Last year, the coronavirus outbreak pushed all activities, from attending fitness sessions to concerts from physical to digital. It led brands of several kinds and sizes to experiment with digital activities. Businesses soon realized that the influencer marketing model posed a good opportunity for greater engagement with their audiences with impactful messaging.
Brands started to realign their strategies and opened their budgets for digital media to leverage the practice. It led to significant growth in influencer marketing, with more businesses opting for the pervasive use of social media platforms to promote their products.
In 2019, the value of influencer marketing had reached 6.5 billion USD, and there are projections that it would reach 15 billion USD by 2022.
Today, marketing is all about algorithms, data, and analytics to get a target audience instead of the conventional spray-and-pray approach. The major success factor is finding out how influencer marketing can be more effective by targeting the right audience and increase consumer engagement (1).
There has also been a shift in communication tone and perspectives, driving away from superficial, sales-driven, and in-your-face content to a more meaningful, purpose-driven, and two-way conversation.
Today, most of us, be it in a metro or rural area, have smartphones and internet access. It has allowed us to offer content material with no funding or supervision. The technological upgrades in numerous social media platforms and the entry of new players have enabled folks to showcase their expertise or create content material and acquire an immense following. Becoming social media celebrities, we call influencers.
New influencers are keeping approaching each month, and the latest technologies like AI continues to promise more automation. With successive and rapid leaps in technology set to revolutionize the way businesses and consumers interact with one another, we can say that the future of influencer marketing could be very different from what it is now.
Today, let’s talk about the major changes and evolution in influencer marketing, how technology will change influencer marketing, and what will remain as pillars of great influencer marketing in the foreseeable future.
The Changes and Evolution in Influencer Marketing Over The Past Few Years
There have been some significant changes in the influencer marketing segment since 2008. As the industry has gotten a lot better and mature, five macro-trends are worthy of closer peek:
- Facebook’s explosive growth
- Systematic and sophisticated ignoring of ads
- Surging reliance on peer-to-peer reviews
- The surge of non-celebrity influencers
- Impact of analytics, engagement scores, and big data
Facebook’s Explosive Growth
While some of us may have jumped on Facebook and Twitter’s bandwagon by 2008, the impact of social media was pretty nascent at that time compared to today’s standards. When Facebook was started in 2004, it was only open to the public in 2006, with about 12 m users. Back in 2008, Facebook only had over 145 million users (2). Today, it boasts over 1.57 billion users (3).
The audience growth on Facebook was not only about reaching more people. For the first time in the history of digital marketing, each Facebook user has a complete and robust personal profile about themselves. It means that marketers no longer have to rely on ‘relevance’ as their chief targeting option.
Marketers no longer have to ‘believe a target customer is a sports fan because he is reading content on ESPN’ or ‘believe a target customer is most likely a female because one is getting email on Yahoo.’
Facebook fundamentally transformed the digital advertising game because each of its users had provided both a demographic, age, gender, location, and psychographic, hobbies, movies, favorite music profile. It offered both influencers and marketers transparency into their target audience precisely.
For marketers, it helped them reach their target audience with ‘less spray and pray’ and more reaching the exact audience at the exact time.
For influencers, it helped them build their tribe. They no longer have to guess their target audience.
Facebook offered an analytics system (4) that went way beyond what was previously available for influencers via free tools such as Google Analytics (Notably, it is only available until 30 June 2021).
Systematic and Sophisticated Ignoring of Ads
Publishers also upped their game with better tracking pixels and retargeting to fight Facebook’s growing advertising dominance. There was a total privacy loss, and consumers started to get bombarded with ads. The promise of more relevant ads missed its mark.
As a defensive measure, consumers got good at ignoring digital ads, from installing ad-blocking software to the onset of banner ad blindness (5). In 1995, a best banner ad campaign would get 44$ click-through rates. Today, the industry-standard banner ad click-through rate is less than 0.05% (6). That is a rounding error, yet, banners are among the most dominant in digital advertising.
The extensive fall in performance has given pause to advertisers looking for better ways to reach and engage their target audience. In the last few years, the influencer marketing industry has surged among the few viable options for banner ads.
