Influencer marketing: investment plans to 'seismic' scams... brands and agencies reveal priorities

With the maturing of social media as a marketing platform, influencers have come into their own as a way to reach clearly defined audiences. But how do PR practitioners see the future of this still-controversial channel?

©GettyImages
©GettyImages

What do agencies, brands, consumers and influencers themselves think about influencer marketing as we enter 2020?

The Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) and PRWeek commissioned research into the issue, which was carried out by 4media in November 2019. We summarise the main findings in January's print edition of PRWeek UK, and all the articles will be published on our website over the coming days.

First, we outline the results of two surveys of senior agency and in-house PR professionals.

Resources

There’s clearly, and not surprisingly, an expectation that more resources will be focused on influencer marketing as the decade unfolds.

Of the agency respondents, 72 per cent expect to at least maintain their current spend on influencer marketing in 2020. Ten per cent expect to increase their investment by much more, and 38 per cent by a little more, while 24 per cent expect no change.

MSL UK chief executive Chris McCafferty is ambitious. "I’m predicting more than doubling our influencer investment, already from a high base," he says. "Demand from clients continues to grow, plus we’re doing more and more integrated work with agencies across the Publicis Groupe that look to us for influencer expertise."

Ketchum’s director of strategic integration, Jessica Rowntree, takes a slightly different line: "It’s not about investing more, it’s about investing smarter. We already have an established influencer marketing team and a proposition which is being well used by and delivering strong results for clients, as well as revenue for the business.

"What we’re investing in is time, to evaluate our partners, proposition and point of view to reflect the changing influencer market landscape – what worked in 2018/19 won’t necessarily work in 2020 and beyond."

The remaining 28 per cent of agency respondents won’t be investing in influencer marketing. We are still some way off the genre being an area of focus across all PR agencies.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent of agencies say they have added an influencer division or practice area in the past five years.

For in-house respondents, the picture is more nuanced. While more expect to spend significant sums on influencer activity, for a minority that spend more than half of their budgets with social- media stars, there’s a reluctance to maintain this level of investment.

The proportion that spent nothing on influencer marketing in 2019 was 23 per cent; just 13 per cent expect that to be the case in 2020.

It’s likely many of these will dip their toes in the water with relatively modest investments – 48 per cent expect to spend between one and 10 per cent on influencers in 2020, compared to 39 per cent who did so in 2019.

Twenty per cent spent more than half of their marketing budget on influencers in 2019 (including 10 per cent who spent more than 75 per cent). In contrast, just three per cent expect to do so in 2020 – no respondents expect the proportion to exceed 75 per cent this year.

Davnet Doran, head of brand PR at Britvic, says the soft-drink company’s influencer budget has "massively increased year on year", although the proportion remains"conservative" compared to its spend on "classic reach-driving media".

"It has and will continue to be pertinent for brands new to the market... for example where there is particular relevance to an influencer’s followers’ interests, because of the product benefits (eg no sugar, calories or sweeteners)," she says.

Asked how much of their budget they expect to spend on influencer marketing five years from now, there’s little consensus. The highest proportion remains one to 10 per cent, chosen by 39 per cent of respondents, while 10 per cent envisage more than half their budget going on influencers.

With influencer marketing evolving rapidly, perhaps few brands want to give bold predictions on investment levels so far ahead. There are also some unresolved questions. Asked how she expects the investment to change in 2020 and over the next five years, Doran alludes to the perennial question of measurement.

"Our investment will keep increasing in line with the measurement becoming more sophisticated," she explains. "Marketers continue to be focused on the objectives they need to meet. Reach – true reach – as a KPI is relatively straightforward to capture in this space, but rarely the single objective when it comes to influence.

"The reason we’re using influencers more and more is because we can ensure relevance to an audience via a trusted, real person."

For Doran, the biggest shift for Britvic will be "moving from one-off spikes of activity to a steady pulse as a result of long-term relationships".

"Along with the great story-based content – whatever that may be – we will occasionally intro- duce ways to directly encourage action, with clear trial or purchase mechanics. Evidence of this working, and greater rigour around the results more broadly, will unlock significantly increased budgets over the next five years."

The right match

When deciding which influencer to work with, the responses from agencies point to a move towards targeted engagement over reach and cost.

Asked to rank their top five reasons, relevance to the target market was most popular, followed by quality of their content, follower numbers, price, and evidence of previous collaborations.

"All of those elements matter, but none is ‘the’ single answer and there are other factors like tone of voice and appropriate fit for the brand," says McCafferty. "If we want people to believe in brands and the content we create, choosing the best influencers to work with is as much about a great collaborative relationship as it is about the numbers."

Rowntree agrees, arguing that the reasons above are "worth considering" but "can be a distraction". "It comes down to the job to be done. Why are they right for the brand and the task? What do you want their content to achieve and what’s their track record in doing that with the audience you want?"

The Romans director Lucy McGettigan warns: "Don’t get duped by vanity metrics. Instead, the question to ask is, does this individual actually influence the audience I want to reach? Sounds basic, but it’s amazing how often you see an #ad #spon post from an influencer with a huge following attracting virtually zero engagement."

Price is becoming less of a barrier, as long as the agency or brand is confident they will be getting value for money.

Henry Elliss, senior online strategist at Good Relations, says: "We’re finding it more and more important to know what [the influencers] are like to work with – how they respond to briefs, the creativity they add, what the team behind them is like to work with. If all those things are right, price should be the final hurdle – or, more specifically, cost-effectiveness given their potential."

