Is the power of influencers fading?
From David Beckham promoting single malt whisky to Holly Willoughby shifting sequined dresses for Marks & Sparks, this is the decade of the influencer.
But you don’t just have to be a celebrity or even a former England midfielder to achieve influencer status these days. What has been remarkable is the rise of an army of previously unknown ordinary folks – using social media to entice consumers.
So many content creators have gone from writing blogs on their desktop computers, to running social media empires from their mobile phones.
It is claimed that the influencer industry will be worth $10 billion by 2020, so perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a backlash against influencer marketing.
Mainstream media have revelled in tales of influencer fraud and a feature in the New York Times in January 2018, The Follower Factory: inside social media’s black market, set the tone for much of the last year’s coverage.
The push back really gained momentum, however, when Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed told the Cannes Lions festival last year that the beauty to soap powder company would not work with influencers who buy followers.
Negative headlines continue to swirl around influencers.
Regulators like the Advertising Standards Authority have been battling to make sure that influencers understand marketing rules and clearly communicate when their content is an advertisement. Last year Made In Chelsea star Louise Thompson twice had Instagram posts banned for not disclosing that they were sponsored content, and more recently was one of a number of celebrities, including singers Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding, who agreed to change their ‘social media practices’ following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: ‘Influencers can have a huge impact on what their fans decide to buy. People could, quite rightly, feel misled if what they thought was a recommendation from someone they admired turns out to be a marketing ploy.
‘You should be able to tell as soon as you look at a post if there is some form of payment or reward involved, so you can decide whether something is really worth spending your hard-earned money on.’
Now, according to figures from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), it looks like influencer outreach budgets fell by 12 per cent last year, although many argue that a single drop on the previous year does not amount to a meaningful trend.
A research report from Dublin-based digital agency Zoo last November also found that trust in influencers and their recommendations was down 14 per cent year-on-year.
The gravity of this situation – and the threat to their business models – is becoming apparent to the likes of Instagram (owned by Facebook), which is now taking steps to remove inauthentic ‘Likes’ and ‘follows’ that are accumulated by third party apps.
What is clear is that there is a growing need from companies and big brands to justify their spending and tactics in using influencers.
Scott Guthrie, an independent consultant on influencer marketing and former digital director at global PR agency Ketchum, points out that to some extent influencer fraud – the buying of followers by people who want to appear more popular or look as if they have online influence – is nothing new.
‘In the newspaper business, inflating circulation figures is a well-worn practice. A percentage of papers from many major mastheads is given away and newspaper copies not picked up at the end of the day still contribute towards circulation figures,’ he says.
Yet he does not deny that influencer fraud is a reality. Guthrie quotes figures from CampaignDeus, which sells influencer analytics software, that suggest one in eight UK-based Instagram influencers has shown signs of having bought followers, while one in four has shown signs of having bought engagement.
Guthrie says that the influencer world is going through growing pains that are entirely natural for an immature profession. People need to be prepared to put more time and effort into making sure that they find the right person in the first place.
‘Good influencer marketing is about finding the right partners to work with. Really interesting content happens because you spend a lot of time and money finding the right influencer,’ Guthrie says.
He adds that professional communicators must undertake effective influencer vetting. And brands must demand this level of expertise. ‘Individuals need to build these skills into their continued professional development and industry bodies need to provide guidance and access to best practice learning.’
Social Chain, a digital marketing agency that works with the likes of ASOS and the BBC, launched its own campaign against influencer fraud last October, offering the industry an artificial intelligence tool which can detect and root out fake engagement and discrepancies in a user’s following.
However, Guthrie doubts that simply blacklisting those who have bought followers will work. He believes that creating a naughty and nice list is too binary a solution to a highly nuanced issue.
Alex Pearmain, co-founder of OneFifty Consultancy, is sympathetic to Guthrie’s argument. ‘Those often termed ‘influencers’ are not always what they are purported to be. I don’t blame them, however – it’s the people who engage and commission those individuals without adequate due diligence who should reconsider.’
Pearmain argues that far from turning away from influencers, chief marketing officers are becoming more interested. However, he concedes that an understanding as to what constitutes influence is not growing at the same pace.
‘Behind the headlines with global CMOs calling for regulation, appetite continues because the reality is that one can see meaningful results when activities are executed effectively,’ he explains.
