Few areas of marketing are as divisive as influencer marketing. It is seemingly the most in-vogue tactic available to brands today yet probably also the one viewed with the most scepticism and suspicion.
Perhaps those two attributes inevitably go hand-in-hand, and always have. When the industry so suddenly recognises the potentially huge scale and sales impact of a breakthrough marketing channel, buyers tend to pile in before the data has been amassed to prove its efficiency and effectiveness. In among the truly transformative talent and service providers, the charlatans also make a killing.
Both sides of the coin have been amply revealed to marketers already, most forcefully by Unilever's outgoing CMO Keith Weed. He wrote in Marketing Week last year: "There are many brilliant creators producing and sharing amazing, engaging content. But what we’ve also witnessed is the unintended consequences; as the number of creator partnerships skyrocketed, the legitimacy of the model spiralled downwards."
Even the influencer industry itself is starting to call attention to its shortcomings - the need to improve transparency and demonstrate commercial results. News UK's newly minted influencer agency The Fifth recently launched itself in the pages of Marketing Week by declaring this to be the age of influencer accountability, and highlighting the five key challenges ahead:
- Identifying the right talent
- Achieving creative consistency
- Finding a clear path to return on investment
- Beating fraud and establishing reliable authentication
- Building mutually rewarding relationships.
That could quite reasonably be seen as the basis for influencer marketing's roadmap for the future, and each step must be navigated with care. They all necessary, not only to establish influencers as a viable and valuable channel, but also for marketers and agencies to show company boards that their tactic of choice is a brand-safe, effective use of spend that contributes to sales and business objectives.
What only globally and nationally recognised celebrities could do for a brand until recently, a vast range of influencers can do today. For every Kardashian there are thousands of knowledgeable enthusiasts or natural-born entertainers with small, loyal followings.
The job for marketers and agencies is to make sure they know which is right for them, and to create a robust process for using them to deliver compelling, trusted content with measurable business benefits.