Influencer marketing is one of the hottest and sensitive topics on social media. People with influence can persuade skeptics to take a look at a business’ products and services.
The more followers influencers have, the greater their influence — assuming follower statistics are not inflated by fake accounts bought to pad numbers. Credibility and other issues raise questions about the future of influencer marketing.
Author and consultant Karen Freberg has looked into this and related topics. She is an associate professor in strategic communications at the University of Louisville and adjunct instructor for the Integrated Marketing Communications Graduate Online Program at West Virginia University. She researches public relations, reputation management, social media and crisis communications.
Freberg and digital media marketing expert Madalyn Sklar looked at the pros and cons of influencers and prospects for their future.
“An influencer today has the expertise, personality and impact to persuade a community to take action based on the messaging, content and relationship they’ve created over time online and offline,” Freberg said.
“We have to recognize influencers who not only have a strong following but have a strong impact in their community,” she said.
Trust is important, as well as authenticity.
“This does not happen overnight, and it has to be consistent as well,” Freberg said. “How you treat people online and offline is a key factor for true influence. When there is a disconnect, that’s where issues happen.”
One such issue is influencers practicing under false pretenses.
“There are a lot of fakes out there,” Freberg said. “It’s absolutely important to know how to determine real versus artificial influence. We see more education and awareness on this, so I think it’s getting better.”
Businesses need to look beyond vanity metrics when identifying potential influencers. Freberg cautioned about the vulnerabilities of such metrics:
- Artificially created
- Show not real following or impact metrics, distorted by robots and buying followers
- Not show the complete picture of the influencer
“Having advanced or even behavioral metrics to add to your analysis for influencer marketing is key,” Freberg said. “These points of data show the complete picture and journey of the impact influencers have on their audiences.
“Engagement is such an important metric to have on hand for influencers,” she said. “Focus on quality of engagements and conversions. This is why micro-influencers and even nano-influencers are a rising force in the market today.”
This is another reason why entrepreneurs should vet influencers before working with them.
“We created a checklist for influencers, and this has been one thing I’ve incorporated in my classes,” Freberg said.
“There have been a lot of cases where we have seen followers being bought,” she said. “Audiences are more aware of this, so they can recognize it more often than not. Still, we need to increase awareness of this issue in the industry.”
Nano- and virtual influencers have identifying characteristics.
“These are two rising groups of influencers in the market today,” Freberg said:
- Nano: Small, niche, yet concentrated focus and community building. Small in numbers, huge in overall engagement and impact.
- Virtual: Online personas that have been created to advocate and have built a community online, but they are not real. Miquela Sousa is a good example. The big issue here is what are the legal implications and FCC guidelines for these influencers?
“It’s interesting to see the range people have for what is considered to be a micro- versus nano-influencer on various platforms,” Freberg said.
Business owners should establish a strong code of ethics, principles and guidelines when working with influencers. This is the foundation of know, like and trust — professionally and personally.
Before embarking on an influencer marketing campaign, Freberg advised taking these precautions:
- Set forth expectations of behavior and conduct.
- Tie in overall goals and mission of brand, and relay this to the influencer This makes sure you provide a positive and collaborative experience.
- Go over deliverables and FCC guidelines. Influencers might not have media relations experience, so you may need to educate them on this.
- Have do’s and don’ts. Set your expectations.
“We are seeing more brands and corporations taking notice,” Freberg said. “In fact, influencer as a world is viewed differently now. I’ve seen influencers try to reinvent themselves as ‘creators’ instead. This might be a trend.”
She noted examples of where influencer marketing went awry, the classic being the Fyre Festival.
“Why did it go wrong?” Freberg said. “The influencer marketing execution was brilliant, but what they were advocating and promoting was not real. This case is a must-have for all professionals, classes and students.
“We are seeing a huge backlash against influencer marketing campaigns,” she said. “Brands and audiences are getting more aware of what influencers are trying to do to game the system.”
Collateral damage, unfortunately, falls on those not guilty.
“With all of these negative cases, it does impact the ‘real’ influencers who are professional, ethical and want to create win-win situations,” Freberg said. “Instances like Fyre and others bring a negative light to the field.”
One approach to working with influencers is to put business matters in writing.
“There needs to be a code of ethics and standard practices for influencers,” Freberg said. “This was something I helped start during my Plank Center public relations fellowship a few years ago.
“Having a code sets forth your expectations, best practices, how to handle a situation gone wrong, and what are your criteria for choosing an influencer,” she said. “Influencer marketing approaches need to be integrated in all public relations, social, marketing and crisis plans.”
Freberg advocates using the right tools to make more informed decisions on influencer marketing strategies.
Freberg offered these tips for brands looking to engage with influencers:
- Read about influencer marketing from experts like Mark Schaefer, Lee Odden and Jason Falls.
- Invest in tools like Talkwalker and Zoomph.
- Look at campaigns and brands who are doing it well. Shout outs to Mark Boothe and Adobe.
- Hire Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe and Leo Morejon to consult and speak on influencer marketing.
- Connect with scholars and professors active in this line of influencer marketing and doing great things: Karen Sutherland, Brandon Boatwright and Courtney Childers.
“Before you even start an influencer marketing campaign or relationship, do your research, educate and look at training on sites such as Traackr,” Freberg said. “Look at many case studies for references to best practices.”
She and Sklar continued their influencer marketing discussion on Facebook Live.