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A Defense Of Influencer Marketing In 2017

This weekend was a bad day for influencer marketers, with the very public issues around the Fyre music festival taking centre stage across the web. If you’re unaware, the event, which used famous faces in the world of Instagram to drive interest, unfortunately did not deliver on the promises set out in the advertising. This has led many to pass judgement around the use of influencers in marketing and ultimately the death of the channel as a whole.

However, despite the publicity, I’d like to offer an alternate take on the weekend’s news; one that is far more positive. As an SEO, I’m used to hearing about the fabled ‘end’ of my channel and have, on countless occasions, adapted and changed to stay-in-the-game. While the Fyre music festival may have exposed one negative element of the industry, it’s not fair to tar it all with the same brush. It’s time to put the ways of the past behind and bring influencer marketing up-to-date with the rest of the marketing mix.

The reason the event underperformed was simple; there was too much investment in creating ‘the hype’ over such a great product. However, while this may have been (self-admitted) naivety on the part of the organisers, I feel it is wider than that. We’ve created a consumer culture that aspires to be great and create shining, physical examples of the dream in the form of influencers. The only issue, as Fyre found out at the weekend, is that the reality can rarely live up to the idea that is being sold. But this shouldn’t mean that we give up on the channel; we just need to redefine what it means to be ‘an influencer’.

The problem with the current model is that takes a very myopic view of what influencers can achieve. The typical campaign goal of ‘reach’ has, for a long time, driven PRs to work with the biggest names- from celebrities to more recently, the stars of social media. While this may drive the initial sales of a product, it doesn’t always mean that people will become loyal, returning customers. With thousands of brands vying for each consumer’s interest, building loyalty is intrinsic to success; but the wide-net approach risks putting your product into the hands of those who, despite their wish to appear ‘in tune’ with the latest vlogger-led craze, would never actually enjoy it without the buzz. The resultant negativity risks leading to a spiral – which, in the age of social media, can be a popularity killer.

But arguably, this model isn’t even relevant anymore. With over 80% of consumers trusting an online review as much as a personal recommendation, the goal of influencer marketers should be less about reaching people and more about growing the relationship between a company and their customers, which should prevent any disappointment once the initial publicity has been removed.

This is something we in SEO have been championing since the release of Penguin into the wild; when Google removed the ability for search marketers to spam, we had to adapt. This, in turn, led to the rise in content marketing – my views on which, you can read here – and to a new tactic: blogger outreach. However, this has also proved fruitless as influencers started to turn the channel into a money-making machine, and this quickly came to odds with Google’s guidelines. So, we had to adapt again, and we came to a very simple realisation; to get people to link to our products and content (and realise the organic search potential), they have to actually like what we’re saying or selling.

You see, while consumers still look for guidance in their tastes (and subsequent purchases), we’re now starting to pass the point where they take this lead less from seeing the right people use your product to hearing those people speak honestly about it. I recently heard a group of late-teens criticising a vlogger on the train for ‘sponsored content’; these are people with no prior digital understanding or access to the secret code of marketers – these were normal, typical consumers, saying they were fed up with continuously hearing the paid-for opinions that have up-to-now been the key focus of this activity.

I said at the start of this piece that I’d be defending the industry; but if you were to stop reading now, you’d probably disagree. And you’d be right to, but to do so would be to ignore all the positive activity that is currently going on as part of the channel, as many other publications have done so far. In the same way that ‘voucher codes’ are a single part of affiliates, a top-tier endorsement is only one part of influencer marketing. And as I’ll try to persuade, it’s the least valuable in 2017, despite receiving the lion’s share of the channel’s budgets.

Currently, we live in a blogging revolution; with the success of the likes of Zoella, Michelle Phan, and PixiWoo, many have decided to follow suit as a hobby and as a career. Some have already seen widespread success, others less so. However, the opportunity for brands to work influencers has never been more open. Moreover, with the number of publications coming to life increasing each day, so too does the breadth of knowledge that is covered within the community. In short, while these influencers may not have the same number of followers as their first-to-market counterparts, it does not mean that they are any less expert in their field or capable of creating engaging pieces of work.

