Arguably one of the funniest send-ups of product placement came in Mike Myers’s 1992 slacker comedy Wayne’s World.
In the scene, Wayne rails against consumerism and selling out while simultaneously breaking the fourth wall to shill Pepsi, Reebok, Doritos and Pizza Hut to the viewer. After he takes a swig of Pepsi, Wayne looks right into the camera and repeats the brand’s famous line “The choice of a new generation”.
Marketing has always been obsessed with the ‘new generation’. Brands are, for obvious reasons, keen to ingratiate themselves with young, trend-conscious consumers. The pressure Pepsi felt to be the “choice of a new generation” is the same pressure that has created the so-called ‘influencer economy’.
The influencer economy is now a legitimate way for people to become independent entrepreneurs.
The idea of a person with influence certainly isn’t a new one. People with influence have long held the power to push products into the mainstream. Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October, for instance, got a huge boost when President Ronald Reagan recommended it during a televised press conference.
What’s changed is that social media has transformed the once select pantheon of influencer into a rather broad church. Today, an influencer could just as easily be a cherubic teenager armed with an iPhone as the leader of the free world.
And ‘influencing’ is now a day job. “As a whole, the influencer economy is now a legitimate way for people to become independent entrepreneurs,” says Nicola Millington, director of FP Comms, a marketing firm focused on growth-stage businesses. “It has become its own individual industry.”
As the industry has grown, an inevitable backlash has ensued. Digiday created a storm when it interviewed an anonymous social media exec about the influencer phenomenon. Brands were paying too much for ineffectual work, the exec said, before warning: “Influencers are going to start disappearing. Brands are going to start realising the number of followers you have doesn’t mean shit.”
The Digiday piece led the journalist Sam Biddle to quip: “The Influencer Economy isn’t an economy, it’s a market irrationality.”
It begs the question: is influencer marketing in fact bullshit? Well, yes if you do it wrong, says Millington. The influencer economy, like any industry, has its share of shysters and charlatans. “When I’m looking for an influencer, I don’t look at quantities of followers. You can buy followers. So the measurement can’t be that.
The Influencer Economy isn’t an economy, it’s a market irrationality.
“We have to see how the interaction takes place between their followers and the post. If an influencer has 1.6m followers but a post only gets ten likes, you know that their interaction levels and relationship with their followers are not authentic.
“What you need to pay for is interaction.”
Nick Cooke, co-founder of the Goat Agency, a social media influencer agency, agrees. “You should be looking at proper metrics. Like how many average engagements are they getting, how many average impressions are they delivering, how much actual power do they have when they include a link in their description. These are the hard metrics that will drive proper sales.”
The most engagement I’ve gotten was from a stylist with around a 1,000 followers.
It’s an experience mirrored by Jane Cooper, founder of the Dorset-based jewellery brand Hex Cavelli. She’s started to shy away from influencers with an abundance of followers after a recent negative experience with a popular social media figure. “She just wasn’t very nice about it and I didn’t get much for it. I just don’t trust people that much anymore.”
Last week, she gained a few followers when her rings were worn by Hamed Nikpay, a major Iranian celebrity, on that country’s equivalent of the X Factor. But her biggest success, she says, has been working with a more niche influencer. “The most engagement I’ve gotten was from a stylist with around a 1,000 followers, but someone who people were actually listening to. He’s been fantastic and humble, always tagging my brand.”
Similarly, the e-cigarette brand Ecigwizard has found success by favouring authenticity over quantity of followers. “We often do our research into influencers to see if they have an interest in vaping,” says Ecigwizard’s director Oliver Warburton. “We are quite a niche market so ensuring that all posts are genuine is vital. It is very transparent when it is not.”
With larger influencers, establishing a commercial relationship can be complex: something akin to obtaining a celebrity spokesperson. “How many hours of ass-kissing does it take to yield a single link? Way too many,” says Brian Morris, president of Content Comet.
On the other hand, smaller, targeted influencers require far less bureaucracy. “I just messaged my guy on Instagram and then we went for coffee,” says Cooper. “He’s never asked for anything; I’ve only lent him some of my jewellery. It’s been a really positive experience.”
Millington counsels that brands should be wary of influencers with a mercenary attitude. “There’s definitely a power in using influencers to raise brand awareness,” she says. “Especially when you find influencers and bloggers who are more consistent with their content and are actually following their passion and not just pursuing a paycheque. There’s a distinct difference.”
Some influencers will ask for payment, though. The cost, says Goat Agency’s Cooke, depends on the platform and the vertical. “So with YouTube you pay a lot more, but people are more likely to click and convert. Same with Snapchat and video in general. Twitter and Facebook you can pay not very much for an enormous page. Instagram, again, is very expensive.
“Most influencers will have a rate card almost. They’re becoming more and more professional.”