I recently spoke to a class full of aspiring marketers at the University of Tampa. It was an introductory marketing class, but my presentation delved a bit into the weeds, so I was surprised when–during a lapse in my overshooting the audience–a young woman asked what I thought about influencer marketing. Her tone was prodding yet prideful which led me to ask, “Are you an influencer?” She was looking for authority from me? A guy with 400 Instagram followers and a twitter account that I haven’t touched in years?

I told her that people have been conducting influencer marketing for decades maybe even millennia. She seemed pleased at what might have sounded like validation for her social media following until I added that there was more to the story.

What is Influencer Marketing?

In influencer marketing, people who have influence over a given audience promote products and services on behalf of a brand or company.

Today, this mode of marketing has evolved to feature so-called “influencers” with enormous social media followings posting pictures and coupon codes for everything from beauty supplies to vacation packages.

These influencers monetize the process, and there are even some influencer marketing software solutions popping up to help large brands manage the demand generation they seek to garner from influencers.

All this has thrown fuel on the ongoing debate about the superficiality and questionable value of having millions of social media followers.

Is Influencer Marketing a Fad?

The question of whether or not influencer marketing is just another marketing fad moves me to raise another question.

Does it matter?

In marketing, people commonly look for the next breakout channel to spur demand and nurture leads for brands. That’s how marketers make a living.

Except, we’re really bad at it.

New, viable marketing channels pop up every decade or so. Email was the big thing of the 90’s, paid search appeared at around 2000, and social media wasn’t viable for another decade after that. Nothing new to this decade has really jumped out as sustainable.  We’ve certainly found new ways to innovate how we market on channels, but that was out of necessity because we killed those sources.

Marketers have no self-control when it comes to something that works.

Initial email open rates were very high and CTR was through the roof. But we couldn’t moderate ourselves, and as people got more and more spam, we inevitably whitewashed the lead source. Now, open rates in the 30s are considered ok, and email has taken on a lesser role than previously. The same is true for social advertising. CPMs were extremely low at first, but people stopped nagging with adds and the costs started to climb.

This short history lesson was brought to you today by the letter “B” for behaviors.

Any marketing channel works based on the behaviour of its audience, because behaviors dictate motivation. When you know that specific behaviors are a sign of your ideal buyer, you can cross-reference those behaviors with your message.

And that’s how leads are made.

Instead of focusing on fads or bright shiny things, we should seek to understand first. Why do people follow specific influencers? What kind of messaging from the influencer resonates with the audience? Then you have to ask yourself what solutions do you offer that would be an organic extension of that influencers message?

It has to seem natural for a given influencer to push an item and that influencer needs to have more than a superficial following.

There has to be meaning behind the follow and the message that aligns with your brand.

The First Influencers

Influencer Marketing

According to a book published in 2004 by Kalyani Vemuri and T. Phani Madhav, Celebrity Endorsement: Through the Ages, the first celebrity endorsement and influencer was a member of the British royal family. A company that made chinaware placed royal likenesses in advertisements for their products in the 1760s.

The Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries saw a variety of popular people featured on products or trading cards to promote a wide range of products. One of the biggest breakthroughs in influencer marketing occured when Honus Wagner, one of the outstanding baseball players of his day, became the first athlete to endorse a product. What did he endorse? The Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Makes sense right? Kids all over the country adored Wagner for his baseball aptitude. Why wouldn’t they want to buy the bat he uses for themselves?

Types of Influencer Marketing

Branding

Over the years, there have been numerous evolutions to influencer marketing. Influencers sometimes appear associated with particular products merely for reach and association, such as when Selena Gomez appeared holding a Pepsi. Millions of people saw those ads,  and Pepsi hoped for some of that fame to rub off on them. But is anyone buying a Pepsi because of that post? How could that be measured?

Sponsorship

Some marketers will disagree that sponsorships are a form influencer marketing. I think they are one and the same. If a brand pays for a physical presence at an event or puts their name on the side of sports arena, are they not looking for some sort of influence to rub off on them?

Lead Generation

Another mode, and one much easier to measure, is generating leads through influencer marketing. This goes well beyond placing coupon codes or vanity landing pages in an influencer’s social media bio or directly into a post.

Using influencers that have specific relationships with a target group of people can turn out to be some of the best-performing modes of marketing; an email from a trusted advisor that hints at a valuable offer. Another example might be co-branded, paid content to be published by a brand with a similar buyer.

What’s Next for Influencer Marketing

The efficacy of influencer marketing is grounded in why it works, not how. Whether it is a fad that will fade in time or new staple mode of marketing isn’t relevant in the moment. All that matters are conversion rates and costs.

As a marketer, I’d never pay for exposure alone. I always want to know why my target audience uses a particular marketing mode, and how I can provide value in that space. We should regard influencer marketing in a similar light.

What are your thoughts on influencer marketing? Let us know in the comments below.

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