Surging Reliance on Peer-to-Peer Reviews
As banner ads plummeted, Google, Amazon, Yelp, and several others realized the power of peer-to-peer review. From restaurants visited to products purchased, people want to hear others’ experiences with things they have not yet tried themselves (7). Moreover, people who have had a bad experience go out of their way to document what went wrong so others can dodge a similar bad experience.
It has been a growing trend over the past few years and is now a habit of many. Let’s take a break and think about it. Would you purchase any product on Amazon without checking any reviews? If someone recommends a restaurant, chances are you are probably checking it out on the internet before making a reservation.
Today, almost every industry has its designated review site (8), and customers are trained to check reviews before making a buying decision. It further paved the path for vocal influencers in any industry to skyrocket.
The Surge of Non-celebrity Influencers
In 2018, the word ‘influence’ online was associated with ‘celebrity.’ While some may have qualified for celebrity status like ‘YouTube Celebrity,’ most marketers were only interested in taking celebrity endorsement strategy from tv to social media.
However, the difference was that marketers were empowered to see what happened after a celebrity tweet or post about a brand. Soon, they started to see, via their reports and analytics, that popularity is not a direct correlation to engagement.
Instead, non-celebrities were offering much higher levels of engagement, at a fraction of the cost of celebrities. As it turned out, influencer marketing was more effective, driven by non-celebrity influencers, who had worked hard to deliver value to their audience with no popularity as celebrities (9).
Impact of Analytics, Engagement Scores, and Big Data
Over the past few years, the term ‘big data’ has transformed into ubiquitous from obscure.
When it comes to influencer marketing, it is about going beyond the surface metrics of Twitter and Facebook followers and going deeper into engagement scores and purchase decisions.
Previously, marketers used to judge influencers based on their follower counts. But, today, their engagement scores are what matters the most. Businesses such as TapInfluence (10) have done an amazing job of mining the data so marketers can screen potential influencers before reaching out to them.
More sophisticated technologies have allowed marketers to manage and monitor their influencer marketing programs better. A few years back, it would have been almost impossible to actively track, measure, and enhance a campaign with hundreds of influencers simultaneously. Today, not only is it common but also a necessary and expected component of effective influencer marketing.
Influencer Marketing and Role of Technology
There are three ways we believe that technology will change the way we do influencer marketing (11).
Virtual influencers are computer-generated personalities with realistic human features. They are increasingly getting popular and emerging as a trend. These digital personas lead ‘real’ lives with richly detailed hobbies, characteristics, and personal styles. Artificial Intelligence may help guide the making of these digital personalities by predicting the type of influencer best resonating with a brand’s target audience. It also has the power to potentially empower them to generate their own content in the further future.
An Instagram post by Rae, a virtual influencer
Why are Virtual Influencers Exploding?
As it turns out, businesses seek virtual influencers as a blank canvas for the ideal ambassador creation for their brands. Since they have no biases, are completely neutral, and have no pre-existing affiliations, brands can have complete creative freedom with campaigns.
Additionally, businesses also don’t have to worry about potential incidents or scandals, which sometimes happen on social media.
Notably, even though technology gets advanced, virtual influencers will still need a real human touch to thrive on social media.
Campaign Response Prediction
Conventionally, marketing efforts come under a ‘test-learn-optimize’ loop. Businesses run a marketing campaign, collect the data, and optimize their processes for the next campaign. It is a lengthy, expensive, and time-consuming process, which can go on indefinitely.
AI-powered tech can help businesses save big on these campaigns by taking the entire loop into a digital sandbox. Instead of shelling out huge amounts of capital and time on actual campaigns to evaluate their effectiveness, future marketers will use a virtual testing ground to assess the potential real-world impact of their marketing campaigns.
A CRP, Capaing Response Prediction platform, with AI, will allow marketers to simulate a social post in a virtual environment. While the technology is not yet available widely, Kobe Global Technologies (12) is developing such a system. Leadspotting is another Israeli tech company with a similar approach (13).
Such a system will take existing data from social media sites and predict the post’s real-world response type. It will include metrics such as likes, views, reactions, shares, and even comments. Then, CRP can offer suggestions on how marketers can further optimize the post for better results.
Influencer Management Systems
IMS or Influencer Management Systems are digital platforms that pair marketers with the best-suited influencers for their campaigns. They hose a large data of influencers and draw on a complex range of data points to make intelligent conclusions about influencers’ suitability for specific campaigns and brands.
