The current state of influencer marketing with Scott Guthrie

“We’ve reached an inflexion point.”

Scott Guthrie influencer marketing

Scott Guthrie is a former management consultant and digital director at global PR agency Ketchum specialising in influencer relations. Today he works with brands, agencies and platforms to generate meaningful results from smarter influencer marketing decisions.

Scott offers best practice advice and implementation across the entire influencer marketing workflow. His blog sabguthrie.info has been designated a top 10 PR industry blog by Vuelio.

When it comes to the growing field of influencer marketing and relations there is no one more clued up on the subject.


Podcast transcription.

Stephen Davies: Scott, welcome to the podcast.

Scott Guthrie: Well that was a glowing introduction. Thank you very much. I hope you’re recording this so I can play it back to my mum.

SD. It’s a pleasure. We’ll get straight into it. In terms of the influencer marketing landscape, can you give us a topline overview of the current state of influencer marketing and where we’re heading?

SG: We’re at an inflexion point. For the last three or four year, influencer marketing has enjoyed unprecedented growth. Last year, as a term, ‘influencer marketing’ was googled more than ‘social media marketing’ and the industry is forecast to be worth as much as $10bn by 2020. But there’s a change in mood in the media in how it portrays influencer marketing. There have been years and years of column inches dedicated to praising influencer marketing but ‘dog bites man’ isn’t a story but ‘man bites dog’ is a story and so increasingly influencer marketing is being shown as a bad actor.

More and more stories are about influencer marketing fraud. Influencers failing to mark their posts as advertisements.  There’s a conflation of terms with influencer advertising being used in the same breath as influencer marketing. Where’s the industry heading? I think we’ve reached this point of having to improve it. We need to, as communicators, better plan and better measure campaign success. With increased influencer marketing spend there’s a greater need to demonstrate return on investment.

SD: Great. I think you’re right, I think we are at an inflexion point as you rightly said and we’re going through an era now where there is lots of negativity about influencer marketing. There are lots of negative articles in terms of whether it’s to do with fraud or ethics or whether it’s to do with actual return on investment in influencer marketing.

People say we’re very much still in the ‘wild west’ phase of influencer marketing and when you think about it agencies have been engaging with influencers for a long time whether that’s a journalist or an analyst or a key opinion leader in healthcare. But this relatively new idea of brands engaging with everyday people who just happen to build up an influence through these social media platforms is still relatively new. Would you agree that we’re in this wild west phase where everything is still up in the air and essentially everything is still up for grabs?

SG: There has been unprecedented growth. I think with all of these nascent industries that experience these wonderful growth spurts there’s always going to be growing pains as well. I think later in the conversation we’re going to talk about Luka Sabbat and whether that shows whether we’re still in the nascent phase or whether we’re growing up.

There’s a lot of column inches this year that have been devoted to influencer fraud for instance and influencer fraud, for sure, is a thing. One in eight Instagram influencers in the UK has shown signs of having bought fake followers according to a Campaigndeus report; one in four influencers have shown signs of having bought fake engagement according to Social Chain. Influencer DB, an influencer marketing platform, puts the cost of influencer fraud at $500 million a year.

Yeah, it’s clearly a thing but I would sound a note of caution though from mainstream media from becoming too pious about this fraud. The newspaper industry has inflated its size of the audience, both on and offline, for decades. It’s the tall poppy syndrome: we like to build things up so we can knock them down. I think to get more interesting headlines I think the mainstream media has turned on influencers a bit.

Partly rightly so, the New York Times did a great expose in January titled The Follower Factory which brought influencer fraud to the mainstream. As we know in June, Keith Weed, CMO at Unilever made three commitments about not using influencers that have bought fake followers, not having any of his brands buy fake followers or engagement and working with platforms to try and iron these things out.

Influencer fraud is a thing but it’s not a new thing and from my point of view I think things like influencer fraud pushes the industry forward. For years we lionised reach as the key metric for how we were going to select an influencer so there were bad players who bought fake followers. Then we said it’s not about reach it’s about engagement then a load of bad actors bought fake engagement. Each time it nudges the industry forward a little bit away from vanity metrics to something more substantive, more intent metrics, more impact metrics.

SD: That’s a great response. I just want to touch on a couple of things you mentioned. The first one is around fraud and how prevalent it seems to be in the industry. Are there any new technologies that we can use to discover which types of influencers are using fraud practices and who inflate their engagement, their following and their influence. Are there any tools out there?

