Influencer marketing was more prominent, more scrutinized, and at times more controversial than ever in 2018, thanks in part to privacy transgressions and other problems that dogged Facebook and other platforms. But as 2019 comes into view, brands and agencies in the business of influencer marketing must focus on several key trends if they want to succeed in a fast-evolving sector:
Facebook face-planted much of 2018, Google’s YouTube had its own privacy problems, Twitter spent the year killing off an endless supply of fake accounts, and Snapchat veered uncomfortably close to running out of cash and street credit.
But amid that mayhem, influencer marketing continued to spread, the number of campaigns using influencers doubling in just a year, according to statistics from CreatorIQ, a data company that tracks campaigns involving about 5 million creators worldwide.
Nowhere did that growth hit more vigorously than on Facebook subsidiary Instagram, which was part of 93 percent of all influencer campaigns last year. That’s about double the rate of Facebook and Youtube, which were roughly tied as second-most popular influencer-marketing platforms, said CreatorIQ COO Tim Savoy.
And celebrities are driving connection on Instagram in a big way. Just look at the top 10 new Instagram videos in November, according to Pex, a Los Angeles-based B2B firm focused on rights management and analytics.
Kylie Jenner, Cardi B and Lele Pons each had two of the month’s ten most popular new videos on Instagram, each attracting millions of likes and tens of thousands of comments, according to Pex. Ellen DeGeneres and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had two more.
And Jenner didn’t miss the chance to pimp her own brand of cosmetics, even to her own infant child, in the month’s No. 1 video. Jenner is nothing if not a marketing machine, her video attracting 36 million views in the month (it’s now up to 42 million), along with 7.7 million likes and 149,000 comments, according to Pex.
But Instagram also benefits by being Not Facebook, in many ways, even as it also benefits from Facebook’s money and network of 2.2 billion users.
For one, many people put off by Facebook’s endless string of recent scandals seem to perceive that Instagram neither collects nor misuses as much personal data. Add in Instagram’s snackable photos and brief videos, and the company’s savvy attention to its creators’ needs (as compared to Snap’s active antipathy), and you can see why Instagram is the place to be for brands and influencers these days.
Just one of the tools
As brands and agencies become more at ease with influencer marketing, they’re getting more sophisticated at integrating influencers into their broader digital campaigns, said Steve Ellis, CEO of WhoSay.com that Viacom bought a year ago.
“You really need to look at it as a creative extension to match up with your ideas as an advertiser,” said Ellis, who is also Viacom’s EVP of ad strategy and business development.
That means you can’t give an influencer a crummy idea, or even poor-quality content, and expect them to redeem it with their audience.
“It’s more about the idea,” Ellis said. “The talent are part of the idea. Talent can’t make a bad idea good. People don’t have to pay attention to your bad idea.”
Just as importantly, however, influencer marketing is about more than handing out an asset and telling an influencer to flog it to their fans.
“If you’re basing the performance of your spend on the organic fan follower counts of talent and hoping for consistent ROI, you’re not doing influencer marketing the right way,” Ellis said. “Look at it as a creative execution, leveraging the talents and their creative skills to match with your idea or your message as an advertiser.”
Instead, WhoSay “early on got involved deeply in premium creative assets because we watch them perform better,” Ellis said. And on the back end, rather than relying on the vagaries of organic reach, tie those assets to paid advertising, cross promotion on other media and other marketing initiatives.
No 2018 trend got more attention than the rise of the micro influencer and then, the nano influencer, very roughly defined as someone with a few thousand followers in a well-defined sector. Fees are less, the talent more pliable, and if one of them does something stupid, it won’t metastasize into a brand-damaging P.R. debacle.
Plenty of big names are still signing big deals, but the market has shifted in a short time, said CreatorIQ’s Savoy. In just the past year, the following of an average influencer in a deal dropped by half, to 500,000. It’s a sign not so much of the rise of nano influencers but of the use of a far broader range of influencers.
“Now there’s an opportunity to build an influencer network across thousands,” said Neil Patil, Chief Commercial Officer for Tubular Labs, which tracks 5 billion videos and 13 million creators on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. ”In the next few years, our predictions are that that’s really where the new war is, in the culmination of these influencer networks.”
Tracking the output and performance of a network of hundreds or even thousands of influencers is far more complicated than tracking a few big names. And it’s even more complex when you’re also tracking your competition and your industry as a whole.
“You can’t create a network unless you know how it may compare to your other competitors, how your brand is being represented,” Patil said. “So that depth of knowledge is causing brands to say, ‘These are the people I’m going to work with.’ But it’s no longer what we’ve seen in the past, like, ‘There’s my list of 10 (influencers) right now.’ (More recently), ‘It’s my list of 1,000,’ and now we’re seeing, ‘It’s my list of 10,000.’”
As companies and agencies become more adept at influencer marketing, they’ve also begun looking for longer-term relationships. Many influencers want that too, if it fits their own personal brand and the audience they’ve built over years.
“This way, influencers can convey a consistent message and grow their audience with the brand as opposed to one-off sponsorships,” said Michelle Merino, a Los Angeles influencer-marketing consultant. “Lately, I’ve experienced an increase in brand requests for influencers to co-brand new product lines or introduce new brands altogether by being the face of the company.”
Nordstrom partnered with Arielle Charnas to launch her fashion line Something Navy, which proved so popular it crashed the site in the first hour after it launched, Merino said. Health-Ade Kombucha partnered with health and fitness duo Tone-It-Up for a popular co-branded flavor, Bubbly Rosé.
Such deals, which look a lot like more traditional celebrity endorsements, can mean more security and continuity for influencers, but also more scrutiny and strings.
“In most cases, these type of deals are far more complex, with rigorous exclusivity terms, equity or rev share compensation models, and rely heavily on influencer authenticity,” Merino said.
Reaching beyond reach
Follower fraud became a major concern in 2018, moving beyond 2017’s concerns about state actors manipulating elections to concerns that some influencers were manipulating follower counts to extract higher brand fees.
Several responses helped blunt those concerns.
First, the platforms spent much of 2018 rooting out and killing off untold millions of fake accounts.
Second, brands such as Unilever committed to never do business with people who bought fake followers.
Third, data companies got better at flagging potential problem influencers. CreatorIQ flags influencers with an unusual number of followers from unexpected countries; whether they had unexpected shifts in follower counts; and whether their posts receive a typical level of engagement.
Influencers also began sharing more of their first-party data, so brands could be assured how many people actually saw a post, and reacted to it.
“Because it’s first party, you know the idea of true reach or true engagement rate has really become more accessible to brands and brand marketers,” said CreatorIQ’s Nate Harris. “That is finally putting influencer marketing at parity with other digital marketing channels that have been measurable to their true merits from the very beginning.”
Brands also are relying far less on pure reach as a metric. It’s essentially a leftover of TV’s CPM measurement, counting total possible viewers who might have seen a post. More brands and agencies now know to rely on more sophisticated metrics, such as cost-per-engagement, that can be tied more directly to their return on investment.
That shift is surely a sign of the increasing sophistication of influencer marketing at the highest levels. Expect that trend to accelerate in 2019.