If we poll everyone reading this article and ask for their definition of an influencer, how many different responses do you think we’d get? Everyone seems to have a different definition of what exactly an influencer is. And that’s because we’ve never seen such rapid growth in the advertising industry. Let’s put this into context:
Change in our industry has never happened more quickly than it does today. As marketers have been frantically trying to keep up with the pace of technology (particularly social media), we’ve complicated things. This complication has led to misrepresentation, fraud, and inauthenticity in the influencer space.
In 2018, there will be a movement to make things simpler, to focus on the quality of an influencer rather than quantity, to shift from fleeting transactions to deeper brand-influencer relationships.
To make things better in the influencer space, we have to address:
Josiah Wedgwood, the original influencer marketer.
When you step back and think about it, are influencers really even new? The truth is, no. Testimonials and endorsements as marketing tools have been around for quite some time. Let’s go back to the building blocks of advertising, where testimonials and endorsements started to take shape. And when we say go back, we mean go way back: 1760, to be exact. In 1760, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, a producer of pottery and chinaware, leveraged royal endorsements as a marketing tactic to show value for the company and its products. Sounds eerily similar to influencer work, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s because it absolutely is similar. All we’ve really done with testimonials and endorsements is changed the medium to social media. Social media (and let’s keep that word “social” close to our hearts) have forever changed testimonials and endorsements by enabling real people to talk back and interact with these influencers in a way that’s never happened before.
The rapid growth and marketing potential of modern-day influencers comes with its own set of growing pains. Marketers and brands have used and abused influencers as a marketing strategy. And if we don’t course-correct soon, the problem is only going to get worse.
The Most Authentic Marketing Tool Becomes Inauthentic
For many years, influencer campaigns have painted a pretty picture of authenticity that has enticed brands big and small. That authenticity lies in “using” influencers to connect with consumers as a believable endorser of a product. But today, inauthentic endorsements are rampant in the industry. Consumers see right through inauthenticity. Is Kim Kardashian really selling Fit Tea to anyone? And when we’re all battling for attention on the social media front lines, authenticity should be important to marketers as a symbol of trust.
Fraud and System-Gaming Wreak Havoc on the Industry
There are many cases of fraud within the influencer space, particularly when it comes to volume and reach. Users have artificially inflated their follower counts with bot services like Buy-Instagram, where you can pay $25 for 1,500 followers. There’s even a vending machine in Moscow that sells fake Instagram likes (100 likes for only 89 cents). Influencers are also gaming the algorithms by podding (i.e., partnering with other influencers by liking and commenting on their posts daily to artificially improve engagement numbers).
Overabundance of Content and Misrepresented Reach
The irony of all of this is that even influencers who have an authentic following and are not gaming the system with bots and other fraudulent methods still face reach challenges across all social platforms, especially on Facebook and Instagram. As social media users, we are all eligible to see up to 1,500 pieces of content alone on Facebook. The overabundance of content in our feeds has led to algorithms restricting brand reach to only 1 to 3 percent without paid media. While influencers fare much better in reaching their followers in terms of organic reach, it’s not 100 percent. We have found that most influencers’ organic reach is actually 10 to 20 percent. You can’t just assume their total reach is their total fan or follower count. The social media algorithms have impacted everyone and everything.
The path to addressing the challenges in the influencer space starts with better defining it. Everyone, no matter how many friends or followers you have, has influence. A recent study by PSFK on “The Consumer of 2020” states that one in three (18 to 34 years old) is an influencer. Yes, you read that correctly. That means one in three (ages 18-34) has over 1,700 connections or friends within their social media networks. This means we have a lot of “digital influencers” coming up in the world. Your regular 18- to 34-year-old customers have the power to speak highly (or badly) about your brand. Their influence, big or small, is powerful.
Here’s how we start to break down the nuances in the influencer space.
The first important distinction is figuring out where the paid and unpaid line is drawn. Let’s first start with the paid component from the very top:
Celebrities have always been influencers, and in the new definition of influencers this continues to be true. Today’s celebrities often find fame through entertainment and sports industries. They are typically followed in traditional media channels as well.
A step below celebrities is our Macro-Influencer. Think of this category as the new-age “digital celebrities.” These people have more than 100,000 followers and likely have become famous through social media and digital channels.
Below macro-influencers, we have our Digital Influencers, on a smaller scale with a following between 10,000 and 100,000; we call these people micro-influencers. They haven’t quite peaked to become a macro-influencer, but have a dedicated, loyal, and highly engaged following on social media.
While the paid category of influencers likely makes their living off a good amount of their following, we also have the category of unpaid influencers that can be broken out into a few different levels:
Vocal Advocates can be some of the most powerful influencer categories. Vocal advocates are passionate about your brand, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it. You can’t beat the authenticity that comes from this group. The key is figuring out how to scale them.
