Influencer marketing is set to be one of the biggest trends shaping communications over the next ten years.
Social media is breaking down power dynamics giving people with drive the potential to showcase their talents to a global audience.
No longer does the mainstream media decide what is or what isn’t on trend. The Long Tail effect of the internet ensures that regardless of how niche or obscure your subject matter is there is an audience hungry for it.
Name any subject and there will be at least someone, somewhere creating content around that space and owning it.
Brands are now recognising how powerful some influencers are. Time and again, research shows they have developed a level of trust among their audiences in ways that businesses can only dream about.
As the marketing industry continues to fall foul of technological disruption, it’s now beginning to shift its focus to collaborating with these social media influencers.
In a nutshell, this is influencer marketing.
And this article is an influencer marketing guide. It covers the current state of the influencer marketing industry, facts and stats about where it’s headed, understanding social media influencers, identifying them, case studies, what not to do and much more.
The Current State of the Influencer Marketing Industry
For years savvy comms and marketing professionals have been working with influencers either by sponsoring their content, providing products for review, inviting to events or seeding them with information they can use on their own platforms.
Organisations of all kinds have worked with social influencers for years/ It is not new.
The difference now, however, is there is a greater focus on influencer marketing as a strategic function. The industry has reached a tipping point whereby engaging with influencers is no longer an add-on or a nice-to-have but a communications requirement.
This is causing shifts in how some brands operate with their agencies. Some are beginning to bring all influencer operations in-house. Nike and Mars are two global brands that run all their influencer marketing operations in-house.
There are a plethora of influencer marketing platforms that connect brands to content creators. We have counted 57 of them which suggests that some consolidation within the space will take place in the coming years.
Indeed, the influencer marketing industry is still its early days with some publications calling it the Wild West phase – a free-for-all where brands are doing it without clear objectives and where wannabe influencers are purchasing fake followers and engagement to sucker them into believing they have more influence than the reality.
In the Digital Communications Hype Cycle, I hypothesise that the influencer marketing industry is still in its infancy phase where the hype is beginning to exceed the reality.
In time, I expect to see it begin a downward spiral into, what Gartner calls, the Trough of Disillusionment. Too many expectations and too many brands paying over-the-top prices to work with influencers. This will change eventually, but for now, the hype is very real.
Looking at searches of ‘influencer marketing’ on Google shows interest has grown rapidly over the years and according to Google that’s only going to increase.
In short, the current state of influencer marketing is a healthy one with many opportunities for all involved – including brands, agencies, platforms and influencers – but it’s a bumpy road ahead.
Influencer Marketing Statistics and Forecasts
Like any burgeoning industry, there’s no shortage of influencer marketing statistics and forecasts available. While some of the data is questionable given who commissioned the research (influencer marketing companies often have an overzealous and over-optimistic view of the future of the industry) it still serves as a guide and basic understanding.
- Influencer marketing on Instagram is forecast to be a $1.6bn and $2.4bn industry in 2018 and 2019 respectively
- Influencer marketing content provides 11X more ROI (Return On Investment) than traditional forms of digital marketing
- 73 percent of marketers said (in 2015) they had allocated budget to influencer marketing
- 57 percent of beauty and fashion companies use influencers as part of their marketing strategies, while an additional 21 percent are also planning to add this strategy to their campaigns in 2017
- In 2016, 94 percent of marketers found influencer marketing to be effective. As a result, influencer marketing budgets are set to double in 2017
- 70 percent of internet users want to learn about a product through content rather than through traditional advertising
- 49 percent of people say they rely on recommendations from influencers when making purchasing decisions
- 6 in 10 YouTube subscribers would follow advice on what to buy from their favourite YouTube creator over their favourite TV or movie personality
- 70 percent of teenage YouTube subscribers said they relate more to a YouTube influencer than a celebrity
- Influencer marketing generates 2X more sales than that of paid marketing according to McKinsey
- 63 percent of US 13-24-year-olds would try a brand or product recommended by a YouTube content creator and only 48 percent for a movie or TV star
Understanding Social Influencers
If you intend to work with social media influencers, then you have to understand them. What drives them, why they create content, how they make money and, most importantly, how they like to work with brands.
Most influencers are not journalists or professionals of any kind. They are everyday people who have developed an audience usually based on a talent, skill or expert knowledge.
