THURSDAY 26 SEP 2019 3:10 PM


Working successfully with influencers requires the development of relationships between the company and the influencer. Melina Thalassinou discusses the challenges involved in getting influencer marketing right

Kim Kardashian holding a lipstick in her hands that is about to be sold out in minutes, Instagram-perfect models advertising the latest teeth whitening system, weight trainers appearing on everyone’s feed. ‘Influencer’ is the name for a newly emerged marketing profession – so new Google still tries to autocorrect it – and influencer marketing is here to stay. 

Of course celebrities being used to endorse products is not a new practice. Michael Jordan’s Air Jordans offer a prime example of influencer marketing’s first endeavours. The famous shoes have been bestsellers dating back to late 1984, spiking up the sales of Nike with an unmatched dynamism.

Chris Jefford, founder and managing director of advertising agency Truant London, says, “Influencer marketing is primarily about tapping into cultural references that can act as a shorthand for conversations between brands and consumers, so for it to be effective it has to have a powerful role of some description in culture. Otherwise why bother?”

Music, for example, is an amazingly strong, universal identifier. Its influence in global culture can be felt everywhere. From the Rolling Stones and Pharrell pushing for US President Donald Trump to stop playing their tracks at his rallies, to the success for over a decade of the X Factor, to the movement of the UK grime scene into the mainstream, the global phenomenon of Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video, to the continuing rise in gig attendance and festivals, music has consolidated its role as the primary artistic reference point. And with that comes enormous opportunity for brands to be involved.  

“That involvement isn’t as hush-hush as it used to be,” says Jefford. “The economics of music have shifted, away from just selling records, to something more expansive as artists are having to find new ways of making money.  Brand partnerships aren’t as easily dismissed as perhaps in previous decades, the model has changed possibly forever.”

To pair an influencer with a specific product is a demanding task on its own. There are two sides to any relationship, and bringing influencers and brands together is no different. Brands should be mindful of identifying the correct category, the ideal reach and the optimum location before approaching an influencer to ensure that their target audience is reached.

Emily McDonwell, former influencer manager at Google, says, “Relevance over reach is key, do they fit in the brand’s DNA? With whom have they worked with in the past? Have a voice and contribute to something positive. It is about building a community and showing vulnerability.” Determining the right influencer is no cookie cutter process. It is not just about the brand or just about the influencer. It is often about the right product at the right time. “It doesn’t just depend on the company, but on the campaign as well. I work with micro-influencers, because you don’t have to deal with enormous egos,” says Teresa Vincalek, social strategy director at Group M.

Jefford adds, “From the artists side, we spend time understanding what makes them tick, what their aspirations are, who they associate themselves with, and who they’d like to work with. From the brand side, we help them understand why and how they should approach the music scene.”

Another point that brands need to take into consideration, especially when the influencer is a well-known celebrity, is the balance between the influencer’s fame and the company or product being supported, as brands run the risk of the artist’s persona outshining the product. But, it is the very popularity of the influencer that the brand is looking to tap into. Influencers have created brands around their name rights; the audiences they reach via their various social channels are incredibly powerful. If brands could reach those audiences on their own they wouldn’t even have the need for the partnership in the first place.

Jefford says, “If the alignment is purely superficial – take Snoop Dogg appearing in a Money Supermarket ad for example – then yes, the artist can hugely outshine the product, and with so little reason for the partnership existing there is very little chance of Snoop’s involvement being seen as anything but opportunistic. It becomes the Snoop ad, rather than anything else. With something like the latest John Lewis ad with Elton John, whilst it’s virtually an ad for Elton’s farewell tour, the link between audiences is really tight, so it’s far less of an issue in my mind.”

When people are getting paid to express an opinion, or reinforce a product, the issue of ethics is bound to be raised. Despite many influencers’ swift dismissal of the matter, trustworthiness and credibility are values that are sought after by both the audience and the brands, who have begun to notice their customers growing suspicious of influencers.

The ways to make the collaboration seem genuine and inspire trust are not as complex as one might think. Direct and frank communication must be front and centre for any brand that is considering utilising influencer marketing. “People aren’t stupid, they see when they’re being played. Both halves of the equation need to add up for the collaboration to work. They need to share values, and they need to create something of value together for the audience that they’re trying to tap into,” says Jefford.

To try and combat the problem of potential deception, there are new laws being installed for all social media outlets. Laws that are continuously shifting and changing to accommodate the needs of the new, ever-changing marketing world. “It would be so much easier if a consistent set of guidelines were in place,” says Emily Valentine Parr, vlogger, blogger and YouTuber, highlighting the problems influencers face when trying to navigate their way into the online scene. The rules are often and unclear, creating a sense of uncertainty among both the influencers and the audience. McDonwell adds, “Gifting is under a grey area, is giving a gift considered as sponsorship? Now, people have to make sure the audience knows what has been gifted to them. In Scandinavia, they don’t use #ad but use the word ‘advertisement’ because the former carries a negative feeling.”

The recipe for success for influencer marketing is a topic that continues to trouble communications and marketing professionals. In order for influencer marketing to be fruitful, there needs to be a balance between authenticity and creativity.  “It’s a two-way communication between the influencer and the brand. As a brand, you can say what you want but you need to leave room for creativity. Content that is too branded is always low on engagement,” says McDonwell.

Parr adds, “If someone dictates to me exactly what they want me to say, it won’t work. I have a voice of my own and it can’t fit into a script. I understand brands have objectives, but it has to make sense. It’s about managing expectations.”

Caroline Duong, CEO at Zine, an influencer marketing technology firm agrees with Parr about expectation management as part of the influencer relationship, “Brands have expectation and they should vocalise them upfront. If an influencer says no, offering them more money won’t solve the problem if they have declined your offer for non-financial reasons.”

Influencer marketing’s effect needs to be measured for companies and brands to determine their worth. On top of ‘influence’ being a term up for interpretation, a fact that makes measuring its results somewhat indirect, another point of concern for brands is that of fake followers. That’s why, according to Parr, “People shouldn’t look at followers, but engagement. The number of followers almost never correlates with the engagement and influence.” Responsibility doesn’t only fall onto the shoulders of brands however. “It’s important influencers realise that brands do their research and just a pretty face won’t persuade a brand to work with an influencer,” says Vincalek.

Engagement, comments, DMs, valuable feedback; these are the only reliable ways brand can draw conclusive results from. Millions of people can see a post and then completely forget about it in the next second. The true value lies in the amount of interaction the post will get out of the targeted audience. 

Influencer marketing is a growing force; one being embraced by companies eager for a piece of the pie.