No matter what you sell, the way you sell it dictates success. The competition to win the attention of consumers is fierce, and once you have attained it, staying relevant to that audience means everything. That said, this is no small feat and the challenge is becoming more and more complex. Over the years I have seen my share of campaigns succeed and fail, but one constant for the successful ones has been the use of Influencer Marketing, as part of an overall strategy. It’s proved to be effective for driving sales and as such, should always be tied to it. It’s a powerful tool when used correctly.
To craft a successful Influencer Marketing program, one needs to address both qualitative and quantitative components of the model. A human approach to influencer selection, vetting, contracting and content creation, needs to be paired with a tech savvy solution for data collection, and a smart plan for measurement and reporting. Both inform decisions about what deliverables and tactics are best suited for a program and when it’s necessary to fine-tune or adjust tactics. Retailers should look to work with partners who are native to the online space their customers live in, speak the language that resonates with them, and can help them navigate the path to purchase. These partners also need to have expertise in layering in the right types of technology. One without the other is doomed to fail.
To best understand how you can leverage influence as part of your marketing strategy, it’s important to first understand its evolution and where it's headed.
The PAST: A look at how it all began
Influencer Marketing has existed for as long as marketers have been trying to promote and sell goods and services for clients. Influence has historically been reserved for those with power, fame or great wealth. However with the onset of new millennium, came a systemic shift in influence. Who was welding influence and how they were garnering it changed forever. The barriers of time, money and geography were torn down by the digital age and the birth of Social Media. Together they created a paradigm shift and with it ushered in a new era of influence.
During the first few years of the new millennial (2001 – 2004), the art of blogging became a mainstream format for publishing content. By 2006, when I entered the space, blogging was already big business and in my opinion is what gave birth to Influencer Marketing as we define it today. Although blogging had existed in the form of daily journals and commentaries as far back as 1983, it exploded with the launch of platforms like Blogspot and Wordpress. These platforms gave access to all, including one group in particular, moms, took to story telling about their daily life and sharing their talents and expertise online. Large numbers of women came to the space and started to publish massive amounts of content. Other women turned off the television and soaps and tuned in to the net, surfing for companionship, advice and entertainment (you can say mom bloggers killed the soap star). Women were seeking to connect and enrich their lives from their homes and offices. The medium felt natural to women and they were largely responsible for growing it into a cultural phenomenon.
The success of "Mom Blogging" soon spread to food, fashion, beauty, and travel categories. The bloggers who had amassed large audiences were publishing a variety of content on their own lifestyle websites with categories for all of the above. Early adaptors were brilliant writers and photographers, master storytellers, and clever businesswomen that garnered real engagement. Comments and likes were plentiful and influence came from earned authority. It worked and it worked well!
With readership booming on these sites, the “Ah-Ha” moment of MONETIZATION was realized. Bloggers with large audiences and huge traffic began to sell ad space on their sites and charge for their influence in the form of reviews, endorsements and clever product placement. Marketers came quickly to test these new waters and soon a tidal wave of commoditized blogs trying desperately to replicate the authenticity of their successful predecessors flooded the space and began to drown out what gave it life from the start.
While new blogs were popping up in the hundreds, the rise of social media was also taking hold. Facebook and Twitter helped feed the endless appetite for content and connection, and provided a way for bloggers to promote themselves and converse real time with their audiences. Deeper connections were formed and audiences transformed into communities. The blogs fed social media and social media drove traffic back the blogs. Eventually, conversation moved off the blogs and onto Twitter and Facebook. Influence was on the rise and now there were channels that were capable of growing that influence beyond the blog.
A new form of Influencer Marketing was forming and developing at a rapid pace. Brands entered the space to try their hand at it, but as hard as they tried, most did not succeed as wildly as the bloggers. Brands were not human and therefore could not replicate bloggers' success with any degree of authenticity or connect in the same way with potential customers. In fact, most brands initially resisted showing any trace of a human face. Realizing that this did not pay off for them, they contracted with influencers to talk directly to their potential customers. Brands began hiring influencers in mass to talk about their products and services, and act as their advocates. They leveraged the platforms and channels that influencers had built over time to reach their target audience.