They aren’t subject to journalistic standards nor do they have to work with brands if they choose not to. Some prefer to maintain their independence and earn money from ads or selling products or services direct to their community.
Why do people want to become influential in social media? It’s simple really and based on human psychology.
Everybody aspires to have influence in some way. Perhaps you’re a parent wanting to influence your children with the same ethics and principles you have. Or you want to influence your boss to move into a new market. Whatever it is, having influence provides self-esteem and purpose.
There is a myriad of reasons why people aspire to become social media influencers, some of which include:
- Make money
- Become a thought-leader in an industry or subject matter
- Launch a product or service
- Increase social status
- Become a public speaker
- Share an important message
- Get free products and experiences
- Connect with people with shared interests
- Socialise and network
- Achieve fame, celebrity and notoriety
Of course, it’s all subjective and varies from person to person. Some people just have an artistic desire to create content and become influential by accident.
Nevertheless, when looking to work with influencers you should have an understanding of what drives them and judge each one on an individual basis.
If you’re working with an influencer marketing platform or agency then it’s likely each influencer has been pre-screened. If you’re doing it directly yourself then you’ll need to take more care in your approach.
Types of Social Influencers – Platforms
Categorising social influencers by platform will allow you to understand the types of content they create and the audiences who follow them. By understanding the features, limitations and demographics of each platform you can tailor your campaigns to suit.
The original social influencing platform, blogs and bloggers have stood the test of time to remain one of the most powerful social media today. Despite the introduction of countless other social platforms and at times being considered unfashionable, blogging still remains one of the best ways to become an influencer on any given topic.
Working with bloggers provides a number of different benefits. Because blogs are generally text-based, sponsored posts expose brands to the blog’s readership and help when the objectives are to drive traffic to a destination site or generate sign-ups.
A blog post can last for years and, from an SEO perspective, the older it gets the more authority it has in search rankings.
YouTubers are one of the earliest kind of influencers and since as early as 2006, YouTube has proven to be a powerful platform that has launched the careers of some of the most well-known social influencers – some of which have gone on to become household names.
The sheer size of YouTube along with the ability to create rich brand partnership content has made the platform one of the most appealing platforms for brands looking to work with influencers.
Over the years, influencers have built sizable audiences on the Facebook platform using a combination of consisting posting, unique content, creative video and live video to enhance their fan experience.
Given the recent changes to the Facebook algorithm, there has been perhaps no better time to work with Facebook influencers who have engaged audiences who have meaningful discussions on the platform.
Facebook has made it easier for brands to work with influencers with the Branded Content feature. It allows brands to be identifiable within an influencer’s sponsored post and adheres to advertising guidelines.
Instagram has been a key driving force in driving the influencer marketing industry. It’s the most widely used platform when it comes to influencer marketing which is usually in the form of sponsored posts.
Collaborating with Instagram influencers is a simple yet viable option given the size of the audiences some influencers command and the engagement rates each of their posts receives.
Snapchat influencers are useful if you want to engage a young audience given the demographics of the platform. Often influencers do ‘Snapchat takeovers’ where they may take over a brand’s Snapchat profile or vice versa.
Doubts are now cast over Snapchat in the long-term since Instagram copied its most interesting feature, the story. Many Snapchat influencers are transitioning Instagram to build an audience there.
Types of Social Influencers – Categories
These are the actors, musicians, artists and other public figures who are famous without social media but are building their social platforms as the eyeballs (and money) move to them.
These are celebrities in their own right but are ‘internet famous’ and have built their fame and influence using social media platforms. These are the people that the Gen Z’s tend to follow over traditional celebrities and may surpass them over time as this generation gets older.
Micro-influencers are people who may not be making a fulltime living online but have developed audiences who are perhaps not huge in size but are engaged and follow their every move.
They can be influential on specific industries or topics and can be focused on either B2C or B2B markets. If it’s the latter many have achieved an authority status where they are considered thought-leaders in a particular industry.
Advocates are people in social media who may not yield much or any influence but they may be a fan of your brand.
These are users of social media who have no influence or affinity with your brand. If they come across something they like in social they will share it. Collectively they can help content go viral.
