The influencer premise is simple: Leverage a cadre of celebrities, bloggers, and industry experts to post about your brand, and expect to boost leads, brand awareness, and customer loyalty.
But the influencer bubble may be about to burst. Google has issued new rules on how bloggers should behave when they have a relationship with a brand. The FTC has joined the fray, and brands that don’t play by the rules will get burned.
Given these complications, brands should tread carefully when working with influencers. Influencers can be incredibly effective, but the practice isn’t without drawbacks.
The days of using an influencer to build links are over. Google wants bloggers who receive free products in exchange for reviews to disclose that relationship, preferably at the top of the content. Much to the chagrin of brands, Google is also urging bloggers to use the nofollow tag when linking back to a company’s products, website, or social media accounts. That means Google won’t count the link when it determines PageRank, since the link didn’t come about organically. Also on the list of best practices is offering compelling, unique, and exclusive content.
Whether Google can actually enforce these guidelines is unclear. Some experts predict Google will penalize a few high-profile offenders in order to scare other bloggers into towing the nofollow line, Search Engine Watch noted. But if Google’s algorithm can’t detect the difference between paid-for and unpaid links (and that seems to be the case), it’s up to the bloggers (and brands) to self-enforce the guidelines.
Google’s influencer guardrails come on the heels of major FTC interest in how brands are using influencers and bloggers to promote products and services. The FTC expects all endorsing content to include some sort of disclosure statement. On a Tweet, that might be as simple as using #ad. On a blog, the influencer can get more creative with the exact disclosure language, as long as it’s clear and easily identifiable.
Companies that run afoul of the rules could find themselves in FTC hot water. Gaming network Machinima and retailer Lord & Taylor both settled with the FTC recently over charges that they did not properly disclose relationships with influencers, and thus were considered deceptive, Marketing Land reported.
Given the extra scrutiny influencers are receiving from Google and the FTC, is hiring influencers still worth it?
Most marketers tend to think so. Businesses report they are making $6.50 for every $1 devoted to influence marketing, according to Tomoson’s survey of marketers.
The trick is identifying who is influential with your buyers. For a fashion retailer, the perfect influencer might be someone like Lauren Conrad or Yu-Ming Wu; for B2B companies, ideal influencers are thought leaders, analysts, journalists or bloggers in their industry.
But not all influencer tactics look like the “blogger reviews product” model discussed above. Instead, B2B marketers might look for influencers that can help promote their company’s blog, content or brand through social media. One way to earn support is by mentioning an influencer in a blog post and letting him know about it; if the influencer shares the content, that’s more exposure for your company. Another common tactic is to invite influencers to participate in an expert roundup on an industry topic. But if the relationship is more involved—and the blogger or thought leader is compensated for marketing on your brand’s behalf—the same FTC rules apply: disclose, disclose, disclose.
While influencers have benefits, companies need to realize that even the most awesome influencer can’t fix everything. If your website is horrible, customer experience a disaster, and owned content neglected, you’ve got bigger problems than trying to identify the right industry thought leader to target.
In addition, given the resources required to find, court, and track influencers, it may make more sense to put marketing resources elsewhere, like in social ads (assuming you have good content and brand stories to back them up).
“Though the most successful bloggers can offer good scale, if you don’t have the products to command serious consideration from these influencers, some straight-up advertising might be a better option,” writes Ben Davis of Econsultancy.
The FTC crackdown and Google’s new rules won’t spell the end of influencer marketing. Instead, it may be companies themselves that create the problem. The more companies that hire influencers to sing their praises, the more consumers will become immune to sponsored posts.
“As influencers increasingly sign on to more branded campaigns, their messages are losing the authenticity that made influencer marketing attractive in the first place,” Inverted Marketing notes.
An influencer-saturated world will force influencer-dependent marketing to evolve. Micro-influencers—those users with just a 1,000 or so followers—may become more important. Even though these bloggers command fewer followers, they can generate more engagement than top bloggers with a larger crowd. User-generated content may become even more trusted for its authenticity.
Digital influencers will still play an important role in digital marketing. But if trends continue, the influencers of the future will look a lot less like a Kardashian and more like the everyday consumer.