Is Influencer Marketing Worth The Investment?
Last month, fashion influencer Marissa Casey Fuchs (@fashionambitionist) told her nearly 200,000 Instagram followers that she was going on an adventure: an elaborate international scavenger hunt set up by her boyfriend with a marriage proposal waiting at the end.
A report in The Atlantic later revealed that it was scripted by the hour and pitched in a highly detailed deck that offered brands “the opportunity to align with this momentous occasion” by promoting restaurants, clothes, jewelry and hotels in her posts documenting the adventure. As The Atlantic’s piece made its rounds on social media, outlets slammed Fuchs’s branded engagement as a “cynical publicity stunt” and “just another example of the insidiousness of influencer culture.”
At a time when an increasing number of brands are dedicating more of their budgets to influencer marketing, the Fuchs case raises a question: is influencer marketing worth the investment? For Akshaya Sreenivasan, a social media marketing expert at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, that answer is a wholehearted “yes.”
“Influencer marketing is extremely powerful. We live in a generation where we are constantly seeking external validation,” Sreenivasan said. “If that validation comes from someone important or someone who seems knowledgeable in that general area, we are ready to dive in.”
Selling a lifestyle
Put simply, influencer marketing is a partnership between a celebrity or social media user who has a well-established social media following and a high level of trust within a niche community to promote products on their feeds.
Influencers on social media sites like Instagram go to great lengths to cultivate their personal brand and an aesthetic, which creates an opportunity for brands to tether their products to in order to sell something, generate awareness or disrupt a market. Compensation for an influencer’s efforts takes the form of a paycheck, free merchandise or both, depending on the value of an influencer’s audience to a particular brand.
It isn’t known from The Atlantic piece if any of the brands that the branded engagement was pitched to actually bought in, but a marketer who heard the pitch said “I think it’s completely insane, but very of the moment we’re living in now” to sell an important moment in life to the highest bidders. But to Sreenivasan, it makes sense from brand and influencer perspectives.
“Unlike the ‘60s and ‘70s, where people were told, ‘this is it, this is the only product that you need to survive,’ products and brands these days are not directly asking you to buy them. They are giving you a lifestyle,” she said.
Sreenivasan said she feels comfortable endorsing influencer marketing because product endorsements can take on many different forms. For instance, they don’t need to be subversive campaigns from mid-level influencers like Fuchs. They can be high-dollar collaborations with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, whose partnership with Flat Tummy Co. reportedly nets her as much as $200,000 per post to her audience of more than 143 million Instagram followers. Where the Kardashian partnership was used to give legitimacy and raise awareness of a relatively unknown product, influencer campaigns from established brands could launch as a grassroots effort to increase brand loyalty, like French cosmetics company Lancôme did in its partnership with YouTube makeup tutorial vlogger Michelle Phan in the mid-2000s, long before she had 8.8 million subscribers.
“There’s a market for influencers who are telling others to buy something because they are able to narrate what is important and not important, Sreenivasan said. “It’s coming from somebody who they can relate to.”
A good influencer campaign can yield a high return on investment by creating new, dedicated fans of a product. Data compiled by the Digital Marketing Institute shows that 49 percent of consumers depend on influencer recommendations, influencer marketing campaigns earn $6.50 for every dollar spent and 74 percent of people trust social networks to guide their purchasing decisions.
‘It’s not going away’
While there is plenty of upside for brands, a poorly executed or researched campaign can subject itself to scandal by associating itself with the wrong influencer.
“You’re taking the risk because you don’t know how it’s going to work,” Sreenivasan said.
For example, if an influencer were to say or do something inappropriate online or in real life, it could reflect poorly on the brand that associated with an influencer. Inversely, if a brand was the target of a major scandal, then it could reflect poorly on the influencer and lose credibility with their audience.
Even then, Sreenivasan says some fans of an influencer might not notice they’re being marketed to because sponsored content disclaimers have been so well integrated into the mobile platforms of some social media websites like Instagram and Pinterest. If executed properly, brands and influencers can collaborate to promote products and services without appearing to be heavy-handed.
“Ask yourself: are you looking for awareness, purchase or market disruption,” Sreenivasan said. “Big brands don’t have to go through big celebrity endorsements because they already have name recognition. It depends on the product, who is the market, what’s the brand’s objective.”
When analyzing the risks and benefits of influencer marketing to her students, Sreenivasan said the landscape is changing so quickly that if a professor took the time to develop a textbook to compliment a course it would be obsolete by the time the students opened it. She says the same is true for brands navigating influencer marketing: there is no blueprint for success, only your best judgement.
“It’s not going away, so the sooner you learn about it the better,” Sreenivasan said.