Let’s start by thinking back to the year 2010. It was the year of “Angry Birds,” “Glee,” and “The Social Network” (which was nominated to win “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards). Brands were just beginning to experiment with a social media presence, and quickly learned that they couldn’t treat this new method of two-way communication as the broadcast media they’d become accustomed to. Struggling to weave their messages into conversations that were already taking place between friends and family on social platforms, brands turned to influential individuals to relay their brand messages for them. Social media is, after all, a place where people talk to people, not where people talk to companies or vice versa.
Influencer marketing is as old as advertising itself. Placing recognizable people in advertisements has always been a shortcut to brand recognition, and social media has proven to be no exception. In recent years, influencer marketing has been the answer to brands’ tireless efforts of breaking through the social clutter and inserting their messages into organic conversations, creating scale in a medium designed for one-to-one interaction. Getting word of your product to come from the mouth (or thumbs) of someone your audience already trusts and faithfully follows, be them a blogger, a celebrity, or a YouTube star, solved this issue. Why should a brand talk about themselves when someone recognizable can do it for them?
But social media has evolved a great deal since its inception. The once-shiny object of influencer marketing may have stood out in a sea of primitive social chatter, but as social media has rapidly expanded to include native advertising, sponsored content and influencers from every category imaginable, the social media realm has become supersaturated with influencers. And as any retailer will tell you, an oversaturation of anything reduces its value. Just like every other medium where people have been blasted with advertisements, audiences have learned to scroll past that abundance of influencer content. To be hyper-critical of disingenuous messaging. To tune out posts that aren’t from their friends, family, and other carefully selected peers.
The shift from organic to sponsored social content wasn’t very subtle. The Kardashians’ social profiles are filled with detox teas, Cristiano Ronaldo “loves his gifts from TAG Heuer” (always while including the campaign hashtag), and Gigi Hadid’s “new fave mascara” on Instagram just happens to switch each time Maybelline releases a new product.
In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission wrote laws minimizing influencer impact as well. Today, you’ll see required hashtags like #ad, #spon, or #sp to indicate that the influencer has been paid for this post. While these hashtags check the FTC’s legality boxes, they also minimize the potential significance of influencer content. 84% of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising, and when influencer content is explicitly labeled as an advertisement, it takes on the role (and interruption) of traditional advertising methods.
So, what’s next in the world of influencer marketing now that influencers can no longer be trusted for genuine recommendations?
- Micro-influencers. Micro-influencers are regular people, like you and me. These people don’t have hundreds of thousands of followers, they have built their modest audiences the old-fashioned way: posting content that their peers want to see more of.
- The return of word-of-mouth marketing and peer recommendations. Word-of-mouth marketing has always been the most successful marketing tactic, responsible for 20%-50% of all purchasing decisions. As social media continues to stray from influencers and branded content, conversations between peers will continue to hold the true buying power.
- Customized, relevant content. Now more than ever, it is important to get the right content in front of the right people at the right time. In 2010, brands used the “reach one million birds with one (famous) stone,” approach. In the age of the micro-influencer, the “reach one million birds with 50,000 (peer) stones,” approach has shown to increase conversion rates by 3x-10x. A retweet from Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t hold the same weight as 200 retweets from real people with real relationships.
Working your brand or product into trusted content on social media has never been easy. And now, as the one-size-fits-all approach to influencer marketing has started to shift, going after those micro-influencers requires far more legwork. A thorough content strategy and a new tactical approach is a great start, as well as providing your audience (micro-influencers included) with the tools they need to easily and willingly talk about your brand online. 92% of consumers trust recommendations from other people -- even if they don’t know those people personally, over promotional content . So roll up your sleeves, develop shareable content, and create brand advocates that do your promotion for you, organically.