The Anxiety Of Influence

by Jake Schneider

My wife and I were having dinner at one of our favorite Austin neighborhood spots last week and we couldn’t help but notice a celebratory group of teenagers at the table to our left. They were laughing and having fun and doing what teenagers do, including snapping photos of themselves and each other and (I imagined) pushing those images out to Instagram and Snapchat.

A couple of them were trying to set up a stylized group photo and were coaxing a friend to join in, but she was not having it.

“No, it’s off brand,” she demurred.

Most folks might not have noticed a response like that, but for me it was a bombshell. I’ve spent a long time helping Fortune 500 brands understand and navigate the behavioral shifts occurring in social media, in particular the rise of what many call influencer marketing. To hear a teenager refer to herself as a “brand” that she was clearly managing on social media gave me pause. The whole idea of influencer marketing was that marketers would have access to authentic people with personal and engaged audiences. If this budding influencer was passing up real life to manage her “brand,” what exactly would she be offering to marketers?

The thing that was so exciting about social media in the beginning was its promise of democratization. Anyone could be creative with the tools provided by social platforms, and more than that, anyone with an idea could have a powerful method of distribution. Who needed experts? We all had access to a platform from which we could cultivate and present our points of view on everything from food and parenting to fashion and motorsports. For the viewer, it was the new way to escape, discover, or be inspired. And for many, social media became a lucrative pathway. As Casey Neistat puts it so well in his “Do What You Can’t” video, “If you do it right, you get to quit the day job.”

For brands, social media was supposed to transform discovery, consumer engagement, customer service and provide more direct communications, all while helping companies “humanize” themselves. But it hasn’t happened. According to Nielsen, a consumer is still 92 percent more likely to trust the voice of a friend, a person like themselves, or even a total stranger over the voice of the brand. Meanwhile, brands are spending valuable resources trying to work around the social algorithms designed to depreciate their reach to social audiences they’ve spent past marketing budgets to acquire. And that’s how we got to the idea of influencers.

That Nielsen statistic alone has probably birthed nearly a million Instagram accounts for fashion, food, travel, and beauty. When you add in the fact that 33-37 percent of marketers each spend or plan to spend between $50k to $100k on influencer programs in 2017, it’s obvious that we are validating Biggie Smalls’ “Mo Money, Mo Problems” philosophy.

The trend around influencers has created an insatiable demand by marketers. More troubling, it has also led to a mass influx of people trying to capitalize on the trend (ref. the brand-conscious teenager from dinner). Each year Universal McCann, or UM, surveys over 50,000 people in 78 countries to find the latest trends in social media. This year, their Wave 9 reportshows how significant the idea of influencers has become—and how it is transforming the industry. Far more people are managing their connections and using social to promote themselves than in past years. Far fewer people are using social for fun and entertainment. As a result, social is becoming much more stressful.

From a business perspective, this kind of influx and Wild West demandhas brought on inconsistencies in rates and governance. All of it has led me to take a step back and ask the question, “Does anyone really have influence if everyone is trying to be an influencer?”

There are still too many corners that can be cut by “influencers” or influencer wannabes like that teenager I overheard in the restaurant. If it’s followers you want, those can be bought. Engagement is the better metric, you say? You can buy that too. Marketers should be wary.

That doesn’t mean they should stop collaborating with influencers. Influencers can still provide a synapse-like connection of authenticity between brands and audiences that can’t be achieved anywhere else, and this can help build a strong connection to the brand. But marketers should be prudent, take a step back, and think beyond vanity metrics or “potential” reach and views. And they should be wary of influencers who skip real life in favor of being “on brand.”

Tips for managing an influencer campaign

An influencer program is no longer just a tactic. To help you frame an influencer campaign, consider the following questions:

What is the story?

Who are the right creators that will provide the right narrative?

What is the best way to collaborate with them?

What do we want the outcome to be?

Once you answer those questions, here are other considerations to think about and help you stay on track.

1. Audience size is usually misleading. Platforms have algorithms. Audiences and engagement can be bought. Do your due diligence. Request an audience breakdown or do an audit if you aren’t confident. It is really important to understand the makeup of the creator’s audience.

2. Does the influencer’s persona match the story you are trying to tell and persona of your brand?

3. Does the influencer adhere to governance policies for platforms and the FTC? Facebook has introduced branded content guidelines and tools, as has Instagram

4. Can the influencer co-create to tell a story? We’ve reached peak portrait shot or selfie with “X” product. Consumers demand more. Brands can risk being seen as tone deaf and out of touch if things don’t seem right.

5. Does the person really want to work with your brand? What are the possibilities for a long-term relationship? Exclusivity comes at a cost but the benefits of a longer relationship for continuity bring greater rewards.

6. Will your brand recieve content in perpetuity to use in other ads? A trend that is happening with influencer agencies in particular is that there is a 15-20 day window to post content and have it up, then it can be taken down. This loses the ability to measure longtail impact that was supposed to be the benefit of working with micro-influencers.

7. Are the expectations and communications clear to enable great work? Brands and creator relationships that aren’t collaborative often end up wanting. For the best results, make sure you are shaping together.

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