Influencer marketing: studies claim to prove ROI but beware of celebrities

Recent research makes a strong case for building in influencer marketing activity into the marketing mix, says Carla Burgess, client director, Cream.

PewDiePie: the YouTube star has worked with a number of brands
PewDiePie: the YouTube star has worked with a number of brands

The theoretical argument for influencer marketing has always been strong – people trust recommendations from real people significantly more than they trust advertising and promotion from brands. But marketers are being driven to be ever more pragmatic beasts, and theoretical is no good without some hard proof of return on investment. That's why it's significant that two recent studies appear to provide just that.

The first comes from the US digital advertising solutions specialist Rhythm One. The company found that average earned media value for every dollar spent on influencer marketing programmes was $9.60 – a 960% return on investment. This was 1.4 times higher than recorded in H1 2015, when the RoI was a ‘meagre’ 685%.

A much higher ROI

Rhythm One’s research did find wide variances across sectors, though. For example, every $1 spent on influencer marketing returned $12.54 in the "Tourism Destinations & Travel" sector, $12.21 in the "Bath, Body and Beauty" and a still creditable $4.50 in "Retailers & Apparel". Only activity in the "Electronics" sector delivered less than 100% ROI ($0.48 per $1 spent).

These results echo our experience of influencer marketing. Our campaigns have delivered much higher impressions and dwell times than equivalent digital drives using traditional approaches. And comparing similar campaigns this year and last, dwell times in particular have taken a big leap – reflecting Rhythm One’s findings when comparing H1 2015 with the same period this year.

Of course, proof of high returns on earned media value and high levels of engagement are one thing – an argument that the PR sector has been making for years to justify its existence – but it’s not necessarily going to convince the CFO. However, another study recently reported by social media consultancy Convince and Convert claims that influencer marketing can generate online sales, but offline ones too.

The subject of the study was Silk Almond Milk, a premium FMCG brand that engaged 258 fitness and food influencers to create content for the brand’s ‘Meatless Mondays’ initiative. This content was also amplified on those influencers social channels, albeit only organically.

The results, which were tracked by Nielsen Catalina Solutions, demonstrated the effectiveness of the programme. Those households exposed to influencer marketing purchased 10% more products than the control group. In addition, the return on investment of the blog posts alone (not including social promotion) was 11 times the ROI of banner ads after 12 months.

These results are impressive and it should be noted they don’t include the 1.2 million additional impressions the campaign content accumulated post the Nielsen study – double the impressions generated during the campaign period – nor the money saved by the fact that the influencers shouldered the costs of creating the campaign themselves.

The ‘glut’ of content being created and the difficulties of cutting through it, the emergence of ad blocking and the struggle to achieve any sort of organic reach on channels such as Facebook and Instagram – these are all trends that make it even more likely that marketers will lean on influencers to get their message across in the future. But there’s one last wrinkle for those of you who are motivated to invest, or invest more, in influencer marketing as a result of reading this.

Bigger is not always better

There’s evidence that "celebrity bloggers" are starting to lose their appeal – most notably from a recent study from Markerly, who found that influencers with larger followings on Instagram generated less engagement per post than those who had smaller followings.

That’s not a reason to abandon your recently acquired zeal for influencer marketing, but it is a reason to think carefully about your approach. As mentioned before, people trust the recommendations of "real people" more than they do of brands, and it looks like the celebrity bloggers are perceived to have crossed the rubicon from being real people making genuine recommendations to celebrities who’ll endorse anything for money.

This means anyone planning an influencer campaign might be best relying on numerous "everyday experts" than blowing all their budget on one "uber influencer". The marketers at Silk Almond Milk clearly took this approach – hence their decision to engage over 200 influencers.

This changing landscape has no doubt made influencer campaigns more complex and time consuming than in the past, but the evidence strongly suggests that the rewards are well worth all that effort.

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