Scandals won't slow down a bullish influencer economy

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Photo: Erica Berger
Photo: Erica Berger

Brands keep coming back for more, albeit with additional fine print.

Demand for influencers didn’t tank after Pewdiepie made a series of poorly calculated jokes that were called anti-semitic. Nor did demand abate after Fyre Fest stranded thousands on an island despite promising a luxury getaway. Nor after Jake Paul did whatever this is at a grocery store.

Brands are still enthusiastic about enlisting influencers and courting the digital natives they speak to, but now they want to have the goods on every social media star with which they partner.

"[The risk] makes brands more leery about playing in this space if they’re not already familiar with it," says Michael Dobson, group director of social media at Crossmedia. He adds that media and marketing agencies are feeling pressure to vet content before it’s published and provide greater transparency on results.

As influencers increasingly expect to be paid—instead of just receiving swag—they should be ready to receive the same amount of scrutiny as any media asset, with ever-more-sophisticated analytics.

The fine print gets bold
Both marketers and influencers acknowledged the demand for greater transparency at PRWeek’s Swipe Right conference on Thursday.

"Analytics is something brands want to see more of, especially now," said health and fitness guru Brett Cap, noting it lets brands "zero in on knowing what would be successful on [an influencer’s] platform."

Claudia Oshry, a.k.a. the Girl with no Job, voiced her annoyance at self-proclaimed influencers who buy followers using subscription companies to like their Instagrams.

"That’s crazy," she said. "I see people on my feed getting huge campaigns."

At FleishmanHillard, influencers are put through a rigorous vetting process that evaluates more than just the number of followers. It examines how engagement rates differ between sponsored and regular posts; voice on social media; type of content produced; past brand experiences and work with competitors; and more.

Meredith Bradshaw, SVP and partner of digital at Fleishman, says it’s not unusual for the agency to vet at least a hundred influencers over the course of a couple days for a single campaign.

Dobson says Crossmedia won’t partner with influencers that aren’t transparent. Clients rely on his shop’s expertise to determine what influencers will maximize their investments, and it’s his fault if they partner with an unscrupulous internet celebrity.

A major hurdle are the walled gardens of data lorded over by tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Advertisers have criticized the closely held data collections as little more than black boxes to which they have little access as they push for better marketing insights.

However, Facebook plans to roll out Advanced Measurements next year. The tool will allow advertisers to analyze how campaigns perform on the platform compared with others, and replace its current tool, Atlas.

In the meantime, media agencies such as Crossmedia have to rely on third-party vendors to track the results of their clients’ investments.

"Brands should leverage third-party tracking to have the right types of insights to connect all their data and make sure they’re leveraging where they have the most return on their media spend," Dobson says.

Crossmedia works with several outside vendors so it can rely on multiple data sources to verify or dispute the results. That way, when Facebook says a post earned 100,000 impressions, Crossmedia can fact-check that, Dobson said.

Context is everything
Influencer marketing solves a key problem: young consumers don’t feel brands are bringing them value in real life, says Tai Tran, a former digital program manager at Apple.

"They’re willing to be marketed to, but it has to be the right product in the right context," he says.

Deciding to use a social media celebrity is only the first step. How should brands use influencers to bypass the barriers to advertising? Bradshaw contends that an influencer strategy should complement a larger program across channels.

"It’s that ability to extend the content," she explains. "We never do it as a one-off; it’s always integrated into a bigger plan."

Dobson places influencers into three categories: those who create content, those who know how to use technology, and those who are proficient at both. Knowing which influencer works best with a campaign depends on the goal of the push, which dovetails into the metrics a brand should use to measure success. If a campaign is focused on raising awareness and building trust, the campaign will use reach and impressions as metrics. If its goal is demand generation and cost per acquisition, it will rely on a different data set.

"The way I see it, it’s not one or the other," Tran says. "It’s a blend."