Is Influencer Marketing Becoming Too Much Like Advertising?

This email originally appeared in the June 22nd edition of The Scribble, KYC's weekly marketing newsletter. You can subscribe to The Scribble at the bottom of this page.

Influencer marketing is no longer new. Many brands from small to large know the power of word-of-mouth. A large number have realized, through influencer marketing, the strength of having their message told by someone their customers are already listening to, following, or admiring.
 
That being said, I’m sensing some important changes on the horizon...
 
Last week Instagram announced a new feature allowing influencers and celebrities to more clearly disclose when one of their posts is a brand sponsored post. It’s a limited rollout, with the expectation that it will eventually be introduced more broadly. This is noteworthy because there have long been conversations about making disclosures of social media partnerships more overt. In April, the Federal Trade Commission even sent a reminder about disclosures to more than 90 celebrities, influencers, and marketers.
 
In addition, this week I saw an article about how influencer marketing is becoming more standardized.
 
Are we reaching a point where influencer marketing is becoming very blurry with advertising?
 
I think yes.
 
Brands are paying people (influencers) to post content about them, oftentimes supplying the content or telling them specific things to say or show. And the influencer is expected to include a disclosure that they were paid for the post. Sounds pretty similar to a paid, sponsored post on a social media platform.
 
How did influencer marketing get to this point?
 
The function started as an organic way for brands to partner with non-celebrities - regular people who had a lot of expertise and credibility in a certain area that aligned with the brand. These people gained that expertise and credibility by distributing a lot of content about that specific area. They could’ve been blog posts, tweets, videos, photos, or some combination. Brands wanted to work with these people because of their expertise and credibility - their influence. In the early days, these influencers were very particular about only forming partnerships with brands that would enhance their online reputation. If someone was into really high-end fashion, they weren’t going to form partnerships with a Wal-Mart or Target. They worked with brands that aligned with their personal brand.
 
At some point over the last few years, the word influence seems to have become more and more synonymous with reach, for both brands and the influencers themselves.
 
Most brands look for the influencers who have the highest number of followers. Sure, they still want someone with an online brand that aligns with theirs, but it doesn’t seem quite as important.
 
For influencers, the more followers they have, the more $$$$ they rake in because they’re then viewed as more influential.
 
This evolution of influencer marketing is very odd considering that for years, those of us in social media have been telling brands not to measure a program solely on vanity metrics like followers.
 
As disclosures become more prominent and consumers begin to see that many of these influencers are actually being paid for their brand endorsements, I have to think they’ll be seen as less influential. If someone’s promoting Nike, and you learn that they’re actually being paid for it, are you as likely to listen to them? Is that truly a personal preference since it’s tied to their income? Sounds an awful lot like advertising, right?
 
A good example of this theory in action is mommy bloggers. When this category of influencer first popped up, moms were sharing their personal experiences with motherhood and children’s products - strollers, car seats, clothes, formula, etc. Many gained credibility for their unfiltered, unbiased opinions. But then we saw more and more mommy bloggers popping up. Many were in it just to get “free stuff.” And then many of them took it a step further and wanted to be paid somehow for any product they mentioned. Though this issue first developed with mommy bloggers, we’re now seeing it with many other types of online influencers, which has led to the disclosure regulations.
 
Ok...so what does this mean for you?
 
Run an Influencer Campaign to Target Building Influence
 
For many brands, influencer programs are a good way to increase reach quickly. If that’s what you’re looking for, great, do it! But if you’re looking for sales conversions or deep loyalty, they probably won’t deliver.
 
If and when you do an influencer campaign, I encourage you to look further than reach. There are some platforms out there that go deeper into evaluating influencers, looking at factors like psychographics. Taking psychographics into account can find you much better influencers to work with.
 
Finally, consider going the organic route and not paying influencers. I know, no one wants to go the longer, slower route in today’s world of instant gratification. But there’s still value in a dedicated, personal approach to influencer marketing. If you’re trying to build genuine influence, the best way is by putting the time into forming true relationships, those where an endorsement or recommendation is seen as honest and not paid. Using the mommy blogger example again, which scenario do you think creates more interest in your brand - 1. You pay a mommy blogger who has to disclose the relationship, or 2. Your organic influencer relations efforts, which don’t require disclosures because there’s no payment, result in several moms recommending your brand within mommy Facebook groups?
 
Influencer programs can still be successful, just make sure yours is targeting influence and not only reach. Otherwise, you’re just advertising.

-Kevin

Kevin York