SG: You can do this manually. You can check for spikes, look at the followers of the influencers you want to work with. There’s a raft of things you can do manually. Turning to tools, there’s a newish one called HypeAuditor which is an A.I-powered Instagram account authenticity platform – and what you can do is check the authenticity of an influencer’s followers. My go-to one would be HypeAuditor.

SD: HypeAuditor, as I understand it, is specifically for Instagram and I guess that’s where the majority of the fraudulent practice takes place because it’s easy to buy likes, followers, engagement and so on from these third-party sites that flood your account with followers and likes which I’ve noted before are from South America for some reason.

SG: Going back to what we said about Keith Weed, I think we and Unilever would be asleep at the wheel if we were condoning people buying fake followers. These fake followers won’t be buying more stock cubes or deodorant or whatever. It’s incumbent upon us as communicators to be able to vet potential influencers to find the right people but also to measure the right things.

SD: Are big brands beginning to force influencers to be more professional, more transparent, to be more open when they’re involved in a brand partnership?

SG: I think so yes. You mentioned the wild west and I think there’s a new sheriff in town where influencers that want longevity in this discipline are professionalising. As tariffs go up, communicators are forced to professionalise also – to do better planning, measurement and evaluation. Transparency through effective disclosure of ads is the legal thing to do as well as the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint.

The UK watchdog that ensures advertisers comply with advertising legislation will investigate complaints of advertising not being identified as ads. As consumers, we hate to feel hoodwinked that a paid for bit of content is actually organic content. So there’s an ethical dimension there as well. From a business point of view, transparency affects the bottom line. A lack of transparency on social leaves 86 percent of people more likely to take their business to a competitor according to a recent Social Sprout report.

It works on both sides of the seesaw. It’s the legal thing to do, it’s the ethical thing to do but the bottom line is, it’s good for business.

SD: Just going back to what you said earlier. The industry is beginning to professionalise. I.e. Influencers are becoming more professional in their approach. But I think another thing we have to consider is that influencers, the majority of them probably, are just normal people like you and me who have ended up being thrust into the public eye and celebrity because of what they do online. Generally, they don’t have any awareness or any agent to guide them so they’re just making up as they go along too and I think we have to bear this in mind as well and not be too hard on these people who are essentially finding this new fame and fortune if you will.

SG: I think you’re right and I think it comes from both sides of the fence: Us as communicators who need to push that best practice. And influencers or microinfluencers or nanoinfluencers that want to play in this field they need to professionalise as well. And that starts with awareness, you’re absolutely right, Ste.

It might be unfair but I thought that, 18 months ago, the ASA was a bit sleepy but now it’s really ramped up its visibility on what the regulations are. Now that’s being picked up by the media who are echoing any cases that are upheld. Last month they put out a great bit of content that explains the rules and regulations in a really simple and clever way.

So, yes, to professionalise they have to have an awareness of the rules and that is incumbent on us as communicators and upon influencers who want to have longevity in this arena. And it’s also up to the watchdogs to explain what these rules are. I certainly think all three are working a lot harder to evidence this.

SD: So, you and I are from an agency background. A little story, I had a call with the CEO of an influencer marketing platform. And they’re based in the US so the majority of clients and influencers they work with are US based.

I was told by the CEO that in 2017, 70 percent of their customers were represented through agencies and the remaining 30 percent were brands. In 2018, it’s completely flipped on its head, it’s completely flipped on its head with 70 percent of clients they work directly with are brands and the remaining 30 percent are agencies and she said that essentially brands are starting to take this all inhouse and they are assigning a dedicated person who’s head of influencer marketing and influencer relations. Are you seeing this in your experience as well?

SG: Yes, definitely. And it depends on the size of the enterprise as well. Traackr did a great report which was the second of their Influence 2.0 report. They interviewed a stack of enterprise-level organisations and to qualify you had to have 10,000 employees and above. It was co-created by Brian Solis from Altimeter and it’s a great piece of writing and data. That’s certainly what they found but, again, these are big companies with big budgets and resources so it kind of makes sense to do that.

I think the role that in-house and agencies play is evolving, as you say Ste, as influencer marketing matures and brands become more knowledgeable about the discipline. When you’re trying out something new and you’re testing the waters it makes sense to de-risk it as much as possible and outsource that function to an agency. Once you’ve proved the concept it makes sense to bring facets in-house.

Both agencies and in-house teams have valuable roles to play. For in-house teams, I think they’re the best place to nurture relationships. Once you’ve selected the influencers, it makes sense for those relationships to be nurtured in-house and maintain that those relationships between campaign spikes as well. In-house practitioners also have to have different skills. They need to be boundary spanners as well, they need link networks both internally and externally. They need to link networks internally to build alignment in other departments for example.

