Kevin Knight, Chief Marketing Officer at Experticity, shares his insights on the state of influencer marketing.
The marketer’s problem was complex: how to reach a consumer audience for authentic brand campaigns. Traditional ads aren’t as effective. Celebrity endorsements don’t seem to work. Digital ad buy data is a mess. Word-of-mouth seems to work, but is it realistically scalable?
The solution was deceivingly simple: Find an ordinary person with a large megaphone.
Influencer marketing began with the promise of scaling the kind of authentic influence people experience offline – trusted conversations and recommendations between people. Social media made it remarkably easy, particularly as platforms like Instagram provided follower demographic information. It had the potential to revolutionize trust-based marketing, but today influencer marketing is just another paid reach vehicle.
Everyone knows this, but what many marketers might not know is how this change happened.
I worked for Facebook when we acquired Instagram in 2012, and then joined Pinterest in early 2013. What I saw first-hand at these companies (and observed from a distance at Snapchat) was a new mindset for large digital/social apps. We all decided to delay monetizing our audiences in order to preserve our users’ experience. Instead of yielding to the almighty dollar from the outset, we put the user first.
There were lots of good reasons for this, but here’s the rub: among just these three apps, we had hundreds of millions of users – users who represented significant purchasing power. Marketers were desperate to reach these large, unpenetrated audiences. And the marketer who could break through would enjoy an incredibly high share of voice, given that there were zero paid ads. It was dreamy, uncharted territory, and the bit champing was relentless.
So we opened the gates, provided access, and marketers went wild, but they weren’t ready to do this new channel justice. Instead of identifying people who already advocated for a brand, and then empowering influencers organically, marketers applied their usual advertising tactics. In its current state, influencer marketing looks nearly identical to traditional marketing.
We’ve all noticed this – and felt this misalignment with the original vision of influencer marketing nagging at our collective conscious. Well, we aren’t the only ones who noticed. The FTC also noticed the shift, and made the well-publicized declaration that much of influencer marketing is simply paid advertising.
It’s critical to recognize – as companies who have found themselves in legal hot water like Lord & Taylor know all too well – if the FTC says it’s an ad, then by definition it is an ad. And we shouldn’t assume that it won’t suffer from the same lack of credibility that traditional advertising suffers from.
So here’s what we do: We address the devil on our shoulder, admit that we are too intoxicated by reach metrics, and stop pretending that paying online influencers to peddle our wares is influencer marketing. We need to identify our biggest advocates, and let their authenticity speak for itself.
They are not the social media “publishers” you partner with for a #spon Instagram post, justified primarily by their large reach and engagement data. While those individuals are compelling content curators and creators, their influence is only trusted at a rate of 18%, as a Forrester study found.
The authentic influencers, however, are all around you: Your buddy who has invested in thousands of dollars of camera equipment; your son’s ski instructor; your favorite salesperson at Nordstrom. They live and breathe their hobbies, many completely obsessed with gaining all available knowledge – whether or not it’s their profession. When you need to buy a camera, or a safer helmet for your child, or an outfit for a special occasion, their advice is invaluable. With so many options, you have to turn to someone you can trust to steer you to the right choice. Because they aren’t being paid as a part of an ad campaign, you know that their recommendations are authentic.
And unlike many of the so-called social media influencers, the recommendations from an influential expert aren’t limited to a flash-in-the-pan post. Your friend, instructor, or salesperson can give your potential purchase the attention it needs, until you find a product so perfect, you can’t imagine ever living without it.
If you are a brand or a marketer, your next step is to look beyond follower counts, and look instead to the people who actually influence their circles to purchase your products. You need to identify the people consumers already trust, because true influence stems from trust. And that trust stems from the significant expertise they’ve attained through years pursuing a hobby or working in an industry.
It can be difficult to identify these authentic influencers. They may be online, but many are offline and are tougher to find. But these people have passion, experience, and knowledge, and they are worth the effort. These qualities make them trusted sources of advice and inspiration to consumers everywhere. Let’s honor that trust by elevating them to the status they deserve, and in so doing, restore a level of trust to marketing that will be appreciated by consumers and shareholders alike.