Don't Confuse An Influencer With Influencer Marketing

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Influencer marketing is all the rage right now.

Multi-million dollar businesses are being built around how to connect brands with influencers. In case you didn’t know, it’s not all that difficult to pay someone that has a large social media presence to talk up your products and services. These individuals (some of them are traditional celebrities, but most of them are just individuals who have built their own social media followings) can be bought and will shill for your brand. Some of them are very picky and particular about how to make this happen (these influences usually have larger audiences and will cost a brand more), to those that are – somewhat – shameless about the transaction. Brands see this as a new form of marketing. It isn’t. There is nothing unique or different about influencer marketing. We’ve had it all along in the marketing world. We simply called it celebrity endorsements.

Still, there is such a thing as real influencer marketing. 

Real influencer marketing is when someone talks up your product and service not because you paid them to do it, but because they love what you’re doing. This might lead to some kind of paid sponsorship, and can be extended beyond paying someone to post about your brand, but these moments are few and far between. The majority of online influencers are looking for ways to make money, in a word where brands are looking for a way to buy into a larger social media audience that doesn’t require them to do the heavy lifting of building it themselves. It’s the perfect storm.

The thing that brands often fail to understand. 

More often than not, these paid influencer marketing initiatives are little more than paid advertising with a celebrity endorsement. They have little-to-no half-life (typically, these influencers post so much throughout the day, and their core audience is not always following and taking action on each and every piece of content that they are creating). These influencers don’t keep pushing for the brand (unless brands keep paying). So, it looks, feels and acts nothing influencer marketing but, rather, traditional advertising. The one thing that brands often fail to understand is this: Influencers have that title, because they have become trusted by their audience and community. With that, and here’s the big thing: trust is non-transferable. Yes, the audience will trust that the influencer is talking something up because they believe in it, but these same audience members will not (necessarily) trust and buy your brand. Brands have to earn their own trust.

This is nothing new.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post titled, Trust In Non-Transferable. Nearly a decade ago – long before the dawn of YouTubers, etc… – brands were trying to get bloggers to talk up their products and services. Some of these bloggers were being paid. Some of these bloggers were not all that transparent about their pay-to-play situation. It created a storm. From that post:

“Marketing and advertising works when there is trust between the content provider and the audience. It’s not just about that relationship of trust, it is extended towards two very different sides of publishing – the content and the economy behind it. On the one hand, the audience trusts that that the content creator will stay true by providing valuable content, and on the economic side, the audience continues to play along knowing full well that all of this great content comes at a cost – advertising, sponsorships, consulting gigs, book deals, speaking opportunities, and everything else. No matter what, both sides have to live up to the audiences expectations, meaning the content must be strong and the advertising must be relevant. That’s how all successful publishers across all of the media channels have won to date… Trust is non-transferable. We have companies who have little-to-no social community credibility riding the coat-tails of Bloggers who have spent a long while building up their community… You can’t buy trust. The best advice a Digital Marketer can give a client who is asking them if they would accept money to post about them, etc… would be to help them understand that a brand can’t buy trust, but they can – over time – build community and earn reputation. And, by going through with a program of this nature, it’s also not very social media at all – it’s just advertising (whether a Blogger yaps about it or they run a banner ad on their site). Someone is being paid to write about something. The advertorial has been around forever (well, at least, since the 1960s). There’s nothing all that experimental with this format. But there’s a problem if it doesn’t work: the bigger brands can chalk it up to experimentation and simply move on, while the Bloggers now have to rebuild something that is incredibly frail and impossible to buy from their audience: trust.”

The more things change. The more they stay the same.

Here’s the thing: Influencer marketing has a tremendous opportunity for brands to align themselves with new and interesting influencers that can help them co-create, market and network with a new audience/community. If the economics stay stuck in a traditional advertising model, it will be just that: plain, old, boring advertising. Trust in non-transferable. Take that off the table. Think about the brand relationships that can be built. Think about mutually beneficial opporutnies that can be created where everyone – the brand, the influencer and the audience – can win. The solution may not be easy to find, but that’s the harsh reality of marketing in these climates: it’s getting harder and harder to make something have impact. The trick is not falling back on what the marketer have done to date (pay for access), but to start thinking about ways to win (pay for interactions).

Let’s see how much influence this will have on marketing today.