTube creators and brands unite

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.