Increasing scepticism about influencer marketing is prompting many in the sector to look for a way of measuring return on investment. Most marketers agree that there is a need for accurate data, robust independent campaign performance evaluation and industry benchmarking. Who should take up that mantle is not clear.
With the activity crossing over so many areas and industry bodies it could be that a joint approach from the PRCA, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the likes of the Chartered Institute of Marketing is necessary.
Guthrie says: ‘The discipline sits naturally within the PR fraternity. Influencing opinion and behaviour, establishing and maintaining goodwill between an organisation and its publics are all bedrock skills of the PR professional. But the operative word is ‘lead’ rather than ‘own’. PR should lead the creative industries on best practices.’
Pearmain says he struggles to point to industry body initiatives – not least because there is no-one who represents social media or digital marketing in full. ‘Brands should lead by demanding real insight and measurement. Ultimately the flow of money will change the process, and the wheat and chaff of suppliers will naturally sort itself out.’
But he does not let the social networks off either, saying they could be stronger in this area, but concedes that ‘without advertising dollars or reputational risk forcing change, we’re unlikely to see it’.
Kerry Parkin, who is head of relationships at HMD Global, which has relaunched phone brand Nokia in the UK, is especially keen to find tools to evaluate her influencer marketing. Parkin says she does not want to criticise industry bodies, but rather collaborate to find a workable solution that can be shared.
Parkin is troubled by another aspect of influencer marketing that is gaining prominence: to what extent peer-to-peer advocacy is more effective than large-scale influencers.
But Parkin is all too aware that peer-to-peer advocacy is difficult to measure. It can happen online, in a store, in a conversation.
‘We have various ways of trying to track it – net promoter scores, social listening, analytics and brand tracking software – but there is no easy solution,’ Parkin says.
Her hunch is that the genuine fans – the passionate advocates – who naturally love the product are much more useful to her company. ‘Increasingly what matters is the quality of the advocacy,’ Parkin says. But when questions are being asked around the boardroom table about the use of advocates, marketers are going to begin to need to provide statistics and data. ‘This is becoming an industry issue, because business leaders are asking Why are we paying for this?’
Nokia recently benefited from a successful piece of influencing when a blogger posted a video of himself using the new Nokia 6 to crack walnuts. ‘This was advocacy in action. It may not be pretty, but it really worked,’ says Parkin.
Dominic Redfearn, global brand and communications director at drinks giant Diageo, agrees that some of the most important ‘influencers’ in his industry are not the celebs and reality TV stars, but those who work behind the bar.
Diageo works closely with mixologists and bartenders because they are at the frontline of helping consumers to understand the spirits category and assisting them to discover a drink that they’ll like.
‘Influencers are a part of many of our brands’ strategies, both as a way of reaching our consumers and also as part of ensuring our brands remain culturally relevant. We do extensive due diligence on any influencer we work with to understand the nature of their audience and to ensure we are abiding by our marketing code. We use third-party tools to give us this in-depth analysis – it’s very important for us to have a clear picture, given the regulated nature of our industry,’ Redfearn explains.
When Diageo does work with celebrities – David Beckham on Haig Club and Sean Coombs for vodka brand Ciroc – it likes to establish a long-term relationship and collaboration. Beckham and Coombs are business partners with the drinks group and are heavily involved in the marketing strategies. It’s all part of Diageo’s desire for authenticity. ‘We are quite specific about what we look for in a partner. It boils down to relevance and authenticity for us.’
What Diageo has found is probably true of all brands and companies: ‘influencers’ will be a mix of experts, industry insiders, people with public platforms to voice opinions (traditionally journalists) as well as fans and those who have developed social media followings.
Brands and corporates are fast recognising that influencer endorsement is not an easy gateway to sales. Indeed, if they are not careful, it could leave them open to reputational damage or worse.
Last September the Advertising Standards Authority published a new guide to help social influencers stick to the rules by making clear when their posts are ads.
And, more recently, Masse was launched in New York with backing by Net-a-Porter’s founder Natalie Massenet. The app claims to be a digital marketplace that only carries product recommendations from individuals within your network. Users simply create a profile and then ask their networks for recommendations on beauty, personal care, health and wellness, baby products and home goods products. Sponsored posts are not accepted.
Could this spell the end of the influencer generation? Probably not, but it will certainly push business leaders further to think twice about its true value.