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  • Bob Knight

New Data: Has Influencer Marketing Jumped The Shark?

An influencer tries out a new pair of sneakers

In recent months, there's been talk in marketing circles on whether the age of the influencer has passed its peak. Open your Instagram or YouTube Apps and chances are, you'll quickly find influencers promoting everything from makeup to power tools in your feed. Using influencers to rep products and services is one of the hottest marketing trends in recent memory, but some think the practice has fallen from grace due to glaring inauthenticity--and in many cases, fraud.

"It’s hard to remember a time when scrolling through Instagram was anything but a thoroughly exhausting experience. Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard."

The Changing Media Landscape

To understand why influencers have become such an important piece of the marketing mix, one must understand the changing media landscape. In 2005, television and radio were the leading mass-media platforms that commanded large audiences. Marketers could easily reach their target consumers by placing ads on popular shows, or pay to have a radio personality endorse their product (anyone remember Metabolife 356?). But things changed rapidly when consumer attention shifted to social media platforms.

By 2010, consumer audiences were increasingly fragmented across a multitude of new social platforms and marketers followed closely behind. TV networks had built large audiences by airing compelling programming, but now, individuals could command large audiences themselves (followers) by posting their own compelling content to social feeds (a gorgeous sunset at an amazing resort, a dinner at a hot new restaurant, or a how-to piece on lawn care). Marketers were quickly allocating budgets to influencers who could help them reach large, targeted audiences (remember Ellen taking the Samsung selfie at the Oscars?)

Ellen's Samsung selfie

Influencing is big business. Millennials are 67% more likely to buy a product or service recommended by influencers, and are much more likely than older generations to do so, according to O'Dwyers. (Case in point, nearly half have admitted to already purchasing a product because of an influencer, compared to about 30% of Gen-Xers and Boomers.

Influencers Behaving Badly

On paper--er, on Instagram, influencing seems like just another form of product placement, a highly-regulated practice that's been successful on other media platforms for years. In reality, some recent influencer abuses have tarnished the practice of influencer marketing.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the influencer hangover has arrived and marketers are demanding accountability!

Marketers are doing their homework, using AI-enabled platforms to keep a sharp eye on influencer campaigns. These platforms have unearthed a rash of influencer fraud including so-called "influencers" gaming the system by paying thousands to bot farms to boost followers, costing companies millions of dollars in influencer fraud. There's also bad behavior being questioned including countless stories of influencers breaking the law to get a perfect shot, individuals demanding luxurious vacations in exchange for a few Instagram posts, or some influencers literally dying for attention. And, there's the recent story of Olivia Jade Giannulli, the social media influencer and 19-year old daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, who lost brand deals as a result of the highly-publicized college admissions scandal.

Recently, regulators have joined the marketing industry in taking a closer look at social media influencers. A growing chorus of stakeholders are calling on Washington to regulate influencers, just like government agencies already do for other forms of advertising and product placement. These basic consumer protections are needed in the ever expanding digital world.

The Numbers Don't Lie, Even if Some Influencers Do

With two-thirds of millennials more likely to purchase products or services because of influencers, and nearly half already confirming purchases, it's strong evidence that influencers are here to stay. Perhaps the short-lived "golden age of influencing" has passed, where anything goes (and went). Perhaps it's time for a sobering dose of regulation. But remember, according to the data, influencers are a preferred method of marketing for millennials, the largest generation in our nation's history.

So, have influencers jumped the shark? No. The industry is normalizing and influencers should be part of the overall marketing mix of brands.

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