Drawing on the largest ever study into influencer Instagram ad posts (over 100,000 posts and 185,000,000 interactions), Influencer Marketing, A Journey looks at the brands using influencers, the impact, the shortfalls and where we as marketers go from here to ensure the long-term validity of the influencer industry. Here, its author Edward Kitchingman, social strategist and We Are Social alumni, explains his finding in three clear stages.

The Beginning
Influencer marketing stemmed from media fragmentation and audience selectivity. This led to social media creating stars from everyday people, those who could offer up authenticity in a world of distrust, through their content. To their followers they are authentic and trustworthy, they inspire them to try new things. Reacting to the dual challenge of media fragmentation and ad-blocking and observing the power of influencer-follower relationships, brands began to co-opt this influence to create a billion-dollar industry.

The Explosion
Soon, brands as varied as Pepsi and American Express were using social influencers. Of the 115 brands tracked, over half were using influencers as often as every month in 2017. The study found that, despite the incursion of celebrities, reality TV stars and publications into their territory, it is still the social media influencer that drives the highest engagement. Such was their strength that traditionally low interest categories like finance were not a barrier to audience engagement.

Micro-influencers were also the predominant influencer type used for all categories, apart from finance, aided by a perceived greater authenticity and relatively low cost.

There were, however, a number of challenges facing the industry.

The explosion in influencers and influencer marketing has been built on trust. For the audience, it is that the influencers they follow are honest and authentic. For brands, it is that the followers the influencer has are authentic and engaged. However, many high-profile influencers have gone from authenticity to commodity and followers have gone from being part of a community to being potential customers.

As a commodity, the authenticity that the audience first identified with has been shed. The result is a decline in engagement. The study found that 65% of influencers with followers of more than 1m have an engagement of less than 2% for their ad posts. Endorsement-irrelevancy, built from short-termism, has resulted in influencers being stuck in a repeated algorithmic hell of sponsored content, being seen by fewer people because of previous unengaging sponsored content.

Influence as a currency for advertising has increased the need to be seen as influential. The more followers influencers have, the more reach they can claim and the more money they can earn. The problem is that you no longer need to build it, you can buy it; as the New York Times discovered, people are buying followers to look influential to society and brands alike.

We are at a crossroads. Trust of both the audiences and the brand is being abused, while our newsfeed is being over-saturated by partnerships because brands cannot see an alternative to the current status quo.

New World, New Rules
To solve these challenges, we need new rules for a new world, where we:

  • Select influencers because of the nature of their audience, not by how many followers they have
  • Replace short-term sponsored saturation with long-term influencer association
  • Have partnerships built on an authentic connection with the creativity of the influencer and passion of the audience
  • Move beyond likes and comments to look at the value for the business
  • Make influencer marketing an integrated part of the advertising mix, not an afterthought

To see the full research, you can view the Slideshare here.