Influencers have gone from marketing’s darlings to a place of deep distrust – was it too good, too engaged, too cheap to be true? Or does influencer work need a more robust strategy? AllTogetherNow’s Isabel Day suggests a new way.

Over the past year brands spent more than £776 million on Instagram influencers, and this number is likely to double by 2019. Influencer marketing has become an integral part of marketing activity, with brands realising the power of influential voices reaching diverse audiences at a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. This original promise of influencer marketing was appealing to brand managers and has changed how many brands interact online. However, what goes up must also come down. We’re now starting to see the drawbacks of using influencers as a marketing strategy. What happened?

1. From blogging to selling

Influencers used to simply call themselves bloggers or vloggers, creating their own content, often unpaid and from their bedrooms in their spare time. This raw, authentic content was popular with readers – unlike celebrities in adverts, if a blogger reviewed a product and said it was good it could be trusted. Brands were relatively slow to see the opportunity to leverage this credibility, but the explosion of mummy bloggers and subsequent blogger outreach in the mid 2000s set the scene, and the opportunity. Now many call themselves an ‘influencer’ and can command thousands of pounds for promoting products. So much so, that this year you can actually buy an ‘influencer’ Halloween costume.

2. The influence of influencers grew with the explosion in social media

Influencers are often early adopters – starting with blogs, moving onto vlogs, the influencer channel of choice is now often Instagram. Instagram has quickly grown to 42 million daily active users, helping influencers grow their own audiences in turn, allowing anyone to talk about anything at scale. It seems like every week social platforms unveil new features designed to keep people engaged for longer, more frequently. This allows influencers to extend their reach and engagement, providing opportunities to be more accessible for the masses and grow their followings.

3. Enter the micro-influencer

Having 100,000 followers used to be significant, with marketers thinking that “more was more” and the bigger the potential reach the better. As such, influencers with large followings have been able to charge increasingly amounts. But now, no longer is follower count the only king, with brands increasingly looking at follower engagement.

As the platforms and sharing content have become mainstream, we’ve seen the rise of the micro-influencer. They have fewer followers, but often have a respected voice in a niche area and highly engaged audiences and so are increasingly popular with brands. It probably doesn’t hurt that they are often considerably cheaper to work with than higher profile influencers.

4. Fake followers and a questionable ROI

Brands hoping to credibly reach new audiences have been stung by stories of fake followers and influencers using staged backdrops, posting multiple brand collaborations whilst still trying to appear ‘real and genuine’. Many influencers cross the line between being seen as authentic and simply being a corporate shill.

The platforms themselves are stepping up to the challenge - Instagram has developed the “paid partnership” feature to assist with the transparency and credibility of online voices. Still, relationships with influencers must be closely monitored and regularly reviewed, with brands needing strict standards of credibility, authenticity and transparency.

Slowly but surely brands are becoming better equipped for tracking the performance of influencers and the ROI they can have. It’s crucial to have a clear objective and tracking methods, whether that’s tracked URLs, shoppable options or personalised promotion codes, giving brands a better insight into whether their influencers are really driving sales. However, as many as 38% of marketers are still unable to tell if influencer activity actually does this.

5. Everything is promoted

As marketers jumped on the influencer bandwagon many marketers simply ignored the lack of transparency between sponsored and non-sponsored content. This lead to consumer backlash with complaints rising nearly 200% from 2012 to 2016. Tighter advertising laws have been implemented since last year when the ASA started to crack down on influencers who weren’t disclosing payments.

With influencer marketing now under scrutiny due to backlash of disingenuous, non-transparent influencer activity and the rise of distrusting audiences, how do brands find original ways to build trust and hook their consumers with 2019 on the near horizon?

Marketers need to ask themselves before considering influencer marketing whether they’re a good investment - they can be risky, expensive and may not be the best option for increasing brand loyalty. Yet, if you decide to take the plunge, here are five recommendations on how you can optimise your influencer activity in the future:

  1. Use a mix-tiered influencer approach, involving a combination of working with influencers with a very large following and micro-influencers. This allows the best of both worlds, the reach of larger influencers, and the engaged audiences of micro-influencers.
  2. Don’t hide the partnership. The biggest shift in influencer marketing to date is that readers have realised when they are being spoken to in a disingenuous way.
  3. Check, double check and triple check when you’re creating content with influencers that it’s original, relatable and relevant. Online readers are consuming content quicker (spending 1.7 seconds on average with any piece of mobile content) and brand loyalty is increasingly difficult.
  4. Build trust amongst consumers by investing in long-term relationships with a handful of carefully selected (and vetted) influencers in order to produce consistent, transparent and ongoing content with them.
  5. Establish measures of success. If you’re looking for reach and awareness then ask for view counts. If you’re looking for conversion look at site referrals, use tracked URLs or even voucher codes.

Saffron Steele, Culture & Influencer Director at Halpern PR discusses the need for a credible partnership, “Influencer selections have never been more important with consumers questioning the authenticity of a partnership, so working with an influencer who already has a base level interest or passion for your brand will instantly elevate the credibility of the campaign. Developing longstanding relationships and advocacy with influencers on behalf of a brand is an important tactic for building consumer trust, and far more effective than a one-off post.”

Yes it’s gotten a little out of hand, yes we’re seeing questionable content out there, but when done right there is still value in collaborating with credible voices that are relevant to your audience. You’ll just need to ensure the value exchange for your brand is front of mind when working with this new age of content creators.