Influencer marketing: has the bubble burst?
This article was first published here on Travel Blather where there is a terrific discussion unfolding in the comments – go take a look.
Influencer marketing, aka blogger outreach – it’s the debate that keeps on giving.
My title comes from a recent comment about Phil Lee’s decision to stop financing blog trips during his time at Tourism Victoria; one among many in what seems like a wider pushback about the value of influencer marketing.
Phil’s is a common beef. ‘Influence’ gauged by “a number in the millions followed by a measure unique to a social media platform… A reach the size of a medium-sized nation-state.” Despite the astronomical numbers, he notes that“it’s rare to see a solid measure of effectiveness like sales, arrivals or even something vague but measurable like brand awareness or sentiment.”
You can see this in the case studies and conference talks from any of the professional blog collectives. The metrics show tens of thousands of individual posts creating millions of impressions or, lifting from the old advertising lexicon, “opportunities to see”.
The borrowing from old-school PR vocab doesn’t end there.
Another dinosaur doing the rounds is the Ad Value Equivalent (AVE) of those impressions; as though the old column inches concept that was barely plausible back in the analogue era can be used to assign $ value to impressions in today’s torrent of content, programmatic ad serving and an inventory landscape that is fragmented beyond all meaningful comparison.
Out of curiosity I requested the international visitor numbers to Costa Brava on either side of the 2012 TBEX event in Girona. Arrivals the following year werevirtually static: 2,953,097 in 2012 to 2,965,649 in 2013.
TBEX is the largest gathering of digital influencers in the travel space, which makes it (even if it’s not publicly billed as such) by far the biggest “blog trip”. Ready for those big numbers? The event generated 26,967 hashtagged tweets with just under 150,000,000 impressions on Twitter alone. (Google TBEX Girona for an entirely unscientific snapshot of its wider exposure.) So if not in visitor numbers how did Tourism Costa Brava gauge their returns? They told me that the event was considered a branding promotion and that they couldn’t segment or quantify the outcomes from their other digital promotions that year.
If the hosts of the world’s biggest blog trip have no hard ROI data, surely Phil and the growing number of his colleagues are right and there’s something fundamentally wrong with the entire concept?
They might be asking the right questions. But I think their response – which has been to chuck the baby out with the bathwater – is wrong.
We’ve been doing the wrong things and expecting the wrong results.
LET’S BE REALISTIC
Let’s look at influencer marketing for what it really is – online PR: investing in an activity to engage someone else’s audience. PR is usually about trying to influence people early on in the purchasing process. And travel blog audiences are typically people just browsing ideas – they’re a long way from being ready to buy anything. (In marketing speak we think of them as being right at the top of the marketing funnel.)
Travel is a complex product with pathways to purchase that can be exceptionally long and convoluted – among the longest for any consumer purchase. Yet we’ve been expecting influencer marketing to do it all – to move their audience all the way down the marketing funnel – from mild interest to final purchase. Build, engage and convert an audience all in one – as though it has some magical properties.
At the root is a problem consistently highlighted by Pam Mandel among others:the prevailing model for influencer marketing has turned professional influencers/audience-builders into unprofessional marketers.
Asking bloggers to be our marketers has created hyper-promotional and aggressively sales-oriented sponsored content that masquerades as independent writing. It has created blogger collectives that include “SEO content” and native advertising among their service items.
It has created a vociferous debate around ethics, disclosure and transparency too. I honestly wonder if we even know what “credibility” is anymore. Does plonking that standard disclaimer at the end of a post promising that “as ever all opinions are my own” really count? If so it’s a remarkable stroke of luck that bloggers never seem to have a shitty time when they’re travelling on someone else’s dime. Do we know what this is doing to the legitimacy of our messages, and therefore our potential to “influence” consumers in the first place?
But I don’t really blame the bloggers. I blame us, the marketers.
We’re the ones who let them do our jobs for us. This is the ecosystem that we helped to build and we need to take responsibility for fixing it.
FINDING THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE RIGHT JOB
What would a new model of influencer marketing look like?
The paradoxical first step would be for the influencers to stop doing the marketing and to go back to what they do best: building, engaging and educating their audiences.
Meanwhile we marketers need to reclaim responsibility for our own jobs and be more realistic about the role that influencers can play within wider content strategy.
A smarter approach would be for brands and bloggers/influencers to work more closely on the outcomes that actually make a measurable impact at the relevant stage of the marketing funnel: cooperating on audience data, sharing engaged users and bringing them in at the top of a brand’s funnel where we, the marketers, can focus on nurturing and converting them into prospects and sales.
There are mechanisms to make this happen: email, social media and retargeting all offer effective touchpoints for transferring audiences from blogger to brand and then into the brand’s lead-nurturing channels for progression through the funnel. This shifts the emphasis for influencer marketing away from bottom funnel, last-touch lead generation and into high funnel, first/assisted-touch territory where it belongs.
As we see time and again with our work, contextual email, paid social and well-segmented retargeting campaigns are enormously powerful channels for converting digital audiences into prospects, leads and sales. But to work, those audiences have to start out engaged, informed and qualified.
Travel blogs could be a uniquely valuable source of engaged audiences feeding the top of the funnel and into these channels. Partnerships that provide for shared access to user tracking, custom audience targeting and lookalike audiences, all based on qualified, engaged and segmented traffic could transform our approaches to influencer marketing.
Data access at this level would mean grown-up cooperation on multi-platform Terms of Service compliance, privacy regulations, analytics sharing and link tagging. This in turn demands trust, transparency and mutual respect – things that often seem thin on the ground. But the benefits would be immense: bloggers can revert to what they’re best at – providing honest, objective content that their readers can trust – and leave the marketing activities to the professionals.
Not only is this a more effective strategy, it is also eminently measurable.
Provided that links are properly parameter tagged within a consistent architecture we can easily segment first and assisted referral touches generated by influencer marketing activity at the top of the funnel and quantify how it contributes to later conversions via other channels further down the funnel.
We have everything we need to make real, accurate ROI calculations for assisted conversion paths throughout the entire funnel – but to make it happen we need to fundamentally redefine the relationship between the marketing professionals, our blogging colleagues and the audiences we’re trying to reach.
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