These systems can do it via performing content analysis on influencers’ posts with AI, making it possible to recognize images and languages and group them into sentiments and concepts, making it easier for businesses to find the right influencers.
These systems offer optimal data-driven recommendations with less time and resource consumption, making them a key technology piece for future marketers.
A good system will also be sensitive to any irregularities like Instagram accounts with paid or fake followers. One can achieve such sensitivity by measuring key data points that may give fake influencers away, like the number of posts on their followers’ pages or an accounts’ followers to following ratio.
When working on campaigns, an AI-driven system will map campaign objectives to a huge range of factors like image inspiration, image angle, content angle, influence type, and audience demographics. Then, it will auto-generate influencer suggestions with recommended fees that clients can then review and decide.
It will also be highly responsive customer feedback, allowing them to rate and comment on influencers and their posts. It can then use this data to adjust its pricing recommendations for the future. It ensures high-quality work and a good work ethic. Instead of merely focusing on followers, influencers can get fairly recognized and rewarded (14).
What Will Remain as Pillars of Great Influencer Marketing in the Foreseeable Future?
After discussing the changes and evolution that have happened in the industry, let’s take a look at changes we will potentially see in the future. There are still several things that have stood the time’s test and likely to remain as pillars of great influencer marketing even in the future. It includes:
- Quality content
- Earned, not purchased influence
- Maximum results with influencers with high engagement
- Facebook and Google amplification
- Influencer marketing’s long tail
Quality content not about beautifully designed infographics and posts that tell how great an idea, a product, or company is. It is about grasping what the audience wants to know and offering that knowledge for free with no strings attached.
River Pools and Spas is probably the best example here. In 2008, people had zero interest in investing in an in-ground pool in their backyard; the business was hurting. So, they took to their blog to write more than 300 blog posts answering every question any prospect had ever asked them. In doing that, not only they survived, but shortly they became number one in the industry.
While tracking their metrics, the company discovered that their average customer 100 pages of content before reaching out to someone. Why? When one is seriously considering making any major purchase, he will look for all sorts of information to make an intelligent business decision. By finding and proactively answering every question, River Pools and Spas drove deep engagements with their prospects and climbed sales (15).
Earned, Not Purchased Influence
While those bots and unqualified followers may help businesses gain some initial social media credibility, it hurts a business’s ability to influence anyone truly. It is because, as we discussed, success is in real engagement and no in impressions.
Real influencers are the people who have active engagements with their audience by offering incredible value and have bagged the right to make recommendations. They further retain audience trust and comply with advertising laws by disclosing that they are compensated for these posts upfront (16).
Maximum Results with Influencers with High Engagement
Instead of forcing people to purchase your products or services or talking about how awesome your product is, using influencers to share insights about why your product is helpful and what problem does it solve, you get a better response.
When you do it, you get to the heart of earned media that delivers results, and that’s what we call true influencer marketing. It comes from influencers who are transparent and authentic (17).
When social media influencers are profoundly engaged with their audience, the audience takes their recommended actions. It is what marketers are looking for in the industry.
Facebook and Google Amplification
Even today, both platforms remain critical to success in influencer marketing.
Facebook still delivers the most significant social media audience, even though the organic reach of that audience is long gone. Influencers soon started to cross-promote their newsletter, websites, and blogs, and other platforms. The practice allowed them to speak directly to their audience in a disintermediation form from Facebook’s rising ad tolls.
Google continues to dominate search globally. It amplifies relevant influencer marketing content as long as it answers the essential questions people are asking. It brings us to the final section about influencer marketing’s long tail.
Influencer Marketing’s Long Tail
An influencer marketing content that resonates has a second-life post-campaign via organic search pickup. Such a long tail is why most campaigns continue to pay out even after a year the campaign has ended.
A plant-based food and beverage company, WhiteWave Foods (18), found that if one’s content is evergreen, it would be relevant to experience a spike post-campaign that outperforms other peak intervals during the campaign itself.
The company promoted recipes in support of the Meatless Mondays campaign, and they experienced their largest spike after the campaign ended when more people started looking for vegetarian options. In short, your content will be found by users if it is relevant and highly sought-after.