Whether it’s with public relations or product development or marketing or social or SEO, however that firm is organised. It’s not about ownership it’s more about leadership and which departments should be working together for a successful influencer marketing campaign. Because I think the best influencer marketing is integrated comms – it’s bigger than one bit so it might be online and offline or it might be SEO or it might be customer service elements too.

In-house practitioners need to link networks externally to work better with agencies. These in-house teams create a corporate memory about influencer marketing which helps the brands optimise investments, improve efficiencies and helps comply regulation and contracts.

Agencies still have a fundamental role to play. They can make data-driven recommendations on new and rising influencer talent. They can look over the brow of the hill to what’s happening next in the industry in that space and they can counsel their clients accordingly. They can help advise on best practice, they can help marry communication goals with corporate goals and they provide an extra pair of hands when it comes to activation.

SD: So what you’re saying is essentially the agency role in this will be more from a strategic point of view, a forward-looking point of view and an extra pair of hands on a certain campaign or something like that?

SG: I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a binary answer. I do see more work going in-house but it depends on the budget and the scale of a brand. How much resource is available. It’s not all of it that’s being brought in but elements of it. When I work with big brands they use an agency to help with the legwork and the unsexy side I suppose.

Identifying the right influencers, vetting them, getting them through a contract, that legal sort of stuff but then they’ll bring in the relationship to nurture it to help co-create more interesting content. There can be a bit in between where you’re blurring the ownership between the agency and the brand rather than just paying the invoice at the end of the month and getting the agency to do it all.

SD: I think you’re right. I kind of have a few that, even if we take “traditional PR” and look at agencies that specialise, whether it’s healthcare or technology, they have that deep expertise in that sector and they also have deep relationships with those influencers within that sector. So I think we might start seeing agencies that specialise in particular industries, sectors and verticals like that and holding that deep knowledge and deep connections with those particular types of people.

SG: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. We’ve got specialise. There are a lot of us in PR and other creative industries that know bits about lots of stuff. That’s great but it’s got to be that kind of T-shaped learning and having a deep specialism or an element of it. Whether that’s in a sector, a vertical or whether that’s in the selection process, or you know everything about disclosure or you know everything about the best way to write an agreement and contract with an influencer.

We’re becoming a lot more sophisticated and which involves a deep knowledge. That’s difficult for one person or a group of people to have up-to-date knowledge on all that so that’s where the blend of agency and in-house can work in concert rather than in conflict.

SD: I don’t know if you saw it, I shared it on Twitter, but it was a post by Rand Fishkin who’s the ex-founder of Moz and he’s got a new influencer marketing company called Spark Toro. He wrote a post called Ten big problems with influencer marketing. In this post, one problem he outlines is that the practice is far too narrowly defined.

He says currently it’s consumer focussed and the platforms considered are usually Instagram or YouTube and no other platform such as Pinterest, blogs, LinkedIn, discussion forums, Reddit, Medium and so on are taken into consideration when it comes to influencer marketing. And no other subject either – who are the top influencers in law? Or who are the influencers in the, can we say it, more boring B2B type topics?

SG: I think you’re actually right. That kind of scrolls back to my first point of where we’re at as an industry and the mainstream media and how it relates to influencer marketing. As we said at the beginning of this podcast. Dog bites man is not a story but man bites dog is a story. So the media is latching on to an element of influencer marketing and saying influencer is about that thing and saying it’s all about being Insta-famous, it’s all about the Kardashians, it’s all about fraud. It’s not of course as it’s far more nuanced. It’s like saying public relations is about only media relations, it’s not about reputation or crisis management or all the other things that go into the discipline. There’s a conflation between influencer advertising and influencer marketing and you’re right there is a big predominance of interest on Instagram which is the powerhouse platform for B2C but it’s not the powerhouse for B2B, for example, that might be LinkedIn.

It’s lazy for us to say, “Yes it’s all about Instagram” but you’re right, influence is the ability to help form an opinion or change a behaviour. That might not be what lipstick you should be wearing but what cloud-based solution you’re going to spend a lot of money on so Instagram isn’t going to cut it in that arena.

SD: One of the reasons why I’m interested in the whole influencer landscape is that anyone, anywhere can become an influencer on any subject. For example, take you – you’re probably the most knowledgeable I know, in our industry on influencer marketing. You could essentially be an influencer on the topic of influencer marketing which is very meta.

