Laura Petrolino

Spin Sucks Question: The Future of Influencer Relations

By: Laura Petrolino | January 17, 2020 | 
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#SpinSucksQuestion: The Future of Influencer RelationsLet’s talk about influencer relations.

It’s making all the headlines lately (in some not so great ways).

Earlier in the week, Casper listed “social media influencers” as a potential risk to investors. And several weeks ago there was the scandal around reality TV stars who auditioned to represent an energy drink that was actually poison.

Hashtag oops. 

Not to mention the outrageous sums of money single posts provide some influencers. 

For example. Tell me how much you think Selena Gomez was paid for this post?

Influencer Relations in 2020

$800,000.

$800,000!

So for this week’s #SpinSucksQuestion, we asked our Community what the future of influencer relations is and what needs to happen for it to save itself moving into the next decade. 

What Happened to the OG Influencers?

First, take a trip down memory lane with me for a moment.

Do you remember (and some of you might be too young for this relic) a time when instead of paying money for influencers we….wait for it….encouraged employees and customers to tell their stories?

In fact, these were the FIRST influencers. 

As Ryan Hanser suggests:

What about (re)discovering the influence of employee and customer voices? Surely we can all do that in 2020.

Ok, so let’s dig into that a bit. Employees first.

Does employee advocacy even matter in 2020? 

Employees Yield Power 

In fact…it does. 

The reach of company-branded messages increases 561% when shared by employees versus the organization’s own channels.

And not only are your employees better than your company when it comes to promoting messages, but they are also actually better than other influencers. 

Leads developed through employee social marketing convert seven times more frequently than other leads.

<drops mic>

Plus most employees already post about the company on social media (or at least half of them do), so it might be smart to actually encourage and guide them to do so in a way that best supports the organization’s goals (while remaining authentic). 

Customer Influencers

Moving on to customers.

Why the heck have we forgotten customers?

You know, those great people who actually use and love your product and service.

And the win-win of customer-based advocacy is not only does it bring new people into your business, but it also improves the retention rate (and often purchase rate) of those customer advocates because they suddenly feel part of your organization. 

Erika Heald explains:

Companies who are doing it right will be harnessing the influence of their biggest brand advocates instead of throwing money at an influencer who has an audience but isn’t familiar with the product already.

But here are some more stats for you in case you still need convincing:

But customer advocacy programs take consistent work and care at every part of the customer journey.

Influencer marketing can seem more appealing to some because it’s bright and shiny and many treat it as a much less relationship-based exchange…

WHICH BRINGS ME TO THE PROBLEM.

What’s the Goal of Influencer Marketing?

Influencer marketing beyond employee and customer advocates does have a place.

But in order for it to survive into the next decade, we need some ground rules. 

Rule #1: Know the Goal

And make sure it’s clear to all parties involved.

Ozan Toptas very eloquently outlines this part of the problem in influencer marketing. We get so excited about “the influencer,” we kind of forget about the goal:

I think there are a few issues that we misunderstand about so-called influencer marketing.

It is about the influence and not the influencer. We are trying to change the behavior of a group of people. The influencer is just a channel to reach those people. We are confusing activity with the goal and the output with the outcome.

It is a long game and we are trying to play like a short game. We are trying to leverage the influencer’s relationship with her fans without actually getting into a relationship with the influencer. A post for a bundle of money will not do any good for anyone involved. Play the long game.

Katie Robbert wants brands to start asking, “what is the purpose of an influencer for our brand, and do we have the right person?

Heather Feimster agrees, “Influencer marketing has been that new, bright and shiny toy that everyone thinks they can pick up and do well so easily. But it’s more like that Skip-It toy where the people who practice and know what they’re doing make it look easy!” 

(Don’t tell Heather, but I’m actually really good at the Skip-It.)

And Mary Barber wants us to start acting like professionals. You know, people who do things for strategic and goal-focused reasons, not just because it’s fun to have David Beckham represent your brand (and cost you $300,000):

Influencers relations need to be more targeted and strategic. We need to understand what we are doing and why, not just making noise. The way some are doing it right now is just spraying people with chatter.  

In some ways, high profile influence grabs are like the new front page of The New York Times. Big on ego. Small on results. 

So in order to give your influencer campaign structure and focus THERE NEEDS TO BE A CLEAR GOAL. 

Rule # 2: Do Your Research

So many issues in our industry boil down to us trying to take the easy way out and not do the research needed.

I call this “magic diet pill syndrome.”

