Influencer marketing is nothing new. Even though the term ‘influencer’ was only officially added to the English dictionary in 2019, the notion has been around for some time. It’s a hugely impactful component of brand engagement and marketing, with the influencer marketing industry on track to be worth up to $15bn in 2022. It’s a widely-used strategy to ensure better reach of promoted content, including product launches and ongoing brand awareness, which can help to strengthen engagement with existing customers, as well as reaching new target audiences.
Historically, influencer marketing was less about the short term. There was more focus on tactical campaigns and paid advertising, which were aimed at building a large volume of relationships with target customer groups. It tried to connect audiences to brands through ambassadors who consumers trusted. This created more emotional engagement with the brand that traditional marketing and advertising is not able to achieve.
However, the influencer market has become very saturated, and many people with a half-decent social media following can be classified as an influencer. They participate in paid-for or #gifted promotions for products that are far removed from the original notion of long-term relationship building, and are now aimed at getting the product in front of as many people as possible. The trouble with this is that trust once associated with influencers is dissipating, and this thought led me to wonder whether the role of genuine influencer marketing could exist in today’s fast-paced, short-attention-span world.
The murky landscape of traditional influencer marketing
I wrote in my previous blog that there have been recent concerns about influencers posting sponsored or branded content on social media without appropriate disclaimers or #ad messaging. This leads to consumers questioning whether the individual truly endorses a product when they don’t really have any opinion – or worse, have a negative opinion. UK regulations require the usage of ‘#ad’ or similar disclosure statements on all paid endorsements in order to differentiate it as an advertisement, and not a piece of organic content. However, the requirements vary from country to country which, in a digital world, can make it challenging for customers to determine when something is truly coming from a place of genuine influence, or one where money has exchanged hands.
Some 77.8% of those surveyed by SocialPubli consider that it is important for influencers to disclose paid collaborations. Research from media agency UM found that many internet users lack confidence in what they see and read online, with only 8% believing that the bulk of information shared on social media is true, dropping to 4% when it comes from influencers.
However, there may be a good reason why many choose to disregard the regulations (or guidance in some cases), and post sponsored content without any disclosure. Some 47.3% believe that adding statements such as #ad can affect the overall results of the campaign. What this says is that when customers know something is an advert from a brand, they’re less interested. This goes back to the original intention of influencer marketing being one that is based on honest and trusting engagements – and it is for this reason that I think there absolutely is a place for authentic influence.
The role of genuine influence
The alternative to the sometimes ambiguous use of ‘traditional influencers’ could be to use ‘best customers’ and ‘rising star employees’ as brand ambassadors to amplify content in the way that influencers should do, while retaining a far more genuine brand feel. Real customers and employees whose values align to those of the brand ensure a more genuine connection with consumers, and in my opinion this comes through in the way that the content is presented – with real passion, enthusiasm, engagement with questions and feedback.
Customers can identify with the brand ambassadors through shared experiences or demographics. Seeing employees sincerely endorse the brand can help to engender real trust. The reach is unlikely to be as high as using traditional influencers, but the goal here isn’t in putting products in front of as many customers as possible, but instead about creating strong, meaningful relationships with other best customers.
DTC swimwear brand Andie has relied heavily on UGC of customers wearing its products, as this content consistently performed better than more highly produced campaign images. Customers have shared these images because they really enjoy the products, as opposed to being paid to do so.
Andie Swimwear, Digital Commerce 360
For brands, it means getting the value of influencer marketing but without the exorbitant costs that come with it. It has been reported in the past that Kim Kardashian charges between $300k and $500k for a sponsored Instagram post – not something that many brands can afford. But by garnering word-of-mouth engagement through a more organic process and generating employee engagement at the same time, this can still build significant brand value for the organization.
In order to create a solid brand ambassador program, there are a number of elements that need to be considered and, ideally, created organically within your business. The first is a sense of company culture – the raison d’être that will make people want to join and buy into the program. Beyond this, there will likely need to be some specific perks or incentives for ambassadors – this doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary, but there has to be something to sweeten the deal beyond exposure.
The organization will need to provide the ambassadors with support, or at least some guidance and principles against which they can operate, to ensure some level of consistency and alignment to the company’s values. While organic, authentic ambassadorship will have strong foundations built on trust, it’s sensible to set some expectations and obligations – both ways – of how the program will run to avoid problems down the line, along with clear descriptions on measurement, if these exist (although it’s not a necessity in some cases).
For the business, having a clear selection process helps to ensure that the right type of people get involved, and there are clear reasons for why individuals are chosen or not.
Lastly, and perhaps the most organic, is that of community. Ideally brand ambassadors don’t operate independently from one another, but together as a group of people with shared interests who can elevate the brand positioning through this process.
Consumers are becoming more and more immune to advertising, especially when it’s being forced into their feeds by influencers who don’t have any genuine interest in the brand. With influencer fraud continuing to be an issue for marketers, even the incredible results traditional influencer marketing brings in aren’t enough to prevent it being a risky place to bet on for long-term success, and one which creates a confusing space for consumers. As a result, we rely more on the authentic opinions of our friends, families, peers, brand ambassadors and everyday people when it comes to product selection and its value.
For brands, genuine influencer marketing can be used to create trustworthy, lasting and engaging relationships with consumers – but this should be done on the basis of advocacy, not endorsement.
Our ambition is to partner with clients to reimagine the business of shopping, while always engaging and retaining loyal customers, helping you every step of the way on your transformation journey. In this new digital world, Inventive Shopping becomes a powerful engine for growth.
Christopher Baird is senior manager of retail customer engagement and loyalty team at Capgemini Invent UK.