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Not your boomer’s influencer: the rapidly evolving world of influencer marketing
July 22, 2021
Influence is a three syllable word with a hundred definitions. Depending on the context and where, when, and whom you ask, the term can be a noun, a verb, or quickly modified into an adjective. For Dale Carnegie, influence was a skill you used to win friends; for the stars of Hollywood’s golden age, influence was currency sold in the form of endorsement deals for everything from cigarettes and chocolate to heavy machinery; and alongside the rise of social media heavyweights, “influencer” was added to our modern lexicon in 2019 as something of a catch-all for a new generation of brand ambassadors. In other words, the use of influence to drive behavior and desire has been around, in different iterations and conjugations, for generations.
A carryover from the days of slick, out-of-home and print advertising, in the early days of influencer marketing on social media, “influencer” and “celebrity” were synonymous. As MySpace boomed and Facebook and Twitter emerged from college dorm rooms, celebrities like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians were quick to capitalize on the new “attention economy,” endorsing everything from flat-belly teas to the infamous Fyre Festival.
Now, as we enter the second decade of the new millennium, social media platforms have changed and evolved, and technology and the pandemic have shifted how we live, work, and connect with one another. The web has become more than a novelty or a place to kill time and check our Top 8; it’s where we go learn new skills, forge meaningful connections, and build community around shared interests. Our world and the way we interact with it has changed, and so has the elusive definition of influencer. No longer synonymous with wealth and celebrity, influencer marketing has evolved beyond product placement or endorsement of a brand by a popular person. The best influencers today have evolved beyond and are focused not on fame but creation and curation. We have seen the first fundamental, maybe even generational, shift in the influencer landscape.
Celebs are passé and content creators are here to stay
Modern creators are not interested in being popular and are not defined by their number of followers or likes. In 2021, after years of testing and feedback from users and content creators, Facebook and Instagram rolled out a feature allowing users to hide their like counts across their platforms. Instead of getting hung up on the number of followers or likes a particular creator has, savvy marketers understand real influence derives from engagement and not an often artificially inflated number of followers and likes.
A content creator, therefore, is someone who has the power to influence the perception of others and motivate their curated audience to do something because they have the contextual credibility and ability to deliver the right message through the audience-preferred method (video, blog, meme, podcast) at the right time. At their core, content creators are defined by engagement and their ability to drive thinking and behavior.
The consumers who gave rise to the #unfiltered movement, driving a wave of makeup-free posts from everyday women and breaking down the maquillage masks of celebrities clamoring to be relevant, are now in charge, taking hold of the influencer economy and demanding authenticity, experience sharing, and genuine engagement.
We’re living in a consumer-driven platform world that motivates thought and behavior, so our measurement of success also needs to adapt
Gone are the days of using professional photography and perfectly placed products to push any and every brand. Consumers want to hear the truth, the unexpected, the inspiring, and the barrier-breaking from content creators. These are the mommy bloggers, youth activists, travel enthusiasts, life-experienced people who are the connected opinion leaders of their chosen vertical. Their followers know it and count on their honest first-person, real-world experience and trial-and-error-learned expertise to tell them, not necessarily what to think, but what to think about and if a given brand is worth their time, brainpower, and hard-earned dollars.
While many marketers are tracking sales as a success measure, the evolved marketer is placing more importance on brand awareness, customer loyalty, and engagement, per CMI. Your most valuable metrics are no longer final sales but the cumulative, human-centric actions that build toward converting leads into lifelong customers. The new data points for success include traffic metrics like audience reach and quality; engagement rates including interactions, shares, or comments; and lead-generating activities such as site visits, newsletter sign-ups, and content downloads.
Evolution means being bold and pushing for innovation, within your category
Influencer marketing is growing, and it is encouraging audiences to seek out the unexpected, to challenge mass opinion and to follow brands and trends that align with their core beliefs and values. Social networks are not built on brand-driven narratives, we are living in a consumer and community-driven platform world in which brands must adapt and stand out to stay relevant and desirable.
As consumers are growing increasingly fatigued with shallow celebrity endorsements, the barrage of ads, intrusive tracking of search history, and information-overload, they pine for genuine interaction, and their favorite, trusted, content creators can help give them that sense of community to validate their actions and opinions.