Influencer Marketing vs. Influencer Relations: The Paid vs Earned Debate
A short definition of influencer marketing is, “a type of marketing where organisations pay social media influencers to promote their products, services or campaigns via content creation and collaboration.”
A short definition of influencer relations is, “a type of communications where organisations provide information and exclusive access to social media influencers and online authorities that benefit the audiences and enhance the reputations for all involved.”
The key difference here is money.
Influencer marketing usually involves an exchange of money whereas influencer relations is an exchange of valuable information.
But there’s more to it than that.
The best resource I’ve seen on the influencer marketing vs influencer relations debate is from influencer marketing software firm, Onalytica.
In this article, they outline the key differences between the two using this useful chart.
Onalytica’s chart highlights the key differences between the two disciplines and when you should be doing either. Of course the nuances of the real world will likely show some crossover between the two.
For example, B2B influencers may require paying (or ‘remunerating’ as they might call it) when they are collaborating with a B2B brand.
Even so, the chart above and accompanying article by Onalytica are both a great resource when explaining the differences between the two.
How do Influencers Earn Money?
A lot of influencers are not dependent on brands to earn a living.
Many of them have multiple streams of income that come from direct-to-consumer selling.
There are a number of ways influencers can earn money even without brand partnerships. Social media is providing more ways for people to earn money through their skills and talents and influencers are taking advantage of it.
Influencers can earn money in the following ways:
Bloggers and YouTubers often earn money through display ads from the likes of AdSense. This usually requires them to be generating a lot of traffic or views for it to be worthwhile.
Many influencers make money from recommending products and services they use and like. For each purchase made from one of their recommendations they make a commission on. Most products sold online these days generally have an affiliate program in place.
Selling their own products
Many influencers sell their own products including books (and ebooks), training courses and webinars. This is often one of the most lucrative ways they earn money as they sell directly to the consumer (i.e. their fans).
Some influencers trade their time for consultancy work to supplement what they do online. Whether that’s ‘virtual’ consultancy and done purely online or in the real world. It depends on the situation.
Online courses are big business these days with a lot of influencers setting up their own, many of which have proven to be rather lucrative. Whether it’s an influencer in photography, fitness or subject that’s teachable, there’s an online course for it, usually run by an influencer.
This is where influencer marketing comes into play. Influencers work with brands to create a piece (or pieces) of content that is sponsored by and represents the brand. Sometimes it’s collaborative and sometimes the influencer is given full-rein and direction of the content creation process.
This can also include sponsored:
- Product or service reviews
- Audience discounts
How to Work with Influencers
There are a ton of ways to work with influencers and it all depends on the type of influencer marketing strategy you’re working with. For the benefit of this article we’re going to focus on a generic four-step process:
- Best practices
1. Working with influencers – Influencer identification
The first step of an influencer marketing strategy is to identify the ones you want to work with. The problem is, there are billions of people on the internet. Finding the right ones often takes some time and a bit of experience in knowing what you’re looking for without being blinded by vanity metrics like follower count.
Thankfully, long gone are the days when finding influencers manually is the norm. Now there are a number of different ways you can use to find them but doing it manually still works too.
1.1 Influencer marketing platforms
Influencer marketing platforms connect the right brands with influencers for mutual benefit. We’ve counted 57 of them so far and although the list is not definitive it looks like the industry is booming.
Influencer marketing platforms also vary in their business model and services they provide.
Some focus influencer marketing platforms focus on one specific social network. UK-based Peg, for example, is a platform specifically focussed on YouTube content creators.
Others cover the full spectrum of popular social media. Adly, for example, includes influencers on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, blogs, Snapchat and Pinterest.
If you want to use an influencer marketing platform you have to pay to play. The platform acts as a middleman connecting brands with the relevant influencers with the influencer already pre-agreed to work with brands they deem relevant to their own brands.
Most influencer marketing platforms come with robust analytics so you can identify how influential each one is and also track the effectiveness of your campaign.
1.2. Influencer marketing agencies
Increasingly there are a number of influencer marketing agencies launching to capitalise on the growth of the industry. Similar to influencer marketing platforms, agencies tend to act as middlemen between brand and influencer.
However, the difference is most influencer marketing agencies will devise and implement the campaign for you. This means coming up with the creative and ensuring your objectives are met.
Also, influencer marketing platforms are limited to the influencers they have in their database whereas an agency can work with any influencer regardless of platform.
