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With the industry set to grow to approximately $13.8bn this year, you can’t deny that influencer marketing is big business.

But while the number of brands using influencers to promote their products continues to grow, these social media stars are losing their grip on the thing that gave them influence in the first place: their audience’s trust. Combine that with rising fees, social media trends that change on a daily basis, and increasingly hard-to-measure metrics, and you realize it’s far from a foolproof marketing strategy.

There is another alternative, however. What if influencers weren’t the only ones with the power to persuade consumers to part with their cash?

Enter the new, more reliable influencers: your existing customers.

Our research has found that almost 60% of people are more likely to buy a product recommended by a friend or family member than by a celebrity or social media creator. When it comes to influencing, it’s the people we know who have the real power – not a stranger behind a well-oiled content-creating machine.

Still not convinced? Here’s why you should rethink your influencer marketing strategy.

Influencers are losing more and more… influence

Nearly two-thirds of 18-44-year-olds don’t trust what influencers promote on their social channels, and over half of UK consumers prefer following everyday social media users to influencers. For a marketing channel entirely based on the premise of using human connection to sell a brand, these stats are pretty damning.

The cause of this distrust is more insidious than influencers simply exaggerating their like of a product. There was a major backlash against influencers traveling to Dubai for ‘work purposes’ during national lockdowns, with users branding their glamorous bikini pictures as tone-deaf rather than aspirational. As these Instagrammers openly broke rules the rest of us were unhappily following, any remaining illusions of these people being on the audience’s side were shattered.

And social media users skeptical of accounts that suddenly amass thousands of followers are right to be so. In the UK, more than half of Instagram influencers were found to have engaged in online fakery such as buying followers, likes and comments.

It’s not only social media users who are losing their faith in influencers – some creators are even swindling money out of the brands they work with. According to studies by Ogilvy, one in four influencers in the UK have engaged in fraud against brands, making it harder than ever for marketing teams to suss out who will be a good choice for their campaigns.

Your customers, on the other hand, are the most trustworthy people there are when it comes to influencing others to shop with your brand. For the fourth year running, our survey found 51% of consumers trust recommendations from their friends above anyone else – a sharp contrast to the 2.8% who trust influencers.  

Consumers value trust highly. You can’t afford to turn a blind eye to these legitimate concerns over influencers’ authenticity.

Trends are changing

Social media is a fickle thing, with consumers changing their app allegiance regularly.

Instagram is still one of the biggest social media platforms in the world, boasting over one billion active monthly users, but user frustration is growing. Adam Mosseri, the current head of Instagram, described how the platform is evolving to put more of an emphasis on video content, shopping and messaging – alienating many of its native users in the process. This shift, along with changes to the algorithm that have left users complaining about their posts not being seen, could lead to previously loyal advocates ditching the app (and shunning the influencers that come with it).

While video-sharing giant TikTok may be the obvious choice for the next home of influencer marketing, an app with such a sudden rise in popularity could see its users drop off as quickly as they signed up. The app had 1bn downloads by July 2019 and hit 2bn only a year later, but who’s to say when the next social media obsession will come along and blow TikTok out the water?

With social media trends and user behavior constantly evolving, influencer marketing may not be the safe investment that brands think it is. But among the changing habits of users, it appears the fundamental reason people use these apps hasn’t changed since Facebook and MySpace were founded in the early 2000s. Above everything else, people still cite keeping in touch with friends and family as their main reason for using social media.

Running a campaign isn’t smooth sailing

The concept of influencer marketing is simple, and not a 21st century phenomenon; brands have been using public figures to endorse and promote products since the 1900s. But the modern-day iteration of this marketing strategy is no mean feat to navigate.

Firstly, influencer costs are rising. The pandemic is partly to blame, as consumers used social media more than ever to combat lockdown boredom and stay close to loved ones. An increase in social media use (alongside shelved offline campaigns) meant that demand for influencers skyrocketed – and so did their fees. Influencers no longer charge per post based on their number of followers; they now take into account factors such as a contract’s exclusivity, their level of creative control, and the type of content required.

The legality of product promotion can also plunge brands into murky waters. The Advertising Standards Agency has been cracking down on users who are consistently failing to disclose which of their posts are ads, naming and shaming influencers such as Chloe Ferry and Lucy Mecklenburgh, who they consider the worst offenders. Discussions about dodgy behavior have even made it to parliament, where an inquiry was held in July after research showed that more than three-quarters of influencers hide their ad disclosures.

With all of the difficulties that now come along with working with influencers, brands need to tread very carefully. This strategy is about a lot more than paying someone with a hoard of followers to promote your products.

Results are difficult to measure

With any marketing strategy, brands are looking for tactics that drive measurable, strong ROI. Despite the popularity of using influencers for ad campaigns, the specific, tangible benefits of these campaigns can be hard to pinpoint.

Measuring engagement isn’t as simple as back in the early days of social media. Instagram’s new option for users to hide likes, as well as their infamously hard-to-navigate algorithm, has meant that likes and comments are no longer a true reflection of an engaged following.

While providing influencers with specific links and discount codes will give brands data about who is directly interacting with these ads, a big part of the role of social media is developing brand awareness, which is much harder to track. Someone could see several influencers advertising the same brand in five minutes of scrolling, and only act on the recommendation after seeing it for the third time. That is, of course, if they aren’t sick of the same carbon copy content persistently popping up on their feed and forced to hit the dreaded ‘unfollow’ button.

There are many ways of assessing the effectiveness of an influencer campaign, but it’s still tough to determine the precise results of how well a particular individual is spreading the word about your brand.

By treating your customers as your best influencers through a referral marketing campaign, however, you can directly match up your newly-acquired customers with the people who recommended you to them.

Out with the old influencers, in with the new

Influencer marketing strategies made sense originally. Content creators were organically building strong communities, so their recommendations felt genuinely valuable and relevant to their followers. As the world of social media expanded and authentic creators became harder to come by, the allure of this channel began to fade.

New types of influencers crop up all the time. We’ve seen cleaning influencers, organization influencers, chiropractor influencers, and everything in between. But our nearest and dearest will always hold a unique power in influencing our everyday decisions – including where we shop.

Face-to-face recommendations are always the most popular way to share brands (34% of our referrals come through Name Share), and by far the most trusted. More than any Instagrammer with blindingly white teeth and a discount code, daily conversations are where the most genuine brand recommendations come from.

By running a precision-engineered referral program, you can take these daily conversations and turn them into a long-lasting cycle of growth – because real brand loyalty will outlive any social media trend.

Find out how a referral program can drive long-term growth for your business. Talk to the sales team at Mention Me.

Olivia Cox, junior copywriter at Mention Me.