Agency vs in-house

Answers to another question suggest there’s a big opportunity for agencies to handle more influencer work on behalf of clients. A significant majority – 61 per cent – of in-house respondents said they handle this activity themselves (19 per cent via a specialist influencer marketing department).

Twenty-six per cent conduct the work in collaboration with an agency or agencies. Just 10 per cent let agencies handle all the activity.

Doran praises Britvic’s agency partners and says the decision is the "personal choice of the brand managers". But in general, she doesn’t expect more influencer activity to move agency-side soon.

"We’ve spent the last year undertaking a series of ‘test and learns’ and what’s certain is there is no silver bullet and there is no circumventing the human ‘discovery’ time required. Really understanding who they are, who their tribe is, how often they are in ‘sell mode’, how rich the engagement is – that can’t really be cut short and, as a result, I suspect more of the management will come in-house in the future... assuming there’s sufficient PR support in place.

"To me it makes practical sense as the brand managers live and breathe the world of their products, know when a partnership is right and emotionally, both client and influencer can enjoy the riches of the relationship when it’s meaningful, direct and authentic."

At luxury hotels operator Dorchester Collection, influencer relations are managed in-house by the comms team. "We are proud to have built long-standing relationships with many creative minds from the digital world which, over the years, have enabled us to curate authentic, high-quality editorial content designed to enhance our guests’ experience," says the company’s global communications manager, Annalisa Maestri.

She cites the business’ recent #DCmoments Food Guides. These were a collaboration with James Thompson, photographer and owner of the Food_Feels Instagram account, giving guests a ‘gourmet journey’ around five major cities.

Fergus Campbell, head of comms at Gumtree, says: "As a relatively lean internal marcomms team, we predominantly rely on agencies to help with recruitment and execution of influencer activity. However on the PR side we tend to find ‘less is more’, in the sense that those influencers with smaller but more targeted and nuanced audiences provide greater resonance and reward."

Fraud fears

There’s little doubt that the issue of fraudulent influencers – those who buy followers or engage- ment, for example – is a key concern. Of the in- house respondents, 64 per cent consider the problem either "profoundly" or "quite" serious. For agencies, the figure is even higher: 90 per cent.

"It’s a big deal," says McCafferty. "Anything that undermines the fundamentals of belief in what a brand says and does is a huge problem."

McGettigan says influencer "scams" are becoming "a seismic issue for uninitiated brands", and agencies "need to be more hands-on than ever when signing partners". "Be blind to large follower figures and check what interactions you see on a post-by-post basis," she advises.

Similarly, Maestri views fraudulent influencers as "a major problem". "Their impact is widespread and prolific, and undermines the social-media ecosystem in its entirety. The production of misleading content by fraudulent influencers constitutes a problem for guests who may feel alienated from an illusionary community of false advertisement. Influencer fraud can also be detrimental to a brand’s reputation. Businesses risk investing re- sources in the wrong community and accounts."

Doran believes it’s a "real problem", but is more sanguine. "Consumers are smart and can sniff out bulls****ers a mile away," she argues. "I also believe when brands spend with fraudulent influencers, it’s either laziness, stupidity or not getting the right advice: there are ways to (fairly easily) review, assess and reject influencers who’ve got thousands of fake followers so there’s no real reason to engage them. Unless, of course, a brand is blinded by follower reach as the only metric. Again – not smart."

Elliss takes a similar view: "Anyone who’s fooled by inflated audience figures and fake engagements is likely to be looking for a quick-win solution rather than a genuine strategic partnership."

Both in-house and agency respondents were generally unimpressed with efforts by social- media platforms to crack down on fraudulent influencer activity. Asked to rate their effective- ness on a scale of one to five, with one being "not effective at all", very few gave a rating above three, and a significant minority answered ‘one’ (agency: 12 per cent; in-house: 26 per cent).

"Is there a crackdown?" asks Doran, pointedly. "The ASA work in demanding and enforcing use of #ad is now commonplace and brands uphold this, but social-media platforms aren’t making massive strides forward [on the] fraudulent followers front, to my knowledge.

"Twitter’s ‘purge’ on locked accounts saw a significant number of followers drop away (including about seven million from its own @Twitter) but it’s a drop in the ocean. Given the dire straits of the platforms being used for appalling or illegal purposes (terrorism, abuse, self-harm, bullying, misinformation) I think the corporate world can pick up the slack on the fraudulent influencer front when it comes to the FMCG side of things. I know where I’d rather the social-media platforms focused their efforts."

Rowntree describes the crackdown as "woeful – not fast or effective enough".

"It’s up to [social-media platforms] to spot and address fraudulent behaviour as it happens – news of wrongly or rashly blocked accounts is far easier to defend than apologising later for inaction."

Influencers themselves also have a responsibility to "protect the quality and value of their audiences", she argues, while platform users" need to exert our power more effectively" to demand "truth and transparency".

McGettigan urges: "The platforms need to continue to educate brands and agencies on dishonest practices, while simultaneously removing the problem accounts. Instagram, in particular, needs to be more transparent about how wide- spread the issue is."

However, the most common effectiveness score was a more positive three out of five (in-house: 32 per cent, agency: 47 per cent). This suggests there has been recognition in some quarters of recent attempts by platforms to target fraudsters.

McCafferty concludes: "The platforms are getting better and bringing the issue into the spot- light, but it’s not just a platform issue. Brands, agencies, influencers and audiences all have a role to play. Ultimately influence will eat itself without honesty and integrity."

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