UNDER THE INFLUENCE: why influencer marketing doesn’t effectively build brands like we think it does.

image credits: Gartner Blog Network


Earlier this year, Periscope made headlines when they launched their own influencer network, Applause. A few weeks ago, Condé Nast started identifying influencers with IBM’s supercomputer ‘Watson’. Even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson got in on the action when he introduced his own YouTube channel to better connect influencers and brands.

Influencer marketing. It’s everywhere. Since 2012 Google searches for the term have inflated by more than 5,000 percent [1].

Now, and perhaps unsurprisingly, marketers want a piece. According to SocialTimes, 75 percent of companies are using influencer marketing today [2]. Some reports claim that number will rise to 8 in 10 brands within the year [3]. Companies are now quite literally beginning to buy-in to the trend, too, with some studies citing that 61 percent of U.S. marketers plan to increase their budgets around influencer marketing [4].

So since Forbes is now writing articles titled “How To Do Influencer Marketing Like a Pro” and the Huffington Post declares “Influencer Marketing is not a Hype”, maybe it’s a good time to take pause, submerge beyond the surface-level storylines and apply a more discerning look into the biggest trend in marketing today.


image credits: AdvertisingAge.com

Last year Lord & Taylor won the internet.

Ramping up for the launch of a new dress from their Design Lab collection, the luxury department store hired 50 prominent fashion influencers on Instagram to feature the ensemble throughout their personal social media feeds.

In just one weekend, these influencers’ posts started racking up a few thousand likes. Then 5,000 likes. Then upwards of 13,000 likes on some posts. The social media team must’ve been going bananas. Engagement metrics were through the roof. The dress sold out in days.

It was arguably the most notable marketing campaign that Lord and Taylor had pulled off in the company’s 190-year history. They hit their goals, they generated social buzz, and the best part about it: they managed to do it all by simply doling out a few thousand bucks to a handful of social media stars, a pittance compared to most marketing campaigns today.

Game, set, match.

But then earlier this year, Lord and Taylor got scissor-kicked in the stomach when the Federal Trade Commission filed a federal charge for violating paid promotion disclosures and deceiving customers. Industry press piled on. Outsiders mostly just dismissed it as yet another marketing campaign botched by careless execution. The company eventually settled, the FTC remounted their moral high-horse, and that was basically it. Case closed.

But maybe we’re missing the signal from the noise here. Because while the Lord and Taylor campaign provided the first real watershed moment for discussing the legality of influencer marketing today, maybe it’s time now to discuss the underlying legitimacy of it all, too.


image credits: risingtensions.tumblr.com

At first glance, influencer marketing seems like the surest shot for building any sort of brand cache on social media today.

I mean, think about it:

Organic reach continues to plummet across most social media platforms (a recent study by Locowise found organic reach to now be as low as 2.27 percent for larger brands [5]).

To make matters worse, even those who already follow brands on social media rarely ever engage (the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute famously found that 0.45 percent of a brand’s Facebook fans actually engage with their content [6]).

And let’s not forget that at this day and age in 2016, many brand marketers still remain uncertain if any of this ‘social stuff’ actually works (a poll from Social Media Examiner showed that 57 percent of brand marketers either don’t think their Facebook posts make a difference or aren’t sure [7]).


The more jaded marketers become with the limitations of social media marketing, the more attractive these high-profile social media influencers begin to seem. Low cost. High reach. Pop culture glitter. It all feels relatively foolproof and tactically indispensable for brands in the digital world today.

So if an over-animated, over-caffeinated adolescent YouTube celebrity with a fan base bigger than MetLife stadium on opening day of the NFL season is what it takes to cut through the seemingly insurmountable encumbrances of building a brand on social media today, well, then sign me up.

Or, so the thinking goes.


image credits: Buzzfeed

If there’s one sacred commandment of influencer marketing, it’s that social media influencers give brands a warm, full-sized Snuggie of authenticity to help wrap themselves up in.

For years Nielsen data has shown that “recommendations from people I know” is the most trusted form of advertising among global consumers [8]. Forbes reminds us that 43 percent of millennials rank authenticity over content when they consume news [9]. Initiative UK found authenticity and trustworthiness to account for 2 of the top 5 most important attributes for brands [10].

“The word that I’m coming back to in everything I talk about with influencers is authenticity,” says Todd Cameron, head of content and strategy at influencer marketing software company TapInfluence [11]. Authenticity is en vogue.

But here’s the rub. Staking out authenticity in business is a lot like seeking out contentment in life: the more you chase after it, the less likely you are to actually find it. Or as Albert Camus put it, “in order to be, never try to seem.”

