What are the five biggest challenges in influencer marketing this year and how do we solve them?

That was the question that Mark Karlan, director of digital marketing for Prestige Brands, and I were tasked to solve at the iMedia Brand Summit last week in Amelia Island, Florida. Luckily, we were joined in the discussion by some of the brightest minds in the digital marketing space, including executives from Turner, Verizon, Kahala, Caesars Palace, MGM Resorts, Campari, Half Price Books, Wahoo Fitness, Adobe, The Hershey Company, Waterworks, Boston Celtics, California Bank and Trust, CORT Furniture, and Glanbia Performance Nutrition.

Our collective task was to come up with an influencer marketing attack plan for 2017 that provides best practice solutions to the biggest challenges facing marketers today.

After our breakout session, we selected our top five. Then Mark and I shared the findings with all conference attendees in a follow-up presentation. We polled the audience to see how the challenges ranked. The results:

 

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Authenticity

Authenticity — or lack thereof — is clearly an issue many brands are facing. The greatest value in word of mouth is that you are receiving an unbiased recommendation from someone you trust.

If the messenger is getting paid, does the trust break down?

That really depends on the messenger you select.

There was an overwhelming agreement among the group that the days of celebrity influencers are waning in exchange for endorsement coming from mid-tier and micro-influencers who have more believable and relevant connections to brands. In other words, they actually buy and use the products and services they are endorsing. Go figure.

Paul Her-Sturm, director of optimization from MGM, addressed the challenge of authenticity, noting that he likes to find people who are already passionate about his brand.

Alvin Glay, director of digital marketing at Wahoo Fitness, a tech-fitness company, chimed in and told one of the most fascinating stories of the session. Wahoo started an ambassador program made up of 20,000 current customers who Wahoo lovingly refers to as Wahooligans. It’s an invaluable database of advocates who spread the love of the brand in social media, and Wahoo loves them right back in the form of perks and swag.

 

Identification

If the most effective way to establish true influencer authenticity is finding the right influencers and advocates to represent your brand, how exactly do you find and analyze these potential messengers at scale?

To begin, the team consensus is that the industry needs to move from interns to technology. Sorry, interns — your time is better spent elsewhere anyway. Manual labor just does not scale. If we are going to be serious about this new medium, technology is necessary. The good news is that there are many amazing tools already available.

The first critical tool is for search. For example, the right tech partner can access a database of more than five million influencers and, within seconds, help you identify those that fit your specific criteria. With all the focus turning to micro- and mid-tier influencers, this means finding incredible people in the haystack that you would not ordinarily be able to manually locate.

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And don’t stop at the demographics and psychographics of the influencers themselves. Take the next step to look at the profile and interests of their followers. Within seconds you can access the data below on a potential influencer’s audience. You can also get this data on your own brand and cross-reference to find the overlap.

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Content/storytelling

Another core challenge brands are having is arguably the most fun part: the creative execution. What are you asking your influencers to do?

Great influencer marketing tells compelling people-first stories while simultaneously weaving a product’s features and benefits into the dialogue. It’s pull vs. push.

The group agreed that celebrity influencers are coming up short on both authenticity and creativity. More and more social celebrities (influencers with reach more than 1 million) are creating content that connects with their own followers, but are failing to communicate the brand’s message. It’s a delicate balance, but there is a middle ground that works effectively.

By working with the micro (reach of roughly 10,000) and mid-tier (reach in the hundreds of thousands), brands have more control and can communicate the stories that they like at significantly more reasonable costs.

Stacey Olson, senior director of digital and brand creative at Caesar’s, said that she likes to tell compelling stories that allow her to differentiate her brands from the competition and proceeded to talk about unique experiences that she could tell only through influencers, such as revealing the backdoor entrance to an exclusive cigar room.

Allyson Bradley, vice president of marketing, and Tina West, media director, at Half Price Books, recognized that influencer marketing could be a terrific way to build foot traffic in its 120 stores. Its customers are drawn to Half Price’s grassroots bookstore culture that delivers such special jewels as original local Super Bowl banners. Half Price represents community and local culture, which gives it a ripe opportunity to tap ambassadors who can tell authentic stories that resonate with local followers.

Doyle Brown, director of marketing at Catelli Foods, mentioned that his brand works with chefs to tell stories while using Catelli products. Recipes and snack hacks are a sure way to create compelling content that gets shared across many social channels while sharing a CPG’s brand story in an authentic and actionable way.

 

Regulations/moderation

The legal regulations surrounding influencer marketing were also discussed at length. Performance clearly goes down with #ad or #sponsored. While this is true, Ann Gilligan, director of marketing at Waterworks, and Karlan acknowledged that transparency is necessary. For starters, it’s legally required, and it’s also the best way to develop long-term trust with your customers. Phil Burrows, digital business operations strategy manager at Verizon, indicated that brands are using alternatives to #ad and #sponsored such as “in partnership with.”

FTC regulations don’t say that a brand must use any specific language; however, it does require that the disclaimer language is clear and conspicuous. In other words, it needs to be easy to understand and highly visible. For example, #ad cannot be buried in a 200-word post.

As for moderation, it’s important that the posts are approved before going out. Dave Karraker, vice president of marketing and communications at Campari, mentioned that the brand rejected 60 percent of the posts in a Skyy Vodka ugly sweater promotion.

Technology is critical to allow for easy moderation. The ability to have images sent to one spot so you or your managed service can scroll up and down to sample creative is a massive time and cost saver, particularly when you have numerous influencers.

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Measurement

And, finally there is the all-important measurement of the campaign.

How do you know your influencer marketing is working?

Clearly, the ultimate form of measurement is immediate sales. This can be tracked via a bit.ly link and a pixel. What if, however, the influencer does not sell significant product immediately? Was the campaign a failure?

The group consensus was that there is a lot more value to campaigns beyond immediate, direct response results. You cannot, however, measure the additional value with just one metric. While you can lean in one direction, it’s important to look at a more holistic picture.

Some of the team preferred CPE as the key KPI. While I agree with the importance of engagement, recent testing of my own social as well as our campaigns makes me a stronger believer in spending the time to reach the right audience with the right message, and I lean toward CPM.

Richard Linthicum, senior manager of interactive at Glanbia Performance Nutrition, feels that brand lift is the most important metric and that buyers sometimes dismiss it in favor of more immediate stats that are visibly available without outside research. In the absence of additional research budget, we really need to trust our gut.

I would tend to agree as we’ve seen influencer marketing compare incredibly well against traditional digital in driving intent to purchase. In a 2016 study, Nielsen’s Catalina Solutions found influencer marketing to drive 11 times more ROI than traditional forms of digital marketing.

While many companies in and out of the conference are using interns to collect KPI data, technology that pulls all results into one dashboard can be incredibly helpful in saving time and getting a much better grasp on return.

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There is no question that measuring everything from potential influencer reach to immediate sales is critical to getting a strong grasp on this space. In the end, however, if you are going to begin to invest more in influencer marketing, you need to believe that good stories, well told about your brand by people who are influential to your current and prospective customers, are going to move product.

 

For more detail on the challenges in influencer marketing and how to solve them this year, visit www.2017AttackPlan.com.