Influencer marketing (also known as influence marketing) is a form of social media marketing involving endorsements and product placement from influencers, people and organizations who have a purported expert level of knowledge or social influence in their field. Influencers are someone (or something) with the power to affect the buying habits or quantifiable actions of others by uploading some form of original often sponsored content to social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat or other online channels. Influencer marketing is when a brand enrolls influencers who have an established credibility and audience on social media platforms to discuss or mention the brand in a social media post. Influencer content may be framed as testimonial advertising.
Influencer marketing is a way to leverage the status of an individual within your organization to boost the profile and standing of the company as a whole. Many influencers also use their status and reach to launch their own companies or consulting businesses.
Many of the world’s leading influencers’ names are synonymous with those of their organizations. WordStream’s own founder and Chief Technology Officer, Larry Kim, is considered an influencer in the paid search, content marketing, and social media spaces. Larry frequently speaks at conferences around the world, and his extensive knowledge and thought leadership in search has elevated not only his own profile, but that of WordStream as a company.
Most discussions of social influence focus on social persuasion and compliance. In the context of influencer marketing, influence is less about arguing for a point of view or product than about loose interactions between parties in a community (often with the aim of encouraging purchasing or behavior). Although influence is often equated with advocacy, it may also be negative. The two-step flow of communication model was introduced in The People’s Choice and developed in Personal Influence.
Influencer marketing is also important through social comparison theory. As psychologist Chae reports, influencers serve as a comparison tool. Consumers may compare influencer lifestyles with their imperfections. Meanwhile, followers may view influencers as people with perfect lifestyles, interests, and dressing style. As such, the promoted products may serve as a shortcut towards a complete lifestyle. Chae’s study finds women with low self-esteem compare themselves to the influencers. As such, they elevate the status of influencers above themselves. When using an influencer, a brand may use consumer insecurities to its benefits. For this reason, influencer marketing may lead to faulty advertising.
Market-research techniques can be used to identify influencers, using predefined criteria to determine the extent and type of influence. Activists get involved with organizations such as their communities, political movements, and charities. Connected influencers have large social networks. Authoritative influencers are trusted by others. Active minds have a diverse range of interests. Trendsetters are the early adopters (or leavers) of markets. According to Malcolm Gladwell, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”. He has identified three types of influencers who are responsible for the “generation, communication and adoption” of messages:
- Connectors network with a variety of people, have a wide reach, and are essential to word-of-mouth communication.
- Mavens use information, share it with others, and are insightful about trends.
- Salesmen are “charismatic persuaders”. Their influence is the tendency of others to imitate their behavior.
Fake influencers have been around for as long as their genuine counterparts, and all criteria used to determine the veracity of an influencer account can be fabricated. Third-party sites and apps sell services to individual accounts which include falsely increasing followers, likes, and comments. Instagram has failed to shut down all such websites. One marketing agency tested whether fake accounts could be profitable. The company created two fictitious accounts, built their online presence through paid followers and engagement (likes and comments), and applied for work in marketing campaigns on popular influencer-marketing platforms. They published their results, an explanation of how the false accounts were created, and which brands had sponsored them.
An analysis of over 7,000 influencers in the UK indicated that about half of their followers have up to 20,000 “low-quality” followers themselves, consisting of internet bots and other suspicious accounts. Over four in 10 engagements with this group of influencers are considered “non-authentic”. A study of UK influencers which looked at almost 700,000 posts from the first half of 2018 found that 12 percent of UK influencers had bought fake followers. Twenty-four percent of influencers were found to have abnormal growth patterns in another study, indicating that they had manipulated their likes or followers.
Virtual influencers are also sometimes considered fake. However, virtual-influencer profiles do not correspond to real individuals and are not automated bots which generate fake likes, comments, or followers. They are virtual characters, intentionally designed by 3D artists to look like real people in real situations. Although most of the characters can be easily identified as computer graphics, some are very realistic and can fool users. The characters are usually identified as models, singers, or other celebrities. Their creators write their biographies, conduct interviews on their behalf, and act like the characters themselves. Lil Miquela was a realistic virtual influencer which prompted curiosity and speculation until it was learned that she was created by advertisers.
Influencer marketing involves a brand collaborating with an online influencer to market one of its products or services. Some influencer marketing collaborations are less tangible than that brands simply work with influencers to improve brand recognition.
An early example of influencer marketing involved YouTube celebrity PewDiePie. He teamed up with the makers of a horror film set in the French catacombs under Paris, creating a series of videos in which he underwent challenges in the catacombs. It was pitch-perfect content for PewDiePie’s 27 million subscribers and received nearly double the views as the movie’s trailer. Everybody won.
That’s a simple example. It’s easy to imagine a celebrity teaming with a company to pitch a product even if the pitch is a series of 10-minute videos instead of a 30-second television ad.
But people wouldn’t be talking about influencer marketing you wouldn’t be at a website called the Influencer Marketing Hub reading about it, either if it didn’t have a much broader set of applications. And the key is in that word, influencer.