4 Ways to Reform the Influencer Market and Hold It Accountable

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Every year, the creative world waits with bated breath to see the latest, greatest trends coming from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. This year, though, if one major development emerged it more properly could be classified as an anti-trend. Some of the world’s biggest brands retreated from their flirtation with influencer marketing.

Every day at Cannes it seemed like another C-suite executive from a global brand was talking about increasing accountability or pulling back—or even threatening to move on from this influencer race to the top.

Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, kicked off Cannes with a vow many took to heart: For its portfolio of food and personal care brands, the company would begin weeding out (no pun intended) influencer partners who have fake followers or use bots to grow their accounts to epic traffic counts.

The reality of working with influencers whose followings are authentic may be trickier than making a proclamation like Weed’s. All this begs several questions. What is going on? How did we get here? How do we move forward? The answers are simpler than they seem.

First, we know why we’re here: Advertising bombards consumers and every brand wants to stand out. Influencer marketing, at one point, seemed like a fantastic value-add: Word-of-Mouth marketing through trusted social circles. Then things got out of control.

Prudent practitioners long have warned about an un-vetted embrace of influencers and the inevitable skewed market. Fake followers often plague those with a large enough reach to justify payment. In addition, such influencers lack a clear brand identity. This makes them more paid shill than credible tastemaker. Their endorsement prices continue to skyrocket, while their engagement rates spiral downward. In addition, no one is providing clear accountability or ROI. This is a disastrous recipe for brands.

That’s the bad news.

There’s also good news: the solution is basic. Hold the influencer market accountable, just as you would any other. Here’s how:

  1. Work only with influencers who have verifiable followings—and accompanying engagement levels. It doesn’t matter how many people follow an influencer if they aren’t actually inspired to take action.  Branded posts for influencers should fall above the minimum of 4% engagement rate and not vary wildly from the reach and engagement of the influencer’s unbranded posts. If they do, that’s a red flag for audience trust. And while some of the internet always will be fake and bots, those levels must remain low and influencers who buy followers must be banned. Require all talent to contractually affirm they have not engaged in or benefitted from any practice to increase or alter the size of their audience—and audit to independently verify.
  1. Build relationships—not one-off posts—at accurate, reasonable prices. In today’s market, many influencers are convincing brands to pay more than 10 times what they’d spend to reach the same number of people in a traditional or digital media buy. That’s unacceptable. Yes, personal influence matters, but not 10 times more! Make sure to evaluate your spend on a CPM basis, and work with people who view clients as partners seeking credible, long-term and authentic relationships.
  1. Relationships need to tell a story. What you build has to be based on engaging, real content that tells a story. Influencer marketing, like any advertising, needs to find the right product message against the right audience at the right time with defined benefits. For efforts to resonate, consumers have to want to see what you’re sharing and be able to evaluate whether it worked.
  1. Accountability is everything. Any influencer marketing effort must stand up to the same measurement, accountability and ROI calculations that you insist on from any other spend. Influence is hard to measure, but not impossible. Are you driving clicks, shares and lift? Do you see movement and return—and positive impact? The good news about the digital age is that almost everything can be assigned a number. The bad news is that too many companies still aren’t tracking them.

Up to now, most brands spending in the influencer market haven’t really demanded ROI because their budgets are so large that those numbers are a rounding error. If you are a big media buyer, social media influencers are peanuts. That’s why we are starting to see a bit of a backlash. As the strategy becomes trendy and trickles down, brands are discovering it is pricier than they bargained for—and perhaps not as cost effective as they intended.

But don’t throw out the baby out with the bathwater. Brands can succeed with influencers.

My colleague Emma Gregson, managing director, ITB Worldwide, suggests marketers look at every brief with a strategic and qualitative lens.

“The rush for a brand to do an influencer campaign often means that the core objectives get overlooked, but when delivered correctly, these programs can achieve a number of different sets of ROI,” she says.

Also, Gregson notes, brands should commit to spending—many influencer campaigns have been activated with leftover marketing budgets, which leaves little room to create meaningful impact and longevity.

Influencers aren’t the problem, the market is. The solution is simple. Treat this market the same way you do any other: with thoughtful and careful planning, clear accountability and proper creative messaging that marries data and storytelling.

Craig Greiwe is SVP & Head, Rogers & Cowan Digital Group