GLOBAL: Influencer marketing, often eyed warily as an unaccountable and murky subset of the industry, has received new scrutiny to strengthen the view that the value of partnering with influencers lies in enhanced opportunities for engagement rather than the route to mass reach.

Last week, a New York Times investigation into Devumi, a firm that has collected millions of dollars out of selling fraudulent social media followings, unnerved clients and sparked widespread action as a result.

To most marketers, the fact that a minority of bots populate Twitter and other social platforms will come as no surprise. Last year a study into the amount of non-human accounts on Twitter found that as many as 15% of the platform’s users don’t have an offline identity.

For some influencer agencies, the news was an opportunity to address the issue with clients and to prove their worth. Alexa Tonner, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Collectively told Digiday that clients are “seeking reassurance, but this is good news because it kind of gets the problem everyone has known about to some level to the topmost people.”

In so doing, others who spoke to Digiday believe the news heralds the death of “nonstrategic” influencer marketing. Felix Morgan, Head of Strategy at Livity, and author of WARC’s Best Practice How to work with influencers, believes there needs to be a shift in thinking, “from seeing influencer marketing as a media buy to a creative activation channel.”

“Social data alone is not enough, and does not tell the true story of the links between 'influencers' and an audience. Often the biggest influence in a certain topic can be parents, or the playground, or the locker room, so instead of starting with social data you need to start by really understanding the drivers behind influence”, he told WARC in an email.

Instead, he said, brands should seek to understand what helps their audience build trust, what conveys expertise and relatability. At Livity, this stage is characterised by qualitative research and validations at scale, rather than simply using social data.

The danger, as the New York Times shows, is thinking about influencers as a distribution platform rather than partners in communicating to an audience.

Sourced from New York Times, CNBC, Digiday, WARC; additional content by WARC staff