Even as a millennial, I think that the idea of an “influencer” is odd. I myself am not one of these select few, but I do speak as someone who knows (and follows) several people with social media clout.
From any perspective, influence is hard to define, hard to measure, and for brands, becoming harder to leverage. And the truth is, when an influencer delivers a sponsored post to me and their other 10K+ followers, more often than not I’m going to scroll right past it.
With a background in strategic communications and marketing, I might be an anomaly in the way that I think about influencer marketing. But speaking strictly as a millennial, I can confirm that the vast majority of the generation raised on Instagram realizes that the Utopian life we’ve created in our feeds isn’t obtainable. At the end of the day, life just doesn’t look the way that so many ads are trying to convince us of every time we open our apps. We know that our problems can’t always be solved by the product or idea that businesses are pushing on us. We see through the posts as something that companies are putting money behind, and that it’s for profit and gain. Don’t get me wrong - there’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s also nothing great about it.
In order to “make influencer marketing great again”, a natural conversation has to exist in ways that aren’t taking place between most brands and content-creating influencers. As a concept, influencer marketing has opened a new communication pathway, as brands allow their message to come from a third party rather than from the brand directly. Even celebrity endorsements, which are arguably the predecessor to influencer marketing, are understood by all to be both overt and paid for. But in the ideal world of influencer messaging, the endorsement should be seen as authentic and spontaneous. The question is, does anyone buy into that idea anymore? In order for there to be transparency, brands have to be able to “let go” and allow influencers to create meaningful content with the same voice, expertise, and perspective that drew their followers to them in the first place.
Numbers don’t lie. Actually, they do.
Though influence has always been hard to quantify, it’s become easier to measure thanks to the vast amounts and types of data that are accessible to brands. But the assumption that data alone is going to show absolute value is misguided. As a brand or business, it’s tempting to look at quantitative data — such as followers and likes — as having a high degree of value because it’s verifiable and concrete. Fortunately, many brands have come to learn that there is nuance in those numbers. On many platforms, including Instagram, hundreds of thousands of followers can be a simple payment away. Even so, too often this metric alone dominates the space, with negative implications for both brands and influencers.
Qualitative data is the secret sauce as it relates to an influencer’s personal brand and audience impact - and the ability for a business to leverage it. In other words, don’t think only about numbers. Big ones can feel impressive, but they don’t always translate to a campaign’s ability to be successful, whether you are looking for impressions or direct sales.
For now, let’s put those numbers aside. The real success of an influencer marketing campaign is much like experiential marketing. It’s not only about the initial campaign or encounter. Impact can be measured over time by the value that’s brought to the community in which the brand and the influencer coexist. People value different things, which means that no follower is exactly alike. Campaigns and offers affect each one differently. But a community of people can share values and rally behind them. Those communities led by an influencer who has real impact in driving cultural and behavioral change are the people brands should seek to represent them. Brands should be more willing to identify and match with the few influencers who will represent their shared qualities, rather than the many influencers who only “sort of” do.
If content is king, then relevant content is God.
Content has always been king, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are listening. The idea that content should be relevant to its audience is rudimentary. Most brands seek out influencers for their ability to curate content and deliver relevant messages to their audience in a way that’s authentically themselves and appeals across the board. If an influencer is in touch with their niche, so much so that they demonstrate value to the brand, then brands need to allow them to create content that’s authentically themselves.
A frustration repeatedly expressed by my influencer friends is the micromanagement of their content by brands they partner with. If an influencer is willing to integrate your brand into their life’s story, let them. Micromanaging the influencers who create content on a brands behalf will risk the authentic, relevant voice that their audience has grown fond of and looks to for value. Seek to direct the messaging rather than dictate it.
Ultimately, brands and influencers alike need to recognize and appreciate the trust that’s being put into their relationship. If a genuine effort is made by both to recognize and reach goals, the content produced will inevitably become more authentic and better serve the audience.
Brands are smart to prioritize influencers when budgeting their marketing dollars. They serve as a direct and authentic connection to the audiences that they are trying to reach. However, each should expect more from the other when working to execute various campaigns — influencers from the brands that seek them out, and brands from the influencers that integrate the product or service into their lives online. The opposite — a traditional, one-sided marketing approach — will always fall short in today’s landscape. Modern marketing is two-sided, and influencer marketing even more so. In this vein, impact results from authenticity. And authenticity results from trusting and meaningful relationships between brands and influencers.
Riley DeLeon is a two-time published author and speaker from Springfield, MO. His most recent book, Driven, explores the biggest challenges faced by the millennial generation.