ImPRessions

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The Problem With Influencers

Influencer programs can be very effective, particularly as part of a strategic PR program. From YouTube kids to #dogsofinstagram, influencer marketing has grown fast, especially in consumer product sectors like toys, fashion and beauty. Inevitably, problems have emerged. The relationships are not without risk, and some marketers simply go too far with influencer marketing, essentially outsourcing their relationships with their own customers to third parties.

That’s a mistake. There are many common pitfalls that marketers face given the growth of influencer culture.

Influence hinges on credibility

Last week Payless Shoes pulled off a pretty brilliant stunt that worked as a legitimate marketing campaign, though it wasn’t what it seemed. Payless took over an Armani store, renamed it “Palessi,” and stocked the shelves with its typical bargain-priced inventory.  It then invited high-end fashion influencers to attend a special opening event to sample the luxury footwear. The catch: the guests unwittingly bought $20 shoes for $200 to $600 while raving about their quality and style.

The ploy generated lots of coverage because it cleverly reinforced the Payless brand promise of decent style for a great price, positioning it as an authentic value. But it was also a tweak of fashion influencer culture. The “experts” came off as posturing phonies, and the trick is a reminder that all influencers aren’t created equal. It’s not enough to have lots of followers or to offer a superficial fit with a brand. A real influencer should be credible, with authentic expertise or appeal that is truly relevant to the category in question.

Fraud is muddying the social environment

Even worse than the third-party “influencer” who overstates their own expertise or sway is one who doesn’t exist at all! Earlier this year, Unilever’s Kevin Weed called on major social platforms like Instagram to take “urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.” Citing problems with fake followers, bots, and murky business arrangements, Unilever pledged to lead an industry effort to clean up fraud and adhere to high levels of integrity and transparency in programs and ROI.

Points North Group, which measures influencer marketing, estimates that midlevel influencers—those with 50,000 to 100,000 followers—may have as a fake follower rate as high as 20%. That adds up to millions of marketing dollars spent on bots.

The fraud factor goes beyond paid marketing, however. Even those who aren’t paying popular figures on Twitter or Instagram to promote products or engage users are likely promoting content and measuring its effectiveness with inflated follower and engagement numbers due to fraud. So, fraud hurts everyone, and it devalues the entire influencer sphere.

Influence requires relevance

Another common pitfall for brands is correlating influence with audience size. There may or may not be a direct relationship between someone’s followers on Facebook or Instagram and their power to make those followers click, engage, or buy. For an influencer marketing investment to pay off, there must be a line between the influencer’s content and an actual behavior by the target consumers. That’s why influencer programs that involve actual customers are a viable alternative to celebrity endorsements or Instagram stars.

Sometimes marketers need to choose between individuals who inspire trust and those with enormous reach. It’s difficult and expensive to have both, which is why we often counsel clients to consider “citizen influencers” who may not be well known but who offer well-earned expertise that’s relevant to the product or service promoted.

Influence is tough to scale

Growing an influencer program is another hurdle for marketers. How do you manage multiple recommenders across social platforms as diverse as LinkedIn and SnapChat? And how does a brand afford the fees and measurement costs associated with a broad international campaign? Building real influence depends on relevance, and no one is relevant to all audiences.

For many brands, the answers are in use of tech tools for identifying, tracking and measuring engagement; a mix of paid and unpaid media; and careful research and oversight informing the choice of influencers involved. Forrester’s 2018 report on the latest word-of-mouth platforms that harness technology to scale and measure influencer programs is useful for some of the recent tools it cites.

No matter how you slice it, building influence is just plain hard. It takes an investment of time and talent, both by the brand and the individual – human or otherwise. Check out this piece by New York Times tech reporter Brian Chen on his efforts to turn his pet Corgi into an Instagram celebrity. It’s hilarious and even a little instructive. Chen’s content was arguably good, but not nearly good enough to break through on the “brutally competitive” (dog-eat-dog?) platform. What’s more, the usual advice — paid promotion, buying followers, clever hashtag strategies —  fell flat or even backfired.

The point here isn’t that Instagram and other platforms are cluttered, or that influencer programs are overhyped, though both may be true. Rather, it’s that there is no magic bullet. Instead of outsourcing the brand relationship to third parties or investing heavily in am A-list celebrity strategy, the most effective and creative influencer programs go beyond the easy and obvious. They depend on reach, relevance, and credibility, and they work in concert with other marketing investments over the long term.

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