Millennials Are Losing Trust in Online Influencers. Here’s What Marketers Can Do.

We just surveyed 500 Millennial women about how they shop for fashion, online and in-store. In particular, we wanted to understand how they used social media and online influencers to discover and buy fashion. The standout finding for us is that a slight majority (52%) of Millennials said they trust influencers less than they used to.

We plan a more detailed survey to better understand this growing trust gap, but based on our experience working with influencers and shoppers over the past few years, we can offer some preliminary thoughts and observations on why this is happening and what marketers can do.

Why are Millennials trusting online influencers less?

First, to keep things in perspective, we should note that influencers are still very much on an upswing, growing in popularity and gaining more influence over how we shop and buy. More people are turning to them for advice, ideas, and recommendations — in fact, our same survey found that Millennials now rely on influencers more than ever before for fashion shopping ideas and inspiration, with 41% of them saying influencers are their primary source of fashion picks.

But as the influencer landscape evolves and matures, we can note some changes in how people relate to influencers on social media and how this might impact trust.

Trust and investment in influencers has been growing rapidly and it’s possible that we’ve hit a peak

Especially among younger demographics, trust in online influencers has been increasingly steadily for years now.

70% of YouTube users say they trust the recommendations of their favorite YouTubers above those of celebrities, and Twitter found that their users trust online influencers almost as much as they trust their friends.

So it’s not all that surprising that we’d eventually reach a peak in how much people are trusting these influencers. Whether we’ve reached that peak now is difficult to say, but to say we’ve reached a saturation point in the how much we pay attention to social media influencers doesn’t sound like a stretch to me.

Blurring lines between sponsorships and authentic recommendations

As the influencer landscape has become increasingly commercialized in recent years, a steadily increasing share of the influencer posts that people see on social media and blogs are sponsored. While the FTC publishes guidelines for disclosure on such posts, these guidelines are far from perfect and they are sometimes ignored or implemented incorrectly, adding to the confusion.

Fortunately, the major social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and other networks are starting to implement native features that make these disclosures easier to implement and more clear to consumers.

While these features will help, for some time there will still be plenty of gray area between what’s paid for and what’s an authentic recommendation, to detriment of trust people have in what influencers say.

Traditional trust indicators are less reliable than they used to be

There was a time when you could infer a social media influencer’s popularity (and to a lesser extent, their authority and trust) through quantifiable trust indicators, such as their number of followers, or how many likes their posts are receiving.

In today’s maturing influencer industry, however, there’s more manipulation and attempts to inflate statistics through automated bots and other services. This no doubt has crept into the consciousness of Millennials and other consumers, who are running into “popular” influencers who don’t actually post authentic, meaningful content.

As “what you see is what you get” trust indicators decline in reliability, naturally users will become increasingly skeptical and cautious in how they grant their trust in online influencers.

Influencers are simply becoming bigger, more similar to celebrities and traditional media brands

A few years ago, when people followed their favorite fashion blogger on Instagram, they may have enjoyed an intimate, authentic connection with that influencer. Today, that same blogger might have millions of follows and have a staff of 20 people managing their posts.

As influencers continue to rise in popularity, many are beginning to feel more like traditional celebrities or brands, and some of that authentic connection with their audiences will naturally erode as a result.

What can marketers do about the growing trust gap with influencers?

The good news for marketers is that despite these challenges the influencer industry as a whole is healthy and growing at a rapid clip. Influencers still represent an increasingly attractive channel through which brands can build mindshare — they just must be aware of the changing dynamics and adapt accordingly. Here are some basic guidelines to identifying influencers with real, authentic relationships with their fans.

Focus on micro-influencers

In contrast to mainstream influencers with millions of followers, micro-influencers are those with 10,000 to 100,000 total followers. The smaller fan bases of these micro-influencers can actually be an advantage to marketers, since studies have shown that these smaller influencers on average elicit more engagement and enjoy greater trust with their fans.

Think of it this way — with fewer fans, micro-influencers can listen to and interact directly with more of them and therefore have a deeper and more authentic connection with them. When they mention your brand to their followers, they may be able to position it in a way to provide greater impact.

Audit influencers carefully

As mentioned above, influencers come in all shapes and sizes, and some aren’t exactly what they appear to be. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy these days for influencers to manipulate their perceived size and influencer by “buying” followers.

As a marketer, you should conduct a careful audit of each influencer you’re considering partnering with to avoid the fakes.

Unlike other forms of online marketing, influencer marketing is more difficult to “scale.” You must invest the necessary time to know the influencers you’re working with. Certain influencer marketing platforms can help by providing you access to algorithms (such as Dealspotr’s Influence Score) which filter out false patterns and give you a more realistic score of an influencer’s true reach.

Look for compliance with FTC guidelines

When evaluating an influencer, you should do a scan of their prior sponsored posts. Have the clearly marked their posts as sponsored? Proper adherence to the FTC’s guidelines is a must, or else the influencer might have already eroded trust with their fans.

Create longer term partnerships with influencers

While the norm in the influencer marketing industry these days is to compensate influencers with some form of up-front payment in exchange for a mention or a review, these one-time setups often don’t align well with the interests of brands since the influencers lack an incentive to promote you over the long-term.

The most successful influencer relationships extend beyond a single post, and often involve a long-term ambassadorship where the influencer will continue to mention a brand over an extended period of time. Establishing these longer term relationships is an effective way to maximize trust and authenticity when working with influencers.

Craft creative partnerships that involve more than monetary compensation

While influencers love receiving cash payments, many are often willing to promote brands in exchange for free products, publicity, travel opportunities and other perks. Often, engaging an influencer in a more collaborative partnership can foster a greater sense of mutual investment and can lead to more authentic, more effective promotions. This is a generalization, but in our experience, influencers who are more open to creative partnerships with non-monetary compensation are more likely to have a better connection with their fans. The more an influencer is doing what they do out of their passion for their topic and a love of their followers, and the less they are doing it for money, the better the chance they’ll have a true connection with their fans and thus greater trust.

In summary

Influencer marketing will only continue to increase in importance as a marketing channel for brands. Consumer attention is still shifting away from traditional forms towards digital, mobile, and social, and in this world influencers reign supreme. By investing in relationships with trusted influencers, brands can navigate this increasingly complex landscape and increase mindshare by partnering with the leading voices on social media and the web.