The proliferation of brands and companies has been a big boon for consumers. Never before has there been such a wide choice of products and services. For corporates, this means trust is increasingly seen as the differentiator by potential customers. Yet, companies are increasingly coming under fire for falsehoods – those committed intentionally or not, as well as those committed directly or indirectly by the firm. This puts the onus on brands – and, critically, who they partner with – to work harder to maintain consumer confidence.
The rise of social media influencers taps into consumers’ desire to find authentic voices making genuine recommendations to help navigate the choices available. Yet the landscape has been tainted by several scandals to the detriment of individuals and the brands that engage them. A recent example was the much-maligned Fyre Festival in May this year. Billed as an elite music festival in the Bahamas, the disastrously-organised event cast a long shadow over the use of celebrity influencers who had been paid in advance to promote the event on social media.
The young influencer industry is under fire from several quarters. There was renewed scrutiny earlier in the year, too, when Facebook shut down several services that aided “fake” accounts and bots to artificially inflate follower numbers and auto-generate comments for a price. A study in March 2017 by the University of Southern California and Indiana University found up to 15% of Twitter users may be fake.
Still, companies and brands cannot, and indeed should not, renounce influencer marketing. Firstly, because social media use is exploding. The number of Instagram and Snapchat users in Asia Pacific has nearly doubled in the two years to 2016, from 22% to 39% for Instagram and from 8% to 15% for Snapchat, according to market research firm Kantar TNS. And it is not only among younger audiences: one-third of internet users aged 55 to 65 years old in Singapore use Instagram, too.
Secondly, because despite some scandals, it works. In the same study, some 40% of online 16 to 25-year-olds in Singapore say they trust what people say online about brands. A study last year by market research agency eMarketer found 84% of marketers were keen to launch an influencer marketing campaign in the next 12 months, while Google Trends data show influencer marketing closing the gap with video advertising in the two years to 2016. In our experience, the content produced by influencer talent can outperform brand created content in paid social media channels (sponsored post or ads) by two to one.
The industry is starting to address some of the more egregious abuses. But companies can do more to verify who they partner with to protect the brand. At a minimum, brands need to identify fake accounts. A high follower count, but low engagement rate; inappropriate, out-of-context or repetitive comments; and accounts that seem too new for the number of followers should all set alarm bells ringing.
Prioritise authenticity and deep engagement
More crucially, brands can do three things to link up with true influencers in their market segment and avoid being Instafooled.
Firstly, focus on identifying locally-relevant talent. Bigger (more follower numbers) isn’t necessarily better. Micro or mid-size influencers have more clout with a more loyal, engaged and locally-relevant audience. This is particularly true for fashion and beauty brands where consumers want to know what the current global trends are, but they want to be spoken to in local terms.
Secondly, as with any business decision, auditing is key. Brands need to scour influencer accounts to find the ones that offer authenticity and depth of engagement – which relies heavily on how they built their audience. Quality content beats sheer volume every time, as does a follower base organically grown through a genuine association with brands that align with an influencer’s online persona and interests.
Companies must look for this natural affinity between the values of the influencer and the brand. Not only will that ensure the values promoted are the same, it will enable influencers to do so on their own terms allowing creativity and publicity to combine naturally to maximum effect.
With more people recognising just how lucrative being an influencer can be, the race is on among social media users to try and claim a slice of the pie. Brands need to be on their guard and prioritise finding authentic, truly engaged leaders in their communities to make the most of the influencer marketing wave.
The writer is Aaron Brooks (pictured), co-founder, Visual Amplifiers.