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Influencer Marketing Trends & Strategies in 2018

Insights / 01.18.2018

Mia Mendola & Mikah Torres

Influencer Marketing can be extremely effective in reaching a brand's target audience with a more authentic feel, but devising an influencer campaign strategy can be difficult to navigate. Our Sr. Social Media Specialist, Mia Mendola, and Earned Media Specialist, Mikah Torres, share their expert experience with identifying influencers, executing successful influencer marketing campaigns, and where the industry is headed. 

What is Influencer Marketing?

MM: When I posed this question to my Red Door team members in a weekly meeting of the minds, the always quizzical Zach Leffers said, “I don’t know what an influencer is. There is no such thing as an influencer.” He really couldn’t be closer to the truth. According to Wikipedia, influencer marketing is “a form of marketing where focus is placed on influential people rather than the target market as a whole.” If you ask Urban Dictionary, an influencer is “a makeup, hairstyle, or fashion blogger who is instafamous only on Instagram or buys ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ and gets free products from companies who fall in their trap of fake fame.” With these differences across conventional and unconventional descriptions, it seems the only way to define “influencer” is by the root of the word: someone who influences. It’s like trying to pin down a definitive meaning for what is “cool.” It means different things to different people, depending on your interests and values. Cool is relative, and so are influencers.

MT: I think that’s pretty on the nose. An influencer is someone who quite literally influences someone else to take an action, believe a certain perspective, or purchase something they may or may not need. In our age of Instagram and YouTube reigning supreme, an influencer is a content creator paid and supplied by brands to subtly (or not so subtly) make said brand a part of the “lifestyle” they’re selling to their users. Most of us are pretty familiar with this to some degree so we don’t need to go into too much detail, but there are some benefits to having brand influencers that may not be as evident. Influencers are a nice middle ground between users and brands. They look like us (target audience), but they sound like them (brand). By connecting with us on a human level, influencers can better show us a visual representation of what that product or service looks like as part of our lives. We can begin to see ourselves as the ones needing and owning that thing, whatever it is. 

What interests you in Influencer Marketing?

MM: I started becoming interested in influencers and influencer marketing in college. I decided to write my senior thesis around fashion blogging, and defining what makes a “professional” blogger different from an “amateur.” My research would lead me to the discovery that while there are professional bloggers who do this for a career (aka, money), there are also microbloggers—those who do this for a passion, to connect to a community, and most importantly, not making money off it.

MT: My interest and experience in influencer marketing is much shorter lived and less traditional. I think it all started with Instagram—seeing the kinds of self-started brands that people could create for themselves, and how they built audiences and made money through bigger-brand partnerships. I would be so hyped to see an artist or creator I followed or personally knew post a sponsored ad because, you know, they finally made it! Of course, sometimes that kills the authenticity of some of those experiences. It’s definitely a tight rope to walk, and watching “ordinary people” take on some degree of celebrity is so fascinating to watch and see play out.

Where is Influencer Marketing going? Where is the industry heading?

MM: Executives are spending more on influencer marketing year over year, with almost 39% of marketers increasing budgets in 2018. I think I have heard that stat every year since the beginning of time. When I first started working with influencers, we rarely paid them outside of providing the product for content. And they rarely disclosed in the #sponsored #influencer #paid #ad way that we have to now. Back then, when an influencer worked with a brand, it was transparent, and not in an inauthentic way. The FTC had barely begun to crack down on brands (except for the one case with Cole Haan over a Pinterest contest that I will never stop hearing about). I think that really affected the saturation of the market. A stricter change in law enforcement made it riskier for influencers to play in the pool, but also, raised the expectation of being paid, as the post had to be overly disclosed no matter what. Now, payment is almost necessary to make movement, and disclosure is non-negotiable. So, this is my biggest takeaway as far as industry changes go, and something I will continue to shout from the mountaintops: you will likely have to pay, and you can’t expect anything by just sending product out.  

MT: Coming from SEO as a White Hat—and just being the good person that I am—I love that the industry is going toward transparency and formality. It feels like unionizing in a way, and it really is working in favor of influencers as creators, artists, and business people, with no disadvantage to the brands that are leveraging this tremendous power. The next “big thing” I’m most keeping an eye on is where platforms, brands, and influencers grow in terms of more transparency. We’ve been in the “#spon / #ad” era for a bit now, and I love that Instagram and other platforms display certain posts as “paid” or otherwise let the user know there’s some dollars being exchanged there. It’s vital that people be told the truth—I continue to see some brands and influencers get away with not disclaiming they’re being paid to “totally love” something, and having the context I do, it feels scummy and makes me less enthused about that channel. Just let your audience know. It’s not selling out. It’s an accomplishment for what you’ve grown your brand into. Let your audience celebrate that with you instead of hiding it.

