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Likes, shares, comments: don’t be misled by past engagement rates

Influencer marketing has proven to be a powerful tool throughout the pandemic. However, the engagement rates that marketers use are often misleading. Sway Group chief exec Danielle Wiley explains why and offers suggestions for stronger outcomes.

When it comes to tracking engagement, the math seems simple enough: likes + shares + comments = success. And it can be, for starters. Prioritizing engagement is the right move for any business looking to drive action with its influencer marketing, but be wary of keeping your focus too narrow. Brands that reject potential influencer partners based on past engagement rates may be missing the larger picture of campaign potential.

Confusingly, there is no standardized formula for determining engagement rates on social media. One widely-used method is to calculate the average number of audience interactions per post, divide that by the total number of followers, then multiply by 100. Accounts with higher engagement rates offer more ’social authority’ to brand partners: since their content is consistently resonating with audiences, it stands to reason that a sponsorship is more likely to be successful.

Determining the ideal engagement rate for a specific campaign is no easy task, however. A 2020 study by Rival IQ found that the average engagement rate across all industries is 1.22%, but these numbers are in a state of constant flux. 2020’s global pandemic, escalating political climate and social justice movements (to name just a few issues that have captured our attention this past year) have all contributed to an overall decline of social media engagement rates, along with feed visibility challenges presented by ongoing algorithm changes.

Influencer social media engagement rates are not broken down by types of posts: eg only sponsored content or only content focused on a particular vertical. The combination of organic and sponsored content of all kinds means that using a given rate to estimate the performance of a future campaign is a guessing game at best, especially considering how rates can fluctuate wildly from one day to the next.

The X factor of paid media

Using paid media to amplify branded content shared by creators has become critical for increased visibility and action among today’s crowded influencer marketing playing field. Social platform advertising options not only allow for deep-dive audience targeting based on all sorts of granular data, they offer incredibly useful metrics and analytics for understanding ROI.

While the strategy of putting paid media behind influencer sponsorships is sound, it’s another reason why historical engagement rates don’t necessarily show the full picture. Sponsored content that includes paid amplification with a focus on increased engagement is certain to lead to (surprise!) more engagement, regardless of an influencer’s historical rate.

Take a big picture approach to campaign planning

Let’s say you’re evaluating a potential influencer for an upcoming campaign and their overall engagement rate is 2.8%. You’ve decided that you only want influencers with a rate of 3% or higher, so that influencer should be eliminated from the list of possibilities… right?

Not so fast. Engagement rates can certainly be useful in determining the overall influence of a creator as compared to others, but adhering to a strict number threshold for each influencer can mean missing out on the perfect brand partner for a given campaign.

When reviewing potential influencers for a sponsored post program, it’s important to consider everything the creator has to offer. Their engagement rate is relevant, but so is their audience demographic (you want an influencer whose followers and your target audience are one and the same), their personality and style, their values, their aesthetic and their diversity.

Above all, a creator who can create and share compelling, credible content that’s authentically in line with your brand image and outreach is the best choice for your campaign.

Instead of being laser-focused on the engagement rate for every individual creator identified as being a strong fit, establish engagement goals for the campaign as a whole. These target numbers will be the result of the combined activity from all influencers throughout the lifespan of the campaign, which will provide a much more accurate assessment of sponsored post performance.

Great content leads to great campaign outcomes

Like other marketing initiatives, there will always be a percentage of influencer campaign benefits that reveal themselves over time, but that doesn’t mean influencer marketing is nothing more than a hopeful roll of the dice. There are plenty of ways to set a campaign up for success, including vetting influencers for their ability to connect with target audiences.

Brands should be looking for the people who can create the right kind of content for their campaign KPIs, but not searching so narrowly they miss out on top-quality creators who are flying just below the radar. In the end, campaigns should be built around meaningful content that offers value, with promotional efforts supplementing organic reach in order to reach cumulative engagement goals.

Danielle Wiley is founder and chief executive officer of Sway Group.

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