This is true in failed media relations (hello spray and pray pitching) and it’s true in failed influencer relations. 

Devynne Honsa says that’s where major changes needs to start:

Influencer relations can only sustain itself if it becomes a more standardized practice, with more emphasis on ethics and authenticity on both sides of an influencer contract. As public relations and marketing professionals, it is our responsibility to do the necessary research and vetting of influencers to maximize profit with minimal risk; whether that risk be financial- or reputation-based.

Most of these influencer scandals occur when one or both parties fail to do the necessary research to ensure that the partnership is authentic and worthwhile. Some influencers will take any paid opportunity they can, regardless of the product; on the flip side, some PR professionals will offer any influencer a contract, regardless of the target demographic or reputation of the influencer. In these circumstances, influencer relations is measured in forms of quantity, whereas it should be measured in quality. If we as PR professionals increase the quality of our research and choose responsible and reputable influencers that fit our target demographic and brand identity, we lower the risk associated with influencer relations and make it a more standardized practice.

Ellen Borza provides some starter questions for brands to ask when interviewing potential influencers: 

  • What do their engagement metrics look like? Are their followers actually engaging with their content?
  • Do they do one-off campaigns or do they partner with brands for the long-term?
  • Do they follow FTC regulations?

She adds: “When you pitch an influencer or their agency, pay attention to how they like to do work. If they have no interest in testing your product, they probably don’t care about honesty and transparency with their followers. If they offer a quick turnaround time, or don’t ask for free product samples, those should be warning signs that that is not the right partner for your brand.”

Rule #3: Can I Get a Measurement Amen! 

We need to measure what we do.

And “brand awareness” doesn’t count. 

Can we all agree in 2020 that we will collectively stop making “awareness” as a goal for anything? 

We try to do everything with awareness.

We “create” it, we “amplify” it, we even “spread” it…as if it’s jam.

The one thing we can’t really do is measure it.

So let’s spread jam on toast and make this the year we don’t consider it a goal. 

Influencer awareness is no different. Christopher Penn agrees:

Influencer relations needs to measure beyond awareness. Awareness is great. If you have no awareness, nothing else matters. But everything in influencer marketing measurement tends to stop there. What’s the business impact of the influencer campaign? Unsurprisingly, few companies and even fewer agencies are willing to invest in the serious measurement (and measurement costs) needed to measure impact properly, from complex attribution models to always-on surveying.

Kim Ring is the optimist the room who thinks marketers are going to become more focused on measurement and less on follower count:

You’ll see more marketers make influencers use dedicated, trackable links to measure conversions and monitor traffic coming from posts. I also think marketers will start to be more aware of influencer tricks—influencer hives, comment hijacking, and more.

We all hope you’re right Kim.

And maybe the Instagram shift to not emphasizing post likes will force us to evaluate influence in a more thoughtful way. 

Rule #4: How We Find Influencers Needs to Change

In the next decade of influencer marketing, we need to improve how we discover and select influencers. 

This is a major problem that needs to be solved.

For something that has become such a gamechanger and liability (in reputation and cost) for brands, our systems to identify and rank influencers are archaic. 

In full transparency, I had several influencer software companies contribute insight to this topic, but I decided to not include any of them in this article.

Some of their thoughts were worthwhile and useful and some, well some spoke to the problem.

I figured it was better to not include any than seem like we were endorsing a company since that’s not the intent of this post.

Anyway, back to the search for influencers. 

Christopher Penn explains: 

Influencer identification algorithms need to skill up. Currently, most of the tools use fairly terrible, relatively easy to game measures like followers or engagement rates. I can buy an overseas bot network and mechanically boost my engagement numbers like crazy, but still have no actual business impact. More complex, statistical algorithms and blended measures are the only way this will improve, and of the many influencer agencies and software companies I’ve talked to, almost none are doing this well.

Third, influencer analysis has fallen far behind general analytics and identification. No one uses techniques like topic modeling, emotion and tone analysis, etc. to vet influencers against the brands they want to work with. That’s a shame, because the tools exist to do so, like IBM’s Watson Personality Insights. Map your influencer’s content against your brand’s content and see if they have complementary personalities. Model specific topics to identify how much that influencer talks about the topic you care about.

What if the Roles Were Reversed?

So what if instead of us picking them, influencers had interviews with us, like employees looking for a job? 

