The influencer economy is real, but brands and agencies are at risk of destroying it

The influencer economy is real, but brands and agencies are at risk of destroying it

Money can't buy you likes - success with social influencers requires hard work too, writes TH_NK's community and content director.

If you were keeping an eye on Vine’s user numbers over the past year you probably weren’t too surprised by last week’s announcement that Twitter was throwing in the towel. It fell out of the top 100 apps and, as Snapchat’s unique visitors grew, Vine’s numbers fell.

I’ll leave it to others to write the detailed eulogy, but there’s a solid consequence from Vine’s demise: one fewer influencer platform for brands to put their marketing budget behind.

Many brands were paying Viners for revines, shout outs and customised videos, as well as creating content for their own paid channels. Look at "prankster" Ben Phillips, who was being paid up to £2,000 per second of content to mention brands in the general direction of his 1.2 million followers.

To any sensible onlooker that looks like a bubble set to burst, but it’s not a problem that’s confined to Vine, or one we can blame on the influencers.

In this recent interview with an executive at an Instagram influencer agency, the subject depicts the influencer economy as a Wild West: no one has any idea what real value an influencer can bring and so pricing is a guessing game, organic reach is on a slippery slope and the entire product placement market is set to crumble.

The exec goes on to explain that the next stage in this story is the dawn of the "micro-influencer" – a strange, parallel universe, where it’s somehow seen as more authentic to pay individuals with a few hundred Instagram followers to take clumsy promotional selfies.

Maybe now’s the time to take a breath, figure out where things went wrong, and establish where we go from here.

To do that we have to find our way back to the root of the problem, the inherent contradiction at the heart of the influencer phenomenon: Extolling the virtues of relationship building, organic reach, and loyalty in one breath, while in the next brokering deals with the biggest influencer you can find for the least budget and hoping their hard-won audiences will boost your blunt-edged, short-lived campaign.

Influencer strategies can work and they can co-exist alongside more organic approaches, but the first problem comes when we start measuring influencer value in follower numbers, not brand fit.

It doesn’t matter if you have a YouTube superstar with a reach in the millions, or hundreds of micro-influencers with a thousand followers each. If their personalities, style and approach are out of sync with your brand, then you’re sunk.

Look at US uber-vlogger Casey Neistat. His original, groundbreaking campaign for Nike Fuelband saw the YouTuber commandeer the production budget to buy a round-the-world ticket and film the trip in place of a traditional ad.

That’s led to a more recent partnership with Samsung, pushing their Virtual Reality tech and Creator’s Programme by hanging out of a helicopter on a rope ladder dressed in a tuxedo.

Those campaigns work because there was a mutual understanding, trust and respect between the influencer and the client from the very beginning. "I have a great relationship with Nike," said Neistat at the time of his Fuelband campaign. "They grant me a lot of room."

But Neistat, having built up his YouTube audience over 6 years and having also worked with Google, J Crew and Mercedes-Benz, is in a position where he can pick and choose which brand he works with and charge a lot of money for his time. What if you’re not Nike or Samsung but you have a great product that could benefit from an influencer push?

This is where the next complicator enters the frame: laziness. Can’t afford the big stars? Let’s embark on a race to the bottom and start paying anyone with an Instagram account to push our product. We can legitimise the whole thing by calling them "micro-influencers"... or something.

The difficult truth is that finding the right influencer with the right audience, for the right budget, on the right channel is hard work.

When TH_NK first embarked on an influencer strategy as part of our work with Warner Bros. four years ago, we didn’t realise it would take us over two years to build the relationships we’d need to make it a success.

But after that time we were able to get a handful of social personalities, with a combined following over 15 million, down to a movie premiere with less than one week’s notice. For zero media spend.

It’s unoriginal to say that the answer is to put in the hard graft. But it feels like we have to face reality, or the influencer industry will end up eating its own tail.

There’s an entire industry springing up with the single aim of making this whole process easier. Just last month Campaign featured Scandi platform Tailify, which aims to bring "professionalism, security and trust" to the whole enterprise of leveraging social influence. There’s no doubt these will go some way to smoothing the bumps and normalising the influencer economy.

But there are no shortcuts to relationship building. Just as there’s no influence without trust. And we have to face up to the fact that our audiences are getting more cynical, not less.

If we don’t want to destroy the influencer economy from within then both brands and agencies need to start investing more than just money into it. We’re going to have to put in the time and effort as well.

Rob Hinchcliffe is content and community director at TH_NK

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