Influencer marketing is one of the biggest marketing trends for the past five years.
If you spend much time browsing Instagram or YouTube, no doubt you will have come across a celebrity with a sponsored post promoting some random brand.
The use of bots and fake accounts to artificially create a following have plagued the practice, many brands starting to question whether they receive real value for their spend.
As consumers, we’re also getting sick of inauthentic posts from celebrities endorsing products we know they would never use.
So, are influencers still relevant, or is the practice losing its credibility?
What is Influencer Marketing?
Influencers create and share content through social media sites like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to promote brands that employ them.
Brands use influencers that have a following with similar characteristics to their target customers to increase their awareness of the brand and ultimately convert some of them into customers.
“Influence can be broadly defined as the power to affect a person, thing, or course of events. Influence manifests itself in many ways, from direct purchase advice to subtle shifts in perception of a vendor’s credibility.” — Brown & Hayes, 2008
Influencer marketing works much like a celebrity endorsement, a popular marketing strategy since the early 1980s.
A couple of big brands signed famous Michaels to big sponsorship contracts — Michael Jackson to PepsiCo, and then Nike took a chance on a young rookie basketball player called Michael Jordan. Nike even gave Michael a sub-brand called Air Jordan.
35 years later, that partnership made Jordan an estimated $130 million in 2019 alone.
After we started spending hours scrolling through social media feeds instead of consuming so much television and film, marketers would always leverage it for advertising. Content creators for product endorsement were natural, and the influencer was born about a decade ago.
Social media influencers often have built their following online through content creation and prominent personal branding rather than fame through mass media via sport or films, for example.
“Social media influencers represent a new type of independent, third-party endorsers who shape an audience’s attitudes through blogs, tweets, and the use of other social media channels.” — Graham, McGaughey, & Freberg, 2011
Celebrities have a high level of authority, recognition, trust, and respect, giving them a stronger ability to influence people's perceptions of their likeability.
Thus, celebrities have a high positive effect transferred onto brands they promote and the power to influence purchase decisions.
Besides a celebrity status, some influencers have built up credibility through their knowledge and expertise, giving them social influence in their niche. This influence becomes an asset to collaborate with brands and help them reach their marketing goals.
As well as endorsements and product reviews, influencers can include brands in their content in the form of product placements.
The brand is consumed in its “real-life” situation and is more subtle marketing than a product endorsement.
How the Influencer Trend Exploded in Popularity
Online searches for “influencers” saw a 1,500% increase between 2016 and 2019.
The rapid growth of social media users and media-based platforms such as Instagram provided the platform for content creators to grow an audience. It made sense for brands to leverage their audience.
Unlike celebrities of the past who often lead very private lives, influencers give followers access to a snapshot of their personal lives. This glimpse creates a bond and helps influencers to win the trust of their audience.
Consumers can often perceive influencer marketing content as more credible and authentic than traditional advertising because of this trust — even though we know brands pay influencers for their endorsements!
Brands can also target consumers through influencers that were previously unreachable through mass marketing, such as television.
Types of Influencers
Not every influencer has celebrity status. There are four broad categories of influencers. An influencer can have as little as 1,000 followers, or the top celebrity influencers now have hundreds of millions.
Portuguese professional footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is the most prominent influencer with a following of almost 270 million followers.
The top tier of influencers is celebrities. They could be sports stars, actors, pop stars, or just people who are famous for being famous.
These celebrity influencers typically have more than a million followers. They tend to have a wide range of followers rather than a particular demographic that might follow a nano or micro-influencer.
Industry experts and thought leaders
Influencers can also gain their status by gaining it through their qualifications, position, or experience in their area of expertise.
These experts and thought leaders include journalists, CEOs at large corporations, academics, and industry experts.
Content creators and bloggers
Content creators are everywhere on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and even LinkedIn. They typically post various informational content about a topic of interest and build a following through this.
“Celebrity appeal should be balanced through the use of micro and macro-influencers, as brands may be able to capitalize on the air of accessibility and authenticity that comes naturally to these smaller-scale influencers.” — Campbell & Farrell, 2020
Nano, micro, and macro-influencers
Nano and micro-influencers are the other end of the scale from celebrities.
- Macro-influencers have a following of between 100,000 and one million people.
- Micro-influencers are the next tier up with between 10,000 to 100,000 followers.
- Nano-influencers have small followings of under 10,000 people.
These influencers are typically ordinary people with regular jobs who have built a niche following due to their knowledge and passion for the topic.
Therefore, they are very credible with their social media following as a resource of knowledge — followers trusting their recommendations.
Nearly 80% of the brands surveyed by Linqia said they wanted to work with micro-influencers in 2020.
Because their audiences are more refined, micro-influencers typically generate a higher engagement rate from their followers.
The Blurred Lines Between Reality and Advertising
Marketers traditionally use product placement to sneak advertising into media. We’re not as aware it's advertising, as it is used as a part of a plot and seen in the context of its use.
An Apple logo on the back of a laptop or mobile phone is a typical example.
A person’s persuasion knowledge is not as heightened and therefore be influential in influencing consumption.
We might actually believe our favourite Instagram influencer really does live by a particular supplement, and it is the reason for their success and not recognise it as marketing.
Because of the staged reality, influencers now require a disclosure statement on any sponsored content. The Federal Trade Commission published this guide. There must be an easily identified paid partnership disclosure, not lost in the post’s copy. See below for an example.
The Risks of Using Influencer Marketing
Although influencer marketing has taken off over the past five years, there are several risks associated with using influencers as part of a marketing strategy.
