Influencer marketing this year has seen a surge in industry confidence as some marketers post returns on their investments (ROIs) and influencer-focused companies boost measurement capabilities. The approaching holiday season could provide a key test of whether these developments translate to consumer purchases.
Stability on TikTok — one of the primary platforms for influencer activations — has helped marketers come around to the influencer space, following a well-publicized rocky period in 2020. This year, TikTok has made "enormous improvements" in terms of trustworthiness, per Kantar's Media Reactions 2021 survey. With ad exposure nearly doubling on the platform, in addition to new partnerships aimed at building out its e-commerce abilities, TikTok's evolution is one reason influencers are now marketers' third most trusted media, rising from the 10th spot last year, according to Kantar.
While consumers trust Spotify, Google and Amazon above all other platforms, how they feel about different styles of marketing generally aligns with marketers' attitudes, Kantar found. Both consumers and marketers found TikTok to be the most innovative place for ads, further demonstrating the app's engagement potential.
"Right now, there's much more of the 'How do we use the influencer to drive you?'" said Jed Meyer, senior vice president of media and content domain at Kantar. "Brands want to drive sales, and right now there's more flexibility to do that."
Digital media has long faced difficulties with measuring ad performance as compared to offline media, with social activations particularly frustrating for brands wondering whether engagement leads to real spending. This issue has led some brands to loosen their hold on traditional ways of partnering with influencers and instead confer more control to the creator, who presumably better knows the platform and their audience.
Meanwhile, companies specializing in influencer marketing are investing heavily in measurement technology that can tell marketers whether their impressions and engagement lead to lower-funnel action. These techniques can alleviate some obscurity of digital performance, per Meyer.
But concerns surrounding the influencer space still need to be considered. Only a year ago, TikTok was on the verge of being banned from the U.S., and with competing platforms catering to other burgeoning media like podcasts, the future and impact on influencer spending is still very murky. These obstacles could feasibly outweigh the trust marketers have built up for the space over the past year.
"I think it comes back to the transparency, the measurement, the ROI … when brands want to spend money, they want to know they're getting a desired impact — foot traffic in the store, sales at the register," Meyer said. "And so the trick is: How do you do that with influencers?"
Changing brand approaches
The growing trust that marketers have in influencers could be reflected by a greater comfort to give up control of some elements of their brand messaging, Kantar's survey notes. Ocean Spray, for example, wove TikTok into its influencer strategy but didn't find much success until an organic partnership last year with Nathan Apodaca (@420doggface208) spurred by a viral video showing Apodaca drinking the brand's classic beverage.
"Before Nathan's video, we held influencers on a bit of a tight leash, to the point where we often watered down their own personal brand to essentially turn their posts into yet another Ocean Spray ad," Melanie DiBiasio, Ocean Spray's senior manager of digital precision marketing, said in emailed comments to Marketing Dive.
By seizing an organic brand moment and allowing the creator to remain authentic through their content, Ocean Spray could avoid muddying its message and post an ad without it feeling like one, DiBiasio said.
Ocean Spray is one of many brands that have demonstrated similar comfort with influencers, including Dunkin', whose partnership with Charli D'Amelio has evolved several times since its inception and most recently saw a merch drop that drove fans to the brand's direct-to-consumer (DTC) site.
Significant, concrete ROIs are a strong determining factor of an ad's performance, which some brands have already started to see through organic influencer marketing, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of marketing company Influential. These efforts integrate marketing in ways that tap the influencers' power without becoming a disruptive presence on the platform, such as through methods like TikTok Spark Ads and whitelisting, which sees brands advertising directly through influencers' accounts.
"We call it 'Your choice, your voice'," Detert said. "As an influencer, take what the brand wants you to say, but then make it germane to your audience. If you do that, you’re going to see exponentially higher engagement, clicks and ROI."
Progress in analytics
Efforts from influencer-focused companies to measure more effectively may be another reason why marketers' confidence in the space is ticking up. Influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ — which recently secured $40 million in funding — this month acquired Tribe Dynamics, an analytics firm that measures benchmarks for beauty and fashion. With the deal, CreatorIQ is hoping to expand those solutions to other verticals and create standards for the entire influencer space, Variety reported.
Influential, which uses IBM Watson artificial intelligence tech to provide analytical services for influencer campaigns, focuses on showing brands that influencer marketing can be a lower-funnel activity, Detert said. In a partnership late last year, Triller recruited Influential to provide concrete results it could use to help the burgeoning social platform stand out against rivals like TikTok and YouTube. As more platforms crop up to serve the growing creator economy, proving that influencer marketing is more than an exercise in building PR and brand awareness could be critical to preserving marketers' trust in the tactic. This need could explain why TikTok is focusing more attention on guiding brands toward real purchases, demonstrating through its Publicis partnership that includes special product-testing privileges and an incubator program timed for the holiday shopping season.
"Some things are great vehicles for engaging consumers, but some of them, quite honestly, don't yield actual human traffic."
SVP of media and content domain, Kantar
The pending rollout of TikTok Shopping, which is being piloted by some merchants, also shows that the platform is emphasizing sales and not merely virality, embodied by the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. A recent example is Clinique's Black Honey lipstick, which was originally introduced in 1971 and is now experiencing a surge in online sales due to a viral TikTok post about the product.
"All of this is cumulative," Detert said. "We couldn't have gotten to where we are today if we didn't go through that evolution of getting people's head wrapped around the trust in influencers, the ROI of it all … and so now you have an ecosystem that's growing."
Despite high levels of trust and sometimes engagement, not all brands have seen the same ROI, raising questions over whether influencer marketing really can consistently drive consumer spending.
"For us, [influencer marketing] is still primarily an upper-funnel activation," Ocean Spray's DiBiasio said. "Since we don't sell direct to consumer, it's harder to measure sales impact of an influencer campaign."
Similarly, measuring the performance of smaller-scale influencers has its own issues to consider, according to Kantar's Meyer. Micro- and nano-influencers who are often recruited in groups by beauty brands may present an entirely different marketing experience than a campaign with a mega-influencer, in addition to possible difficulties in tracing performance back to specific partners.
Another question surrounds whether marketers' trust will be enough to keep influencer marketing atop the pyramid as online media continues to evolve. Podcast ads — forecast to exceed $2 billion in revenue by 2023 — scored higher than influencer content on global ad equity, or receptiveness from consumers, per Kantar's Media Reactions survey. Perhaps more significant is that the latest ranking sees influencer content down from being No. 1 in the 2020 survey, which may speak to Kantar's finding that more users feel overloaded with ads on TikTok.
Additional concerns, including social media giants' continued conflicts with protecting data privacy as well as influencer controversies, could further outweigh marketers' trust and keep brands hesitant to fully commit to the space.
"You want to be innovative and try new things, but you also want to be a smart steward of your company's money," Meyer said. "Some things are great vehicles for engaging consumers, but some of them, quite honestly, don't yield actual human traffic."