Confessions Of An Influencer Marketer

May 26, 2016

“Influencers” are getting a pretty bad rap lately.

It all started a few weeks ago, when an anonymous “social media exec” disclosed to DigiDay how much their company is paying the internet celebrities of today to create content for their clients’ brands. 

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Here’s the TLDR version: “Influencers are going to start disappearing. Brands are going to start realizing the amount of followers you have doesn’t mean shit.”

After the DigiDay article was published, Gawker posted a series of articles with titles like, “The “Influencer” Economy Is Collapsing Under the Weight of its Own Contradictions” and “‘Influencer’ Is a Fake Job.”

So, are influencers over?

Let’s start by explaining what an influencer is, straight from Andy from Gawker:

“An influencer, for those readers who have never commuted to a funky converted-loft office space for work, is a person, usually a teen or early-twentysomething, who has a large following on some social media platform, and has used that large following to trick some decaying capitalist institution into believing that they are valuable in some way.”

As I write this article from Fast Horse’s converted-loft-ish office space, I’ll admit that the piece is pretty funny. And he got two things right:

  1. We should totally pay teachers more!
  2. The concept of influencers is a little silly. When I try to explain to my friends outside of the marketing industry that a big part of my job is working with bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers to help the brands I work with gain exposure, I usually get a confused look in return.

However, Andy and Mr. Mysterious Ad Exec got many things very wrong, most notably that these influential teens and twenty-somethings are no longer valuable to brands.

Here’s the truth about this new breed of marketing.

The Bad (sort of)

A big sticking point in most of these pieces is how much cash brands are throwing at influencers today.

But let’s get real for a second: Influencers cost money.

We’re not talking Super Bowl ad dollars here, but unless you’re an already of-the-moment brand (think Nike), in most cases an influencer with 500,000 followers isn’t going to be falling all over themselves to organically feature your product on their Instagram feed.

And they shouldn’t. Just like any job, influencers should be paid for the use of their audience. They are not journalists, and are providing a service (including their time and personal brand™) to your product. They have built a captive audience of thousands — even millions — of today’s holy grail of consumers (millennials) that can be targeted and narrowed down by age, gender and consumer category. In an age where TV viewership is on the decline, that itself is worth serious cash.

But it’s not an exact science. Just because you pay some person with a lot of followers to feature your brand doesn’t mean the masses will be running to the shelves to buy your CPG product. Influencer marketing can be done very poorly. Consumers are smarter than many marketers give them credit for, and if your brand is blindly paying an influencer who wouldn’t authentically use your product in real life, people are going to immediately notice and dismiss the content as garbage advertising.

There is also a small amount of risk involved, for both parties.

On the brand side, you’re aligning your brand with someone who is likely very young, and is still learning how this whole “business” thing works. In most cases, influencers are total pros. But teenagers and young adults (and I guess even older adults — I’m looking at you, Scott Disick) make mistakes, and like any brand partner, you can’t control the content they are making outside of your partnership.

And brands aren’t the only ones carrying the risk. By repping various products, influencers can lose a certain credibility among their audience. If they do too many sponsored posts, they become inauthentic. If they don’t do enough sponsored posts, well, they don’t make any money! That’s how business works, folks.

The Good

But generally speaking, the rewards outweigh the risks.

Don’t believe me?

Think about an item of clothing you bought recently. I’m not talking an impulse buy — but something you thought about, and then made an effort to seek out and purchase.

Why did you buy it? Where did you first learn about the brand or product?

If you’re a 20-something female like me, I’ll venture to guess you first saw it (or something similar) on one of your friends, or somewhere on social media.

For me, it was a pair of white Converse sneakers. Why, specifically, did I buy a pair of white Converse sneakers? Because somewhere in between the first and 500th pair of white Converse sneakers I saw on my Instagram feed over the last few months, I decided they are a must-have item for summer.

That’s social media’s power.

Now, I work in marketing, and I know exactly when I’m being sold to. But you know what? I don’t care — and judging by the chart below, it seems other young people don’t really care either. I’m excited about my new shoes, and trust the “influencers” I follow on Instagram to help me stay up to date on what all the teens think is cool these days.

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So, who are the people setting these trends?

Celebrities still play a role, and the line is getting more and more blurry. But if you’re a teen today, it’s influencers. In fact, certain research suggests these social media stars are more influential than some of the biggest celebrities in the world, and they are only getting bigger. A 2015 ranking by Variety magazine found that 8 out of 10 of the most popular “talent” among teens are YouTubers. Most of them scoring higher than Taylor Swift. Taylor freaking Swift. These influencers serve as electronic friends who give teens and millennials purchasing advice while also telling them the best way to ask out their crush. And in today’s social world, consumers may trust their opinions nearly as much as they trust the people they hang out with IRL.

The Truth

Saying influencers don’t work is like saying advertising doesn’t work. Are influencers expensive? Sure they are. But so is advertising, and it’s really not much different when you think about it. People today have their phone in their hand from the second they wake up until they go to bed, and what they are seeing as they scroll through their Snapchat and Instagram feeds dozens of times during that 14-17 hour period is going to inform their purchasing decisions. 

If you’re strategic about your influencer partnerships, and make sure your brand authentically aligns with the content your influencer partners are already creating, you’re getting brand exposure (not to mention third-party validation) directly into the social media feeds of the exact type of person you’re targeting.

If you’re trying to tell me that isn’t valuable, I say:

Sorry, Andy from Gawker and Mr. Mysterious Ad Exec, but trends are made on the internet, and being a part of that conversation is becoming more important than ever. To ignore the very people teens and millennials are spending their free time with (even if it is electronically) is, quite honestly, foolish. I don’t expect influencers are going anywhere anytime soon.