Opinion: Influencer marketing is a $10 billion placebo
The disease that marketers are trying to cure is the collapse in consumer trust. Trust is the bedrock of consumer relationships with brands. Yet, only 54% of American consumers say they trust businesses in general, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. Trust in the media is in open freefall. As for trust in ads, just 38 percent of consumers (surveyed across eight countries, including the U.S.), say they trust advertising to get information about brands and services, according to Kantar’s most recent Trust Score study. And trust in government? Don’t ask.
As this crisis in consumer confidence unfolded, marketers rightfully sought greater authenticity in their content and communications. They understandably strove to build meaningful relationships with consumers by building on the perceived trust between consumers and the celebrities, YouTube stars and influencers that they follow on social media.
Unfortunately, what we call “influencer marketing”—an industry that grew to nearly $10 billion in 2020, according to Influencer Marketing Hub (and could grow to almost $14 billion this year)—doesn’t actually build trust, because influencers command attention, not intention. Despite being famous, influencers generate extremely low engagement. In fact, on Instagram, the larger a user’s follower-count, the lower their engagement rate, according to analytics firm InfluencerDB.
At People First Marketing, where part of our marketing practice is focused on working with political campaigns—including Biden-Harris and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action—we see the contrast between real people and the A-list in stark terms such as voter registrations. It is better to be victorious than famous.
Popularity and persuasion are inherently different. Any politician knows that celebrities and influencers don’t actually persuade voters. Consumers are not actually swayed by the A-list, because A-listers are not actually real to them. Unlike a consumer’s concentric circles of community, celebrities fall outside of their followers’ in-group, because their lives are not actually like ours—they are ‘other.’
Even worse, their followers aren’t even real like, say, mannequins at a giant store. A quarter to a half of celebrities’ Instagram followers are fake, according to influencer marketing firm Modash. You may have loved Ariana Grande’s album “Positions” featuring the hit “34+35,” but if you are looking to have the Queen of Instagram do a sponsored post for you, be aware that an estimated 26% of her audience are bots (through no fault of hers).
Also, successful marketing relies on frequency and consistency of message, but most influencers post episodically—or, in many cases, just once on behalf of a brand. Charli D’Amelio, my son’s favorite TikTok star, reportedly charges upwards of $100,000 per post to reach her 107 million followers. However, the result of such a sponsored post is an ephemeral spike in buzz, not sustained word-of-mouth. A placebo.
What’s more, working with influencers is often slow. In late 2020, my team was part of a project in which it took 78 days to negotiate the participation of talent for a single Instagram video. By the time the terms of the partnership were agreed to, the discourse on the issue had shifted materially. Tomorrow is never like yesterday given the relentlessness of the internet. The discourse is always shifting, and agents and talent are often not agile.
All that said, the instinct to forge deeper, more trusting relationships with consumers is correct. Celebrities and A-list influencers just aren’t the right way.
My team has been finding that real people—customers, employees, neighbors, faith leaders, friends, community leaders—are a brand’s best storytellers. In Q4 of 2020 alone we sourced and distributed more than 15,000 of these digital stories on behalf of the Biden-Harris and Ossoff-Warnock campaigns in Georgia, as well as many other brand and issue campaigns. In analyzing this data, we found that real people—in specific categories such as nurses, teachers, essential workers, truck drivers and dads—garnered an overall 305% higher click-through rate (CTR) and a 1600% higher engagement rate on Facebook than traditional influencers. In fact, the CTRs were higher in every campaign we measured.
Rather than market top-down messages distributed through a handful of influencers and celebrities, we believe that brands should source and distribute hundreds, if not thousands, of digital narratives on a rolling basis. Of course, participants need to be carefully selected to match the identities, affinities and geographies of a given brand’s target customers and prospects. But if done right, this type of peer-to-peer content is invariably more personal, emotional and local than traditional influencer or brand content. And, since these real people are genuine members of the community, when they make an endorsement, it is processed as a personal recommendation, not an ad. It’s about old-fashioned word-of-mouth all linking back to the same spot online, all owned by the brand, always-on.
Since the discourse is always changing, the stream of peer-to-peer content needs to always be evolving, with new “trusted messengers” filling the funnel. These programs are also informed by actually listening to the messages that consumers already believe, already trust, in order to arm trusted messengers with trusted messages. Community members know what their followers want far better than brands. The people are always more creative. Humility wins marketing today.
The entire practice is called people-to-peer marketing, and it was borrowed from politics for brands. Peer-to-peer is, of course, a computer term. Yes, this is a different way of thinking about marketing. But it is one that finally puts the people first. In an industry sick with broken trust and fragmenting relationships, it’s necessary medicine.
Power to the people—the real people—not the influencers and celebrities.