Influencer marketing — once a niche, scrappy social tactic — is entering a boom period as it hits the mainstream, but a lack of industry standardization, a lot of sameness and inflated expectations are fueling a messy landscape. Still, marketers who are smart about how they leverage the tactic and value brand story over trend-hopping are continuing to triumph on social.
Thirty-two percent of marketers using influencers view them as essential to strategy and 41% have seen more success with influencer campaigns than with traditional advertising efforts, according to recent research from Bloglovin. For marketers already invested in the space, 63% said they plan to increase budgets this year.
That interest is reflected in a growing number of vendors and platforms who seek to both connect brands and influencers and also help measure the success of their efforts. It's not something limited to independent parties, either, as digital giants like Amazon or Google's YouTube have built in-house programs to foster more robust influencer marketing.
"It’s definitely getting crowded — there are fairly low barriers to entry, to saying you’re in the space," Brian Zuercher, CEO and founder of Seen, said in an interview. "The most successful marketers are the ones who come to terms with the programming as a whole. If you're looking at it to drive substantial sales, it's unlikely to be a [good fit]."
Anyone can be an influencer is a common refrain these days. There's a bit of hyperbole in that statement, but the reality is that the term "influencer" has taken on a nebulous quality, covering everyone from the Kardashians to micro-influencers with just a couple hundred dedicated Twitter followers.
To help cut through the clutter and deliver marketers results, vendor solutions have rapidly proliferated, Unfortunately, the quick growth has reached a point of no longer being sustainable, analysts said.
"We frequently hear from clients, 'How do I choose from all of these vendor solutions? They all seem to deliver the same thing.'"
Senior analyst, Forrester Research
"The influencer marketing landscape is overcrowded," Jessica Liu, a senior analyst serving B2C marketers at Forrester Research, said in an emailed statement. "We frequently hear from clients, 'How do I choose from all of these vendor solutions? They all seem to deliver the same thing.'"
Most vendors focus on what Liu referred to as the "3 Rs" — reach, relevance and resonance — but don't do enough to differentiate their services on a more granular level, instead relying on the same social network API data.
"The marketplace influencer software products have been largely tested and have not been overly successful," Zuercher said.
Even as vendor solutions proliferate to the point of over-saturation, marketers still often aren't clear on where influencers deliver the most value. Part of this is simply the space's nascent state, but it might be a growing problem as spend pours in at greater volume.
"Measuring it has become a nightmare," said David Song, managing director at Barker. "How do you put a price tag on someone hashtagging you? ... The connections are very hard to make."
Sources interviewed for this article further bemoaned a lack of concrete structure and industry standardization for influencers while also noting that different tiers of influencers offer distinct opportunities for different types of brands.
"There’s a lot of influencers out there. I wish they had managers. I wish there was a CAA [Creative Artists Agency]," Song said, referencing the talent and sports management agency.
"In TV, you always have a rating point. In print, it's a CPM," he added. "[For influencers], there’s no set negotiating standards. It’s a time-suck for my team. There's no rhyme or reason in what the ask is."
Despite the frustrations with influencer marketing's lack of infrastructure, some of the burden also rests on marketers' shoulders. Influencer marketing is evolving from shiny object to a social media staple with sticking power, but this hasn't stopped many from buying into the tactic simply because it's the popular thing to do.
“Influencers marketing often has its own sub-language,” said Zuercher. “Some of it's getting comfortable with the expectations. The result of any one tactic is not necessarily going to be sales.”
"The days of paying someone top dollar for just one post are over [...] There's very little ROI."
Managing director, Barker
As influencers gain more clout and command higher prices, marketers need to adjust what their strategy play is. Marketers may have to think about achieving greater scale with smaller influencers as opposed to deploying a handful of huge social stars who are becoming more like celebrity brand endorsers.
"The days of paying someone top dollar for just one post are over," Song said. "There’s very little ROI [...] If someone's just selling that, then they’re not a very sophisticated influencer."
A more top-down approach, where the brand message comes first and the influencer component comes later, will make for the most successful campaigns, according to experts. Obsessing over a popular name can create sticky situations, such as what happened with the YouTube creator Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, after it was discovered he made videos deemed anti-Semitic by ad partners, which quickly cut ties.
"Focus on the story and the narrative and the goals that you want to hit before you focus on the actual influencer," said Stephen Boidock, director of marketing and business development at Drumroll. Boidock pointed to the work of luxury cooler maker Yeti as a sterling example of influencer marketing done right, leveraging everyday people in the brand's target audience as opposed to a single recognizable name.
Additionally, understanding that influencers are human beings with diverse content plans and interests is something many fundamentally miss on both the tech and marketing side, per Zuercher.
"Marketplaces promise scale, but they often don't account for people on the other end," he said. "Remember that influencers aren't just the unit of an ad buy."
Marketers concerned that breaking into the influencer space might prove unduly expensive or complicated should rest easy despite headwinds, experts said. "There's way more a supply of influencers than demand even today — it’s all about the fit," Zuercher said.
The opportunities for innovation and engagement through influencers hold strong, and existing efforts continue to connect with audiences in a way that more rigid forms of digital advertising often fail to, as the Bloglovin report shows. Whether it's a small social video series done with a micro-influencer or something like Nike's recent two-hour marathon stunt with some of the world's fastest runners, influencer marketing's creative horizons are proving to be broader than most social marketing tactics.
One area to watch will be regulatory groups such as the FTC, which have recently started warning influencers on platforms like Instagram directly as opposed to the prior policy of slapping brands on the wrist or threatening sanctions in extreme cases.
“That's another area that's kind of like the wild, wild West,” Boidock said.
"Right now, there aren't a ton of rules and regulations around influencer marketing," he said, adding that this will change as brands and agencies get more "clever" with their usage. "They're going to push the boundaries of what they're allowed to do [...] As that becomes a bigger thing, you'll probably see more crackdown in certain areas."
As for the vendor side, influencer marketing might be heading down a path that's become all too familiar in the digital landscape: Analysts see a bubble pop inbound that will initially prove disruptive but might ultimately produce a more well-oiled machine.
"[W]e’ll see consolidation whether through companies merging, folding or getting acquired by bigger social suites who offer all-in-one solutions," Liu said in a statement. "This will simplify the marketplace for marketers."