Digital influencer marketing is becoming a blunt instrument

Reliable measures of return on investment have always been one of the biggest challenges of marketing and PR. It is now more than 100 years since US marketing man John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half”. Many would argue that it is even harder to quantify for PR.

The latest buzz is influencer marketing i.e. paying individuals with a high reach and strong network on social channels to promote a brand. It is seen as a proven strategy, adopted by an ever-rising number of brands. More than 60 percent of brands are already doing it, and the number is expected to rise to 75 percent by the end of 2017, according to a Forbes article by Tracey Harrington McCoy, chief operating officer, MtoM Consulting.

However, Instagrammers, Bloggers, YouTubers with a profile that’s attractive for brands are charging ever more for their services, and as rates go too high and RoI is difficult to prove, there is increasing skepticism in the industry. Influencer marketing is already seen by many as a blunt instrument, and without better research, better objective setting and realistic expectations as to its effectiveness, it will become less and less relevant.

Ingredients for effective influencer marketing

Here are some of the key questions that need to be answered in order to make it work:

  • Where does influencer marketing sit in the PESO model of paid, earned, shared and owned media?
  • What is the right balance between reach, relevance and resonance of an individual to deliver value as an influencer?
  • How can data and analytics help create more impact?

The importance of digital influencers in PR is part of a wider industry trend toward integration and consolidation of social and digital channels; data-driven micro-engagement; and storytelling across multiple channels.

As customer journeys are becoming more complex, from initial awareness to social discovery, toward purchase consideration, experience with the product or services, and ultimately sharing a positive or negative experience; communicators and marketers will seek to identify and groom influencers who will become loyal advocates as emotional bonds form.

Organic social influence

This, however, is not the model of the paid influential promoter, but rather the organic social influencer. In the PESO model, it is earned plus shared media, rather than paid plus shared media. It is influence that is based on trust and proximity, rather than reach, publicity and celebrity.

Learning from political marketing

The surprising outcomes of the UK’s EU Referendum in June 2016, and the US Presidential Elections in November 2016 have both – at least, in part – been attributed to the smart and innovative use of data analytics. Individuals were profiled based on their publicly visible digital footprint, and then political messaging was generated to target individuals according to their specific psychological profiles.

Nobody really knows how decisive the ‘data crunchers’ were. What experts agree on is the fact that bought reach through paid promoters, or influencers is less impactful, than organic reach within a community or network of likeminded individuals.

Influence should, therefore, be understood as a human and social phenomenon. To be real, it has to be earned – hence its link to earned media. Experts often reference the 3 Rs of influence: reach, relevance and resonance.

In setting up a Behavioral Insights Research Centre (BRIC), with the declared “mission …to conduct research on the factors that influence attitude and behavioral change to enable effective communication”, The Institute for Public Relations has taken a significant step to make behavioral analytics a centerpiece of public relations research.

Helping PR professionals “understand how and why people think and behave the way they do”, as Professor Melissa D. Dodd, research fellow at BRIC (and conference director at this week’s International Public Relations Research Conference in Orlando) put it in an IPR blog post, is crucial at a time when fake news and a loss of trust in facts undermine established models and old certainties.

The business journalist and publishing strategist Adam Tinworth calls this the ‘asymmetric information warfare‘ between the fact-based rational journalism of the mainstream media, and the narrative-based emotional approach of political movements and their (mainly) social media proponents. Arron Banks, major donor of the Vote Leave campaign, understood this better than most. The day after the Brexit vote, he told journalists: “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

Neuroscience and psychology provide some context: the older parts of the brain that regulate instinctive behavior (‘to survive in the wild’) trigger reactions that favor known over unknown, and in-group over out-group. The newer parts of the brain, where cognition and rational thinking and decision-making are regulated, will usually finish second in a straight race between emotions and facts. As neuroscientist Marc Lewis put it in a Guardian article: “Nobody is innocent when it comes to brain wiring”.

The importance of consistent and systematic research

To get closer to the drivers of decision-making, and to factor in both rational and instinctive processes, we have modified the concept of the 3 Rs, and are now tracking and analysing influence based on the below mentioned five dimensions. This is a Big Data approach in the sense that you need to collect large amounts of data over a certain period of time in order to zoom in on specific communities in specific contexts, to identify and profile the main influential voices in a network. Combining the data from these dimensions then provides some comprehensive insights. Most of the time, the key influencers will not just be exceptional against one or two dimensions, but their real impact comes from the cumulative strength across all five dimensions.

Applying the 90-9-1 model

Online behavior is usually categorized into a majority of passive users, a minority of engaged sharers, and an even smaller minority of active content creators. This is known as the 90-9-1 model.

Influencer research is the basis for successful social engagement as it helps to understand what drives and motivates these groups:

  • What content are the ‘lurkers’, the 90 percent, consuming and searching for?
  • What is it that the contributors, the nine percent, share and like?
  • What is it that the creators, the one percent, write? Who are they connected to? Who influences them, and whom do they influence in turn?

Understood and applied in this way, digital influencer management is very different from paying individuals for reach. It is a research and data-led approach that takes into account the context of messages and authors at every step of a customer journey, or a voter’s decision-making process.

To hail the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US Presidential elections as the spectacular successes of a particular application of data-driven ‘psychographic’ profiling might be somewhat premature. The New York Times recently published a balanced review of the evidence (“Data Firm Says ‘Secret Sauce’ Aided Trump; Many Scoff“).

What they have certainly achieved is a renewed focus on the individual as the target of communications, as opposed to an abstract audience. Successful and sustainable influencer marketing will therefore increasingly draw on behavioral sciences, psychology and ethnography for an ever deeper understanding of what makes humans tick.

Thomas Stoeckle is the Head of Strategic Business Development at LexisNexis Business Insight Solutions in London. He is the Associate Chair of the IPR Measurement Commission. Follow him on Twitter @thomasstoeckle1.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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