I guess, this is why it excites me because anyone can become influential. I think the media is right to pull up all these fraudulent cases but if you look at the media they’re very anti social media. I looked at the Guardian website and they have all their articles about Facebook at guardian.co.uk/technology/facebook and you’ll get all their articles on Facebook since forever.

I searched through them and every article was negative. There was no ‘Facebook connects families from around the world’ types of articles, every article was negative. Obviously, the media have to cover these types of stories but I feel that they’re on the back foot a little. Even when it comes to influencer marketing I feel that they’re on the defensive with too because essentially what influencer marketing is doing is bringing those ad dollars that might have been spent on the mainstream media to every day people like Dorris in Dorset and giving them a share of that marketing spend.

SG: I was interviewed by a publication last week and the journalist was very intelligent and a well-respected journalist. And she was the same and said she didn’t get it. She said, “Why would I trust these people?” and she’s an ex-Times columnist so she has the gravitas of this great masthead behind her, but now the media has democratised that about 15/20 years ago and now we’re catching up. Tom Foremski said about ten years ago that every company can be a media company. By that he meant if you have a story to tell you no longer you have to go to the media to tell it, you can disintermediate the media and go straight to the customer. That’s atomised to: every company can be a media company to every person can be a media company.

SD: Tell us what your difference is between influencer advertising and influencer marketing.

SG: Influencer advertising is transactional. It’s a short campaign spike and i”m not saying it doesn’t work as it can work. The difference between influencer advertising and influencer marketing is the former is one bit of creative. The influencer and the brand work together but that’s a lost opportunity and it’s expensive because to effectively vet an influencer based on reach and resonance. It all takes time and therefore takes money so it makes sense to work with an influencer over a period of time.

Influencer advertising is short-lived and there often isn’t that sort of rigour of vetting that goes into it and often third-party tools will do it and you don’t spend that effort of creating a bond with an influencer. It’s then that things can go wrong because neither brand really cares that much and often – not always – you get lazy creative.

With influencer marketing, it’s a slower and longer burn and you get both parties – the influencer and the brand – get to know each other. Then the brand can open up a little bit and share insights in terms of what they’re doing in product development or events. The influencer can get more interesting content to share with their audience which maps over the brand audience.

SD: As you know, we’re nearly into 2019 and around this time of year, lots of brands and individuals usually do predictions for the year ahead. Can you give us a prediction for the year ahead?

SG. I can give you three short ones. 1. Instagram will start to feel saturated with sponsored content. Facebook, their owners, will start to put the squeeze on the platform and look to increase ad revenue on the platform. 2. Influencer marketing will weave its way through the whole customer journey building influencer feedback will become part of new product development. 3. There’ll be an increasing focus on return on investment. This started at the end of the first quarter of this year and I think we’ll really put a lot more focus on that. I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago on why influencer fraud is actually a good thing as it pushes us forward away from measuring vanity metrics towards impact. I think there’ll be an increased scrutiny on return on investment.

SD: So that’s for the next year. Can you give us a prediction for the next five years? I.e. where is this industry going and where will be in five years time?

SG: Often with my predictions, I’m either a big optimist or hopelessly wrong. In the longer term, in the five years, there’ll be a schism within the industry. There’ll be a split away from the Instafamous and the BANJO influencers, the Bang Another Influencer Job Out influencer without any affinity with the brand they’re working with. Those trying to build a lot more long-term, authentic, mutually beneficial relationships with subject matter experts will prevail.

SD: My final question, and it doesn’t have to be about influencer marketing, but I like knowledge and knowledge sharing so what is the one book that everybody should read?

SG: The one that springs to mind is one I’m reading at the moment which is Digital Influence by Joel Backaler. I was lucky enough to meet him last night speaking at Social Media Week. What I like about the book is, the problem about writing a book about something that is changing so quickly is it dates easily. Joel wrote it in 2016 and it goes into a methodical approach as to what influencer marketing is and breaking the best practices down. What brings it to life is the use of case studies – he interviewed a hundred influencer marketing practitioners from around the world and they really bring the subject matter to life. I’m really enjoying it.

SD: Great, I’ll make a note of reading that one. Thanks for your time, Scott. For anyone wanting to find out more about you where should they go?

SG: Thank you too, Ste. I blog regularly at sabguthrie.info.

SD: Cool! Thanks very much.

SG: Thank you very much for having me.

One Comment

Leave a Reply
  1. Hi Stephen,

    had a great read here, I have checked the hyperauditor tool but it seems it quite expensive of you want to mass check accounts. I use evoig.com now for auditing Instagram accounts but I’m looking for alternatives, if you know any other tools like those above, please share.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *