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This week’s news stopped me dead in my tracks. No, not that news. Not that news either. Okay, surreal headlines hit us about a dozen times a day now. 

But the Wall Street Journal’s piece, “Online Influencers Tell You What to Buy, Advertisers Wonder Who’s Listening”? That really got me. Suzanne Kapner and Sharon Terlep’s account of influencer marketing gives an accurate (if not a little bleak) assessment of the channel’s trials. But ultimately, it’s a story about the trends and strategies that have brought us to the current state— not where the market’s moving in response. 

Where influencer marketing is headed

At Impact, we support visionary enterprises that are transitioning their influencer campaigns into operationally mature partnership programs. So let me take a moment to supplement Kapner and Terlep’s report with some progressive field findings.

1. Friends and family never stopped sharing their favorite products. Authentic audience engagement abounds, if you know where to look for it. 

Kapner and Terlep’s article tracks influencer marketing’s trajectory as beginning with “friends and family sharing their favorite products…” but warping into a bloated celebrity enterprise. While it’s true that many brands have trended towards exorbitantly high pay-per-post arrangements with macro influencers, those same friends and family never stopped sharing their favorite products. Rather, they exist as a readily available army of nano and micro influencers for savvy brands to enlist. 

Research shows that 82% of consumers report they’re highly likely to follow a recommendation made by a micro influencer. And while only 16% of U.S. internet users said they trusted celebrity recommendations, about 75% of respondents reported that they trust friends and family most. 

The issue is not a dearth of authentically engaging influencers; it’s finding and supporting high-quality, high-engagement nano and micro influencers at scale. Because, categorically, their audiences are small. At Impact, we emphasize enterprises’ need for discovery strategies and technologies to find micro influencers and manage them at any size of program. These are the people that your friends and family can—and want to—listen to for recommendations.

2. Vanity metrics are proving to be shallow. 

Here, the Wall Street Journal absolutely got it right: influencer fraud is not going away. In fact, it’s growing. A full 14% of the dollars U.S. and Canadian marketers spent on Instagram influencers last year were wasted on fake followers, according to Points North Group.

Audience and engagement quality analysis should be a circuit breaker situated at the very beginning of potential partnership. Impact recommends using a partner discovery tool that gives audience quality stats at a glance. The Impact Partnership Cloud recently announced Enhanced Discovery capabilities to support just that. For example, Audience Stats reports expose critical audience and engagement quality metrics so that enterprises can build influencer fraud detection into the very foundation of their partnerships.

Most importantly: low-quality audiences and engagement are only symptoms of a larger ailment. Measuring influencer campaigns with vanity metrics that substandard followers artificially inflate is a losing game. In total, 78% of marketers share frustrations with advertising executive James Cole, who is quoted in the WSJ article about using influencers and not receiving any measurable return. Relying too heavily on vanity metrics hinders performance measurement and leaves programs especially overexposed to influencer fraud.

3. Influencer marketing is at a tipping point, not its natural end.

There’s a mental model shift taking hold of influencer marketing managers, and the channel as a whole is changing. The overriding trend in influencer marketing isn’t to abandon programs altogether; it’s to evolve programs to a partnership model. 

Businesses have long approached partnerships with media houses, traditional affiliates, strategic business partners, and so on with terms that sustain complete partner lifecycle management— mature partners work together with measured, long-term goals. Influencer relationships are only now getting the same treatment. 

What influencer partner lifecycle management means is putting the people, processes, and technology in place to:

  • Discover and recruit a diverse and uncapped roster of nano and micro influencers
  • Onboard all partners with standardized terms and contracting
  • Engage influencers to encourage maximum productivity with real-time feedback and support
  • Track each influencer’s performance against preset business goals 
  • Automate payment processing 

One of the big shifts? Enterprises are backing influencer activity into revenue-based business goals and aligning partner payouts with performance. This is the most meaningful change. Brands are rewarding influencers’ top-of-funnel contributions to sales with participation bonuses and paying out a percentage of sales for driving conversions directly. And where brands are still using flat-fee based payment models, they’re increasingly choosing to pay for user-generated content rather than posts. 

The Wall Street Journal quotes Tom Le Bree: “We thought influencers would be a silver bullet and bring all the traffic we needed.” This is critical: influencer marketing is not a magic channel. It could never be a silver bullet. But as an operationally mature channel, it can still be wildly effective, if managed and measured properly.

Want to find out how Impact is part of the new wave of thinking and implementing influencer partnerships? Contact a growth technologist at sales@impact.com

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