1.3. Influencer lists
If you don’t have the budget to work with either an influencer marketing platform or agency then you’re going to have to research influencers manually.
The internet is awash with lists. If you’re working in a specific industry, chances are someone has created a list of influencers in that industry. Use Google to find them.
You will also have to ensure that each influencer is relevant from the content they create and their audience demographics.
Using lists has a couple of caveats. For starters, you don’t know how accurate the list is and even if it is accurate you don’t know how open to working with brands each influencer on it is.
Working with an influencer marketing platform or agency removes all that legwork.
2. Working with influencers – Influencer outreach
How you initially engage with influencers depends on whether you’re using an influencer marketing platform or agency. If you’re using either then you won’t have to do any of this.
If you’re doing it solo then bear in mind this is an important part of the process and care should be taken.
The approach you take depends on a number of factors. This could be the platform the influencer is using, the type of content they usually create, how they’ve worked with brands in the past and how they like to be contacted.
When getting in touch with an influencer consider the following:
- Is what you’re proposing something they’ve done in the past or would consider doing?
Be honest here. If you’re not creating a win/win situation then don’t waste your or their time. It will do you more harm than good. What you’re providing must have value. Whether that’s financial value or not, it must be something that is beneficial to the influencer.
If you think they’ll be willing to promote your product, service or message for nothing then you’re mistaken.
- How do they like to be contacted?
Depending on the size and reach of the influencer, they may be inundated with requests every day. Check their profiles to see if there’s any guidance on how to contact them. Is there an email address or contact form? High profile influencers will have an agent who takes care of any requests from brands and agencies so look out for that too.
Working with influencers – Using an influencer agreement
If you’re working with influencers in a commercial setting then you need a contractual agreement in place. This serves to protect the interest of all parties involved, clarifies expectations and ensures everyone is on the same page when it comes to deliverables, timings, fees and any other important factors.
An influencer agreement can also define ownership of the content and copyright of the work created and that the work carried out follows the FTC influencer guidelines if you’re based in the US.
Want to download an influencer marketing agreement? The people over at Assembly have created a template you can use.
Working with influencers – Best practices
- Understand your objectives
What are you trying to achieve by working with influencers? Is it to raise awareness among their audience, get people to sign up for something or to drive traffic to a destination URL. Knowing what your objective is will shape the type of influencer marketing you do.
- Understand how the platforms work and the demographics of each
If you’re a brand that is targeting a millennial audience and you need to get visual with video then YouTube is likely to be the obvious platform to work with influencers. On the other hand, if you want to target women with an interest in DIY then Pinterest and blogs might be the best platforms.
If you’re looking to drive traffic somewhere then perhaps Instagram won’t be the best platform given you can’t include hyperlinked URLs in posts. If it’s more a brand awareness play then it might be.
As we found when we analysed a Chris Pratt sponsored post. The Hollywood A-lister’s Instagram drove the least traffic compared with his Facebook and Twitter. His Instagram post did, however, create the most engagement.
The point is, you have to understand where your target audiences are and what you’re trying to achieve before choosing the influencers and platforms. Start with the audience you want to target first and then work backwards.
- Provide creative expression for your influencers
In the B2C space, you’ve got to give your influencers creative control particularly if they’re using their own platforms. Most influencers are very sensitive to their audiences and don’t want to come across as if they’ve sold out for money. Their fans would spot it a mile off.
On top of this, they’ve usually spent years building their audience so they understand first-hand what type of content works with them and what doesn’t.
Giving them creative freedom will allow them to express themselves properly and can bring a new angle to your campaign.
The best example I’ve seen of a brand giving total control to a creator is the 2012 ‘Make It Count’ video that YouTuber, Casey Neistat did for Nike.
27 million views later, the video is considered a resounding success by all involved.
- Track the performance
If you’re using an influencer marketing platform or agency then they usually have their own analytics that allows you to track the performance and impact your influencer work is having.
But it, of course, depends on what your objectives are. Regardless if you’re trying to increase traffic, brand awareness or sign-ups, have the set up in place so you can measure it.
Influencer Marketing Case Studies
More and more brands and agencies are sharing their influencer marketing success stories helping shape best practices and key learnings in what works and what doesn’t. Here are a few of them.
