Pushing Product, Hurting the Brand? Influencer Marketing’s Surprising Side-Effects

The evidence shows that influencer marketing campaigns can increase discussion around a specific product. But the social web is a complex place, and in complex systems effects propagate in complex ways. Some fascinating research from Inyoung Chae, Andrew Stephen et al. shows that a brand executing product-focused influencer marketing campaigns might expect some side-effects – and not all of them positive.

In short, it seems that when an influencer campaign is focused on a specific product, discussion about the promoted product itself rises. So far, so expected.

But there’s more.

While discussion about the specific product rises, discussion decreases about other products from the same brand – and also about competitors’ products in the same category.

It’s not clear whether this suite of effects, taken together, is negative or positive for the active brand. The second effect – decreased discussion about competitor products in the same category – may actually be beneficial for the active brand. If you’re selling mascara, for example, it should be good for your company if discussion decreases around competitors’ products.

Does this mean that capturing attention around a particular product category or brand landscape is a zero-sum game? Populations grow slowly, so there will usually only be only a certain number of people in a given market who are interested in a particular product category. If a splashy influencer marketing campaign is capturing a significant fraction of their attention, it would stand to reason that there are fewer minds left over to focus on the competition.

Another question raised by these results: are the results generalizable geographically? The research was conducted in Korea. Is there something about Korean culture or the special online landscape there that contributes towards these results? (Any specialists in Korean social network dynamics out there?)

Finally – and perhaps most significantly – how would the results be affected by focusing on brand-building, as opposed to product-focused, campaigns? I’ve long contended that influencer-based campaigns are better suited to brand-building, as opposed to directly increasing sales of a specific product. This mode of marketing fits more naturally with influencers’ natural strengths, such as their ability to leverage Social Proof. In such a case, the side-effects depicted in this research (decreased discussion about others in the same category) would be a huge benefit to the brand.

Academic research into influencer marketing is in its infancy, as one might expect for a field so new in itself. This research suggests some fascinating possibilities. Clearly one to watch.

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