Environmental and LGBTQIA+ activist, drag queen, and influencer Pattie Gonia, has built a robust community around equity in what has been traditionally seen as the “straight” outdoor industry. Jordan-Risa Santos approaches social discussions through fashion, and The Holderness Family drops “truth-bombs,” that keep us laughing through the pandemic with parodies like “Holding Out for a Haircut,” “The Not So Newlywed Game,” and “School Decisions.”
These influencers are building community, engaging in important conversations, and curating followings that trust them. They have gone beyond simply making shareable videos. They are making thought-provoking pieces of content that spread awareness, enrich understanding, and celebrate authentic discussion by engaging in two-way dialogue with their networks. It’s an unexpected and bold way for a brand to get involved in the conversations that matter, establish a relationship with its target community.
Marketers need to evaluate their brands and consider leaving passive product placement behind and embracing opportunities to partner with unconventional creators who can bring the brand along to engage in more genuine ways in important conversations that align to brand goals and values, to go beyond the traditional sales funnel, to drive hearts and minds.
Do not ignore the consumer, reputational, and cultural creators, for they rule the platforms
There is a network of content creators for every possible type of marketing. From travel to home goods, automotive, financial, retail, healthcare, and even body modifications; if you can monetize it, there is a niche audience you can target by partnering with creators who have established credibility and curated networks in that vertical. Their influence is not created equal though. Some consumer (nano/micro) creators may only have several hundred followers, reputational (mid-tier) creators may reach across geographic regions, and cultural (macro) creators can have a level of expertise that brings immediate credibility to the brand, even though they only have a few hundred-thousand followers (Matchmaker crunched some numbers to prove it).
The trick is doing your research to know your creator, their platform style, what content will appeal to your target to meet their needs and remove their barriers. You need that deep understanding of what makes the creator and target audience tick before you ever approach a creator. And you must recognize that they call the shots; brands are no longer in charge simply because they wield big checks. Brands need their stories and tuned-in, curated network of loyal followers much more than the creators need the brand. They know that they are likely to have better targeting than your media partners, given the phasing out of cookies and Facebook analytics and the continuing rise of ad-blocking. This has driven a second fundamental shift in the influencer landscape that marketers must adapt to: the shift of power.
Building successful content creator-led activations is as much about efficient data-driven strategy as it is about the right relationships for the brand
When you think about kicking-off an “influencer marketing campaign,” think again. When you start this process, it’s no longer a campaign. You are building long-term, always-on engagements with these creators to tell the evolution of your brand story and to amplify real-world experience of other consumers to keep your brand top-of-mind with pre-qualified potential customers who might not otherwise see your content because of ad blockers, social clutter, or poor targeting.
Content creators are working at all levels of your customer journey to generate awareness and drive your targets from consideration to conversion and keep them engaged as loyal brand advocates. With content creator marketing, you’re able to shift traditional transactional marketing to build a community of brand ambassadors that keeps your pipeline filled. And, as a bonus for marketers, content creator-led advertising within social platforms is also highly efficient both creatively and financially. These always-on activations drop content directly into the feed of your target market (sometimes surpassing media capabilities), bringing in three-times as many leads as traditional marketing and costing 62% less, not to mention the savings of not having to contract an A-list celebrity for tens-of-millions of dollars per year.
The future of influencer marketing is bright
The definition of influence and the landscape of influencer marketing will continue to evolve. Longstanding marketing traditions like product placement and celebrity endorsement will continue to find a home in Hollywood; Tony Stark will continue to drive an Audi and David Beckham won’t be getting out of his $160M contract with Adidas anytime soon. But these efforts are largely performative and research shows the risk of selecting the wrong celebrity for the brand tends to outweigh the benefits, as they do little to leave a lasting impact in the hearts and minds of consumers.
Digital has democratized influence in a way where everyone can find their own little weird corner of the Internet to call home, and these virtual communities have only become more tight-knit amid 14+ months of social distancing. When brands pivot from seeing influencers solely as a means to reach an audience and into a long-term bridge between their company values and a community of shared interest, everyone wins.
To quote Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” named by Time as one of the most influential books in history, “to be interesting, be interested.” It’s not enough to have an interesting product, a well-thought out value proposition, or A-list celebrity, a brand must also be willing to be interested in the consumers it serves.