Marketing

Seriously #questionable: Why influencer marketing is so 1950

Fi Bendall /

It’s easy for brands to get caught up in the hype about influencers, but who is it exactly you are trying to influence? And will they necessarily listen to an influencer’s message about your business or brand?

Influencer marketing is very big right now in social media marketing. It makes some sense, as brands continue to work out the best means to use social media to connect with markets and potential consumers. Influencer marketing is commonly touted as a means to growing a brand’s word-of-mouth marketing.

But can it really deliver? At its base, influencer marketing is essentially celebrity endorsement-style advertising. What we like to call influencer marketing has existed since at least the 1950s when it was pioneered by the likes of golfer Arnold Palmer.

The legendary American golfer used his sporting success as a vehicle for businesses to get their brands in front of the cashed-up men who were taking to US golf courses in huge numbers in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Palmer endorsed everything from sporting equipment to brokerage services and much more.

As the New York Times said, Palmer was “a ubiquitous pitchman for more than a half-century, he hawked nearly 50 products and services, from Johnston & Murphy shoes to Ketel One vodka, transforming the celebrity endorsement from a novelty to an industry”.

Influencer marketing extends the idea of celebrity to almost anyone with a few thousand followers on a social media platform: we’re all Arnold Palmer now. But being an ‘insta-star’ does not necessarily equate to having an influence on consumer preferences. Having more followers is also no guarantee of reach or influence.

For businesses looking to grow word-of-mouth among consumers, influencer marketing is best regarded as another form of advertising. You are paying someone (sometimes a lot) to pitch your product to a specific audience (often with fuzzy metrics). The idea of authenticity and engagement with consumers when you pursue this course is mostly a mirage, and one that is disappearing faster and faster, as consumers become ever more savvy to the way influencers work.

Paradoxically, as influencers become more like celebrities, they also become less trusted by consumers, and less able to deliver on authentic reach and engagement. It’s true among less sophisticated audiences, influencers can still exert some degree of sway over consumers. But for sophisticated and social media savvy consumers, there is little about influencer marketing that is influential or engaging.

The reason for this is influencer marketing is essentially an old broadcast, top-down model of advertising transposed onto digital media and the online world. It continues to deposit the crucial currency of trust in the supposed authority of the influencer rather than in the engaged conversations and relationships of consumers. Trust is no longer passed along a vertical axis from high to low — trust is dispersed horizontally across networks.

Driving word-of-mouth marketing for your brand is about finding the right in-points and conduits for your message to spread and grow among networks. It’s about knowing who it is you want to talk to and then finding the people who have real influence and engagement within those networks. It’s about convincing those effective opinion leaders your brand is one they can vouch for to friends and family. It’s about relationships, not promotions.

Influencer marketing won’t disappear overnight It’s an advertising template that makes sense to a lot of people because it is basically a carryover from the pre-digital age. But it’s not a true digital solution. As such, it is not a truly fit-for-purpose marketing strategy for any brand or business that wants authentic engagement and consumer reach in the digital, online and social age.

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

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