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If You’re Treating Influencer Marketing Like Advertising, You’re Doing It Wrong

By Kyle Harper on May 18, 2018

It's strange to think, as accustomed as we are to social media, that it has only been around for about two decades. But it's also strange to realize that many elements that underpin these platforms-the importance of word of mouth, the power of influencer marketing-are actually quite old.

I was reminded of this a few years back when I met up with some old friends while visiting my family over a holiday. One of my friends was particularly jazzed about some unheard-of energy drink. It was making him happier and healthier. It tasted better than the competition and was made from natural ingredients. It was giving him so much energy that he was able to hold down two jobs with ease.

Oh, and speaking of two jobs, if I wanted to earn a bunch of cash he could get me in on the ground floor of his drink business if I just bought a couple flats of cans. "You make back way more once you sell it off," he assured me.

And there it was. The oldest of influencer marketing tactics. I declined, but offered to try a sip of the can in his hand to see what it was all about. He told me he had a can in his car I could buy for five dollars.

While we all laugh about the story today, it took my "entrepreneurial" friend a long time to rebuild trust within our friend group. We couldn't be sure if his opinions were his own, if he was there to hang out or just to sell. It was an awkward, slightly painful process for all of us.

And as advertisers turn their eyes to influencers, we run the risk of seeing this damage happen across our social media communities.

Ads and Influence

It's no surprise that advertisers are turning their sights towards social media influencers. Advertisers face a lot of challenges today, from ad-blocking to high media costs to difficulties dialing in just the right audience for their campaigns. But influencers solve all of this. They come with a visible, researchable audience that you can align with your brand. Their posts are considered organic and don't trip ad-blockers. Depending on the style of relationship with the advertiser, the relationship can be much cheaper in the long run than paying for actual media.

There are still some concerns to overcome, like the possibility of paying for fake followers or the chance that an influencer goes rogue and causes a PR incident for your brand. But these are relatively easy issues to control or distance your brand from, and so advertisers are throwing more and more money into the influencer space.

But what does this mean for content marketers?

Three people stand side-by-side on a train platform while looking at their phones.

Image attribution: Raw Pixel

The Great Authenticity Depreciation

Advertising through influencers is actually a pretty short-sighted tactic for brands-one that takes advantage of a present opportunity at the risk of sabotaging that opportunity for the future.

This risk is due to the essential value of influencers. We follow, interact, and listen to influencers for two primary reasons:

  • We enjoy their presence and personality and . . .
  • . . . because of this we value their opinions.

Social media influence is tied to who these influencers are as individuals. They may structure their lives to be viewed online, but they do so in a way that feels authentic to the follower, which in turn builds trust.

But what happens when that authenticity is compromised?

It's the same dynamic as I had with my friend in the multi-level marketing group. Before he tried to sell to me, I trusted, valued, and enjoyed his opinions and presence in my life. But the moment I realized our interactions carried ulterior motivation, it broke the relationship.

Advertising through influencers is working well for advertisers right now because the mechanics of these relationships aren't readily apparent to users. But what happens to the space when users become aware they're being advertised to?

Either the relationships crumble and we see a market-wide depreciation in the power of social media influencers, or the advertising model is ignored by users and becomes normalized in industry, which would result in influencers working openly to drive up costs. In either case, the whole space is harmed.

Four friends on a beach, laughing.

Image attribution: Helena Lopes

A Healthy Formula for Content-Driven Influence

Does this mean your brand shouldn't engage with influencers? Absolutely not.

Content marketers have the skills, resources, and perspective necessary to nurture long-lasting and healthy relationships with influencers. Here are some tactical considerations to keep in mind.

You Work with Influencers; They Don't Work for You

It's easy to forget, but influencers are also regular social media users like you and me. Chances are that if their audience is a fit for your brand, then the influencer is as well. Rather than establishing a transactional relationship, look for ways to engage your influencer with your brand experience. Give them access that regular customers don't receive; send them swag and collateral that isn't a product; talk to them regularly to answer questions and get feedback. An influencer who wants to talk about your brand, rather than who has to talk about your brand, will not only come across more authentically, but they'll likely stick around to support you for a longer relationship.

Don't Direct Opinions

Make sure your PR team isn't nearby when you read this, but-don't tell your influencers what to think or say. This is a natural build from the previous point, but if you dictate opinions and scripts to influencers, you're only turning them into human advertisements rather than community drivers. Rather, ask or encourage real feedback on their channels, and then think creatively about how to respond to that feedback. A good review with a couple of points of criticism from an authentic influencer is much more valuable to your brand than a glowing but clearly inauthentic review.

Nurture for Time, Not Opportunism

Good influencer marketing is a year-long endeavor, not a switch you flip on or off when it suits. If an influencer has nothing to say about your brand nine months out of the year, but suddenly starts singing your praises just weeks before a product launch or an important event, it's going to become quickly apparent to their followers that something is out of the ordinary. Finding ways to engage the influencer year-round with your brand experience not only supports point one in a strong way, it also positions your brand to be authentically ready for opportunities as they arise.

Influencer marketing is likely here to stay as long as social media continues to hold such a prominent place in everyday life. What isn't so certain, however, is what these relationships will look like into the future. Content marketers are uniquely equipped to nurture healthy relationships, and by extension a healthy marketplace. But this will only work if we actively position our brands to push back against advertising models entering into the space.

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Featured image attribution: Nappy


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?