Coca-Cola’s #ThisOnesFor Instagram campaign
Coca-Cola worked with 14 Instagram influencers – 6 macro-influencers with 100k followers or more and 8 micro-influencers with less than 100k followers – creating 22 sponsored posts around Coca-Cola’s signature drink.
So far the brand awareness campaign has generated 173k likes, 1.6k comments with an engagement rate of 7.3 percent.
Mercedes-Benz MB Photo Pass
In 2016, Mercedes-Benz worked with 25 video and photography social media influencers across YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest.
The MB Photo Pass included a series of videos developed by creators to inspire people to cover new ground and see new places. It included videos by Devonsupertramp and this video below from Loki the Wolfdog
In 2016, Starwood opened two new hotels, Le Metropolitan and Le Dokhan’s, both in Paris. To increase brand awareness and drive bookings they partnered with top travel and lifestyle Instagrammers.
The Instagrammers documented their experiences while staying at the hotels and included links where fans could reserve a room directly through the influencer’s post.
The hospitality brand’s campaign reached almost 500k Instagram users and many more across each of the influencers’ corresponding social media channels.
Starwood’s influencer-driven campaign generated more than 17k likes on nine pieces of original, brand-sponsored content.
The Dark Side of Influencer Marketing
During the early period of most tech innovations, there are usually moments where people can take advantage of the immaturity of the market. A recent example of this is Bitcoin and one from the past is the domain squatters of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Influencer marketing is no different in this regard. The market is still young therefore there are loopholes that allow people to manipulate their numbers and the market. These people aren’t domain squatters or cryptocurrency geeks but rather young people aspiring to fame and stardom.
Securing Instagram brand deals with fake accounts
Influencer marketing agency, Mediakix did an experiment to prove that people can easily manipulate their numbers on Instagram to seem more influential than they actually are.
To prove their point further, instead of using real people they created two fake influencer accounts. One by hiring a local model to create a series of images and the second by using stock imagery.
They then bought fake followers and engagement for each account faking their influence in the process.
The result? They secured four paid brand deals in total, two for each account using an influencer marketing platform.
Sometimes celebrities make gaffes in their sponsored posts which can be funny to see. Especially when they forget to remove the instructions from the marketing company behind their sponsored post.
Scott Disick and Naomi Campbell both published sponsored Instagram posts but forgot to remove some important text.
Influencer morals and ethics
In January this year, UK influencer, Elle Darby was caught in controversy when she attempted to get a free stay at a Dublin hotel in exchange for coverage on her platforms.
Emailing the hotel with her request she said, “I would love to feature you in my Youtube videos/dedicated Instagram stories/posts to bring traffic to your hotel and recommend others to book up in return for free accommodation.”
Rather than emailing back or ignoring it, the hotel owner posted a response online along with Darby’s email outlining why he wouldn’t give her or any other influencer a free stay. Needless to say, it viral and was covered in most major news outlets.
In this instance, it’s more a question of morals. We all know influencers get free stuff and they should make that known whenever they post about whatever they’re promoting.
Influencers are held accountable by their fans who can make or break their reputation. If fans believe an influencer has ‘sold out’ by promoting products they don’t believe in they can and will unfollow.
Four Predictions on the Future of Influencer Marketing
As the advertising industry continues to go through disruption largely thanks to Google and Facebook and as the growth of influencers continues, marketers will begin to allocate more time and resources to influencer marketing activities.
The next ten years will see a number of changes ahead as the market matures. The following are some predictions on what might happen during this time:
- Better ways of measuring ROI – influencers will be scored on performance as the industries of both influencer marketing and affiliate marketing collide. Brand awareness will continue to be important but commission-based sales may be added to the mix
- Influencer scandals – as more people try to become influencers for all the perks it brings, we’ll see a number of high-profile scandals of over-inflated numbers and shady dealings. At least one will include an A-list celebrity
- Influencer brand deals surpassing those of celebs – A big social influencer will receive a five-year 8-figure brand deal with a large consumer multinational. Setting the stage for others
- Niche or industry specialisation – agencies will begin to focus on serving brands that are in a particular industry or niche area. For example, some agencies will develop close and long-term relationships with fitness influencers and only work with brands aligned to them such as sports and fitness brands. Being all things to all people is impossible in social media