Under The Influence: The opportunities and pitfalls of influencer marketing

Tyrone Stewart

Let’s start, for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t logged into Instagram this decade, with a quick outline of what influencer marketing is. It’s a way of leveraging the influence of celebrities – of the traditional variety, or just popular users of a social media service – in order to promote a brand or product. Influencer marketing is framed as a testimonial-like social post from that personality, in the hope of winning over their followers.

“Influencer marketing is the digital, modern-day word of mouth,” says Tania Bunic, influencer marketing consultant at affiliate network Awin. “It focuses on the authenticity of an influencer which leads to a trust relationship with their followers.”

“It should feel like a natural fit with the influencer, their body of work and their audience” agrees Bob D’Mello, head of campaigns at Roast, a full service digital agency. “Achieve this and it’s possible to deliver a well-crafted message to a highly targeted audience that will generate a tangible return for the advertiser that goes beyond likes, shares and retweets.”

So, it’s just famous people and popular bloggers that get paid to promote something they have likely never actually used – right?

From mass to micro
Not quite. There are a whole host of categories and subcategories when it comes to those defined as ‘influencers’.

Mega (or mass) influencers are your big celebrities and social media personalities who have huge followings in excess of 1m people. These influencers reach the widest audience but, due to the sheer size of their following, any promotion from them is likely not to be relevant to a large portion of their fans.

Macro influencers tend to hold mid-level popularity. They have fans in the region of 10,000–1m followers, and are usually general bloggers, company executives or journalists. The audiences following these influencers tend to share interests, and thus can be used to create a more targeted audience segment – for example, it’s a safe bet that most followers of a fashion blogger will be into fashion.

Finally, micro influencers are your average consumers who have dedicated followings of between 500 and 10,000 people. These influencers tend to connect with their followers at the most personal level because they are seen as an ordinary person, and, as a result, their opinions are more likely to be trusted. A lot of brands involved in influencer marketing are starting to lean more towards these influencers than those with large follower numbers.

Within each of these larger influencer categories, there are several sub-groups of different types of influencers. I’ve already mentioned celebrities, social media stars and journalists, but there are also the YouTube stars, thought leaders, experts, insiders and more. Taking all of the above into account, it’s clear that there is so much more to influencer marketing than paying someone popular to ‘try out’ the latest eye makeup or sports gear.

Brands have a tough decision to make about whether they choose to use celebrities or those with fewer followers to push their products. The evidence suggests that working with micro influencers could prove more rewarding, but then a brand is working with several people instead of just the few they’d partner with in the case of celebrities, which could prove more difficult. The important thing is to enlist the help of the right influencers for the brand or product.

“Influencers who have taken the time to develop their niche and following want to partner with brands they genuinely like and that have relevance to their audience,” says Sharyn Smith, CEO and founder of Social Soup, an influencer network. “Influencers want to develop longer-term partnerships with brands rather than one-off, pay-per-post models. This allows them to really understand a brand and integrate it into their content. This works better as an influence channel, as their followers see consistency and genuine advocacy for the brand, creating more impact.

“Key to the success of any influencer marketing programme is finding the right influencers who align with the brand and create the right content to fit the brand’s aesthetic and personality. Diversity is also key, as influencers can have a high degree of follower crossover – so it’s better to pick influencers from a range of passion areas to increase the unique reach of campaigns.”

Success stories
Many brands have yet to hop on the influencer marketing train, and may be reluctant to do so. But with the various issues currently surrounding brand safety and blocking of ads, is it a viable alternative for marketers?

“It’s becoming a super important part of the marketing mix,” says Aaron Brooks, executive director and co-founder at influencer marketing firm Visual Amplifiers. “With the decline in traditional channels like television and the increase of ad-blocking software, influencer marketing ensures views and engagement as well as amazing content that can be repurposed across multiple channels.”

In addition, the power of social media and the impact that influencers carry cannot be ignored – what better way for someone to connect with a brand than knowing their favourite blogger or celebrity uses its products? People trust those that they aspire to be, but don’t always trust the word coming direct from a brand’s marketing team or an advertiser.

“Brands who put influencer marketing at the heart of a company’s objectives succeed,” says Jolien Berkel, head of global partnerships at The Cirqle, which specialises in fashion and beauty influencers. “Daniel Wellington, Triangl and Victoria’s Secret are just a few examples of successful companies that have rooted influencers to the core of their messaging and marketing strategy, sometimes leading to literally hundreds of millions in revenue.