Non-Vocal Advocates can be important offline influencers for your brand. There are many people who might be very passionate about your brand, but don’t tout their brand pride online as often as vocal advocates. This doesn’t mean they aren’t passionate, but rather that they are passive in the social media space while often active in offline word-of-mouth.
Brand Fans are people who like and follow your brand on social media, but likely aren’t exclusive to your brand and like other brand competitors.
Brand Consumers are the people who purchase your brand, but do not follow or actively communicate with your brand unless perhaps there is a consumer relations issue.
With all the complexities and challenges of this space, marketers have struggled with how to incorporate influencers into their marketing strategies. We typically see influencers as a one-off tactic within an overall marketing campaign. But using influencers as one transactional, transitory tactic of a larger marketing plan undermines exactly what influencer campaigns are intended to do: establish a trustworthy connection between the audience and your brand by telling your brand story through the voice of influencers.
In 2018, brands will start establishing long-lasting relationships with influencers. Brands will go from “using” influencers to building long-term relationships with these individuals. This fundamental change allows for mutually beneficial relationships with value on both sides of the equation.
Additionally, influencers will become an always-on strategy for brands. Brands will nurture micro-influencers into strong brand partners. Influencers will show up in every part of the marketing funnel to help brands build an experience with consumers along the entire customer journey, and we will rely more on paid media dollars to maximize the reach of these partnerships. Over time, the reach of influencers will continue to diminish much like we’ve seen with brands. But if we can regularly exchange value with an influencer (of all types, per our new definition) who actually cares about your brand, the game changes for the better for the brand and the consumer.
In this new world of influencers, brands are growing networks of influencers that are true long-term partners of their brands. For instance, Mountain Dew has introduced its own multichannel network called Green Label MCN. By focusing on sustaining a relationship with four YouTube creators, Mountain Dew amassed 326 million views and 4.6 million engagements in the network’s first year.
Another brand leveraging a portion of our new multidimensional definition of influencers is Dr Pepper. Dr Pepper has leveraged the power of its brand advocates. Dr Pepper doesn’t have to do a thing to get people to talk about the brand; thousands of people talk about the brand on social media every week without being prompted, because it is a passion brand.
Knowing this, Dr Pepper has assembled close to 600 brand advocates who have applied to be part of the “Pepper Pack” advocacy program. The Pepper Pack is meant to be an insider program for Dr Pepper to show its love back to its most loyal fans. Within the program, fans are empowered and rewarded by being part of the future of the brand and participating in various challenges. Since the recent launch of the program, Dr Pepper has just over 600 advocates with an average participation rate of 60 percent.
Challenges have included “Pick Your Pepper Day,” where ambassadors competed for a chance to win a trip to Dallas and design packaging bottle labels for the 2018 Pick Your Pepper campaign. Ultimately, seven advocates were chosen and invited to work side-by-side with actual bottle label designers to create a personalized bottle label that could make it into the 2018 label lineup. Advocates shared highlights on social media with #DesignDay2017 and #PickedMyPepper.
Another challenge for the Pepper Pack focused more on philanthropy efforts. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, a member of the Pepper Pack reached out with an idea to team up with Dr Pepper to provide relief to those in need. Dr Pepper listened and created a unique opportunity for the 600 Pepper Pack members to give back.
Interested ambassadors were given $23 (just like the 23 flavors in Dr Pepper) to donate to a charity of their choice for hurricane relief efforts. About 70 percent of the Pepper Pack participated, and many shared their appreciation on social media using #PepperPack. The idea for this invitation was also inspired by the group’s feedback from the 2017 Sneak Preview survey, where they stated the desire for the brand to get more involved with charities and nonprofit organizations. As you can see, the Pepper Pack has become more than just marketing; it’s a connection that actually means something with the brand.
Word-of-mouth and influencer efforts continue to be among the most powerful tools for marketers, but in 2018, the way that brands approach this will be much less transactional and much more relational.
After all, we must remember that the phrase “social media” has “social” in it for a reason. Social media have the power to take testimonials and endorsements that we’ve seen – from royalty in 1760 to print and TV advertising – and make them so much better. It’s better because you rely on your friends and family for reviews on social media, and you trust those relationships. The spectrum of influencers that we have defined needs to engage in conversations and become part of your brand.
By brands focusing on building their own influencer programs and establishing deeper, mutually beneficial relationships with influencers, brands can expand their reach and create real authenticity rather than a mere paid transaction that consumers see through.
Whether you are building your own network or leveraging another, think about our new multidimensional definition, and make sure your campaign meets this criteria:
At the end of the day, anyone can be paid to help spread a message, but in 2018, the brands that put influencer authenticity and relationships first will see the biggest growth.