by Sophie Doyle
It was only a few years ago that influencer marketing had murky connotations driven by bikini-clad models holding up the latest teeth whitening or skin bronzing products. The content was contrived, and the smiles were cringe-worthy.
Yet, in the past 18 months, with the introduction of the AANA’s transparency guidelines and more and more brands finding a good balance between marketing goals and content, we’ve seen the space reach maturity. Influencer talent agencies are also setting best practice standards, which sends strong signals the industry is becoming less ad hoc, instead forging a standardised and clear model of operation.
In a climate of audience scepticism about paid advertising and limits on the organic reach of social pages, more of our clients are recognising the value of influencer marketing in their mix.
But it’s no silver bullet. Social platform-led foibles involving trolls, fake news, sketchy brand deals, fudged audience numbers and misused data, is pushing influencer activity (what we’ll call Influencer) to evolve, or risk being a blip of market influence.
What’s next? To look forward, first, we need to look back.
We're under no pretences Influencer is a shiny new discipline – it’s as old as word-of-mouth itself. In this day and age though, it’s helping us – and the brands – we work with remedy crumbling consumer trust.
But word-of-mouth has typically been a tough nut to crack at scale, and Influencer’s first iteration finally allowed marketers to tap into it with ease and volume. It grew from a desire from audiences for (buzzword alert) ‘authentic’ content in a marketplace overcrowded with ‘traditional’ ads (irony is that now we seem to have come full circle in the way many of us perceive some influencer feeds). With their carefully curated lives, faces, wardrobes and sometimes inflated audiences.. Consumers wanted the cultural authorities in their lives to present them with accurate intel on the brands they used, places they stayed, the food they cooked and so on.
Fast forward five years and branded content and partnerships play a huge role in most integrated campaigns. But audiences are also more sceptical and expect more from the tap of the ‘follow’ button from those they trust. Partnerships that are clever and deliver audience-first content aren’t a nice to have now, they’re mandatory to success in the space.
Last year we saw some interesting developments, with Snapchat started providing influencer analytics, and Facebook cooking up its Brand Collabs Manager (not available in Australia yet). We now have stricter disclosure regulation around paid collaborations which is allowing people to consume influencer content with open eyes. But the sheer volume of partnerships that are happening sans deliberate strategy is helping to put the boot into consumer trust.
Influencers have gone from unwitting accidental taste-makers to fully switched on content creators. But marketers are in many cases still shopping around from talent to talent in search of crazy performance metrics from single posts with the expectation that, as a channel, it’s going to perform in the same way all of their other brand channels will.
But you can’t employ old-school thinking here and expect the same results.
It’s understandable to experience marketing FOMO when you see the exceptional results some partnerships are able to garner for other brands. But not everyone needs to jump on the influencer train. Remember it’s a tactic – you don’t necessarily have to get into influencer marketing if it doesn’t suit your brand or message.
For a long time, influencer marketing provided a sweet spot that allowed us into the lives of our target audiences. It was seen by many as the answer to many problems digital marketing faced. But after the frenzy of the last few years, the age of pay-to-say is dead.
The newest iteration of influencer sees long-term relationships that allow brands and talent to express creativity through true content collaborations. The collaborations that have the most impact are where there is a clear alignment between a brand’s values and those of the person they’re partnering with. When client, agency and influencer work together to create an ongoing program of work that moves the needle on culture rather than just another one-off meaningless selfie – that’s where the magic happens.
In our work for AIA Vitality, we collaborate with AIA’s ambassadors, like Chris Judd and Alisa Camplin, to create ‘always on’ content for OneLife, as well as its social channels. These long-term partnerships develop trust not only between brand and influencer, but between AIA’s audience and AIA Vitality.
Long-term partnerships also provide brands and influencers with an opportunity to test-and-learn. We can A/B test on different approaches, formats, images, and messaging. And if we’re able to isolate the piece of content that’s not quite working, we can test and tweak it in a live environment and make quick shifts.
Making definitive calls on who will be the influencers of tomorrow is impossible. Because influence is dependent on so many things – not least of all cultural and world events, creative uses of emerging tech and social media. But there is a sense of who won’t be changing hearts and minds in the not-to-distant future:
Those who base their personal brand on making a quick buck.
Associating your brand with a feed full of thoughtless brand plugs isn’t a great look, and you don’t want to be mixed up in that. The rise of self-service platforms has helped facilitate this explosion of cash grabbing from nano and micro-influencers - those who don’t quite yet know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, many of these emerging ‘influencers’ are only stitching themselves up by playing the short game, rather than developing their own authentic personal brand. In a year or two, what will they have to show for it?
Brand partnerships are just that – partnerships. The alignment between the values of brand and influencer need to appear natural for the partnership to make sense and make an impact. This is even more important in an emerging era of ‘wannabes’ faking brand partnerships and metrics on their quest to become an influencer, which has further eroded the credibility of one-off endorsements from legitimate influencers.
In the near future, we’ll see influencers become far more careful which commercial brands they align with. And we know that Gen Z-ers are unlikely to buy a product if it doesn’t align to their personal values. As a result, collaborations will need to become deeper and more committed to long term outcomes, and where the opportunity arises kick-off in brainstorming phases of creative conception.
1. People you know IRL
According to a McKinsey Report, more than two-thirds of touch points in the buying cycle now involve consumer-driven information, like online reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family.
With this in mind, advocacy marketing is likely to start to overshadow the classic influencer or celebrity endorsement. Consumers will continue to search for authenticity in the sea of marketing messages ¬– our recent #Earnbassadors campaign with Velocity Frequent Flyer, where we reward everyday people for talking about the program to their friends and family, is a great example of this thinking in action.
2. Robots. Yes robots
Welcome to the future. CGI models and influencers are ‘living’ among us – on Instagram. Last year we saw AI influencers and digital models take the space by storm, complete with ‘beef’ between two of the space’s top talent. And these virtual influencers are cashing in on big name brands. While this isn’t a trend that’s been particularly prevalent within the Australian market, it's only a matter of time before we see it surface.
Why should you care about this? When brands ink deals with CGI influencers, there’s less risk involved, as the potential for unwanted or embarrassing behaviour is avoided. You skip the threat of a PR nightmare if an influencer makes a crude remark or works with a competing brand.
While the core principles of influencer marketing are not new to the advertising world, as a tactic it holds distinct competitive advantages for those who do it well. Watch this space.