Marketers today are obsessed with finding authenticity. And as advertising moves toward digital and social in an effort to build more direct relationships with consumers, that singular preoccupation has morphed traditional ads into things that don't look like ads at all.
On top of that, consumers have more choices and information sources than ever to inform their purchases. The result is an entirely new suite of products to win consumers online, from sponsored posts to branded Pinterest recipes to native advertising.
Each of those attempts is driven by a desire to reach people in ways that marketers can claim is "authentic" because it reaches consumers at their own level.
But as quickly as marketers can introduce their latest gimmick, consumers learn to spot the advertisements and question their authenticity. The trust problem that marketers are up against is real: Only 4% of consumers say marketers act with integrity, a poll by AdAge found. You can see that statistic play out in research around the new consumer-buying journey: McKinsey estimated that 74% of final buying decisions are affected not by ads but by people—conversations with acquaintances, point-of-sale associates, and online.
Enter influencer marketing, the top marketing trend of 2016, which had hoped to reclaim authenticity in advertising and influence the conversations consumers are already having with experts and one another.
Influencer marketing is often done by targeting social media heroes who have thousands of followers, likes, and shares, and then, in most cases, paying them to endorse a brand's products.
But if brands aren't careful, they can end up with "wannabe influencers" like the guy in our parody video. Do we really believe influence happens only on Instagram, and that a paid endorsement without disclosure is the one sneaky marketing tactic that we should feel good about?
There are better ways to do influencer marketing. Here are three tips to help you get there.
1. Tap passion over reach
Influencer marketing revolves around two axes: passion and reach. Both matter, and both serve a purpose. While social media influencers can get a product name in front of millions of followers, there is greater impact from real-life influencers who are trustworthy because they are passionate and knowledgeable about what they're recommending.
Fully 82% of consumers are "highly likely" to follow a recommendation made by an influencer who is "category passionate," or works within that category, according to a recent survey. These influencers are viewed as having more impact because they are more credible and believable, more knowledgeable and better at explaining how the product works or could be used.
Expansive reach can be alluring, but don't favor it at the cost of ignoring the power of passion.
On the reach axis, these passionate influencers need to be mobilized to reach many customers. For instance, Lululemon does that by recruiting athletes and community leaders from across the country to create a network of ambassadors who are trusted and respected to be the local face of the brand. In 2013, Lululemon's branding strategy was put to the test when the company waded through its sheer-yoga-pants crisis and some very misplaced comments from founder Chip Watson. However, the company has been able to rebuild its brand due to the "deep relationship and feedback [they] have built with [their] brand ambassador community," according to Lululemon CEO Laurent Potdevin.
2. Think proximity over popularity
Influencers with "proximity" are those who are near consumers about to make a purchase. Retail sales associates aren't always thought of as influencers, but they're often the last person a person speaks to about a product before making the purchase. And influencers who work in their category make 22 times more recommendations than the general population.
Influencers who are both passionate and work within their category are highly trusted—an indication that offline buying conversations are important. So why are they still considered less reputable in the context of influencer marketing?
To truly capitalize on influencer marketing, marketers must find ways to engage with anyone who is talking about their brand—including online influencers as well as retail sales associates. These kinds of influencers may not be as popular as someone with thousands of followers, but they likely have more knowledge or credibility.
Marketers should be wary of imitation influencers who get paid to post about all kinds of things they don't have much insider knowledge about.
3. Put influence in the hands of many (vs. a few)
When you pay an influencer without disclosing it, you break consumer trust, which makes influencers less influential. So, how can marketers get access to strong influencers and use them to build brand trust and credibility? Many brands use "micro" or real-life influencers to tell their brand story and build a brand credibly.
As an example, Fit Tea first engaged with the Jenner and Kardashian sisters to help sell the product; as the celebrities posted photos on Instagram with the tea, sales conversions went up. But when the company engaged 30-40 micro-influencers, the brand converted at an even higher level—without sacrificing authenticity.
The concept of influence is real and shouldn't be ignored: The Wharton School of Business and word-of-mouth research firm Keller Fay have found that there really are people who have higher impact on consumer buying decisions. But the bulk of those conversations are happening offline (87% happen face-to-face), and very few of those influencers are celebrities.
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Clearly, marketers can't ignore the power of influence, but they do need to know how to use it in a way that maintains credibility. Those who can maintain authenticity in influence will ultimately win both the business and the loyalty of their customers.