Does Influencer Marketing Actually Work?

The use of celebrities by brands to help promote their products is hardly a new strategy, but the social media revolution has given rise to legions of “micro-influencers”. These are a step below the Kardashians and even the Zoellas of this world, and their followers are usually in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions. Looking at their individual reach, on the face of it there doesn’t seem to be too much to get excited about, but a number of platforms, MCNs and agencies are aggregating them to open up new avenues in influencer marketing.

The growth of influencer marketing in recent years has been impressive, with data from BI Intelligence predicting influencer marketing ad spend will reach between $5 billion and $10 billion by 2022. For now though, influencer marketing is still not its own line item in most advertisers’ media plans, and there is still a certain level of scepticism around how effective it really is. That “does this really work?” feeling was neatly captured by one bemused hotel owner’s now viral response to an influencer’s request for free board.

The industry insiders VAN spoke to said they expect influencer marketing to continue growing strongly, as more and more brands feel comfortable devoting sections of their marketing budgets to the format. Maria Cadbury, managing director at The Studio, believes that as the format becomes more mainstream, media planners will soon start setting aside budgets specifically for influencer marketing.

“When social first came along everyone was trying to fit it into their display line, now it’s got its own line. It’s time now for influencer marketing to get its own line,” she said.

It also appears that the growth of influencer marketing can’t be simply attributed to brands just jumping on the bandwagon, as various pieces of research have demonstrated that it can have a significant impact on a media plan. A study from Nielsen Catalina Solutions back in 2016 found that influencer marketing generated return on investment (ROI) eleven times greater than traditional marketing methods. A Twitter study from 2016 conducted by Annalect found nearly 40 percent of Twitter users said they had at some point made a purchase as a direct result of a Tweet.

Cadbury said one of the reasons for influencer marketing’s apparent effectiveness is the connection between audiences and influencers. “It doesn’t feel like an ad, it feels like true content,” she said. “It’s really authentic creative, and there is a dialogue between your audience and the influence, and the brand is incorporated in there. There’s very few environments where that authenticity is there.”

Timothy Armoo, CEO of Snapchat-based influencer platform Fanbytes, says influencer marketing has a unique function of reaching consumers where they’re ready to hear about brands. Giving an example, he explained “L’Oreal can collaborate with a makeup influencer, and then that person’s audience when they watch that content are already primed to think about makeup and beauty.”

A study by Oglivy, Google and TNS released in 2015 supports this belief. The study placed YouTube, and Twitter as the third and fourth biggest “points of influence” for consumers who had recently bought products in the auto, beauty and smartphone categories, suggesting they’re places consumers turn to for guidance on purchase decisions.

Influencer campaigns also provide a way around some of the large issues facing other forms of display and video advertising, including ad blocking. Influencer campaigns insert brands’ messages directly into content consumers are watching, making them unblockable. And with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) potentially lowering the effectiveness of ads which target individuals, alternative methods like influencer marketing could become more appealing.

There are also some notable downside to using influencers, some of which have attracted unwanted media attention and tarnished the reputation of influencer campaigns.

As with digital advertising, the influencer world has encountered problems with fraud. The New York Times ran a piece earlier this year outlining how social influencers can use bot networks to artificially inflate the number of followers and interactions they receive. Vice reporter Oobah Butler also exposed how easy it is to pose as an influencer by faking a friendship with actor Russell Brand, stringing along advertisers and picking up brand sponsorships as a result.

Tech can help solve this problem said Maria Cadbury, saying that there are solutions available now which make it much easier to spot when bots are being used on platforms like Instagram. However, as tools to weed out bots become more sophisticated, the bots tend to find new ways to evade detection and game the system. Live-streaming platform Twitch has seen bots used on its channels develop from simply inflating viewer numbers to interacting in ways which mimic real users, for example by posting messages in the live chat which accompanies most streams.

Brand safety has also been highlighted as an issue, with prominent influencers like YouTubers Logan Paul and Pewdiepie being dropped by sponsors over controversy generated by content they posted.

Harry Hugo, co-founder and chief campaigns officer of influencer agency The Goat Agency, says these problems can be avoided with proper screening of influencers brands choose to work with.

“Brands need to relinquish a little control when working with influencers, so they can embellish their personal style,” he said. “However, with a proper brief and the selection of appropriate influencers, brands can trust that their brand won’t be damaged at all. Influencers have grown by creating consistently great content, so it isn’t in their interest to have a bad or inconsistent posts. The selection process is key here.”

Measurement and attribution are also common concerns, as measuring the direct impact of a brand integration can be hard to measure. There are solutions available; Maria Cadbury for example said The Studio often runs influencer campaigns for one week before and after other parts of the same campaign, to measure its specific impact. Timothy Armoo said tech makes some KPIs companies use easy to track too. He said that companies like Apple and Universal looking to drive streams of songs can directly measure clicks through from ads run on Snapchat, and there are also tools for measuring completion rate and watch time for other campaigns.

Aside from these specific problems, there was a general sentiment too from those VAN spoke to that there’s room for maturation of influencer marketing as a strategy. Cadbury for example highlighted the importance of using data to check the demographics of influencers’ audiences, saying that many brand still just make assumptions over those demographics based on the content of the influencer.

Armoo too believes influencer marketing will become more data focused as it becomes more common, saying brands and agencies will look more at the raw numbers of what an influencer’s reach is, rather than being sold on the idea of individual influencers having some unique value not defined by metrics. He said too that companies which simply connect influencers and brands without adding any value, which he described as “glorified excel spreadsheets”, will disappear as their lack of value becomes apparent.

There are already signs of this maturation occurring. The IAB put out an influencer marketing guide for publishers earlier this year, which outlines key questions publishers should ask before involving themselves with influencers, and gives advice on which sorts of metrics to use.

When applied correctly, the IAB says that the benefits of influencer marketing can outweigh its costs. “The benefits to marketers can be significant if executed well,” concludes the IAB in the guide, “but there are still important questions that should be asked before approving an influencer program and publishers should be prepared to answer these questions.”

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