“Some brands still pursue obtrusive ways of advertising, while influencer marketing, when done in an elegant way, actually complements consumers’ on- and offline journey.”

The anxiety of influence
“The whole area of social media and influencer marketing is relatively new, and in many ways businesses are finding their feet as they go,” says Amelia Neate, senior manager at agency Influencer Champions. “An issue that marketers need to be aware of when partnering with an influencer is that content must feel organic.

“Ensuring an influencer maintains their unique voice and authenticity is essential in maintaining the trust and authority the influencer has built with their audience. By over-promoting on the influencer’s channels, a brand could be at risk of losing the audience and diminishing the influencer’s credibility as an independent voice.”

On the other side of the fence, of course, are the influencers themselves. They’re the people who actually spread a brand’s message, and the ones whose reputations are on the line if they misjudge their audience – so how does it feel from their perspective?

“The pressure is so much greater when money is involved, especially when they want to preview the work beforehand,” says lifestyle blogger Naomi Harris (aka The London Foxx). “However, I do feel that brands know what your aesthetic is, and as mine is very consistent, they don’t tend to come back with complaints, as I do try to stay true to The London Foxx’s style with every collaboration.”

Then there’s the challenge of balancing an audience and paying brand.

“I’ve actually been driven to tears before when trying to photograph something that is basically unattractive,” says food blogger Helen Best-Shaw (Fuss Free Flavours). “Most of the time PRs, agencies and brands get it, but sometimes they do try and tell me what they think would work for my site and audience. A small number still try asking for follow links or no disclosure, but happily fewer and fewer do this now.

“A clear brief, generous samples for testing and photography, and a realistic time scale are essential. Recipes do go wrong, need to be tested and tweaked, and it all takes more time than people think. It is not as simple as cooking something and snapping a photo.”

Indecent disclosure
One of the biggest issues facing influencer marketing is disclosure – or the lack thereof – that a product is being advertised. Many influencers, especially celebrities, have failed to make it clear that they have been paid to promote a product on social channels and blogs. And, though this is starting to improve, there is still a long way to go to get influencers and brands to conduct their business in the correct way.

“There’s lots of umming and ahhing in the industry because some people don’t disclose,” says lifestyle blogger Scarlett Dixon (Scarlett London). “And we all know it’s an advert because we’ve been approached with the same collaboration, or otherwise can just tell if something’s been sponsored. I think bloggers, in general, are quite good at it but there’s a lot of crossover in celebrities and social media influencers and things like people that come off Love Island – and they get approached with all these sponsored opportunities that they’re not disclosing.

“It’s kind of getting out of hand a little bit now, because I feel like celebrities, especially, belong to another group that feel like they don’t have to disclose. I feel like there does have to be some sort of regulation. If it’s a legal requirement, then there should be some sort of legal repercussions for both the brand and the influencer.”

The standards do exist, but there is a lack of exposure for the rules that have been created by the likes of the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) sister organisation, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), and the recently formed Influencer Marketing Council

“The CAP code of conduct very much specifies that any paid relationship should be clearly signposted and that is one of the issues that the industry currently faces – it’s a mixed bag,” says Mats Stigzelius, CEO of Takumi, which works with Instagram influencers. “Some people, and some platforms, are very good at enforcing that. Others are more relaxed about it.”

Most of the big brands and agencies are well aware of these standards. The problem tends to lie with the smaller players, which – deliberately or not – can fail to enforce that influencers must make it clear that their posts are adverts.

“For me, it’s a sign of a good influencer if they’re honest with their audience,” says Stigzelius. “And it doesn’t take away from the story that they’re telling. If they’re upfront about collaborating with a Coca-Cola or a Starbucks or a L’Oréal; it gives them credibility in the eyes of their followers of being able to work with such big brands. If you do it well, it can be a positive. And, certainly, you should not try and hide the fact that you’re being paid for something. Anyone who does risks reputational damage for the sector as a whole, as you’ve seen with all the articles in the US around the FTC and stuff like that.

“The problem with the industry at the moment is that not enough people know. If I wasn’t proactively looking for the guidelines, I might not be aware of them. So, I think there’s still a subgroup of marketers and influencers who willingly, or unwillingly, don’t know about the guidelines. I think the guidelines are good enough as they are, but they need more publicity around them so that it makes everyone aware because, to me, I think it’s an awareness issue rather than not following those guidelines on purpose. At least that’s what I like to think – whether it’s true or not is another thing.”