MM: Another thing we’re seeing grow is micro-influencers. In a recent influencer study by L2, they suggest your biggest bang for your buck as far as “net brand engagements” go are micro-influencers (less than 25K followers) or celebrities. Influencers with community sizes 100K-2.5M tend to be overpriced for boost around engagement on a brand sponsored post. I couldn’t agree more, based on the success we saw from programs we have run in the past. Ambassador programs, using micro-influencers, bring a big return in terms of engagement and sales. Celebrity influencers also generate a large return on net brand engagements, and though they come at a large cost, the large boost in brand awareness is almost guaranteed. 

MT: I think of it this way: influencers exist on the axis of celebrity and credibility. Celebrity sponsorships come with huge reach (and huge budgets), but over time I believe the impact or credibility has dwindled. It’s very transparently transactional. Shannen Doherty didn’t do a commercial for Education Connection because she’s just that passionate about affordable education; she had bills to pay. A micro-influencer, on the other hand, is someone you may very well know, who likely only got the partnership because of a pre-existing passion for the product/service or the world in which it exists. Much lower reach and impact (and costs), but much more believable because of the context of how they became an influencer in the first place. Bigger-name influencers that may not be full-blown celebrities exist somewhere in between here. I’d say stick to someone that’s a natural extension of the brand and personality.

What has Influencer Marketing looked like at Red Door?

MM: We have run some really great influencer programs over the years. Like the #remixyourworkout challenge to promote the launch of a new product, or our 5 to the finish line mini-series to generate hype around the 2015 New York City Marathon. Having been a part of all influencer projects here since 2015, I love that we get to craft genuine relationships with these people, because they genuinely align with the brands we represent (which is the key). I always look to make a personal connection with influencers to better understand them and how they can help our brands. Making them a part of the brand, not just a transaction. In fact, we’re seeing this become a trend—brands are taking the time to form authentic relationships with their influencers, and according to Digiday, 2018 will be the year of the influencer roster. Have these people come back over and over again for your campaigns? That is where you start to see notoriety. We go back to the need to have all influencers not only align with, but at the heart, be an advocate for your brand.

The other industry trend I have seen is the increase and exploitation of the beloved “lifestyle” influencer. We know you are buying your followers. We know bots exist. So being just another blogger with pretty photos and a large following will only get you so far. Using tools to look at the analytics of an influencer’s following will be extremely important. Technologies to point out the number of bots within an influencer’s network are also becoming more frequently offered in influencer discovery networks. 

How it should be

MM: Here is a bulleted recap of what we’ve discussed:

  • Number one rule is find influencers who align with your brand, and already are—or are likely to be—advocates. Having an influencer represent your brand that doesn’t align will make it extremely easy for a skeptical audience of Gen Z-ers to pick out. 
  • To make an impact, you will likely have to pay. Many influencers are not willing to take your product and post about it for free. Micro-influencers are the one category where this rule could be broken. However, disclosure must happen even if they are just given free product. So, either way, the post won’t blend in with the rest.
  • Treat influencers like people, not like a pawn. Yes, you may be paying them and expect a certain level of work. But brands that think influencers are dying to just create content for them at the snap of a finger are sadly mistaken. It takes a lot of time, effort, and thoughtfulness to create good branded content. So be compassionate and connect. 
  • Use a tool that analyzes the influencer’s audience. Or ask them for demographic information, past performance, engagement rate, a timeline of community growth—anything to help you understand how authentic their audience truly is.

MT: I think that covers everything on my list too, really. Be transparent and have whatever you do make sense for your brand and for theirs. 

Am I an influencer?

MM: Going back to the conversation we began with—what exactly is the definition of an influencer? I have a measly following of 1K on Instagram. But have I influenced anyone? If on average 20 percent of my followers are engaged, I could probably sell a product. I know how to create content. I know that I can increase my average engagement by posting photos with my horse as opposed to any other photography. I know that I must be smiling, and that I should use bright colors. Because I understand my audience, I can post engaging photos.

So, doing an analysis of engagements around horse photos, let’s look at #horsegirl. Of my #horsegirl photos on Instagram in the last year, I received an average of 237 engagements/post. Looking at the analytics of that hashtag over the last year, #horsegirl on Instagram usually receives an average of 391 engagements/post. Based on these numbers, I don’t have micro-influencer engagement rates, but if I keep at it, I will soon!

MT: Building my social influence is kind of my hobby. I play video games, drink craft beer, and work on my social presence; that’s all I do. I think I’m sitting at just over 3K followers across Instagram and Twitter. I’ve figured out what my followers will best engage with, and although it isn’t a science, I feel a bit like an alchemist who knows what ingredients to use to have the outcome I desire. I love the intersection of product and lifestyle in imagery, so that’s where I could see myself selling people on something. I think the real influence I’ve had has come from geeking out over games or clothing or pins, sharing them, and then getting people to want those same things.

I haven’t analyzed my engagement, but I usually just set some arbitrary benchmark for myself, like 100 engagements/post. If it flops, I try to figure out why and not repeat it, but that can be difficult to pinpoint precisely. And sometimes people are just sleeping on my content!

When looking to change brand perception, increase product awareness, and even decrease cost per engagement, influencer marketing can be powerful. Want to learn more about influencer marketing or how your brand can leverage influencers? Leave a comment below or contact us

Insights,Social Media

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