So, you are an influencer? Urgh!
With every brand out there swearing by the power of influencer marketing, why do customers and brands alike hate influencers?
For the last couple of years, everywhere you see, people have been capitalizing on the new trend — influencer marketing. I know of Instagram influencers who you would find on calls all the time trying to score that next promoted post on the feeds of their followers. I know of influencers who feel entitled to free food and drinks in exchange for putting up a picture showing ‘chilling in the cool joint they just discovered’. I know of startups, entrepreneurs and brands who are looking to get a slice of the influencer marketing pie. And then, I also know of brands who have burnt their hands, and would rather get bit by a snake than get into influencer marketing again.
And that is what brings us to this point.
It is obvious that influencer marketing has a lot of potential, but at the same time, it has a lot of glaring flaws in the way it has been going on currently. And that is precisely what I want to talk about today.
WHY DOES INFLUENCER MARKETING WORK
It is as simple as that. It is the same reason why you find customer testimonials on the websites of b2b businesses. It is the same reason why you find businesses paying so much attention to what ratings, and reviews they get on their product pages, google local search results, facebook pages, app store etc. Social proof matters. If I come across a few consumers who have had a bad experience with a product, chances are, I will stay away. After all, who is willing to risk ruining their day with a bad experience. Similarly, if I come across customers who are singing praises for a product/business, I may not transact immediately, but my inhibition barrier definitely goes down. It all comes down to social proof.
Influencer marketing is social proof on steroids.
If someone has sway over tens and hundreds of thousands of potential customers out there, a brand would be crazy not to tap into that huge reach. And that is what has been fuelling the growth of influencer marketing as a customer outreach medium.
SO WHAT IS GOING WRONG?
Well, a few things to be honest. Just to give you some idea, a quick search on Google threw up this result:
But the challenges are much more deep-seated than this shortlist. A few days ago, I came across a few run-of-the-mill answers on my Quora feed, the ones that show you some funny pictures, jokes, memes and the likes of it. But this was different. In all 4 answers that I went through in a short ten mins, one image was common. It was a product-shot of a waterproof, wireless earphones. Zero context, but it was there in all those answers. One additional answer that seemed to showcase a screengrab of a whatsapp conversation the person had with ‘a friend’ featured him talking about the earphones in that whatsapp conversation — a conversation that otherwise appeared commonplace talks between friends. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the brand was somehow reaching out to people with a lot of upvotes in their answers and asking them to promote their earphones. And that is messed up! Did I check out the earphones? No. It could have been a great piece of product, but the shady marketing technique was enough to put me off, and well — I can’t condone unethical behavior.
And that is one of the biggest problems I have with the current state of influencer marketing — the absolute lack of ethics and morality that both brands and influencers seem to share and to top it up, an absolutely zero sense of accountability in terms of how influencers are using their reach. But let’s not go there just yet, and stick to some other glaring issues plaguing the influencer marketing industry.
FLAW #1: ENDLESS PROMOTIONS
An influencer could have a follower base of anything ranging from 5,000 to a couple of million. Brands are trying to tap into the micro-reach these individual influencers can provide them with, and the cumulative macro-impact it ends up having on their business. What they often ignore though is the age cold concept of “ad fatigue”.
Have you ever watched a particular ad so many times on television that it ended up obnoxiously irritating you to a level that you swore against the product? That is what is happening here.
A particular brand may feature on an influencer’s feed only once in a while, but when every single one of your posts is promotional, follows the exact same setup and premise, your followers start getting disenchanted sooner than you think. You may still see people engaging with your posts in the form of comments and likes, but those comments and likes are as worthless to the brand as those likes you made on that Facebook post that told you Facebook will donate $1 for every like on that post.
At the end of the day, influencer marketing is just another form of content marketing. And if you read up on any good guides on content marketing, you would know that the best way to engage your audience base is to focus primarily on adding value to your audience’s lives.
For effective content marketing strategy, 80% of what you do should be focused on adding value to your audience, only 20% or less should be about you.
When every single one of your posts is promotional, you are putting zero importance to your audience, and 100% focus on ME ME ME ME ME! That’s not healthy.
