A quick look in Google Trends leaves you in no doubt: 2016 was the year of the influencer. The number of searches for “influencer marketing” increased dramatically throughout last year and will soon reach the levels attained by “content marketing.”
The basic idea behind influencer marketing is to convince trustworthy, authentic and believable third parties to make positive public comments about your business or brand. Ideally, these parties will suit a particular brand, adding to both its and their authenticity.
Consumers trust personal recommendations more than classic advertising. It’s all about harnessing respected, influential people for your brand’s cause. And it’s nothing new – but it has taken on a new dimension with social media. Now, there are individuals who have built up an impressive reach through their own social media channels with which they can even earn money.
And it doesn’t need to be Serena Williams or Thomas Müller, either! Lesser-known YouTube and Instagram “stars” are also achieving notable success. Often, the fact that these influencers have built up their own reputation is even more beneficial, rather than coming from entertainment industries such as sport, music or TV. Influencers are successful because they are authentic, real people who can also entertain. They have become brands in their own right.
Of course, such success has another side to it as well and so it should come as no surprise that many influencers boost their reach artificially with bots in order to then sell it for profit. Which leads to the question: who is still real? Who was never real anyway? For many genuine Instagrammers, automated links and follower bots are a thorn in their side – when there’s so much money involved, there are bound to be those who want manipulate technology for their own ends. In August 2017, an article appeared on the German marketing portal Horizont.de which told the story of an American marketing agency which was producing financial statements using fake accounts. Webmasters who fall for such wheeling and dealing are playing with fire.
Here in Germany, a controversial debate has broken out. On the one hand, we are noticing an increasing number of warning articles with catchy headlines such as “Influencer Marketing: The Believability Problem of Social Media Stars” or “Save Influencer Marketing!” A Facebook group carrying the same call-to-arms has also appeared.
In an interview published this summer, Christiane Schulz, the new president of the “GPRA,” a union of leading German communications agencies, attacked media agencies who effectively use Influencer Marketing as advertising in order to boost their position in the industry. Schulz specifically attacked the money-grabbing attitude of some influencers and the abuses of professional communications standards such as the failure to clearly identify advertising as such. “When somebody speaks out favourably about a company and has in some way been paid or otherwise remunerated for their comments, that must be made clear,” she said. “It’s a question of transparency. If it’s not made clear, then the consumer is being tricked.”
On the other side of the debate, the positive articles about Influencer Marketing show no sign of stopping. In one article this summer, marketing expert Christian Erxleben published an article entitled “Are influencers more trustworthy than newspapers, TV, etc?” In it, he reported on a study in which 1,604 German internet users were asked about their shopping and information gathering habits. The key focus of the study was the believability of different media and it found that influencer marketing is often considered more trustworthy than classic adverts or articles in traditional media such as newspapers or magazines.
A similar article from back in August carried the headline “Users appreciate sponsored content – and act on it!” In it, author Annette Mattgey discussed the findings of a YouGov study which revealed that three quarters of those questioned were fully able to identify sponsored content but that it didn’t put them off acting on it, whether by informing themselves further or by visiting the brand’s website. The findings suggest that influencer marketing still works well even when posts are clearly and correctly marked as advertising – which isn’t always the case nowadays.
Quo vadis, influencer marketing? What next?
Given the difficulties which influencer marketing is currently facing, let’s get the crystal ball out. I’m going to stick my neck out and make the following predictions:
- Well-conducted influencer marketing will remain hugely successful provided it is carried out in association with clever influencers who have built up their reputations and brands professionally and who therefore remain trustworthy and believable. Ultimately, the basics of marketing remain the same as they have done for hundreds of years.
- Advertisers will learn to recognize genuine quality so that tricksters will find life increasingly difficult in the medium to long term. The public debate over the believability of influencer marketing and the increasingly loud calls for clear marking of influencer advertising will ensure that advertisers remain watchful. This can only boost professionalism.
- There will always be tricksters and cheats. Wherever money is involved, that simply can’t be avoided.
Agencies and influencers who are just out to make a quick buck will continue to have success in the short term but the increasing professionalization will soon reveal them for what they really are and their success will diminish.
- Micro-influencers will become more attractive but will still run the same risk as top influencers. After all, money earned too easily can alter character – also for the smallest of influencers.
- The success of influencer marketing will increasingly be measured not just by reach but also by values such as creativity and content.
- The industry will fairly quickly develop meaningful key figures and KPIs which will enable a more professional approach to influencer marketing and further boost the attractivity of a well-rounded marketing mix.
- Following the current adaptation period, influencer marketing will continue to grow in popularity and importance. The advantages are simply too big to ignore. Influencer marketing is not going to go away and will soon become a key element of every business’ marketing mix.