Early in 2009, Marcelo Tas was hired by a multinational telecommunications company to tweet now and then about its services. No big deal, you’re likely thinking. Yet when the popular Brazilian television host first used his Twitter feed to recommend Telefonica’s new fibre-optic internet and TV service, all hell broke loose. Fans of his show accused him of selling out. Journalists puzzled over what he was up to. One media site went so far as to mock congratulate him for finding a legal way to scam a multinational corporation.
Amid the kerfuffle, a Wall Street Journal reporter sent Tas an email that included this sentence: “I think you’re the first person in the world to be paid to tweet.” The scribe, of course, had pinpointed the significance of the Brazilian’s post. For decades, brands had traded on the renown and reputations of celebrity endorsers in print, radio and television advertising. With one tweet, Tas and Telefonica not only migrated this longstanding form of advertising to the nascent yet burgeoning world of social media, but also brought into being a new species of marketer—influencers.
Influencers are people paid to promote certain products and services to their social-media followings. These new persuaders have built their followings because they have established credibility in a specific activity or industry—be it food, fashion, pets, travel, fitness, beauty, or pretty much any mass consumer market. Since it takes two to tango, companies pay influencers to approve their brands, support their products and even co-create content. For each Instagram post, the going rate for many established influencers is $100 for every 10,000 followers. Would-be influencers, meanwhile, try out the wares of different brands and share their opinions in the hope of burnishing their reputations, building their followings, being recruited by marketing agencies, then translating their newfound status into income.
When the entire transaction works as planned, influencers persuade their groups of followers to think and act in specific ways, and buy in even more precise manners. And therein lies the difference between a traditional celebrity endorser and this new kind: most social-media influencers shape the thinking and behaviour of their followings directly because of their credible connection to or deep knowledge of particular consumer industries. Their authority for luxury watches, for instance, stems from their immersion in this market and not from a sublime ability to hit an inside-out forehand or backhand slice shot.
The stakes in this fast-maturing industry are piling up. Forecasters predict that by 2020 the new persuaders will rake in at least $5 billion and as much as $10 billion annually. Much of that money will be made through Instagram. Sponsored posts on this platform garnered some one billion likes in 2017. And all those digital hearts encouraged brands to spend an estimated $1.6 billion on Instagram influencer marketing in 2018.
This photo- and video-sharing platform has become the savvy influencer’s medium of choice because, as essayist Susan Sontag wrote back in 1977, photographs certify experience better than any other communications medium. Consumers have become equally sharp. They have come to expect deeper interactions with influencers and the brands they represent. As a result, for shrewd influencers and brands, quick wins are now passé, sheer speed and raw numbers now peripheral. Steady relationships are en vogue, authenticity is the new currency, trust the ultimate goal.
Steady relationships stem primarily from consistency. Consistent communication is computed using three measures: time, value and character. Consistency in time is communication that is regular for the brand, influencer and therefore the influencer’s followers. Consistency in value is communication that is relevant to the brand, influencer and the influencer’s followers. And consistency in character is communication that is true to the brand and influencer, and therefore attractive to the influencer’s followers.
Authenticity emerges mostly out of attention. The most effective and sought-after influencers are those who interact with their followers—answering their questions, listening to their concerns and responding to their expressions of affection.
Yet authenticity is a questionable trait to bring to any aspect of marketing, let alone the world of social-media influencers. The love of a mother for her newborn is authentic. The joy a little girl or boy feels on Christmas morning is authentic. The thrill an influencer on Instagram gets from staying at a luxury resort isn’t authentic. No such emotion is authentic when it arises from a commercial transaction between a brand and influencer. There’s nothing wrong with these deals, but we should recognize them for what they are and not raise them to a level where they don’t belong.
Brands can navigate the paradox of influencer authenticity by showcasing earnest authenticity. Earnest authenticity is the recognition that no commercial relationship can be described as purely, humanly authentic. Equipped with this knowledge, brands can seek out and nurture relationships with influencers who have attitudes and audiences that correspond with their partner brands. This clearheaded knowledge also enables brands to work closely with likeminded influencers to create campaigns that have precise targets for followers, clear goals for brands and meaningful payments for influencers.
For many brands now, the actual expression of earnest authenticity takes three forms. Steadily more brands are recruiting their own employees and customers as influencers. Others are relying on microinfluencers and even nanoinfluencers, whose relatively low numbers of followers run counter to expectation, giving these persuaders the patina of authenticity. (Logic suggests that picoinfluencers will appear next on the scene.) Still other brands are soft selling by co-creating content with influencers that entices followers subtly, gradually. The sincere and serious nature of earnest authenticity—this is who I am and this is what I’m selling—has the added attraction of being the opposite of much of the snark, sneering and sarcasm that marks most online communications.
In taking these approaches, upstart brands eschew high-volume, high-priced influencer stars who push brands at their followers and instead enlist low-cost, no-drama earnest influencers who, as CBC content marketing director Robin Neufeld puts it, pull followers toward brands. The effort takes time and patience, but brands are bargaining on the payoff being deeper and more lasting for followers, influencers and, of course, for brands themselves.