“You log onto Instagram and a celebrity confesses their love of Chipotle with a burrito in their hand… This blurring of the lines between what is a genuine endorsement and what is a paid one through content-rich platforms is what makes influencer marketing so powerful.” — Woods, 2016
The loss of content quality control
Another risk of using influencers comes from the loss of control a brand has over content featuring it. Influencers curate their content, and if a brand uses multiple influencers, each content creator will have a unique style.
Branded content loses its uniformity, and brands risk diluting the brand identity they want to portray.
Brands should set clear guidelines and standards for their influencers and their content.
Brand damage by association
Through using influencers, brands run the risk of negative publicity through association to a celebrity influencer exposed for engaging in morally offensive behaviour or scandal.
Influencers can tarnish all the hard work by a firm creating an identity for their brand with positive attributes through one indiscretion.
“While it can be tempting to partner with those celebrity-level influencers, the greater the visibility, the greater the risk for negative attention.” — Danielle Wiley, 2020
Brand associations are an anchor for customer assessments and opinions of a brand and what it represents. Consumers make new associations with each interaction with the brand, evaluated against a consumer’s values.
Knittel and Stango (2010) estimated that shareholders of Tiger Woods’s sponsors (including Gillette, Nike, and Gatorade) collectively lost up to $12 billion following revelations of his infidelity and his arrest for driving under the influence in 2005.
Faking an influence
The credibility and trust an influencer has with their audience are what makes them so valuable for brands. However, according to Influencer Marketing Hub, 67% of brands are now concerned about influencer fraud.
A focus on follower count metrics has led to paying for artificial engagement and growth being increasingly widespread.
Content creators use this strategy to take shortcuts to inflate their success metrics and seem like an attractive option as an influencer. This practice includes buying followers and using bots to generate comments on their content.
They don’t have a real audience, and therefore, don’t have any real influence.
“Many inﬂuencers still purchase follower bots to appear more competitive and attractive to brands. As such, managers should assess the full spectrum of engagement and view historical follower-count patterns to check for drastic and inexplicable increases in followers.” — Campbell & Farrell, 2020
An influencer’s relevance to a brand’s target audience
Influencers increase their clients' brand awareness and broaden their audience by exposing their followers to the brand.
However, brands must choose an influencer who has a relevant audience and aligns with their values. A brand’s credibility and authority can be negatively affected if they choose the wrong influencer.
For example, in 2017, Pepsi received backlash for being accused of trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement in a social media campaign.
They used pop-culture icon and mega-influencer Kendall Jenner in the campaign, a vital mistake as Jenner has previously had zero involvement in any social movement. Therefore, it was hard to believe she played any genuine part in the movement.
Brands employ influencers for their ability to influence people, not just because they have a following.
So, Are Influencers Still Relevant in 2021?
There seem to be many risks attached to using influencers as a part of a marketing strategy. Are influencers still a good choice for precious advertising spend?
A 2018 study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) found that while 75% of consumers engaged in influencer marketing, only 36% of brands thought it was effective.
Many brands have made the mistake of falling into one of the pitfalls discussed above, such as using influencers for their celebrity appeal but have no credibility or relevance in the brand’s niche.
Social media users crave authentic content and are becoming more dubious of promoted content that seems over-produced and staged. Especially now, a disclosure statement is required by influencers.
“Authenticity is key… The influencer being genuine, honest, and open with her (their) followers. Authenticity allows an influencer to relate with followers on a new level and aids in building a relationship between followers and brands.” — Glucksman, 2017
This comic sums up the situation well.
However, despite all of this — influencers are still very much relevant to brands.
According to a survey by 2019 Oberlo of marketers:
- Nine out of 10 marketers believe that influencer marketing is effective.
- 93% of marketers used influencer marketing in 2019.
- 57% of marketers planned to increase their influencer budgets in 2020.
We will remember 2020 as the year of COVID-19. How did that affect influencer marketing?
“It is clear that influencer marketing is far from dead and, in fact, appears to be going through a renaissance during COVID-19, and one that may hold longer-term at that.” — Taylor, 2020
Although it did look like the trend of using influencers was slowing, the COVID-19 pandemic meant we’d spent more time on social media than ever.
Youth are also a growing demographic of social media users — the popularity of social entertainment apps like TikTok contributes to this.
The internet has fragmented the media into small niches and communities. Nano and micro-influencers have organic penetration into these communities, and therefore are attractive to brands.
In saying that, the celebrity influencer should still find plenty of brands prepared to use their services. In 2020, 58% of Gen Z and 48% of millennials reported buying something due to a celebrity recommendation.
More mature demographics will also become the target for influencer marketing.
Four out of 10 elder citizens own a smartphone, double the number in 2013, and 34% of Americans ages 65 and overuse social networking. This new demographic presents an opportunity for different industries to reach their audience through influencers, such as healthcare.
As long as we’re tuning into social media, it looks like influencers will remain a popular and effective marketing tactic.
“Even for skeptics, the significant influx of players into the influencer market, coupled with influencers’ effectiveness, makes the marketing tactic difficult to ignore.” — Campbell & Farrell, 2020
In sum, this article has explored influencer marketing and its benefits and inherent risks. Influencer marketing has grown exponentially as a marketing tactic by brands over the past five or six years, but there had been a lot of talk about the trend slowing.
The main aim of this piece was to identify whether influencers are still just as relevant in 2021. It certainly is — but with three critical criteria: authenticity, relevancy, and credibility.
The audience must perceive the influencer’s content and endorsement as authentic. The brand must be relevant to the influencers following, and the influencer must be credible to the brand’s customers.
Thank you for reading — I hope you enjoyed the content.
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