5 Ways to Rethink Influencer Marketing and Make It More Effective

Apply the basic rules of advertising

holding phone with influencer
The core issue boils down to trust. Kacy Burdette
Headshot of Neil Waller

Influencer marketing has experienced explosive growth in recent years. Previous projections had it estimated to become a $15 billion market by 2022, and that was before the rapid rise of TikTok and content creation under quarantine.  

However, alongside this growth have been increasingly bleak headlines: The influencer marketing bubble is set to burst, influence is phony and influencer fraud is costing companies over $1 billion.

The growth of influencer marketing has stemmed from the incredible value it can deliver when done right.

The core issue boils down to trust. Some influencers, at the knowing or unknowing direction of agencies and brands, are breaking the trust with their audience because of collaborations that lack relevance, are fraudulent at times and often have superficial measurement. 

Here are five key learnings to help avoid the unsuccessful influencer collaborations these headlines refer to:

Audience size should never be the first proxy

Follower numbers don’t equal actual reach. They don’t give any measure of true influence with an audience and, most importantly, they don’t give any insight into the audience composition.

Given that marketing is about conveying a message to a specific audience, influencer marketing is worthless if it’s not actually speaking to the desired audience, regardless of how niche or broad that audience is.

If you were selling an everyday cooking product, would you advertise in Vogue or Good Housekeeping? If you had a fin-tech product and were trying to reach a Canadian audience, would you work with a very large tech influencer with less than 2% of their audience in Canada? 

Focus on who you’ll reach.

Engagement doesn’t equal effectiveness

Engagement rates have become the most common metric by which influencer comparisons are made. However, much like follower numbers, they can be a red herring, and an influencer with the right audience and high engagement can be the wrong influencer.

You have to view influencer marketing as a collaboration between two brands. When brands come together to collaborate, the success is often in large part because of a truly relevant fit. It’s the difference between the wildly cool and successful Louis Vuitton collaboration with Supreme and Lego’s collaboration with Shell (which Lego had to end because of misaligned values). 

The best influencer marketing comes from a data-driven approach to understanding influence with an audience combined with human insights to assess brand alignment and cultural relevance.

Without these, you won’t drive strong results at best and, at worst, you could see an audience backlash and brand safety problems.

Trust isn’t built in a single post

A collaboration that’s a single post, without any obvious or easily explainable alignment, can end up prompting the audience to question whether the influencer really had a belief in the product. This drives little value for the brand, reduces the audience’s trust with the influencer and brings up the question of authenticity.

Brands leading in influencer marketing are making increasingly longer collaborations a big component of their influencer marketing strategy. It allows the influencer to best understand the brand’s values and marketing needs, enabling the development of a thoughtful strategy to deliver that to their audience over time.

You wouldn’t debate if it’s more effective to have a mainstream celebrity establish a long-term partnership/ambassadorship with a brand. When done right, a long-term collaboration has the cumulative effect on the audience of both remembering and having the desired emotional response to the advertising.

There are also significant ancillary benefits that come from long-term collaborations. Financially, there are economies of scale combined with the fact you’re negotiating on a rate today that would likely be increased in the future. Relationship-wise, you’ll build a much closer connection and understanding that will further strengthen alignment and lock out competitors, whether contractual or not. 

All messages are not equal

Identifying the right influencer based on audience and brand alignment doesn’t mean there isn’t still considerable work to help each other understand shared objectives, values, aesthetics and styles. The strength of the brief is everything.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean handing over total control to the influencer, nor does it mean dictating everything to them. It’s ineffective if the audience has no clue what the brand is trying to convey, and it’s just as bad when the audience doesn’t believe the message is coming from the voice of the influencer. 

When done best, your roster of influencers should be a fully diverse and inclusive representation of your customers. It becomes a partnership, giving you a scalable creative production model that, with good communication, can remain fully on-brand while talking to audiences on a much more one-to-one level.

You can’t invest in what you can’t measure

Follower numbers, engagement and sentiment analysis are no longer the brilliant basics. Paid social also has an ever-growing and almost obligatory role to play—something that brings both deeper reporting, accountability and the opportunity to further scale the reach to relevant audiences for prospecting and retargeting campaigns.

Embrace the tools that exist to enable full-funnel measurement.

For top of the funnel, you’re able to do brand lift studies and get metrics such as +30% increase in top-of-mind awareness and measure the emotional responses to the messages with metrics such as +87% emotional intensity and +277% memory encoding.

For mid-funnel, you can get metrics such as  +1,178% in NPS and +66% in search intent.

For lower funnel, you can measure conversions and add-to-cart rates. You can get back metrics such as 42% in purchase intent and even measure the increase in the intent to repeat purchase. A retailer was able to combine measurement tools to attribute a 20-to-1 sale generated return on a seven-figure investment. 

The growth of influencer marketing has stemmed from the incredible value it can deliver when done right. It’s about applying basic rules of advertising to make influencer marketing more trustworthy, more accountable, more measurable and, as a result, more effective.


Neil Waller is the co-founder and CEO of Whalar.
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