So why do influencers do this? Well. When you get that first dollar for making a sponsored post, it seems like a waste to put a post out that is not putting money in your bank. This shortsightedness is why you don’t see these micro-influencers getting much repeat business. After all, why is a brand going to pay you again and again if it did not see any impact out of engaging you the first time?
FLAW #2: EYEBALLS RATHER THAN ATTENTION
Eyeballs isn’t the same thing as attention, and attention is what brands are really looking for.
If you read one of my earlier stories where I talked about how to go about describing your product, in the Dettol vs Savlon example, attention was a key component. How Savlon helped register its product in the minds of its target audience.
When was the last time you have seen an influencer post register a product in your mind? Watching you apply moisturizer to your long legs may lead to a perv replying “nice legs” on your post, it does little to help the brands arrive at a connect with the audience.
FLAW #3: QUANTITY RATHER THAN QUALITY
The size of my follower base — that is how influencers start their sales pitch to the brands. Brands buy into that, primarily because they don’t know of any other way in which to access the reach viability of a particular influencer. And this results in an endless destructive loop where influencers will do anything at all to pump up their follower base.
Buying fake followers, using random hashtags, using popular hashtags, using completely non-contextual hashtags, and using ‘instagram quick growth’ tools and services — I have seen influencers use them all.
The problem? When all you are concerned with is the size of your base and how quickly you can increase that, you choose to completely ignore the quality, contextual relevance and ‘audience type’. You end up having a ton of followers that have little to do with who you are and what you do, and everything to do with some obscure posts and hashtags you used here and there. The result? Bad bad engagement levels.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE TO FIX IT?
The onus of this will need to fall on both brands as well as influencers.
But since it doesn’t happen very often that people say no to incoming cashflow, this change will need to be driven by brands.
1. The first thing that needs to change is the definition of who an influencer is. We gotta understand that every single one of us is an influencer. Mike may be getting queries from his friends on which smartphone they should be buying while Sarah gets asked on which would be the best destination to go for over the next long weekend. Influence starts from trust. The trust that people put in our expertise in specific areas. Influencers need to start understanding that. You would come across some amazing cooks on Youtube, who create a wide variety of dishes for their subscribers, and their subscriber count keeps on growing. If they were to promote a product, which they often do, it would be related to the kitchen, and they would be using it. There is a lot of context there already, and then they will put the weight of their credibility behind it which makes all the impact.
2. Everything is revenue driven, and this is something influencers need to understand. Irrespective of how invaluable you may think exposure to your audience base is to the brand, it all boils down to a big fat zero if your posts aren’t helping them make money. Revenue is the only thing that truly matters. If an association with you is helping them make money, they will continue getting associated with you even if that means thinning up their margins.
3. Add value to your audience. That is the very core of your existence. You exist because of your audience, not because of the brands. You are leveraging your audience to make money for yourself, and hopefully for the brands, be respectful of that, if nothing else.
Look at Google. It makes money because of the countless searches happening on its platform, but it doesn’t compromise on the end user’s experience to make a quick buck. As soon as the algorithm detects that a lower bid and lower placed ad is being found more relevant and helpful by customers, it will elevate its position in the ad displays despite the lower bid value vis-a-vis competitors’.
You need to add value to your audience. All the time. Irrespective of whether that effort is bringing in money or not. You exist because of the audience, the audience doesn’t exist because of you.
4. Do things for free. Stand for something. Promote what you believe in, irrespective of whether there is a commercial entanglement or not.
When everyone was going crazy about Popeye’s Fried Chicken Sandwich, a woman tweeted about a neighboring restaurant claiming their sandwich was the best she has had. She additionally praised the behavior and personality of the owners of the food-joint. The tweet went viral, and the restaurant started seeing people queueing up waiting for their sandwich. The grateful owners ended up offering free-chicken-for-life to the woman who drove them all this business.
On the flip side, imagine an influencer walking to the restaurant owner and demanding free meal for a month in exchange for an instagram post. One is a heart-warming story about altruistic good and gratitude. The other is a scenario filled with obnoxious behavior and entitlement.
There are a lot of problems plaguing influencers. There are a number of issues brand need tackled if influencer marketing is to be a truly viable long term marketing strategy for businesses.
But before you start doing any of that, let us at least be an influencer for the right reasons.