Is the Influencer Marketing Bubble Going to Burst?

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A “bubble” occurs when the price of an asset exceeds its perceived inherent value. With the anticipated growth of the influencer marketing industry, the microscope with which the business world is reviewing this practice has grown, indicating a heavy dose of skepticism and a constant assessment of value. Last month, Ad Age published an article sharing projections of the influencer market increasing to upwards of $15 billion, nearly doubling from last year. This, paired with the commitment from 93% of brands and agencies to dedicate a portion of their budget to influencer marketing in 2020, has led to talks of a bubble circulating.

Seeds of doubt have stemmed from reports of poorly run campaigns, bottom-of-the-funnel marketers who are solely concerned with conversions, and old school marketers who show preference for “how things used to be done”. But the reality is, influencer marketing is just word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. When leveraged properly, influencers can bring tangible value to brands in a variety of different ways, including content creation, brand awareness to an audience where trust has been well-established, and comprehensive reporting on performance metrics that go beyond just the size of their audience.

Do I think a bubble currently exists? Not exactly. In fact, I still think that influencer marketing is one of the most under-priced tactics in the game. And, unlike billboards or commercials, we have far more metrics available to us as marketers to see whether a campaign was successful. In my opinion, the proverbial bubble will only burst if the marketing world continues to be irresponsible in how they create campaigns, select influencers, and measure success. Slowly but surely, we’re seeing a shift in how brands and agencies approach these different touch points within the industry, but if it doesn’t happen fast enough, we may find ourselves with a lot of cash poured into a bunch of shitty campaigns – ergo, creating a bubble.

Because word-of-mouth marketing is now living in a digital landscape, it has been coined as the “Wild West” of the industry, and to some extent, for good reason. Fraud abounds from wannabe creators who are attempting to pull the wool over lazy marketer’s eyes, creative guidelines for campaigns prevent influencers from developing concepts and creating content that will actually have an impact on their audience, and brands and agencies aren’t developing meaningful calls-to-action that are compelling enough to the financial decision makers. For those invested in keeping influencer marketing as a viable tool in our proverbial toolboxes, I’ve laid out some rules of the road.

Marketers and agencies need to do a better job at vetting influencers. 
As a best practice, my agency adheres to a comprehensive vetting process for the influencers that we consider signing for management, or casting for a brand campaign that we are overseeing. To take it one step further, we also audit campaigns that our influencers participate in – checking the authenticity of engagement for every influencer that posts for the campaign, not just the ones we mange. Why? Because the more data that we are empowered with, the better. If that means that I have to go through 3,000 accounts that liked a sponsored post on an influencer’s account to determine if those accounts are real, that is what I have to do.

99% of brands and agencies will scoff at that last sentence. That method of auditing influencers isn’t scale-able, it’s tedious, and by the end of a proper deep dive on an account or campaign, it takes a fully 24 hours for my eyes to fully uncross. I get it. But, isn’t it better than signing an influencer for a $5000 contract and then realizing after the fact that they purchased 50% of the engagement on the post, or their following is largely the result of a series of loop giveaways?? I would say the up front work is worth it – and other brands need to start getting on board, or hire agencies who have the bandwidth to put the necessary work in to do it.

When hiring or signing influencers, make sure to ask for screenshots of demographics for all applicable platforms, screenshots of performance metrics that are going to be important for campaigns, such as: sticker taps, swipe ups, affiliate earnings, saves, sends, clicks, and more.

Creatives guidelines should be established with both brands and creators in mind. 
Restricting creators with unreasonable brand guidelines is going to limit their ability to have a meaningful conversation with their followers about a brand. Period. Requiring the product to be a certain size in a photo, relegating influencers to only one or two talking points, requiring a carousel post, or not fully honoring the intersection between global events (Valentine’s Day, the Olympics, etc.) and a creator’s audience is going to be detrimental to nearly any campaign.

Brands need to remember why they were drawn to an influencer to begin with. Trust their creative instincts because that is what their audience is enjoys consuming. If you are truly selecting the right influencers, where you product or brand naturally folds into their lives, their creative approach should be a natural fit. You can still build in a phase to approve concepts and content, but try not to overthink it. Mood boards are great tools, and talking points are helpful, but if a one-sheet starts evolving into a small novel of guidelines, you may be taking it too far.

Calls to action can’t all be purchases.
Calculating ROI for any marketing campaign requires some leg work, and when it comes to impressing the guy or gal who writes the check at your organization, success often boils down to sales. However, not all influencer marketing campaigns should be built to convince followers to “add to cart”. For larger purchases that have a longer sales cycle, expecting influencers to get their followers across the financial finish line with one campaign is unreasonable. Consider, instead, building campaigns that walk potential customers through the sales funnel over time, or having the call-to-action support gathering information that could identify qualified customers who are suitable for re-targeting.

One-off campaigns aren’t your friend.
When you find a handful of influencers that are the perfect fit for your brand, don’t let them go. Consider long-term contracts over single post campaigns. Developing an ongoing relationship with fellow creators not only encourages brand recall and recognition within their audiences, but establishes trust. You also save time with long-term partnerships by having an established work flow, a mutual understanding for creative guidelines that likely reduce the need for re-shoots or drastic re-writes.

Stop trying to short-change influencers. 
One sure fire way to flub your influencer campaign is to try to cut costs on their rates. The influencers who move the needle for brands know it, and they aren’t going to tolerate being paid at a discounted rate. Keep in mind, that pricing isn’t as simple as when influencers were billing 1% of their following anymore. Other variables to taken into consideration should be geographic location of followers (especially if this is a city-focused vs. globally-focused campaign), effort that goes into the developing and capturing the creative, engagement rate, usage rights, average conversions on relevant CTA’s, and category. For any campaign that requires guaranteed coverage, expect to receive a note back asking for compensation.

My least favorite email to receive when asking for budget is “We don’t have any budget for first time campaigns, as we like to test our partnerships.” This translates into: “We’re too lazy to do the appropriate research on your platforms to see if you’re the right fit, and would rather find influencers who don’t mind whether they get paid for their work or not than hand-selecting a few that we feel confident committing budget for a first time collaboration.” By and large, experienced influencers are turning these campaign offers down, and you’ll be stuck with influencers who either don’t have a good track record of sponsored content, or more likely, don’t have an authentic following.

Bottom line: when committing to influencer marketing, don’t be cheap. Reducing your spend on influencer fees by 25% may be tempting, but in the long run will hurt your campaign more than help it.

Final note…
At the risk of sounding too altruistic, keeping everyone’s best interest in mind, and not letting laziness or greed get in the way will always work out in your favor. If you’re like me, and want to see influencer marketing campaigns continue to provide value to the brands and agencies who dedicate time to them, keeping these five things in mind will go a long way to make sure that we don’t see a bubble burst any time soon.

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