Additionally, the ability to connect with friends and acquaintances has increased dramatically, with the average user now spending over five years on social media in their lifetime. People no longer have to exchange personal information, such as telephone numbers, to stay in touch, and as the recent elections around the world have shown, users can be heavily swayed by the opinions of those they have in their ‘inner-circle’ on these platforms. While each user may have a far smaller reach than any single member of the Instagram elite, their ability to engage others at a personal, credible level is far higher.

With both types of influencer marketing providing unparalleled credibility, they present an opportunity that is rarely explored by anyone outside of the digital marketing world;  which begs the question as to why the public relations industry has failed (generally speaking) to capitalise on this potential as well?  Well, in the defence of PRs, it’s far harder to measure ‘credibility’ against the typical KPIs.

It’s far easier for SEOs to work with influencers as the impact can have a tangible effect on rankings, traffic and, by extension revenue. Moreover, social media managers can report on engagement metrics to show the value of the work. However, the simple fact is that it is far more difficult to achieve the required reach of a PR campaign whilst also retaining the same level of credibility as other channels.

Ultimately, because of how we are measured, we are able to work with the kinds of influencers that we do. Our primary metrics are not reach – or at least, not as a core KPI. We’re judged on the effect we make on a client’s website traffic or social following and have the choice of activities to pursue, each with different levels of impact. We are not tied to delivering an increased brand recollection or market penetration, but make sure our clients are there when users start looking (even if they’re not looking for us yet); or to provide a voice where our clients’ customers already exist.

On the other hand, PRs have to generate fresh interest each time, whether it be a new product, campaign or company. With traditional publications seeking to appear less ‘sponsored’ and authorities coming down harder on those that blur the lines between adverts and editorial content, the jobs of the public relations team is becoming harder. Moreover, as markets and industries move faster and ‘breakthroughs’ become more regular, it’s far more difficult to be newsworthy. Instead, influencers offer an interesting alternative, with equally relevant audiences and the ability to connect with consumers on a more regular, personal basis.

However, it’s impossible to create the buzz of a Vogue article or Cosmopolitan piece without a following and this is why it continues to be the case that the same, top-tier faces appear in every campaign. There simply isn’t enough resource to generate the same level of results (in terms of reach) with those that have fewer numbers. And it’s a shame, because this not only results in poorer ROI (in terms of lifetime value) for the brand but limits the opportunity for the next class of influencers to achieve the success they deserve.

So how do we fix this situation? The answer is actually very simple – collaboration. Instead of looking at influencer marketing as the sole remit of the PR team or a shared remit with split performance metrics, the future of the industry is in bringing the best of each of your teams together to achieve a shared, campaign-level goal. We’re past the stage where PR, SEO and Social exist independently of each other and to succeed brands must encourage their teams to work more closely on a single campaign brief.

A great way to create harmony across each channel is to implement a framework of ownership – this way, each team knows who is responsible for tendering the relationship with each type of influencer. Additionally, it’s a good idea to start each campaign with a cross-channel meeting; here it can be decided what the core objectives are and how each activity can help to achieve this. To include everyone from the start means that all teams know what to expect of each other and how they can fit into the wider activity and drive the best possible return on investment from the budget available.

By taking this less siloed approach, influencer marketing can adapt past the present to a future where the needs of the consumer are met in a way that does not ultimately lead to disappointment. The Fyre music festival should be a cautionary tale to brands, but should not spell the end for a channel that still has a lot to offer. Marketers should embrace all types of influencer, particularly those that may not provide an opportunity for a wider reach but can offer honesty and credibility or more directly have their audience’s ear. Finally, all channels that have a touchpoint with this activity should no longer act in isolation (and to individual KPIs) but should operate together, share expertise and work towards a single, overarching campaign goal. As a result, brands can expect to see a better ROI, a more loyal audience and the continued growth of one of marketing’s most exciting channels.