Agency thought leadership blog post: influencer marketing

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The importance of trust in influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is nothing new. The word “influencer” may be experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity, but the concept is well established. Marketing has always been about building influence in order to shape consumer behaviours. From royal branding on products in the 18th century to David Beckham in a pair of Adidas, from athletes on cereal boxes to #ads  on Instagram, the practice of influencer marketing has evolved, but the principle remains the same: associating your brand with individuals whose opinion matters to your target audience.

The essence of influencer marketing may be the same, but consumer perception has certainly changed. With that shift comes the need to closely examine why and how you attempt to build influence. It is, after all, about trust.

The history of influence

In the 1760s, pottery and chinaware producer Josiah Wedgwood and Sons began using royal endorsements on their products as a demonstration of their quality. Royalty were the only true celebrities until film and TV came along, at which point actors and athletes began to appear on packaging and in adverts. The purpose of these endorsements was to create a connection in the consumers’ minds between someone they admired and a product being sold to them.

It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that celebrity endorsements began to evolve again. The shift this time was to make the influencers appear more involved and personally invested in the products they were endorsing. From Michael Jordan partnering with Nike to create his own line of shoes to David Beckham’s grooming products, these tapped into the influence of the individuals on an even deeper level. Fans would see how invested and involved they were in the product and purchase them as a show of their support.

When the internet came along and people began to blog, sponsored blog posts became popular as well. What started with companies sending free products to bloggers in exchange for honest reviews grew as those bloggers gained popularity into large payments for a passing mention, sometimes in an unrelated post.

Unpacking the modern world of #sponcon

Now, influencer marketing has shifted again in a major way. Modern audiences are more skeptical of celebrity endorsements and marketing in general, and since the rise of social media ordinary people are becoming celebrities due to the followings they garner online. As a result, brands have started to capitalise by ditching their big celebrity endorsement campaigns in favour of sponsoring content on those influencers’ feeds in a way that appears authentic and native to their other content (#sponcon being a common tag used to indicate sponsored content). This strategy has been successful for many brands due to the relevance of the influencers and its affordability compared to celebrity campaigns.

Even Hollywood actors are hopping on the influencer bandwagon, posting about skincare products and deodorant and teeth whiteners and mature cheddar cheese on social media in exchange for payment. Influencers are categorised by the number of followers they have; under 10k is a micro influencer, up to one million is a macro influencer, and beyond that is a mega influencer. Beauty brand Glossier has taken it a step further, providing nano influencers (under 1k followers) with free product and a small commission. Brian Salzman, CEO of RQ, said, “the fan is the ultimate influencer, and leveraging their power is the best influencer marketing tactic around.”

Despite the success some brands have seen, however, the world of Instagram influencers and #sponcon is problematic. Those who label themselves as “influencers” are missing out on the most important element of influencer marketing: relevance. Even David Beckham won’t have influence over everyone. When these influencers’ incomes depend on the volume of sponsored content they’re posting, it can be dangerous to ignore the niche in which every celebrity, Instagram or otherwise, operates, whether they know it or not.

Fyre Festival: a cautionary tale

Of course, the most talked-about example of influencer marketing gone wrong at the moment is Fyre Festival, the ill conceived music festival set up by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule. The documentary is well worth the watch, with far too many twists and turns to describe in this article. However, the major takeaway for most people was the danger of placing implicit trust in influencers.

Over 400 influencers, from models to surfers to NFL players, were paid to promote the festival on social media and to fly to the Bahamas to film a promotional video for the event. When the reality of the “festival” turned out to be as far from glamorous and carefree as possible, the attendees and others turned on the influencers, saying they should have been more aware of what was happening and refused to participate. The problem is that these influencers didn’t know what to look for. They were models and athletes, not musicians or event professionals.

The whole ordeal shed a critical light on influencer marketing, and rightly so. Consumers as a result are demanding more transparency from the people whose recommendations they take, not wanting to be duped. They’re asking the question, “Can I trust you?” The challenge brands are facing is giving them a reason to believe the answer is “yes.”

How to responsibly build influence

The most important thing to know before planning an influencer campaign is to know your audience. For a lot of businesses, Instagram influencers couldn’t be further from the kind of people they would trust. Understanding who your ideal consumer is and what they want will point to the kind of influencer you should consider.

For example, our Mountain campaign for the Garmin Fenix GPS watch included interviews with English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Italian alpinist Simone Moro. While they may not be household names for the general population, the target customer for the Fenix watch would absolutely know these two men, and their opinions carry a lot of weight. Hearing them recount how the product has helped them reach the pinnacle (no pun intended) of their success was hugely impactful, tapping into the aspirations of other professionals and hobbyists alike.

Our campaign for ABB’s MicroSCADA Pro took a similar approach, but for a B2B audience. We found influential people within ABB’s target audience of power professionals and technology decision makers, and we interviewed them about their experience with the product, compiling them into a documentary-style film alongside cinematic footage of the product at work. We were able to use this hero film and the individual interviews as pieces of marketing collateral that are used across media and campaigns to demonstrate the product’s key features to other decision makers.

The anatomy of a successful influencer marketing campaign

It’s important when choosing influencers to remember that it’s just an amplified version of word of mouth. For that reason, it’s best to start with those who actually have an experience with your product or service. After you’ve collected testimonials or reviews from as many customers as possible, see if any of them seem particularly influential within your audience. Maybe you’ve done work with a household brand name, or one of your regular customers is regularly published on industry websites. This is a great place to start, because the existing relationship with your brand will add a level of trust and authority to any campaign you run.

Whoever you choose, remember that the most effective approach will be to tap into the relatability of the influencer to your audience. Forget B2B or B2C; influencer marketing is all about humans talking to other humans about things they like and recommend.

Once you have the right influencer(s), it’s important to make sure the customer journey is in place to support your goals. Most influencer campaigns are used at the top of the sales funnel for brand awareness and customer acquisition, so it’s important to have the middle and bottom of the funnel complete and to ensure that the brand look and feel is consistent throughout the experience. Influencer campaigns are just one piece of the marketing puzzle, so they should be considered in the context of the entire strategy, not in isolation.

Everything comes back to the inspire, involve, inform structure. Your influencers should be aspirational enough that they are providing the “inspire” element, and it’s up to you to make sure the delivery engages your audience, conveys the right message and pushes them through the sales funnel to the next stage of content. The consistency and quality of the overall user experience will contribute to the trust audiences have in your brand, which will pay dividends over time.

Influencer marketing may involve sponsored Instagram posts for you, but only if that is what’s right for your audience. More likely it will involve intelligent, nuanced campaigns based on relevance and authority. Get in touch today to discuss how influencer marketing could work for your business.