When health and weight-loss brand Bootea hired Scott Disick to promote a picture of his daily routine featuring a tub of the brand’s prized protein power, Disick botched the paid promotion by mistakenly copying-and-pasting the sponsor’s posting instructions directly into the caption of his post for all his fans to see. A few weeks later, Naomi Campbell committed the same blunder in her Instagram promotion with Adidas.

This seems at odds with the popular talking points from specialized companies like Chief Marketer, insisting that influencer marketing is so valuable precisely because “there are no-big name marketing companies behind the words of these influencers…their words are authentic, typed and posted by them.”

Oy vey.

While these two social media faux pas may seem like cherrypicked examples of supremely clumsy influencer campaigns (and they are), it nonetheless raises legitimate questions as to just how much faith marketers are willing to entrust internet personalities when it comes to bearing the torch of their brands.

Perhaps even more worryingly, it’s not just influencers that bungle authenticity — quite often it’s the brands themselves.

Take, for instance, when NBC enlisted a team of millennial social media influencers leading up to this year’s summer Olympics, all in an effort to capture younger audiences and ensure that fans could “be more connected to the Games than ever before.” Part of this campaign included behind-the-scenes video content featuring Tiffany Alvord. Leading up to the Rio Olympics, Alvord shared stories of her personal journey through gymnastics and recounted her fondest athletic achievements, at one point even revisiting the place where it all started, showcasing a few of her favorite gymnastics routines at her childhood gym.

Except the odd thing was, Alvord isn’t a U.S. Olympian. She’s not even an athlete. No, Tiffany Alvord is a 23-year-old California-based YouTube singer who performs weekly musical covers of Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Major Lazer and Robin Thicke, just to name a few.

Wait, what?

It‘s true, there are many well-trodden ways for marketers to patronize their audiences. Assuming that people can’t see through the veneer of a social media-powered product placement ad online certainly qualifies. It’s why nearly half of people (48%) feel deceived by native advertising, and why probably just as many fail to see branded influencer content as meritoriously authentic [12]. Yet we insist. We double-down. We jam it right on through.

It seems as though many brands today resort to social media influencers in order to appear authentic, simply because the brands themselves have no idea how.


image credits: Tanzeel Ur Rehman / Cover Asia Press

Many people acknowledge that authenticity is a slippery success metric. And they have a point. Influencer marketing, you see, is so attractive precisely because it gives marketers hard data. And the numbers don’t lie. Audiences are engaging. Impressions are up. Fans are flocking like moths to a flood light.

“Social media influencers can be viewed as the new brand loyalty royalty,” a piece in Marketing magazine declared [13].

Makes for a memorable press headline, but it’s hardly a sturdy hook to hang your hat on.

Back in 2012 the industry lauded the launch of a new campaign from Gap which tapped a bevy of social media icons, fashion bloggers and lifestyle influencers to share editorial content. Through short-form videos, quality photography and animated GIFs, these influencers aimed to share “how everyone can express their personalities and tell their own stories through clothing.”

By all measurable accounts, it was a bona fide hit. The campaign generated impressive boosts in new followers across Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. It sparked user-generated content from fans online. It even drove hashtag usage on Twitter. Social media’s holy trinity.

Given its success, the campaign continues to operate today as its own blog, styld-by.com, featuring an ever-changing rotation of popular fashion influencers. This past year, styld.by featured trendy lifestyle and fashion bloggers like Joey London, Sincerely Jules and Maël Prince — all wearing and photographing themselves mixing the brand’s clothing with their own unique styles across their personal social channels.

But when you actually peer past the window-dressing, there’s a curious pattern underlying it all. In a random 10-week sample preceding their involvement with the styld.by campaign, these three aforementioned influencers had also shared content featuring American Eagle, Asos, Armani Exchange, Chanel, Diesel, Ugg, Reebok Classics, LaCoste, Kway, Paige Denim, Levi’s and Soludos [14]. No non-compete clause, evidently. Which makes you wonder whether Gap is subsidizing the personal brands of these influencers just as much, if not more, than these influencers are helping to build Gap’s.

Of course, we can’t really fault influencers for wanting to cash-in from overzealous brand marketers. Money talks. But how can we expect social media influencers to breed any sense of brand loyalty among online audiences when they demonstrate such blatant disregard for it themselves?

