Influencer Marketing: caution, pitfalls ahead

Digital communication via influencers is the future. Ideally, in the interest of credibility, no money should change hands.

German article published in prmagazin 08/2018

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Merely posting content on YouTube, Instagram or Twitter does not make for good communication. For one, trust in large enterprises ("those corporations") has gone downhill since the 2008 financial crisis and continues to sink. Companies are not entirely free of blame for that, but one key contributor to the communication disconnect is "content shock,"  as marketing expert Klaus Eck puts it. People are inundated with unsolicited content at unsuitable times. They respond by discounting all of it.

Influencer marketing – that is, addressing influential people with great reach and credibility – is a more effective way of communicating. The logic goes like this: If my company sends well thought out content of interest to an influencer, chances are good that this person will want to engage with that content and share it with their audience. This not only extends my firm's reach, but ideally creates a halo effect by extending the influencer's credibility to the company they’ve endorsed. That’s easier said than done, given the struggles enterprises face in recruiting and training communicators who know how to operate in today’s environment.  Adept communicators in this age must grasp the finer points of the technical debate in their chosen field, know the protagonists and antagonists who are contesting the issue, and understand their motivations.

And that brings us to a key problem: reward mechanisms. Conventional marketing wisdom has always distinguished between unpaid PR and paid promotion. That distinction is increasingly blurred today. The two are no longer separate pursuits for many companies, which often use digital channels for both. Consider that 62 percent of surveyed marketing managers want budget hikes to pay advocates on the web, according to a report by e.marketer.com, and that journalists are grumbling about companies who regard their own extensive content as an excuse to ignore media inquiries (Washington Post). We do not need a crystal ball to see what the priorities will soon be.

The marketing world has been coming under attack. One prominent vocal critic, Unilever CMO Keith Weed, called for a rigorous cleanup of the "influencer ecosystem" in a pointed speech he gave in June at Cannes, denouncing the lack of transparency, confluence of interests, and ambiguity about its impact. Just to give you an idea of what temptations lurk here, an influencer with more than a million followers is paid up to US$ 75,000 for a single post.

My opinion: Dialogue with and via influencers on digital platforms is the future of marketing communication, alongside classic earned media and regular corporate interaction with media and influencers. If money changes hands, it has to be disclosed. The parties to this kind of deal have to decide for themselves if this will diminish the influencer's credibility (surprisingly, our focus group poll of 20 to 25-year-olds did not bear this out). In the long run, working with unpaid influencers is the more honest, effective and therefore better model. In the virtual world as in the more old-fashioned world, independence goes hand-in-hand with credibility.