"Mass adoption of social media, combined with the power of your smartphone, has democratized influencers to the point where millions of people now wield influence in an empirical way. It's allowed the mass adoption of influencer marketing as a practice by marketers."
— Lyle Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO, Mavrck
Influencer marketing is expected to grow into a $15 billion industry by 2022. This prediction isn't surprising, considering that it now seems like nearly every brand is collaborating with social media influencers and micro-influencers to connect with niche audiences or expand their reach with targeted demographics.
But influencer marketing is about more than just paying thousands of dollars per post to an influencer with a large following or trading merch for a shout-out on a brand loyalist's Instagram or Twitter page. It takes a well-developed strategy to fully leverage and maximize the trust an influencer has with their audience to drive core key performance indicators (KPIs) for your brand.
Lyle Stevens is the co-founder and CEO of Mavrck, an all-in-one influencer marketing platform that connects brands with influencers, referrers, advocates, and loyalists to achieve influence at scale. Stevens shared his insights on how to shift your company's teams and processes to better manage and maximize the impact of influencer marketing on your business on a recent Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast episode, "Influencer Marketing at Scale."
"Influencer marketing is really this methodology of using a person or a group of people who are trusted, respected, or even revered to help get a message out," Stevens said.
"That influence that they wield is empirically evident and invalid, and some folks may debate the empirical nature of it — whether it's followers, visitors, subscribers, engagement, or clicks — but there is some tangible way to define and measure the empirical nature of their influence either online or offline," he said.
Brands now have more opportunities than ever to tap into the trust influencers have cultivated with their followers or users. Technological advances have made it easier for people to create content, post it online, and build their audience.
Influencer marketing "has been associated with actresses, artists, athletes, even journalists, political, or business leaders. But thanks to the power of our smartphone, and the camera associated with that smartphone, what used to cost thousands of dollars — and only available to a few — has now become democratized and available to many," Stevens said.
"This mass adoption of social media combined with the power of your smartphone has democratized influences to the point where millions of people now wield influence in an empirical way. It's allowed the mass adoption of influencer marketing as a practice by marketers," he said.
Influencers are often very specific to niche audiences, and this specificity can make them extremely valuable.
“It comes down to the empirical nature of influencer marketing today. I can find someone in a very niche category topic or region of the world that is talking with authority and engaging audiences around that topic. I can activate them in mass too, so I can then find a hundred or thousands of these people,” Stevens said.
Stevens added that this ability to create influence at scale could sometimes make influencers more valuable and generate a more significant impact than a big celebrity endorsing a brand.
“That’s the power of influencer marketing today,” he said.
Arguably, leveraging micro-influencers — or people who build small social media followings on the side and still work a day job — creates economies of scale for brands. They can market more cost-effectively and potentially reach a more engaged audience than they would by shelling out millions of dollars for a big celebrity.
Companies are using software to streamline the identification of both influencers and micro-influencers. Marketers in this space have evolved from using manual processes like cold email and spreadsheet tracking to adopting technology platforms that allow them to pinpoint who among their existing customers has relevant micro-influencer — whether that's based on how often they shop with the brand or talk about the brand on social media.
Companies then can invite these customers to join an influencer or ambassador program. Brands also can use technology platforms like Mavrck to identify influencers on social media based on certain criteria, such as their audience, content quality, and the historical performance of other influencers similar to them, Stevens said.
Incentivization models vary for influencer programs. Stevens said he's seen a shift from a model that involves paying per post, plus additional incentives based on performance, to a model that encompasses giving influencers free products, gift cards, or even loyalty points.
"We're seeing loyalty as a larger component of the influencer mix or the influencer incentive mix than ever before. As a result, influencers are now shifting or migrating away from this transactional relationship where I'm just looking for the person with the highest bid on cash to a brand I actually know and love, who's giving me something that I want, and now I'm willing to work with this brand for a long time and build a long-term relationship."