Many brands today have deluded themselves into thinking that the use of social influencers will help their brand stand out among their competitors. But there’s an enormous difference between being seen and being seen as different. And while many marketers may get tempted by a particular influencer’s outward allure — their gargantuan following, their impressive engagement numbers or the fact that they, by all accounts, represent a ‘perfect brand fit’ — the reality is, it’s probably only a matter of time until your competitors think so, too.


image credits: giphy

Brand authenticity and differentiation, be damned. Sometimes marketers just want a sufficiently ascending line graph to satiate their need for social success. But what they often fail to understand is that this dog-and-tail chase for short-term effects can bring a dizzying degree of doubt to the long-term growth of brands.

When Kim Kardashian mentioned lip balm brand, eos, in a tweet talking about her “pregnancy lips” back in May of 2013, that single tweet went on to garner more social engagements than anything the brand has published on Twitter ever since [14]. This probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the size of Kardashian’s… celebrity status. But that’s still a tough pill to swallow for any brand marketer looking to notch the next big social ‘win’.

Granted, cases like Kardashian’s are easy to discount or dismiss due to the fact that some influencers are real-world celebrities. And as Ron Schott, senior communications manager at Microsoft, once explained, “social influencers don’t show up on TMZ [15].”

But even those distinctions are beginning to blur in today’s social world. When YouTube star Bethany Mota graces the cover of Seventeen magazine (in the months between global icons like Ariana Grande and One Direction), it begins to rattle our conventional definitions of celebritydom. A recent Variety study that found 6 of the top 10 most recognizable icons among U.S. teens are online stars, not Hollywood celebrities [16]. Fame has become more fluid.

It’s reasonable to think that it’s because of this shift in cultural fame that inspires major global brands to reconsider their approach for promoting their products. Social influencers are, they assume, pseudo-celebrity endorsements with a much smaller ticket price.

Few companies have been more steadfast in pursuing influencer-centric brands than L’Oréal. Earlier this year, the brand announced their very own ‘Beauty Squad’ made up of a handful of leading beauty influencers as a way to “reveal its latest innovations, new products, and to create content such as tips and tutorials across their YouTube channels.” The brand has also been known to dish out seven-figure contracts to influencers in the past, most notably to 22-year-old Instagram star Kristina Bazan and online beauty vlogger Michelle Phan. The latter went on to ink a deal to create her own line of beauty products under the L’Oréal brand in 2013. At the time the company said, “we think it’s a huge opportunity to understand the power of building up a whole line online [17].” She had the community. She had the charm. Show time.

But two years later, L’Oréal announced that their venture with Phan was folding. A source from WWD reported that the product line had never made it out of start-up phase. One beauty blogger posited that “many of her viewers … said they’d love to try her products, but can’t afford them, or their parents aren’t willing to spend so much on makeup [17].” For all the social hype surrounding Pham’s online personality, turns out that it failed to drive adequate business growth.

Of course this isn’t an issue isolated to L’Oréal. It’s very challenging to forecast lasting business opportunity from cursory social activity. As Stacie Brockman, co-founder of Metier Creative and one of the original pioneers of the influencer marketing movement explained, “brands don’t understand that people come with a very specific audience. [Brand executives] think ‘she’s pretty’ and ‘she gets a lot of engagement.’ But the hot girl usually has guys trolling her, not girls who want to buy the product [18].”

This underscores one of the most fraught dilemmas around influencer marketing today. That is, we’ve conflated vanity metrics with actual business results. We’ve substituted measurable gains in brand momentum for fleeting spikes in social media numbers. As Greg Satell wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “while the idea of influentials may be intuitively convincing, there is very little, if any, evidence that they actually can improve performance [19].”


image credits: reddit

At this point it may be difficult for the seasoned brand marketer to reconcile this view of influencer marketing with the one more commonly peddled by industry thought leaders and trade publications. And they have legitimate grounds to gripe.

After all, you’ve probably seen your fair share of stats showing how “81% of marketing professionals who had launched at least one influencer campaign were extremely pleased with the campaign’s results [3].”

Or you may have read case studies claiming that “influencer marketing generated $285 per 1,000 impressions… 11 times the ROI of digital marketing [20].”

Or you may have learned that “40% of people said they’ve purchased an item online after seeing it used by an influencer on Instagram, Twitter, Vine or YouTube [21].”

Or you may have heard others explain how “every dollar spent on influencers yields a return of $6.85 [22].”

Or you may have come across articles describing influencer marketing as “the fastest-growing online customer acquisition tactic, beating organic search, paid search and email marketing” and that “more than half of marketers (59%) plan to increase their influencer marketing budget over the next 12 months [23].”

But you’ve probably also noticed then, assuming you’ve looked a little closer at the liner notes, that nearly all studies on the effectiveness of influencer marketing have been commissioned by (surprise!) companies selling services around influencer marketing. It’s remarkably difficult to find any independently verified research demonstrating the impact of influencer marketing on the growth of brands.

