Look at the most popular app downloads for both Android and iOS each year, and ad blockers are generally near the top. The fact is, people are sick of crappy intrusive ads online, and they vote the only way they know how – by blocking.

The rise of adblockers has grown in correlation to another phenomenon – the social media celebrity. Brands soon became aware that while traditional digital advertising was fighting a difficult battle for viewability (not to mention the problem with adtech fraud), paying Insta-famous celebs to promote their was a more effective way to reach, in many cases, tens of millions of the right people.

Influencer marketing – enlisting the help of a celebrity, expert or general ‘person of influence’ to relay its message – may be one of the oldest tricks in the communications book, but it’s exploded and evolved in a world where digital rules and social media attention are at a premium.

So can it be trusted to deliver results? The short answer is: yes, but

How influencer marketing became a ‘thing’

We’re exposed to as many as 5,000 ads every single day – a fact which, as explained, has driven millions of us to deploy ad-blockers, or generally tune them out. With this shift, influencer marketing offered brands a sneaky and (in theory) more welcoming back door into their audience’s social media feeds, where users have already ‘opted in’ to see that publisher’s content – branded or not.

Apparently, we trust influencers’ recommendations almost as much as we do those of our own friends, but the key word here is ‘trust’. A quiet grumble of concern has been growing steadily louder in recent years as consumers wise up to the occasionally duplicitous nature of influencers who don’t clearly distinguish between products they’ve chosen to cover without incentive, and content they’ve accepted payment for endorsing.

It’s a grey area that’s led to a crackdown on the way influencers are required to signpost sponsored content, meaning we can expect to see a lot more of those #ad and #spon messages (above the fold)… which ultimately undermines the trust in the endorsement.

There’s also a lack of transparency inherent in social media around linking activity to something tangible like sales or lead generation. An influencer may appear to have tens of thousands of followers, but if their audience isn’t actively engaged (i.e. liking, commenting on, clicking on, or generally interacting with) their content, that high follower count becomes meaningless.

Here’s a quick thought experiment to demonstrate what I mean:

I have a friend called Fictional John. He’s a fairly popular guy who uses Instagram purely for personal reasons. He has about 400 followers, the vast majority of which he knows well in real life. He gets about 35 likes on each of his Instagram posts, giving him an engagement rate of 9%.

Fictional John follows a tech journalist called Fictional Dave. Fictional Dave uses Instagram to talk about his work and review products he’s sent. He has 15,000 followers, and gets an average of 160 likes on each post, giving him an engagement rate of 1%.

It’s unreasonable to expect engagement rates to grow exponentially, or even proportionally, with follower count, but it’s worth delving into. If an influencer claims to have a ‘highly engaged following’ – do they really? What’s the benchmark for this?

The answer to that question doesn’t really exist, meaning the solution, as so often is the case, is to put a little extra time and effort into working with influencers. Do it the right way, and you’ll get meaningful results.

So what is the “right” way?

Start with the selection process – delve into each of their audience demographics (or use a tool to do this for you) to make sure there’s crossover with yours. Once you’re satisfied they’re speaking to the right people, make sure those people are talking back. Compare – even if just anecdotally – their engagement rates with those of other influencers in the same space. Who’s really shifting the dial?

Once you’ve identified a real mover-and-shaker, the approach to your campaign is the next step. Co-create, don’t dictate – the fun rhyme is a happy accident, but the message is that working with an influencer should be a collaboration for the content to feel authentic and resonate with their following. They’re already getting it right with the people you want to talk to, so let them take the reins creatively.

Finally, follow the rules. If you’ve paid someone to post on your behalf – however high a degree of creative freedom they’ve had – you need to insist that they disclose that clearly. There are neater ways of doing this than #spon and #ad – phrases like “I’ve worked with [brand] to create this post” will do the trick.

If you read that advice and thought ‘duh’, props to you. Most of it really is a no-brainer, but the practice has become so widespread that there’s a lot of smoke-and-mirrors masking its value. Put in the basic groundwork, and you’ll get a lot more out of it.


Image credit:

By Paul Thompson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Louise Stapley

Having started her career as a social media copywriter (which meant spending most of her days thinking up puns), Louise’s commercial savviness and storytelling prowess helped her work her way up to a strategic editorial role in a top digital agency before moving on to specialise as a food writer and content marketer.

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