In an industry where social media influencers are duping brands about their true influence using third-party apps that inflate follower counts and engagement rates, companies are becoming more rigorous about who they work with. Even for reputable influencers, bad practice has forced the Advertising Standards Agency to create an official guide to posting adverts online following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into social media influencers breaking consumer law.
“Trends are leaning towards brands being a lot more discerning about who they associate with and why,” says Stuart Flint, a vice president at Verizon Media. “If you’re not clearly communicating that you have paid, or have been paid, for an endorsement or if you jeopardise the relationship of trust between the influencer and their audiences, or the brand and its customers, in any way through the process, then reputations will ultimately suffer for everyone involved.”
It’s with this in mind that marketing experts are hypothesising a trend towards working with social media activists. Not only do these types of influencers have “more true engagement”, according to Joel Backaler, global marketing strategist and author of Digital Influence: Unleash the Power of Influencer Marketing to Accelerate Your Global Business, but as they appear to hold themselves to a higher moral standard, and are kept to it by followers, they’re less likely to be involved in scandals around a lack of transparency.
The greatest benefit for the brand they’re promoting, however, is they represent an ethos companies can align with to encourage brand loyalty, which is one of the greatest challenge’s advertisers are currently facing.
“Research shows that loyalty to companies is in decline; people are more likely to shop around,” says Mark Schaefer, business consultant and author of Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins. “The most effective way brands can create and sustain loyalty now is to align with the shared values of their customers,” he says. “So that’s why we see Nike taking a strong stand, aligning with Colin Kaepernick [American football quarterback and activist], and American Eagle aligning with gay rights and anti-gun causes, because this reflects the values of their core customers. I think overtime this will align with influencer marketing.”
Becoming more discerning about who to work with also means brands are likely to reallocate funds away from the macro-influencers with millions of followers, towards micro-influencers who have more targeted audiences and potentially better engagement rates.
“Some of the top influencers are becoming more difficult and expensive to align with,” says Mr Schaefer, “so businesses and brands are looking down the line at micro-influencers, people who maybe only have a few hundred followers, but they have a lot of authority with those followers. That’s a trend that will absolutely continue.”
According to Mr Backaler, audience size will become largely irrelevant as brands begin to ask more questions about the actual reach of the influencer. “An influencer might have hundreds of millions of followers, but just because they get the message out is anybody going to listen?” he asks. Brands should ask the questions: “Is the content they produce really related to your brand and what you’re trying to achieve? Or do you have an opportunity to work with a big name and so you’re reverse engineering an excuse to be able to invest your marketing budget for them?”
In asking questions like this, Mr Backaler says brands can avoid bad practice and are more likely to invest in the right people. “What really needs to happen is for companies to invest more in their influencer identification to determine, regardless of the size of the audience, the right types of people who are going to have an impact on what they’re trying to achieve. So that could be working with an influencer who has a few hundred or thousand people, but they know their audience listen to everything they say.”
This means influencers representing companies online won’t just be young entertainers and models or those advising on fashion, beauty and fitness, who currently punch the most weight in the influencer marketing industry, but also academics, medical professionals and journalists, among others.
Growing the pool of influencers brands use may in fact be a necessity for the future of influencer marketing, as another trend experts predict is that influencers will limit the number of brands they represent and enter into more long-term relationships.
“There is only so many times a beauty influencer can change their skincare routine before the audience starts questioning how much they really like those products versus how much they are getting paid,” says Mr Backaler.
Mr Schaefer adds: “There’s a balance in the number of brands an influencer would have the bandwidth to represent.” While he notes that followers are more than happy for an influencer to work with multiple brands, citing a study by global affiliate network AWIN which found nearly a fifth of 11 to 16 year olds in the UK aspire to be social media influencers as a career, there’s a limit before scepticism rises in the audience and trust is lost.
“There are only so many influencers to go around and they can only represent a finite number of brands, so the competition will increase and the prices to access the top influencers will go up,” he says.
However, for companies able to gain that access, long-term relationships are a must. “You’re going to see more ongoing collaborations and long-term partnerships,” says Mr Backaler. “Going through the effort of establishing a relationship and put that into action is truly a waste of effort to then not work together again after one post.”
So, if macro-influencers become monogamous with the brands they choose to represent, does this mean smaller companies will be priced out of the market? Not necessarily, according to Mr Backaler, especially with the rise of micro-influencers. “People recognise in order to maintain authenticity and true engagement you can’t just have the same group of individuals representing the same set of products,” he says. “You will see smaller companies that understand the value of working with influencers, especially the direct-to-consumer, born-online brands, that are selling all different types of products.”
Increased competition isn’t the only barrier to entry that poses a threat to brands in the industry though. For Mr Schaefer, one of the greatest challenges for influencer marketing that no one has really figured out yet is the increased activity on private social media platforms.
“In 2015, for the first time, more people were active on private channels than public channels,” he says. “A lot of customer activity is migrating to private platforms like Messenger and WhatsApp. The reason being that they don’t want to be scrutinised or bullied, so that voice and influence is going behind a privacy wall. What do brands do in a case like that? How do you see what’s going on when its private information?”
These are the questions many brands are now asking. How would you ensure an influencer follows through on their promotions? And more importantly, how do you determine who to work with if their sphere of influence is no longer public knowledge? According to Mr Schaefer, these concerns are yet to be answered. However, he does believe that should brands learn how to work with influencers on private platforms, it would be monumental for the actual impact of the advertisement.
“Overall, I think it’s a healthy trend because, if people are behind a privacy wall, they’re going to be more honest and vulnerable with their friends,” he says, “and maybe we’ll have less bullying and toxicity on the web.”
As the entire purpose of influencer marketing is that the promotion comes from a trusted source, and if going behind a privacy wall automatically inspires more trust in the content, it could prove hugely successful in increasing engagement and therefore a greater return on investment.
However, it remains a concerning trend since the industry is already shrouded in mystery. Could influencer marketing moving on to private platforms only encourage murkier practices? Given the way authorities and social media platforms are playing catch-up when it comes to regulating the industry, it seems we may only find out when it’s too late.