Do you want to be in my #squad?

ARE INFLUENCERS THE FUTURE OF MARKETING?

Gone are the days when celebrities commanded vast salaries for product sponsorship. Whilst they used to have ‘god-like’ status and consumers used to aspire to emulating them, the advent of the internet age has meant they are no longer the go-to source for ambassadorship. Nowadays consumers have ‘access all areas’ coverage of celebrities’ lives, including their flaws and foibles, meaning some of their shine is lost. Social media also means we now live in a culture where ‘ordinary’ people’ share their own opinions and lifestyle to a wider audience, and ‘normal’ people can gain a sizeable fanbase who are a potentially captive audience for brands and products.  This is the age of the Influencer, and authenticity and engagement are key.

 As marketeers, we know that to find any recommendation credible, consumers have always needed a starting point of trust in what they are being told.  Trust has two components:

1.     Credibility/authenticity: do I believe this proposition is genuine and not due to another agenda?

2.     Relevance/gravitas: do I care what this person says, either because they are like me now or they are who I’d like to be like?

This is especially important now that Influencers are the key promotion platform for digital natives.

Initial Influencers were high profile social media personalities: vloggers, bloggers and those with many thousands of followers.  The initial appeal was due to their ‘realness’ and believability. Like celebrity ambassadors before them, these new stars were paid to showcase products via their social media presence.  Millennials, with their penchant for interactive marketing and passion for lifestyle coverage, bought into this new way of showing products in situ. However, if authenticity was the driving force here, some initial incidents lead to disillusionment: for instance, Scarlett Dixons infamous Listerine post on Instagram (@Scarlettlondon), which was vilified by its target due to its ‘faux authenticity’ and the clearly staged nature of the post.  New regulations and guidelines were quickly brought in[1] to ensure any paid sponsorship is made clear to the consumer with Paid Partnership, (ad) and #spp are now a regular sight on Instagram, even where the subject matter posted is not obviously showcasing a particular product or brand.

As authenticity seems to be at the heart of an Influencers success, it is not surprising that brands have moved away from real people with large followings such as Zoella, to those with fewer, but closer and more genuine connections.  Brands are now turning to regular customers to act as Influencers for each other, leading to the rise of the Nano Influencer[2], and creating communities of ‘real people’ to test and promote their products as brand ambassadors.  Brands such as Pixie, lookfantastic and Winky Lux use such consumer communities, offering exclusive membership, VIP invites, advance launches of products as a ‘sweetener’ rather than formal pay, and as the forums and communities are carefully watched and curated, the brand retains the ability to remove negative content and keep things positive.  Other brands seek to engage Market Mavens, who are wised-up consumers with knowledge about, and engagement with, a category to act as educators to their peers.  As digital natives aspire to being Influencers, some brands have set up paid ‘squads’. These receive a salary and have contractual obligations around content volume and keeping things positive.  Entry into one such paid community, the Sephora squad, is highly prized, and involves a stringent application process.

But do Influencers work? Research from Defy in 2016 showed more than half the Millennials studied wouldn’t mind watching an advert from their favourite Influencer. Millennials also favour interactive advertising, so by using Influencers, brands can bring a product or promotion to life. Generation Z, perhaps the most marketing-sceptical generation yet, may be harder to convince on authenticity, and one bad Influencer can derail a whole generation’s trust in a brand. Who knows where the Influencer marketplace will go next, as marketeers seek out those with smaller and smaller fan-bases.  Maybe in the search for more and more intimate and ‘trustworthy’ influencers, we go full circle and go offline, returning to good old fashioned word of mouth and personal recommendations as the main influencing factor.  Whatever happens next, it is clear that the need for brands and companies to connect at a personal, and consequently, emotional level, in a climate of informational overload, means that Influencers are most likely here to stay. 

[1] CMA guidelines introduced in January 2019

[2] Nano = 1K – 5K followers. Micro = 5K – 20K. Mid-tier 20K – 100K. Macro 100K – 1M. Mega = >5M followers.