Influencer marketing, once a "secret weapon" of marketers, is at a crossroads. Most marketers know that influencer marketing is now a necessary tool. It not only delivers credibility to a campaign, but also ensures relevancy, scaled awareness, and long-term relevance for consumers. And it can deliver hard numbers (i.e. likes, views, shares) that are often difficult to get with traditional methods. Unfortunately, like so many things on the Internet, a backlash is setting in. With watchdog agencies cracking down on the Kardashians and the cost of digital celebrities on the rise, brand executives and strategists are second-guessing the true effectiveness of influencer marketing as we know it today. However, and more importantly, they are also coming to understand that the pay-to-play model of engaging influencers could in fact be setting their brand back decades.
Most agency partners are brokering these deals on behalf of their brand clients and paying individuals with strong social media followings to post, attend events, or be featured in advertising. This is the massive liability that can put brands at incredible risk. Consumers are smarter and savvier than ever as we know, and the lack of credibility of some influencers is leaving lasting effects. Once viewed as personable, authentic sources of information, now influencers move from brand to brand, but their inconsistent sponsored posts remain. A quick scroll through one’s Instagram feed or YouTube channel reveals sponsored post after sponsored post, which signals to followers that those posts are simply a means to an end rather than what they really believe. Take the backlash from from Naomi Campbell, or better yet, Scott Disick’s copy-and-pasted Bootea sponsored Instagram post for example. Once the "Lord" of sponsored posts, anyone who scrolls through Scott’s Instagram feed will notice that there is now no trace of paid posts, including the ones for Bootea, ever existing. Perhaps celebrities are backing away from paid posts to focus on their personal brand instead.
Influencer marketing has become critically important to every vertical in the marketing mix. If done right, it enables brands to tell real stories within relatable context. However, brands need to approach influencer marketing cautiously and strategically, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s a lack of communication on all ends of the deal. Brands often have multiple agency partners talking to the same influencers, thus creating duplication of efforts and putting the negotiating power squarely in the hands of the influencer. It shines light on the lack of the true relationship between the influencer, agencies and brand. Often, agencies not brands own conversations with the influencers. This can lead a brand’s minimal control over the resulting relationship and an inability to tap into those same influencers for other initiatives. When the agency is gone, so are those relationships. Paul Marcarelli, once the face of Verizon’s ‘can you hear me now’ campaign, changed allegiances and is now the newest member of Sprint’s arsenal. Originally synonymous with the Verizon name, his known tagline is now the center of Sprint’s newest campaign.
There are also varying ideas about which influencer is appropriate. An experiential agency may need one type of influencer for event attendance, while a creative agency may need another for campaign work. In both cases, the decision of which influencers to partner with is driven by the execution instead of long-term needs and core values of a brand. Blogger Chriselle Lim of The Chriselle Factor came under fire for exactly this reason. Her feed, usually dedicated to photos of her family, travels and favorite trends, recently included a staged photograph with her family and a Volvo. The post screamed paid endorsement to her followers and they responded in kind. The inauthentic post was detrimental to Chriselle’s relationship with her followers, it also negatively impacted Volvo, which was called out for poor influencer strategy.
And, lastly, agencies pay influencers extraordinary amounts of money that sets a standard of what that brand believes influencers are worth. The ecosystem of influencers is small and word about which brands are paying top dollar travels fast. Other teams within the brand with lower budgets can be left with no possible way of working with those same influencers. And transactional relationships with influencers are not just wasting marketing budgets, they are harming the credibility of brands.
Brands must look at influencer marketing not as the engagement of social media stars, creation of hashtags, and driver of PR spikes, but rather as a connection with individuals who possess attributes that personify a brand’s values, message and lifestyle. When aligned, the halo-effect is significantly higher because fans feel their authentic passion. The result goes farther and wider than any one social media celebrity. Investing in long-term relationships quickly results in a variety of authentic ambassadors who become invaluable to all stakeholders. Then, the ongoing value these relationships deliver significantly outweighs the cost of obtaining them.