Attention Marketers: Are You Stuck in an Influencer Rut?

Katherine Hays
Mar 26 · 5 min read

In a world of collapsing television ratings, it’s no surprise brands now turn to paid influencers in attempt to drive sales. Unfortunately, this marketing trend has officially backfired. Outright fraud, and oftentimes inauthentic, influencer content has riddled the internet, blown budgets and jeopardized careers. Questioning whether Influencer Marketing is indeed floundering? Check out Gartner L2’s recent post to learn more.

At the very same time, according to Social Media Today, influencer marketing is projected to be a $10B industry by 2020. 94% of marketers believe transparency and authenticity are critical to influencer marketing success according to this same source. This all seems like quite a conundrum.

Fortunately, influencer 2.0 has arrived and has been in plain sight all along: your very own customers. Recent studies show these most trusted brand advocates — brands’ own customers — are willing to shout from the mountain tops about their loyalty when given a nudge. Brands leveraging their existing customer base are achieving incredible reach, unmatched engagement and invaluable authentic content — for a lot better ROI than gained through paid influencers. What’s more, they are connecting real people (not bots) to each other, to their brands and to the actual human experiences underpinning trust and loyalty.

According to CMS Wire, one out of every four paid influencers are “padding” their follower count — either buying followers or using bots to boost their numbers. Those fake followers are costing brands a pretty penny: According to the recent Retail Gazette report, in 2018 an estimated 11% of the influencer spend was fraudulent. If influencer spend is expected to grow to $10B by 2020, then over $1B would be spent on fraud. It should be clear by now that employing paid advocates is fraught with danger — both to bottom lines and to reputations. Paid influencers have officially been exposed — and even among honest influencers, the relationship with a brand is strictly transactional. It’s time to give consumers themselves a little more credit.

So what should a brand do?

Again, the answer has been in plain sight all along. Referring to the visual below, while customers are the smallest influencers in terms of their individual followers, their total effective scale is driven by the sheer number that can be activated by a brand and their three-to-five times higher engagement rate than paid influencers. Assuming a brand taps 5,000 customers who create authentic content for the brand versus paying two “mega-influencers” or ten “macro-influencers” — customers are the ones generating more scale — thus turning this “small” and trustworthy group into a brand’s greatest asset.

Imagine the impact for Coca-Cola, activating customers right off of its bottles, only one in every 1,000 customers creating on the brand’s behalf would reach over eight times the total U.S. population for Coca-Cola each month.

In fact, I’ve seen this unfold before my own eyes, when Coke, powered by the peer-to-peer activation company Vivoom (disclosure, I’m CEO), turned its own customers into influencers and reached 1-in-5 people — 20% of the entire population — in the first European country where Coke’s program launched. And we weren’t even yet integrated into the packaging (interestingly, cans and bottles are some of the only mobile devices that Google and Apple don’t control).

Customers aren’t only winning in reach — they win on the authenticity, transparency, brand safety and ROI fronts as well.

Customers are the most authentic and transparent. Candidly, this is obvious. The customers you want are likely friends with the customers you have. Nine times out of ten, your customers provide the best path to a highly targeted set of new prospects and the content shared by peers is the most relevant content to those prospects. Customer influencers are regular folks; they don’t fancy themselves “professional” influencers who need to pad their follower lists or utilize bots in order to get a better deal from a brand, so there is little to no risk of fraud. Importantly, they aren’t transactional, moving overnight onto the next new brand that will cut a check. That authenticity will be evident in the exchanges they have with the people with whom they engage — real conversations about the benefits of a brand experience, maybe with occasional criticism. Brands should be celebrating that criticism; it’s a sign they have real people engaging with them.

Customers deliver the best ROI. Because customer influencers aren’t professional influencers, they aren’t demanding huge fees for their posts. Chances are they won’t be interested in money at all — perks like points, simple recognition, perhaps a coupon, swag or the simple excuse to share are typically enough to keep them enthused. If they are agreeing to act as evangelists, it’s because they like the brand. Furthermore, because their content is trusted and relevant to their peers, it generates the highest engagement and conversion to new customers — generating directly attributable sales. So not only are you paying less, you’re getting better results in terms of new customers.

If it’s so obvious, why isn’t every brand doing this? While it’s a simple idea that a brand’s own customers are the ultimate influencers, brands needed a solution to bring this “ideal” to life at scale, predictably, with transparency and brand safety. Fast forward to 2019 and the age of Gen Z: mobile and video. Leveraging your existing customers is now a very viable option. With the inherent risk that comes along with influencers, activating your consumers is the answer and mobile video makes it possible. Above all else, consumers bring reach in the form of their trusted social communities, genuine interactions with your brand and ROI in that ad dollars are spent on your most trusted and proven evangelists, not on fraudulent influencers, followers or bots.

In this era of transparency, how could you afford not to turn to your own customers? Finally, there are turnkey platforms available to make content highly viewable, deliver brand safety and curation, manage rights and other legal issues, and so on. Give it a shot since paid influencers (or, heaven forbid, going back to a legacy media mix) isn’t viable.

Katherine Hays

Written by

Vivoom’s CEO and Co-Founder; Former CEO of GenArts and Co-Founder of Massive (acquired by Microsoft); Has over a dozen technical patents to her name