Lies, damned lies and the truth about influencer marketing

Opinions about influencer marketing vary, but the truth is that when used in a well-executed strategy, it presents exceptional opportunities for brands to connect with an audience

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Influencer marketing remains one of the biggest opportunities for brands to market to and connect with increasingly social media savvy customers. But, given that it has had its fair share of negative media coverage in recent times thanks to the antics of reality TV stars, it is vital to get the strategy right.

Celebrity Kim Kardashian was an example of a campaign gone wrong last year when she was fined $1.26million by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for promoting an unproven cryptocurrency called EthereumMax on social media, without disclosing that the content was part of a $250,000 paid partnership. 

Her half-sister and fellow TV star, Kendall Jenner, had previously been slammed alongside other social media influencers, for promoting the infamous fraudulent Fyre music festival. Fans paid thousands of dollars for a supposed luxury event in the Bahamas but were met instead by, as the Guardian reported, ‘emergency tents, cheese rolls and squalor’. 

This celebrity focussed approach can hit brands’ reputations and their bottom line. Recent studies have shown that nearly half of consumers are fatigued by repetitive and anodyne celebrity influencer content with only 3% of consumers now being influenced by their endorsements when buying products.

“A common perception of influencer marketing is brands paying celebrities big fees for pushing ads to millions of social followers with no relevance. It is often seen as a media buying exercise that lacks authenticity” says Neil Brennan, SVP at influencer marketing platform Klear.

“I see it every day myself, Lionel Messi for example is very influential for his sporting accomplishments. He monetises his brand by republishing companies’ ads on his social channels for products that often have little relevance to him or his followers.”

Healthy ROI

But despite the gloom brands have not shown influencer marketing the red card – quite the opposite.

According to the Influencer Marketing Hub’s 2023 ‘State of Influencer Marketing’ report brands and marketing agencies believe that the ‘odd horror story in the media is the exception and not the rule’ and that influencer marketing is still deemed to be ‘effective’ with regards to sales, engagement, return on investment and attracting a higher quality of customer than other marketing methods.

One key driver behind the use of influencer marketing is the development of user generated content – indeed according to the State of Influencer Marketing report it is now the main reason brands embrace the strategy. It can be an effective way of populating a brand’s website with content generated by influencers rather than their own creators thereby reducing costs. An example is Lululemon’s ‘The Sweat Life’ campaign, where it encourages its customers to post photos of themselves in the brand’s clothes on their social media feeds. They are then repurposed for use on Lululemon’s own website.

According to Statista, 60% of marketers say influencer marketing has a higher return on investment than traditional advertising. Other studies have found that it also boosts brand engagement with just a 1% increase in influencer marketing spending resulting in an engagement boost of almost 0.5%. In addition,  a third of social media users say they discover new products via influencers.

The Influencer Marketing Hub report found that spend on influencer marketing climbed 29% from $16.4billion in 2022 to $21.1billion in 2023. Whereas in 2016, this figure was only $1.7billion.

Indeed, more than 80% of marketing agencies and brands intended to dedicate budget to influencer marketing in 2023, with a quarter looking to allocate 40% of their total marketing budget. 

“Some few and far between influencer cases have become newsworthy. It is a human based practice and there is always going to be some level of controversy but overall, more people follow influencers online than follow brands and trust them more,” says influencer marketing consultant Camille Kennedy. “People from all generations still look at influencers recommendations and go to their feeds on Instagram and TikTok to learn about the latest trends and products.”

Microinfluencers spark engagement

It’s also increasingly about values, argues Scott Guthrie, director general of the Influencer Marketing trade body. “Consumers from all generations want to spend their money with brands they can identify with on different levels,” he says. “They want them to mesh with their world views and behaviours. They want to cosy up with brands, so finding the right influencer who aligns with these values and can humanise the brand is important.”

Consumers are also generally savvier about being marketed and sold to by brands. 

Brands have also been accused of appropriating social causes for commercial gain. Recently, brewing company AB In-Bev saw sales of drinks such as Bud Light slump following a social media promotion with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. The brand faced criticism from conservatively minded drinkers who believed a transgender person did not reflect their social values and from transgender supporters who thought the brand did not give enough support to Mulvaney following the backlash.

Brennan believes brands must respond to concerns around influencer fatigue by re-shaping influencer marketing strategies if they want the benefits to continue. That means moving away from celeb-dominated influencer marketing to more use of so-called micro and nano influencers with smaller but more engaged followers.

This is already happening with the Influencer Marketing Hub report finding that there is a preference amongst brands and marketing agencies to use smaller influencers. These typically have follower numbers between 1,000 and 100,000 rather than mega or celebrity influencers.

“The heart of creative marketing is having a genuine and authentic relationship between a brand, an influencer and the audience they want to appeal to,” Brennan says. “There are so many creative influencers out there who are authorities in their space and have passionate followers. They create content which resonates with people. They want to see it and are delighted by it. Brands are increasingly partnering with smaller influencers, inserting a brand message into the content but maintaining that appeal, authenticity and trust.”

Brennan adds that this bespoke content will help give brands an advantage in an altered consumer environment. “Buying journeys now include or begin with online research, usually performed on a review or social media site. Gen Z for example predominantly use Tiktok” he says. “If consumers are influenced by these social channels, brands need to find ways to influence the conversation, and creators are one effective example.

Brands should also embed influencer marketing into an overall strategy. “Influencer marketing is often seen in isolation. Brands may focus on a traditional vertical – say digital or broadcast – influencer marketing can be left to the end,” Brennan explains. “Brands who are excelling are using a joined-up strategy. As part of their planning process, they identify creative influencers who will make a big impact via content, messaging and audience relevance. Content can also be repurposed and reused on a brand’s own channels.”

Influencers are a must-have

Guthrie adds: “Influencers can be used at the top of the sales funnel, along with the big celebrities, to build awareness, in the middle to nudge people to find out more about a product and at the bottom driving conversion. Again, finding the right influencer fit is crucial as different creators are adept at doing different things from aspirational to sales-focused content.”

Kennedy says it is about finding where these credible voices can be more effectively used. “That could be inviting influencers to red carpet brand events such as the Met Gala. A decade ago, it would have been full of celebrities not influencers. They are also even being used on packaging in retail stores and in TV advertising,” she says. “It is a 360-degree integrated approach where influencer marketing is part of the core strategy, channel mix and media plan. If you aren’t using influencers, you are leaving money on the table.”

Guthrie is equally as demonstrative. “Influencer marketing is no longer siloed. It is the beating heart of the marketing mix,” he says.

In fact, Brennan adds, some brands have put all their chips into influencer marketing. “They’ve cut all paid social based on ROI, and are exclusively using influencers in their social and content creation strategy,” he says. “Whatever the mix, it is naïve at best for a business to dismiss influencer marketing. If you don’t explore it, you can be missing a big revenue driver.”

Learn how to be successful at influencer marketing here.

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren / Graphics: Harry Lewis-Irlam / Audience analyst: Tony Bennison