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Influencer Marketing Marketing

Consumers can see through influencer mercenaries – there’s a better way

By Jan Harling

June 19, 2023 | 8 min read

Influencers are here to stay, but we can change how we approach them. Jan Harling, chief exec of Virtus Asia Consulting and honorary Chip Shop Awards judge explains how to move from a transactional arrangement into a meaningful partnership.


In the dynamic world of marketing, influencers have emerged as brand ambassadors and customer engagement and integral components of most marketing strategies and media plans. Their perceived ability to captivate audiences on social media platforms has turned them into sought-after partners for brands seeking to leverage their popularity. However, the question of authenticity and the true value they bring to the table has come under scrutiny.

But often, these influencers are mercenaries, their loyalty lies with the highest bidder. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The perceived loyalty

When brands engage influencers, they rightfully expect a certain level of loyalty and authenticity in promoting their products or services.

After all, they are remunerating these individuals for their influence and reach among their user base. However, the reality is that many influencers prioritize financial gains and this results in a lack of genuine endorsement. Authenticity is far from guaranteed and that can undermine the trust of consumers who value genuine recommendations.

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Seeing through the illusion

Consumers today possess an unparalleled level of savviness and discernment.

They can easily detect BS, they can tell whether there is a genuine endorsement in a product or service. Regardless of whether they are mega, micro, or nano influencers, it is crucial to recognize that not all possess the necessary expertise or credibility to endorse. Selecting the wrong influencer can have detrimental effects on a brand’s reputation and credibility among its target audiences.

As marketing legend David Ogilvy once famously said, “The consumer is not a moron – it is your wife.” There remains truth in this.

Consumers see through the marketing tactics employed by influencers and demand a more transparent and authentic experience. This can easily backfire as seen here where Sarah Elshamy (Huawei) misled her audience.

Reach is the problem

While influencers may boast impressive follower numbers, the actual reach and impact of their promotional efforts can often fall short of expectations. One might even question their true ability to exert influence, particularly when it comes to purchase decisions and see them as a media channel that delivers eyeballs.

Merely having a large following does not guarantee meaningful engagement or conversions. It is imperative for brands to critically assess whether the reach provided by influencers is genuinely competitive and justifies the associated costs and time investments to manage this. Employing metrics such as cost per engagement and earned media value becomes paramount and allows for a better comparison of channel KPI.

In times of tighter budgets, marketers should reassess their investments in influencers rather than blindly continue to rely on key opinion leaders (KOLs) simply because they were part of the plans. Instead, they should meticulously evaluate the impact on sales, brand perception and long-term customer loyalty.

Choosing cost-effective strategies

Some brands are going all in with their influencer strategies like GymShark and SHEIN, building communities, creating authentic partnerships and a diverse influencer pool resulting in high brand awareness and strong engagement rates that result in conversations - but for most brands it has become a standard addition that comes from the social/media budgets. Marketers must shift their focus to actively seeking more cost-effective methods of gaining visibility and driving tangible results.

The game-changing factor lies in embracing performance-driven remuneration models with affiliation mechanics. This approach incentivizes influencers to have a personal stake in the game, fostering mutually beneficial and enduring relationships.

Performance-driven remuneration models offer a win-win situation for both brands and KOLs. It incentivizes them to actively promote products and generate sales, as their earnings are directly tied to their performance. This approach eliminates the pay-for-play mentality often associated with influencers and provides a more transparent and accountable system. However, it is crucial to strike the right balance and avoid becoming an overly aggressive and sales-oriented brand.

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For brand results

If you decide to empower mercenaries to build your brand, it is crucial to approach the relationship with them strategically. Treating influencers as any other media channel regarding costs and measuring their impact becomes essential in maintaining transparency and evaluating their effectiveness.

To avoid eroding authenticity and trust, brands should strive to create a strong and meaningful relationship with influencers. It is not merely a transactional arrangement but rather a partnership that requires open communication, collaboration, and mutual understanding. By building a rapport with influencers, brands can align their values and goals, ensuring a genuine connection that resonates with the target audiences. Doing this right will lead to fewer headaches in the future.

The future

With more virtual influencers on the horizon, I predict that there will be more fake followers, superficial content, people trying to game the system, inauthenticity and more fraud in addition to further ethical issues.

Influencers have undoubtedly made their mark on the marketing landscape, but it is essential to question their authenticity and the value they truly bring as marketing needs to drive ROI.

As consumers become increasingly discerning, marketers must carefully assess the cost-effectiveness of working with influencers and the challenges and drawbacks associated with them. Brands should explore alternative marketing strategies that offer more control, cost-effectiveness, and measurable results. Performance-driven models provide brands with greater transparency, accountability, and ROI potential.

Be vigilant out there.

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