As more and more brands came to the table, the FTC took note and handed down regulation that mandated disclosure for sponsored content in order to provide transparency for readers. This scrutiny quickly damped engagement. Traffic to blogs also decreased substantially when Google modified its search algorithm with Panda and Penguin, giving less priority to sponsored blog content. Facebook further stifled engagement on its platform by charging influencers to talk to the audiences that they had worked so hard to establish and grow over the years. They too changed their methodology for displaying content in user timelines, giving less priority to sponsored posts.
The result was a shift from bloggers monetizing their influence to Google, Facebook and Twitter monetizing the platforms that influence was built on. As new platforms sprang up, there would be a rush to recreate an audience and garner influence. Soon the inevitable hammer would fall on these platforms too and squeeze away any profit margin and opportunity for influencers. My peers and I would joke, likening our efforts to a game of whack-a-mole. We were constantly trying to find a platform to pop up on, only to get smacked back down with regulations, fees, and platforms charging us to speak to our opt-in audiences.
The PRESENT: A look at where we stand now
In the decade since blogging and social media exploded much has changed in the way we harness and use influence to sell goods and services.
Successful bloggers with large, loyal audiences have become their own mini media companies. They now employ the communities they grew to create, syndicate and amplify content and then sell that influence at scale to clients. Many of these successful companies like, Social Moms, She Speaks, She Knows and Clever Girls grew from the Mom Blogging community. For independent bloggers, teaming up with these companies to collectively sell influence is more efficient and profitable than going it alone. Competition is fierce, but there is strength in numbers. The immense pressure to grow larger audiences and garner more engagement has also led to an underground market where fake influence is sold. Buying and bartering for friends, followers, comments and likes is sadly, commonplace, however new technology now exists to help brands identify fakes.
That said, Influencer Marketing is proven to move the needle for brands in studies like the one conducted by Nielsen Catalina Solutions in conjunction with TapInfluence and CPG Company WhiteWave Foods. The study conclusively linked Influencer Marketing to in-store sales, with a campaign that generated $285 in incremental sales for every 1,000 viewers. That marks a 16 times higher ROI than the average digital marketing campaign analyzed, and an 11 times better return than a traditional banner ad campaign. In addition, content produced by Influencer Marketing campaigns can continue to provide results post ROI calculation, with impressions accruing and traffic and sales occurring from organic SEO and sites like Pinterest long after a campaign ends. A post on our blog ( The Party Bluprints Blog) from August 2014 garnered thousands of page views in 2016. The traffic came from Pinterest and the pin has been liked and repined over 80,000 times 2 years.
In addition, when negotiated, influencer content can be used on a brand's channels - repurposing it is free!
With results like this you can see why Influencer Marketing is steadily taking a larger piece of the marketing budget each year, with 2017 promising to be a record year. With this growth, automated influencer networks have sprung up everywhere. These companies make it easier to hire, communicate, and measure results, but without the proper oversight and a human touch they don’t work well. Audiences are blind to automated campaigns that secure hundreds of influencers to post or say the same thing. This amounts to SPAM and those impressions are empty with engagement rates low to none.
Another hallmark of Influencer Marketing today is video. It has exploded and is a fresh well for content creation that is being tapped by influencers across myriad platforms. The engagement rates on video content are high and are effective traffic drivers. More recently, influencers have embraced Live Stream Video, in particular Facebook Live. This content format feels raw and real, not overly produced. Not surprisingly, it has authenticity and enjoys high engagement from audiences.
Over the past 2 years, the explosion of Instagram and Snapchat, have forced marketers to take notice of micro-influencers, those with social accounts between 1,000 to 100,000 followers. Although their audiences are smaller, micro influencers garner higher engagment rates from their followings which tend to be more closely connected to the influencer’s and their content than many celebrity influencers. Valued actions are also more likely with micro-influencers and with new live link capability should prove powerful in driving sales from passionate audiences.
With an impressive amount of power coming to the hands of top tier influencers, contracting them for work has become a complex process. Agents and brokers now represent the best, and negotiate the numerous deliverables within a contract, including the use of images, likeness, as well as exclusivity and content ownership or licensing rights. Yet another industry has been born.
