Why marketers should bet on influencers over programmatic

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Programmatic isn't quite the silver bullet it was supposed to be, says CLEVER's founder.

Programmatic was supposed to be the tech development that would reinvent the advertising industry. Thanks to data, ads would be delivered to just the right people at just the right time, with advanced algorithms taking the hard work out of the equation. All advertisers would have to do is kick back and let the computers do the work…

Turns out, programmatic isn’t quite the silver bullet it was supposed to be. And it certainly isn’t ready to replace humans just yet. 

First, programmatic raises brand safety concerns. Fake news sites and sites featuring undesirable content are growing in number and sophistication; this makes it increasingly challenging for programmatic algorithms to detect and avoid "bad" content. As a result, brands can appear to support wildly controversial content, such as ISIS recruitment videos on YouTube. Not good. 

Safety concerns aside, programmatic does not deliver the hyper-targeted results it’s supposed to. Advertisers often cast a very wide, very expensive net trying to reach their primary audience. When Chase cut their digital ads from appearing on 40,000 websites to just 5,000 well-vetted ones, they saw no difference in impressions or visibility.

So while these two major challenges may not signal the end of programmatic forever, advertisers now have a huge opportunity to supplement or even replace programmatic with influencer marketing.

Compared to programmatic, influencer marketing allows brands to reach their audience in a more targeted way, with much better engagement and more reliable reporting, for a fraction of the cost. Here’s how: 

Influencer marketing is actually scalable. The greatest allure of programmatic advertising is that it’s turnkey: for a minimal amount of upfront work, ads will be served to millions of consumers. What many advertisers don’t know is that influencer marketing can work the same way. It’s possible for brands to select hundreds of influencers at once, based on influencer and audience data, to launch large-scale, brand-safe, hugely engaging programs.

When you work with influencers, you’re building trust. Unlike cookie-driven digital ads that follow people around from place to place, influencers bring your message to an audience that associates the message with the messenger in a positive way. Everyone knows that most of the ads they see on their favorite websites have little-to-nothing to do with the publisher—they’re automatic. Influencers have the power to pick and choose who to support and bring a level of trust to the equation that programmatic cannot.

Influencers have far more—and more meaningful—engagement. Influencers spend a great deal of time building and engaging with the communities that follow them. They can then use the power they’ve earned through that hard work to create conversations around your brand that people are happy to engage in. Digital ad CTRs have been declining steadily for years (the average is somewhere in the 0.05 percent to 0.08 percent range). Meanwhile, a successful influencer program will see engagement rates in the 5 percent to 8 percent range.

Programmatic still lacks transparency and regulation. From inventory quality to viewability to media measurement, there are a great deal of very concerning issues associated with programmatic ad buying—and little to no regulation is forthcoming to solve these problems. Just like the stock market before a crash, the industry is largely policed by the very same people who profit from it. And even today, as the conversation around transparency heats up, brands still have few ways to truly know what they’re really paying for.

On the other hand, you can’t fake the results of an influencer marketing program. With the right tools, brands can track exactly who is posting, to whom, what engagement the posts generate, and how these interactions impact purchase intent and conversions to sales.

Kristy Sammis is co-founder of CLEVER.