Sharlys Leszczuk thinks the roles need to be reversed:

I think roles need to be reversed and influencers need to pitch brands to feature on their pages—like applying for a job. I think it should be a more formal, standardized RFP process (a format that certainly exists, but is not as prominent) that encourages a paper trail and agreement terms from the beginning.

I also think that companies need to be more educated about influencers and stop paying ridiculous sums of money to people they found based on search algorithms that can be easily tricked. I have on several occasions gotten a price quote from influencers and said, “That’s absurd,” to which they respond and cut their prices by 50% or more .

Ad budget pockets for influencers are way too deep and brands are being exploited by the community. 

Or Maybe We Create Influencer Farms?

Or “influencer incubators” sounds much savvier.

They are all the rage in China…and as odd as it sounds, just might work. 

You can read more about them here.

Rule #5: Make Them Like Employees

We need some stricter and more enforceable contracts. 

Some even wonder if we should be making influencers more like employees. 

Nikola Baldikov thinks so:

One of the biggest challenges when working with influencers is that businesses are not hiring them as direct employees, but rather as a type of contractor. This means businesses have less direct oversight over influencers’ behavior and conduct outside of the specific contractual obligations for promoting a certain product. This is most challenging with short term engagements. In other words, if a business works with someone for a short period of time, anything beyond that period is outside the scope of their relationship, and therefore outside of a business’s influence.

I think going forward businesses will begin to prefer longer-term engagements that give them more leverage over the influencer’s overall conduct. I also foresee a strengthening of language around “codes of conduct”, which will better outline the business’s expectations on how the influencer conducts themselves overall. This moves influencer relations closer to a more traditional spokesman but is a natural way for businesses to better mitigate risks

Rule #6: Hey, Let’s Do Something Crazy…Like Form Relationships

Can we focus on relationships already?

Sarah Donawerth has some shocking news for you. Are you ready?

Influencer relations need to be relational. 

Imagine that? Right? 

You should never be plucking popular influencers off of Instagram and expecting them to know your brand and promote it well. That is a recipe for disaster. Working with influencers who have already purchased from your brand, or who are familiar with the product is the best way to avoid scandals. The influencer should already be able to honestly and genuinely recommend the product before you ever propose a collaboration.

Huh…sounds sort of like…wait for it. CUSTOMERS.

Weird, right?

I like to call these folks super-customers and talk about them in my UGC manifesto.

Sarah’s company believes in this “radical” (sarcasm font) approach so much they only pair influencers up with brands they have prior relationships with. “We know how valuable these relationships are to creating influencer campaigns that actually succeed.”

Rebecca Dersh believes the future of influencer marketing is in influencer relations.

The shift to genuine long-term relationships, rather than brands working with social influencers just once or twice and then moving on. These long-term relationships will help establish authenticity and legitimacy.

It’ll be increasingly important for brands to select the right social influencers and then working with them more regularly. Marketing and PR teams are developing new tactics to generate influence, whether through long-term partnerships, identifying micro and nano influencers early on, or even building their own advocates from staff members and genuine fans.

As brands become more selective, social influencers will also reduce the number of brands they work with once these long-term partnership opportunities–and consistent revenue streams–become more available to them. Social influencers will also be more involved in the development process for these partnerships, in order to ensure authenticity.

And that circles us all the way back to the beginning of this post when we talked about the power of customer testimonials. 

Rules for Engagement

So to recap, here are the rules our community of experts pulled together:

  1. Set clear goals that both influencers and organizations understand. 
  2. Do your research about influencers and campaigns. 
  3. Measure stuff that matters and make sure your influencers understand what you are measuring and why (refer to #1).
  4. Re-evaluate how we find influencers. 
  5. Influencer relations should be about relationships. 

While these rules seem simple, they aren’t necessarily that clear cut in action.

Rebuild the System

Have you ever been in a city built for a certain type of transit or commute pattern (and a certain amount of people)?

But as it grew, its road system didn’t evolve with it.

And then all the sudden BOOM. It’s a disaster.

And one that seems impossible to untangle. 

I think influencer relations has reached that point.

It started one way, but the power, tactics, and way we use it have changed dramatically.

Unfortunately, how we go about recruiting, engaging, and using influencers needs to change.

So now our influencer transit system is about to explode.

Cars accidents and traffic jams everywhere.

Trucks turned over.

Trains going off the tracks.

Riots on highways.

This leads to the question: In order to implement the rules for effective influencer relations in the new decade we need to redesign our roadways?

Do you recommend influencer relations? Why or why not?

Share your comments below.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.