Why most influencer marketing fails

The wave has peaked, and we’re sliding down the frothy slope now: people have realized that most influencer marketing is bullshit.

Thank God.

It’s about time the industry saw some sense.

A bit of context: this article appeared a couple of days ago in Digiday, featuring some revelations from an anonymous social media marketing exec. With nearly 37 thousand shares so far, it’s clearly hit a nerve. Enough of a nerve for Andy Cush at Gawker to exclaim that The Influencer Economy is Collapsing Under the Weight of its Own Contradictions and so gain seven times more shares.  

These articles are both worth a read (as are their comments). But they don’t prove that online influence is dead.

They prove that we’ve just passed the Peak of Inflated Expectations:


This is the well-known Gartner hype cycle. In this case, the technology in question is mass adoption of social media. And right now we’re sliding into the frothy depths of the Trough of Disillusionment.

Note that that’s mass adoption, rather than social media itself, which has been around for a while. With social media, anyone gets the ability to broadcast. With mass adoption, you get the ability to attract a sizeable audience to what you’re sharing online, because there are enough people on the network.

And so online influencers are born.

Clearly, in an attention economy, those audiences are of interest to companies who want to sell products and services.

So why is everyone saying that influencer marketing is dead?

It’s because they were never doing it right in the first place.

The type of influencer marketing activity that Digiday and Gawker are rightly lambasting is editorially facile guff:

The decaying capitalist institution pays this teen lots of money to attend a rooftop party or add a branded hashtag to their latest casually racist comedy Vine, and in return, hopes to absorb some of the teen’s cultural cachet before his teen followers find some other, hotter teen to glom onto, or he’s caught on camera saying the n-word.

That’s a tongue-in-cheek description, of course, but no one can deny there’s a fair amount of that type of thing going on in the industry.

Of course it will never work.

It will never work because it comes from an advertising sensibility – it’s trying to overtly persuade by buying space for a brand message in someone’s existing content stream.

That’s rubbish. It even flies in the face of science, which has proven that the more your message is like advertising, the less it will work on social media [PDF link].

The whole paper is worth a read but one of the conclusions is particularly relevant:

branded content on Facebook that attempts to overly persuade consumers through the inclusion of certain hallmarks of traditional advertising will not be effective in generating a variety of important consumer engagement actions.

We often forget the social in social media. When audiences swell into the thousands, or even the millions, it may seem like you’re broadcasting to the crowd. But you’re not. Even at scale, social media remain a social space, with social norms of conversation. So if a brand or product wants to participate there it has to follow the social norms of the space, or it’s not authentic to what brought the community together in the first place.

People can smell inauthenticity, as summarized by this commenter on Gawker:

When someone presents me a funny commercial that I don’t have to go looking for, because I am watching a game or am too lazy to press fast forward on my DVR’d show, then I will laugh at it. I think some of the ads I see on television are genuinely creative, and think some of the people who design them deserve some props.

But on social media? Actively choose to watch some video that some idiot, celebrity from other walk of life or talentless “influencer”, posted rapping about a product?

Wut? Who even does that shit?

This comment captures perfectly the tension in today’s attitude towards influencer marketing. The way most companies do influencer marketing is terrible (i.e. see first quote above). Find someone with a few thousand followers on a social network, and pay them to feature a product or include a company hashtag? Of course nobody likes that. It’s about as interesting as watching a WaterWorks hose commercial.

But as the commenter above says – sometimes we like watching TV commercials.

That’s because sometimes they’re funny as hell.

Sometimes, they become great little stories in their own right.

Sometimes, we love watching online videos about products, if they follow the norms of social conversation online.

Sometimes, it’s funny as hell to watch a dude sit in a car in Connecticut and eat a burger and fries:

This is essentially one long piece of product placement. But it follows the norms of social conversation: it’s authentic, it’s not over-polished, it’s frank and it’s direct.

And it’s funny. It’s seven-point-six-million-views funny. (Man, I want a burger now.)

People post and share online for complex reasons, but by and large they don’t do it explicitly to get corporate sponsorship deals. If they are actually out explicitly for this purpose, they smell fake to viewers. In the words of Digiday’s anonymous social media exec:

I remember I once did a speaking thing to a school of young social media people, and they asked, “How do I become an influencer?” So I asked them what they were good at. And they said, “Nothing.” We’ve gotten to the point that if we have a meeting with them, and we ask what they do, and they say “influencer,” we don’t hire them. If they say photographer, we do.

The people who succeed in building audiences online share, post and upload because they are creative, they produce good quality stuff, and they love doing it.

If they are good enough to attract a large audience, and so become able to make money from sponsors willing to reach that audience, that’s great.

But if that influencer/brand interaction is to have any lasting value for the brand, it can’t be done with an advertising sensibility. You can’t be about buying access to an audience.

It has to be done with an earned media sensibility. Your goal has to be working with the influencer to create something genuinely valuable to the target audience you’re trying to reach. 

This means working with the right partners. You can’t just pick some influencer because the CMO’s daughter likes his videos. You can’t just look at the numbers – who has the most followers? It doesn’t matter as much as you might think. You might get way more brand value out of someone with fewer followers but more authority and relevance to your brand. You have to use some pretty sophisticated tools and methods (run by very smart people) to find the right influencers to engage on behalf of a brand.

And then, when you’ve found them, you have to work with them, collaboratively, to create some stuff that people will actually want to watch.

Stuff like this:

We created that for PayPal because they wanted people to realize that PayPal isn’t just for paying on eBay – it’s for paying for nearly anything. I thinik it happens to be some pretty interesting travel video. You should check out the episodes, if you like travel.

See, reaching an audience through influencers means operating in a social space.

It’s a lot like getting someone attracted to you. You can’t just go up and tell them how awesome you are, over and over.

That would make you an obnoxious asshole.

But that’s exactly what you’re doing if you’re approaching influencer marketing with an advertising sensibility. Just inserting your corporate hashtag or placing product in someone’s stream isn’t going to endear you to their audience.

Instead, if you’re trying to attract someone,  you have to be awesome and do awesome stuff, and make sure the object of your attraction sees.

Then they’ll like you.

Same principle here. Find the right influencer, be editorially smart, respect their work, operate within the rules of social interaction, and work together to create something genuinely interesting.

That’s influencer strategy.

That’s real engagement, and everybody wins: the influencer, her audience, and the brand, too.

That’s not influencer marketing.

Influencer marketing is dead, and good riddance.

Influencer strategy is here to stay.



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