If there is one thing generating major amounts of buzz right now, it’s influencers. Many brands consider influencers to make or break their strategies. While there are many arguments to justify this meteoric rise, I’m going to take a rather unpopular position and argue that influencer marketing has reached its peak in terms of performance. Let’s debunk the most commonly held perceptions.
Media vs. Influence
In many ways Influencers have taken the space vacated by the decline in traditional media. To be clear, influencers didn’t cause the decline in media. The gradual shift towards consuming media across social networks means that each centralized media creator has seen a dip in regular subscriptions. The venerated Time magazine lost 700K subscribers last year (the purchase this week by SalesForce founder Benioff for $180M reveals that substantial loss in value). Influencers have taken the inverse path and seen incredible growth in subscribers, particularly on Instagram – the world’s most important platform for consumer brands today.
What we need to keep in mind is that the platforms themselves are sucking the juice away from outlets in preference for content that they think that you care about, like posts from friends you recently interacted with or the people you just started following. If you’ve been a fan of Time magazine since you joined Facebook 8 years ago, you won’t see anything from them unless you regularly click on their content.
While many publications populate the over-crowded cemetery of the once-influential, the ones that exist today and that have retained (or grown) their readership are much better places to consistently engage with people. The subscribers of influencers are not paying them anything other than their occasional attention. Media outlet subscribers cough up their money every month and tend to spend much more attention on those publications as a result.
I’ve never been much of a fan of CPM-based marketing (buying space and hoping people see it), and now most publications offer a variety of media formats that are optimized for performance. Gone are the days of buying banners, hoping they load, and praying that people them. Teads is one such ad platform with very innovative formats, like the paralax scroll and the video that follows you as you scroll down the page.
When you use influencers to market you products, you are going back to a CPM-based model, where you calculate the approximate reach your content will get, and add a bit for the image bump that you can get from associating with the right influencers. You cannot optimize for performance.
Many marketers falsely believe that influencer marketing is a step forward for their digital strategies. In fact, when compared to other more-advanced techniques, influencer marketing is a continuation of the famous 50% of advertising that the digital revolution has promised to improve.
I know that half of my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half – John Wanamaker
From my personal experience, running both media and influencer campaigns, media is up to 4x more effective than influencers for driving traffic to a landing or product page.
Saturation and Declining Reach
Media outlets are not alone in the struggle. As more and more people join social platforms, the algorithms have to make the choices I described above. Since the organic reach of many brands and media outlets is effectively zero, where else can they constrict reach in order to show you the algoptimized content? Influencers.
There is an important clarification to make before continuing. Celebrities are not influencers. Influencers are people who grew fan bases through clear social strategies, not people who were already famous. The difference is important.
Some celebrities boast followings larger than many of the nations in the world. Selena Gomez herself has more followers on Instagram than Mexico has people, making her subscriber base the 10th largest country in the world. Celebrities who derive their fame from other places than social media can arguably continue to grow in popularity indefinitely because they are not dependant on any one platform.
Influencers are not the same thing. They became attractive as a marketing tool precisely because they were more targeted and accesible than celebrities – an alternative pretty face to the Charlize Therons of the world. But even the most famous influencer, Chiara Ferragni, is far from being a household name.
Because influencers were supposed to be much more authentic, with dedicated communities, brands want them to influence the purchases and brand perceptions among those followers. For a while it was a novel approach. Fans were used to receiving recommendations for beauty products, clothes, or places to travel. It was cool because the influencer was doing it themselves. It was aspirational.
But now nearly every influencer spends their time creating content for brands, such that any sort of authentic experience has largely evaporated. They are simply empty vessels for branding much like a mannequin standing in the front window of a store. Fans know this now.
This begs the question, if influencers can no longer influencer the things that people do or purchase, can they still be called influencers?
But wait! What about Huda or Kendall or Kylie?
You may have heard about influencers who have successfully launched product lines that are now hitting revenues in the 9 figures. Surely this means that influencers are here to stay?
Sure, in a very few cases an “influencer” can cross over into celebrity territory (remember that the Kardashians were reality TV stars before they were influencers). Chiara Ferragni has a successful clothing line and is opening retail shops.
Huda Beauty was launched by Huda Kattan and is based out of Dubai. It is a successful cosmetics line that is frequently used to prove that influencers can really influence.
But aside from a few success stories, the majority of influencers make their money hawking other people’s wares. An influencer might be able to squeeze some cash out of their audiences but as soon as they start pumping their audience for money, their audience gets a little turned off.
There will always be exceptions to the rule, but the rule is that people follow influencers they find to be genuine (or beautiful), as soon as they cross over to promotional content, they are no longer authentic. Brands must then ditch the big names and starting hunting for smaller influencers. This creates a race for the long tail.
From Micro to Nano to Zero?
I wrote back in February of this year that if Influencers were the trend for 2017, 2018 was all about micro-influencers. As I explained above, brands are looking for influencers who can provide the most engagement, or bang for their buck. This means targeting influencers with smaller, more-dedicated communities that haven’t been strangled by the algorithms. Brands spread out their budgets across more and more influencers instead of spending it all in one go.
But as the micro-influencers become compromised, now the trend is turning to nano-influencers or influencers with less than a few thousand followers. New tools enable brands to reach out to vast numbers of influencers at a time, but it comes at a steep price.
As a brand spreads out their strategy to more and more influencers, it becomes harder to interact with each one. You are by definition paying them less individually, and you have less and less of a say in the type of content they create for you. In many cases this loss of control of your brand image is not acceptable. Take the luxury market for example. Many fashion houses insist on validating all of the content posted via paid channels. The task of validation becomes extremely time consuming when you are working with 100 nano-influencers instead of 3 regular influencers.
All of this leads to the next question: when does it all stop? If the average person has a few hundred followers on Instagram, will they be considered quanta-influencers? Will brands pay normal people a dollar to talk about their products to their friends? In a way, isn’t that just a return to the early days of social media when everyone was talking about turbocharging word of mouth marketing?
Go Forth but Be Wary
I’m not suggesting trashing your influencer marketing strategy entirely. In many organizations the image of your brand is very important, and the integration of influencer managers has finally taken hold – bringing this particular expertise in-house. Firing these people now would be a mistake.
But so would continuing unbridled growth in investment in this medium. I haven’t even touched on the way that people use Instagram and the fact that “views” of stories or posts can last fractions of a second and can be subliminal at best. As a fun (or very depressing) exercise the next time you are at a Starbuck’s, look to see a teenager standing in line scrolling through Instagram. If you can identify the content of any given post, I’ll pay for your coffee. The reality is that they scroll so fast that they are not actually looking at each post to be able to qualify it as a view.
Usually when something hype has reached the masses, it’s time to move on to the next thing.