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Time is running out to get influencer marketing right

Despite the continuous hype that has surrounded influencer marketing over the last few years, it remains largely unexplored and unproven. According to new research from Traackr, 43 per cent of companies are still only in the early “experimental” stages of influencer marketing, and in the companies that are implementing it, there is widespread uncertainty as to who exactly owns it.

Then there are the brands who will come along with a product and want an influencer to talk about it in a post, even going so far as to try to control the exact language used, demonstrating a total lack of understanding as to why influencers are different from traditional celebs and brand ambassadors. And the relative immaturity of influencer marketing means there is no such thing as a standard cost for anything, further heightening confusion.

“Pricing influencer posts is part art, part science,” says Hypr’s Henry Langer. In fact, pricing remains such an inscrutable alchemy to many that Digiday recently published its own breakdown of current influencer pricing, which categorises the cost by platform, follower count, and number of post views.

The development of new measurement and analytics tools should help make a case for why brands stand to benefit from forging relationships with influencers.  Marketing platform Ahalogy has partnered with Moat to track user activity and engagement, essentially offering up solid ROI figures on influence. “The fact is, we’re competing against crap,” says Bob Gilbreath, CEO of Pinterest marketing platform Ahalogy. “We just want a level playing field to compete on.”

Meanwhile, content marketing firm WhoSay are working to make metrics in this area cohesive. “There’s a race to standardisation in influencer marketing,” says WhoSay’s Rob Gregory. “The moment has arrived where it is an acknowledged thing that is crying out for rules and regulations.” Of course, with more accurate measurement comes the chance that some brands will see their influencer campaigns have been less effective than they thought, and that they’ve splashed out on a PewDiePie or Zoella for insubstantial returns.

The original selling point of influencer marketing was authenticity. These young creators had masses of fans who trusted them implicitly, and they connected with them in a very real and immediate way. But now there’s a growing sense that consumer trust in influencer marketing is already flagging, that the transparency of #ad content (or in some cases, the inability to spot what is sponsored) is no longer passing the group BS-meter.

The big bucks of influencer marketing have been undercut somewhat by the rise of micro-influencers; people with a smaller following and a smaller price-tag. In a recent Glossy interview, an anonymous marketer described micro-influencer marketing as a “big scam”, cooked up by unscrupulous influencer platforms who will pair brands up with bloggers who’ll “do anything for a $100 gift card.” It’s possible that these small-time deals, while delivering easy wins in the short-term, won’t necessarily do influencer marketing any favours when it comes to credibility and that all-important authenticity.

“To effect change influencers rely on trust and authority and that’s the nub of the issue: without trust, influencers lose power,” says PR director Kate Mathews. “Authenticity can’t be bought; it isn’t about the size of an influencer’s following or how many zeros are in a budget.”

Mark Henshall, head of content at Qube Media, cites the Fyre Festival disaster earlier this year as a prime example of how influencer culture has the tendency to value hype over delivery. “For influencer marketing the current situation is unsustainable. The thinking is often woolly, the practice misleading and the measurement inconsistent,” he writes in a blog post for TravelMole.

“There will always be unfortunate outliers in any marketing discipline who don’t do the rest of their group any favours, but influencer marketing seems more fundamentally flawed, presently, through a lack of rigour,” he continues. “More brands need to adopt mutually agreed expectations, guidelines and contracts with influencers to enforce penalties and fines where duty of care is breached. Campaigns need more clarity to address public levels of understanding of what constitutes a paid ad and what’s acceptable. Lastly, measurement of influencer marketing ROI needs to be more effective — we need to move past the idea ‘digital is different’ and report results accurately.”

All of that said, there are still categories where influencers are very much worth the investment. New figures from HelloSociety reveal that luxury influencer posts on Instagram generate up to 30 per cent more engagement than regular campaigns, while luxury campaigns on Pinterest enjoy a boost of 17 per cent. Luxury brands were among the most reluctant to embrace influencers, due to their stricter control on messaging and public image.

Digital transformation expert Brian Solis writes: “While paid endorsements and one-off initiatives may offer short term benefit, Influence 2.0 (the next stage of influencer marketing) offers the capacity to become part of the customer journey.” Instead of starting with a brand, or a product, or an influencer, it looks like the answer to influencer marketing is to do what good businesses have always done: begin with the customer, and work outward from there.

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