To the confectioner, everyone could use a little more candy.

But before we grab our pitchforks and confront the proselytizers of influencer marketing, it’s worth noting that the approach itself isn’t entirely baseless. When brands find creative ways to give creative freedom to the right influencers in order to reach the right people with the right message, all with the right, intermediate business goals accurately defined, aligned and isolated (whew, that was a mouthful), then influencer marketing can prove to be a somewhat useful tactic across social media.

Take for instance the #LeftSwipeDat campaign, a recent extension of the iconic truth anti-smoking initiatives. In order to combat a resurgence in youth smoking, #LeftSwipeDat used YouTube’s famous Internet Team to create a parody music video during the Grammy’s aimed at mocking cigarette smoking. It was playful, powerful and, dare I say, smart. One could even argue that the influencer approach was able to deliver the core message in a way that traditional, brand-manufactured media could not have achieved. And they’d probably be right.

And there are undoubtedly certain business verticals where social influencers provide demonstrably more effect than others. For instance, “Tourism and Travel” and “Bath, Body and Beauty” campaigns tend to outperform the “Electronics” category in campaign ROI. Additionally, other segments, such as fashion and beauty, have been known to rely on influencers for product launches given it’s relative ease in driving leads and quick conversions [24].

But there’s a massive difference between effectiveness and efficiency. And just as direct mail, sales activations and price promotions are well-proven tactics for generating quick sales and immediate volume growth, influencer marketing’s ability to convert on social shouldn’t be conflated with an ability (or rather lack thereof) for building strong, sustainable brands. It all comes down to a basic, principled understanding of how to best measure the growth of brands.


image credits: theonset.com

When Malcolm Gladwell’s debut book, The Tipping Point, was published in 2000, it quickly catapulted itself atop the national bestseller lists. It also introduced mainstream readers to, what Gladwell dubbed, The Law of the Few: a compelling reinterpretation of many older social theories (Katz and Lazarsfeld in the 1950s, Stanley Milgrim in the 1960s, etc.) in which Gladwell asserted “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”

However, this general assertion that a small swath of super-connected influentials can shape and “tip” social trends into cultural movements proves to be much more anecdotal than evidence-based.

Duncan Watts, a leading network-theory scientist and principal researcher at Microsoft, has pioneered computer modeling systems that demonstrate the spread of social contagion. Over the years, he’s applied his research to areas as varied as email chains and pop music artists. Ultimately, Watts largely debunks Gladwell’s theories (and others like them), claiming that, yes, social influence certainly exists, but that its success cannot be pinned on a handful of readily predictable nodes or key influencers.

“You need to build a six-degrees (of separation) effect into an ad campaign; but since you can never know which person is going to spark the fire, you should aim the ad at as broad a market as possible — and not waste money chasing ‘important’ people,” he says [25].


The difference between Watts’ scientific study of influence networks and Gladwell’s literary supposition comes down to a fairly simple reality: that cultural influence is a much more mutable, complex and stubbornly recalcitrant phenomenon than marketers would like to believe it to be. Marketers prefer formulas and frameworks and sure-fire solutions, things that can be systematized, trademarked, and packaged up as a provocative keynote speech or a sellable suite of services. Turns out, influence isn’t so easily engineered.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one — and if it isn’t than almost no one can.” — Duncan Watts

Therein lies the critical question that all great brands ought to be asking themselves today: how do we endeavor to create real, lasting influence in the world? Enlisting a cadre of Instagram all-stars may give brands some illusion of influence, but rarely does it lead to the culture-defining ideas that transform good brands into iconic ones.

The unfortunate reality of it all is that influencer marketing has become a rather convenient get-out-of-jail-free card for many modern-day marketers. It’s given brands false confidence that they don’t need to spend much money, that they don’t need to take a strong stand, that they don’t need to better understand their customers so long as they have a clever new way to reach them online.

We’ve all been drinking the Kool-Aid of influencer marketing for much too long, and it appears now we’re all full of piss.

There’s an alternative path. It’s not simple, but it’s straightforward: brands desperately need to get back to the basics in order to build genuine influence today. To lionize big ideas, not prized individuals. To spearhead trends, not merely perpetuate them. To stake out a clear voice in the world, not continually shirk that responsibility onto others. To question, challenge and confront the status quo, not nestle up cozily in its lap. We know this, we just need a reminder. The brands capable of winning influence will be those committed to finding a real role in people’s lives, not just a place in their social streams.

This may not be the trendiest thing to say. But maybe that’s the point.

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[25] Thompson, C. (2008, February). Is the Tipping Point Toast? Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/641124/tipping-point-toast