Influencer fraud dominated the headlines in 2018 – never more so than when Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed announced in June that the company would make a conscious effort to improve the integrity of influencer campaigns. He urged the wider industry to help "rebuild trust" in the sector by rejecting fake followers, leading to a deluge of brands pledging to avoid social media accounts with inflated stats and criticism of influencers who didn't signpost paid promotions.
In many ways, his comments encapsulate the current state of influencer marketing. There are challenges to be addressed, but also great opportunities – and that’s something more and more companies are recognising. Instagram itself has responded, recently announcing that it is cracking down on accounts using third-party apps to enhance followers and engagement.
In the past year, brands and marketers have also tried to approach more accurate measurements of impact. Although influencer marketing remains top of the funnel, attempts at understanding and triangulating its effectiveness in various ways can deliver insight that helps justify deeper commitments to the activity.
All of these developments are signs that influencers are becoming validated as a serious part of the marketing mix and the coming year will see the sector approach maturity. So what can we expect from influencer marketing in 2019? Here are the three key trends to consider.
From who to how
2018 was all about brands learning who to work with, but in 2019 the focus will be on how to activate them.
When it comes to working with influencers, there are currently three types of marketer:
• Those who aren’t doing it at all (a category that is becoming smaller and smaller)
• Those who are working with influencers in order to tick a marketing box, but aren’t doing it in a very interesting way (this is the majority of brands today)
• Those that are really pushing the envelope and coming up with creative ways to collaborate with creators
Over the coming year, more and more marketers will realise that they need to be in the latter category. As businesses begin partnering a mix of influencers and putting more marketing budget into this, a good brief that extracts the most creative interpretation will become increasingly important. Even the biggest critics of influencer marketing do not necessarily believe that it is a bad way to market products, just that most brands are currently doing it badly. There is a need for it to be done more elegantly, in a less superficial way.
Brands that learn to activate influencers in interesting ways will cut through the noise and win over consumers who are becoming increasingly frustrated by soulless product features.
Up until now, there hasn’t been much pressure on Instagram to regulate accounts using fake followers and engagement; this responsibility has been placed on brands, agencies, influencers and audiences.
With the authenticity of influencers under the spotlight in recent months, Instagram seems to have realised that it can be a driving force in improving the industry. The platform understands that its core contributors are starting to rely on revenue from sponsored content. Mounting defences against inorganic activity will make brands feel more comfortable working with creators again and restore trust in the influencer marketing sector. Ensuring quality and accuracy of influencer marketing campaigns improves the user experience and ultimately Instagram’s usage, retention and growth, so we’re likely to see the platform acknowledge this fact and take steps to address it over the coming year.
Following the backlash in 2018 around influencers not disclosing paid partnerships and the industry-wide demand for greater transparency, the use of "#ad" will also see acceptance as a form of regulation. Consumers today are aware of sponsored content and are not opposed to these types of posts as long they are clearly labelled (and are quality content). Both brands and influencers have got the hint that audiences are pretty discerning about dishonesty and this will continue to encourage effective regulation without the need for policing.
Capturing ‘indie’ brands
An overarching trend over the past several years has been independent brands challenging big FMCG companies – just look at the craft brewing and cosmetics categories. Influencers have been riding this wave for a while, using their existing audience and talent for marketing themselves as a leg up to become entrepreneurs. Next year will see more and more influencers launching their own brands and we will see them begin to take over the indie brand space. Eventually, I believe they will be able to capture this whole sector, ushering in an era of "marketing first, product second".
Traditionally, the model has been to launch a brand, then use marketing to promote it. Influencers are flipping that model on its head – they amass an audience first, then they just need an idea and potentially a manufacturer, shortcutting both marketing and retailers and creating a direct link to consumers. They are more than just the face of the brand, they are the brand – an attractive concept for a generation of consumers who care deeply about the values of the companies they support and are more selective than ever about the brands they choose to align themselves with.
So 2019 will be the year influencer marketing and its stars start to be taken seriously. The rapidly growing industry has been surrounded by scepticism, critique and its fair share of growing pains since the start, but it’s here to stay. Social media is tipping the power from brands to creators and, next year, it’s about time we start realising it.
Solberg Audunsson is co-founder and chief executive of influencer marketing platform Takumi