Back to the Future: the evolution of influencer marketing

October 2nd, 2017

… and where do we go from here?

Influencer marketing has changed everything. Influencer marketing hasn’t changed a thing?

The industry of influence is in a state of flux – marketers, brands and consumers are all confused about the direction it will take.

We have consumers feeling deceived by the lack of transparency; brands feeling deceived by the fraud within the industry and influencers seemingly complicit in their own demise.

It’s time to get real about influencer marketing – the current approach is unsustainable and the bubble is about to burst.

But how do we set about improving it? Let’s start at the beginning.

First, what exactly is influencer marketing?

Even if this term is new to you, the concept behind it won’t be. Influencer marketing is, at its core, word-of-mouth advertising, which makes it one of the oldest and most powerful advertising tools.

We are all influencers. We all influence someone and on a daily basis.

In marketing terms, the way we see it is that an influencer is anyone with a loyal, engaged and trusting audience of any size, who can naturally and organically affect the behaviour of their audience.

An influencer is also a human. Usually either an expert in their field or passionate about a particular subject – they’re not a celebrity, they’re not an advertising space and they’re not a substitute for paid media.

They’re also powerful.

But why are they important in marketing?

It comes down to trust.

Purchase decisions are ultimately about trust and, annoyingly for us, trust is in crisis. We already know that people don’t trust advertising and we are living in a ‘post-trust’ world where trust in the four big institutions – government, media, business and NGOs – has never been lower. Trust has now emerged as a key concern in the minds of agencies and brand leaders.

What does this have to do with influencers?

We know that people distrust advertising. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest that many people also don’t trust brands. Influencers, though, are trusted by their communities.

From a brand perspective, if you can find a way to work with them, influencers allow brand messages to reach their audiences via a trusted, authentic voice. They present a huge opportunity to cut through the noise and resonate with audiences.

So far, so good!

We know that influencers are trusted by their audiences – who might also be your target audience – and if a brand can find a way to work with them then they’ll be sharing your brand message with the added impression that said message is coming from a trusted friend.

For the first time in history, anybody can exercise control – and command huge pay cheques – by creating content and promoting products. The emergence of ‘instant’ social media platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat, that share in-the-moment stories means that users could build up their followers simply by posting about their day-to-day lives.

The internet has democratised what it means to be influential. This means that more and more ‘everyday’ people are growing considerable social followings, which gives brands a larger pool of influencers from which to choose. It’s no longer a question of using the celebrity of the moment – and it’s a lot easier.

Uh, oh…

As more influencers emerged more brands wanted in and more money was offered up to these influencers to promote  products and services. Influencer marketing started to look a lot more like influencer advertising.

Brands started paying influencers huge sums of money to share their message, offering payment for sponsored posts, while often seeing little to no ROI. Media agencies now approach influencer marketing as if they are buying ad space – platforms are encouraging automation of the entire process and eliminating most human interaction.

Consumers started to cotton on to the fact that these once unbiased and trustworthy online friends might not be as unbiased and trustworthy as they believed them to be.

Where’s the trust?

A recent industry survey found that 65% of consumers said they would distrust an influencer if they knew they had been paid for a post. The very audiences that we’re trying to reach through working with influencers, made up of these consumers, are saying that they’d no longer trust the influencer if they knew they had been paid to post by a brand.

On the one hand you have consumers feeling deceived by the lack of transparency and non-disclosure of payment, and on the other brands feel deceived by the fraud within the industry – the algorithm hacks, the comment pods, the fake followers and the bots creating a false sense of engagement.

The very thing we’ve identified as the real value of influence – where influencers hold their power – is being eroded by current industry practices.

Where do we go from here?

It’s important to appreciate that true influence isn’t going anywhere. For a long time, businesses have used celebrities or iconic figures to promote their products and there is no sign of this stopping anytime soon. Word of mouth is the oldest form of communication and those we trust will always be influential in providing us with recommendations.

However, certain influencers are complicit in bursting their own bubble through their lack of authenticity in brand promotions, as well as the ratio of sponsored versus organic content tipping in the wrong direction, which brings us back to square one.

We’re living in the internet age of authenticity and we know that trust is fundamental to the industry of influence. Trust is the most important element in a consumer/influencer relationship – how do we create that again while rewarding influencers for their hard work?

Influencers are brilliant content creators, community managers, writers, editors, designers, developers, photographers and film-makers. They deserve to be paid for their work like anyone else. So how we do get around this problem without saturating the industry?

Our approach

SevenC3’s approach and recommendation on how to best build meaningful relationships with influencers is based on building advocacy, trust and a community. We believe a shift in mindset is required – moving away from viewing influencer marketing as a distribution method and seeing it more as a way of co-creating with talented content creators who properly understand your audience. This is how you impact culture at a brand level and access audiences naturally and truthfully through organic sharing.

Our bespoke approach to influencer marketing is centred on creating community for your brand, underpinned by the value exchange. It’s a human approach, and it’s not about follower numbers, vanity metrics or advertising.

We ensure every influencer we invite into our community is truly relevant to the brand, from the content they create to the interests of their audience. By looking at the various interests of your target audience and understanding where their passion points lie, you can choose influencers with impact in these areas.

The value exchange is all about working out exactly what motivates an influencer to partner with a brand and supporting them towards their own goals. It isn’t about getting people to do something free of charge in return for exposure – we never ask any of our influencers to do anything specific; we simply ask if they’d like to come along for the ride.

We curate community and experiences that they can be part of and, in turn, we build brand advocates who naturally want to share.

All of this is great and works brilliantly in building genuine brand advocates, but we still have the issue that influencers need to make a living like anyone else. So how do we do it?

There is another way of engaging influencers, while helping to sustain the industry, and we believe that lies in co-creation of content.

Influencers know their audiences far better than any brand can and they understand exactly the type of content their audience wants to see. By commissioning influencers to create content for brand channels and working together on social, editorial and video, you’re employing expert content creators and negating the need for influencers to monetise blogs and social channels in the way they currently are.

Trust remains intact – influencers continue to organically create content they’re passionate about while continuing to remain a trusted figure among their communities, and brands create content that resonates with their audience.

We don’t have all the answers.

Influencer marketing is a continuously evolving industry – one that is exciting to be a part of. Influencers have the power to change the way that advertising works and to completely disrupt agency models – however, we have to work together towards a sustainable industry.

The industry needs to move back towards advocacy and co-creation. The brands who are brave and who will look past immediate ROI and vanity metrics to invest in something genuinely authentic will be able to affect change, impact culture and reach their target audiences with something they may actually just want to see.

An influencer is a person, not an algorithm used to target users – and we need to keep it that way.

Emma Rees, Head of Influencer Marketing, SevenC3

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