— Lyle Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO, Mavrck
"As a result of this democratization, we're seeing who manages influencer marketing shifting, who participates as an influencer shifting, the various ways you recruit and find influencers shifting, and the use cases and ultimately how you measure influencer marketing shifting," Stevens said. "Truly fundamental shifts are happening and have been happening over the last 18 months or so across the practice."
Traditionally, a third-party paid media or advertising agency oversaw influencer marketing programs at most brands because influencers were just looked at as another media channel. However, as more micro-influencers have emerged, this practice has shifted in-house. More ecommerce teams, like customer loyalty and digital teams, now manage influencer marketing programs.
Influencer marketing is also changing how marketing organizations work together. Influencer content is being redeployed across the marketing ecosystem, which is fostering more collaboration across marketing departments.
"Influencer marketing is bridging the gap between a media team, traditional social and PR team, and the ecommerce team, because influencer marketing will help create brand awareness or be a media channel. The asset that was displayed in that media channel is then pulled into an ecommerce experience and repurposed to drive additional value — whether it's on a product details page, driving more conversion rates, or after I take that photo and 60 days later, I write a rating and review of that product that's also then redisplayed," Stevens said.
"So, there's a lot more collaboration happening across these marketing departments. Ecommerce, loyalty, and performance-based marketers are using influencers more so than ever before," he said.
Stevens said that as recently as three years ago, brands measured the success of most influencer marketing campaigns based on awareness and reach, with top-of-the-funnel metrics, such as impressions, views, engagement, brand lift, and share of voice.
"Fast forward to today; you still have 40% of marketers looking at influencers for awareness. So, that hasn't changed and gone away completely, but it's definitely shifted. Now almost an equivalent number of marketers are looking at sales — offline sales lift, attributed online sales based on either tracking links or promo codes, increases in lifetime value or loyalty behavior, and improved conversion rates," Stevens said.
"When you produce influencer content, namely photos, ratings, or reviews, and then syndicate that content either across your own ecommerce sites or your third-party ecommerce sites, you're driving conversion rates on those locations, as well. Those have become the more popular KPIs for those looking to drive sales," Stevens added.
"We see other folks still look at content assets. They want a number of posts or photos or videos as a secondary metric, but sales have become more prevalent than ever before as part of the KPI mix for influencer marketing," he said.
For all its advantages, influencer marketing also has been subject to criticism that it feels artificial or inauthentic. If a company is paying an influencer to promote their brand, how can consumers trust what they say?
Stevens said the pandemic is changing this. With more people stuck at home, FOMO photos are now few and far between on social media. Influencers are transitioning away from presenting these rose-colored images and are instead presenting a more authentic image of themselves.
"What's happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic is a shift from that image of perfection, like on Instagram, to live-streaming and what I'm doing at the moment. It's not edited, it's not perfected, it's in the moment,” Stevens said.
“As a result, more influencers are becoming comfortable with that idea of being more raw, more authentic, and not putting up the perfect beauty routine or the perfect image of life. That's actually driving more authenticity, more engagement, and actually more benefit to the marketer," he said.
Influencer marketing has become a crucial part of brands' marketing mix, especially as they look for alternatives to walled gardens like Facebook. This approach allows them to niche down and hyper-target new and existing audiences, enabling them to do effective demographic advertising that could rival what Facebook and other walled gardens offer.
Stevens said influencer marketing is crucial for providing the social proof brands need to engage new audiences, especially millennials who are increasingly bombarded with content online. However, he has a word of advice for brands to make the most of this channel.
"Think about influencer marketing and influencers as more than just a media channel. They're a source of high-quality photography, a source of ratings and reviews of your product, and how people experience your product — and even more, there are sources of validated expertise and perspective that can be used in research and insights, whether you're launching a new product, rebranding, or launching a new marketing campaign," Stevens said.
"Using an influencer or creator at the front end of the process versus just at the backend as a distribution channel is something I would encourage every marketer to think about," he said.
Listen to the full podcast episode to hear more about what shifts are required across teams and processes to manage and optimize the impact of influencer marketing on your business.