As the power of influencers has grown, the lines between them and the brands they represent has become blurred. With a paid media component for boosting and promoting influencer content now the norm for Influencer Marketing agreements, influence has become more of a partnership. Influencers have the ability on platforms like Facebook and Twitter to grant limited advertiser access to the brands they work with enabling seemless management of this process. Brands for their part have become experts at using paid promotion to amplify influencer reach beyond its original circle. Program managers are adept at using real-time optimization to identify the best performing content and promote it at precisely the right time to a narrowly defined target audience. This method can yield stunning results. I have personally witnessed Facebook engagement rates of 28% and click through rates of 7-14% for influencer campaign content that I managed with this model in 2016.
The FUTURE: A look at what’s ahead in 2017 and beyond
Strategic amplification will continue to be critical to the success of Influencer Marketing programs in the years to come. As pay to play stifles reach on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now Snapchat, it will no longer be reasonable to take an influencers’ reach at face value. Instead brands will need to understand the demographics and psychographics of influencers' audiences and target them precisely with their paid media budgets. More attention will need to be paid to the influencers' audience insights when crafting campaigns thus requiting influencers to be more transparent.
I predict it will become more apparent to marketers that less is more and they will continue to migrate away from influencers (celebrity bloggers, social media stars, and traditional celebrities) who's massive audiences don’t deliver valued engagement. Instead they will seek to partner with micro-influencers whose marketing channels deliver targeted and passionate audiences who engage in authentic conversations and lift sales. Customer generated content will also evolve and play a more important role in marketing campaigns.
In the year ahead, influencers will need to keep up with new trends to retain their influence. One such trend will be the creation of content with virtual reality and augmented reality technology. This format will be the new frontier and those first to the table will own the influence. Although tech will play an important role, the content produced will need to feel organic and have a lo-fi look and feel. This type of content will trump branded or overly produced content that feels like an ad. Keeping it real will be the name of the game for content creation.
Another notable item I see gaining importance in the coming year will be the evolution of cause marketing and social good. Including this component in a campaign will not only attract the right influencers, but it also will prove to be a win-win for increasing brand warmth and customer loyalty. Companies like GoodXChange are on the forefront of this and should be seen as a new type of influence broker.
The future will also see a change in the way we measure and compensate influencers. Models will place increased value on engagement and conversation. Those with high engagement rates will garner the best contracts since reach and impression and can easily be bought. Super-influencers will launch their own brands instead of partnering with them. Some influencers will leverage the engagement and passion of their audiences to crowd fund projects and ideate new businesses and product launches. Publishers will try to woo others away and acquire them as part of their own media brand.
Influencer Marketing will also continue to penetrate the pharmaceutical industry, giving a platform to patient advocates and health care providers instead of broadcasting brand and product messages that patients have gone blind to long ago. Allowing patients to connect with each other and provide valuable insights will benefit the entire industry and give companies a more human face an approach to marketing.
As social media continues to merge customer’s personal and professional online profiles, Influencer Marketing will grow in appeal and effectiveness for B2B brands. Linked In will be the platform of choice for welding this influence. Features like in-mail, sponsored posts and showcase pages will allow those with influence to improve the quality of B2B content, reach wider audiences, and garner engagement that will increase leads and conversions.
With the speed of content delivery accelerating and real time publishing on the rise, brands will need to loosen their control over content creation. A mutual trust between brands and influencers will evolve into deeper relationships and partnerships. Influencers will need to be well versed in the legal and regulatory requirement for brands and may require media training for influencers especially for live video.
It is an exciting time for Influencer Marketing. The greatest challenge ahead for marketers looking to leverage it, will be finding ways to scale influence with pinpoint precision without forsaking engagement. Influencer Marketing is only influential if it yields human connection and action. It will take the clever thinking, skill, and a nimble ability to adapt to the constantly changing environment and rules of engagement.
I look forwarding to continuing my work in this exciting space and would love to know what you see on the horizon. Let me know in the comments below.