"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
- Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.
Influencer marketing is somehow both buzzword of the moment and The Next Big Thing. As adblocking grows, two-thirds of marketers intend to increase their influencer investment in 2017, according to eMarketer. Brands are throwing money at influencers and agencies have even opened studios to help them create content.
Mercedes-Benz announced a collaboration with influencers called 'MB Photo Pass' with this Möbius strip of strategy: "The more people who want the car, the more exclusive it becomes. And social helps draw more young consumers to Mercedes-Benz."
Let's consider this: influence means one's ideas or behaviour can impact someone else's. Influence is understood not to be manipulation or persuasion. There is a lack of intention in the idea, because influence, like entrepreneurship, is a side effect of doing something else: having status or expressing interesting ideas well; starting a company.
When we say someone is influential, we mean they affect others. However, inside that, there is the idea of scale. Parents have incredible influence on their children, but we do not call all parents influencers.
What, then, are we talking about? What is an influencer? Someone who has influence on significant numbers of people. If I only set trends for my friends, no brand would seek me out - it would be inefficient. In our celebrity-obsessed hyper-mediated culture, those who reach many and inspire imitation or action are influencers. Essentially, various forms of celebrity bringing their audience over from traditional forms of fame or having grown one endogenously inside social media. Either way, their audience trusts them.
We copy people we like, who have status. This is predicated on the idea that what they are saying is something they believe, an expression of who they are, because that's what we want to imitate. So these celebrities are copied, consciously and unconsciously.
Like all Next Big Things, it's been a long time coming. Agencies started experimenting with influencer marketing in 2007. Back then, blogs were the bleeding edge and I was considered an influencer, so British telecoms giant O2 sent me a new phone and said 'play with this'.
I wrote that you should not ask recipients to promote the thing you are trying to market, because it turns a gift into a transaction. It relies on feelings of reciprocity and primacy, which will drive people to talk about it and, because when they get a gift it feels rude to badmouth the giver, they are likely to be positively inclined. Obviously, that strategy is laborious and speculative, a PR approach.
So now we give them money, brand guidelines and format requirements, or even pre-written copy (as we saw on Scott Disick's Instagram post for 'Bootea Shake', in which he didn't remove the instruction to cut and paste the copy, from the copy he cut and pasted).
The paradox of influencer marketing is that when we try to buy influence, we transform it into endorsement, which everyone understands is a fiction. Celebrities in advertisements are not influential in this sense because no one thinks they actually believe what they are saying. They are not sharing an opinion, they are paid mouthpieces for brands.
As digital think tank L2 wrote: "Brand visibility on these channels often seems more authentic and credible than traditional advertising." But that authenticity is obviously disrupted when it is being paid for. Hence, buying influence negates its influence. This is why one in four influencers have been asked not to disclose that they were being paid, according to a recent SheSpeaks survey.
Rather than influence, this is a new way to access a hard-to-reach audience, paying for individuals to create content to an audience they have built on social media. Increasing spend is driving inflation at the top end of the market - with some mega-influencers commanding up to $100,000 per post, according to a Digiday report - and consequent dissatisfaction along the tail. There is even a Tumblr (whopaysinfluencers.com) where influencers anonymously post their fees and complain about not getting paid.
'Influencers' are creative, media agency and publisher all in one. That's why agencies are desperately trying to position themselves in between brands and influencers, since they are replacements for the agency in the production of online content. Influencer posts are online advertisements with celebrity endorsements - that's why the FCC requires you to make the commercial relationship explicit - produced through a new supply chain. Buzzword it may be, but perhaps not the Next Big Thing.