The Evolution of Influencer Marketing

The Evolution of Influencer Marketing

By Dwayne Waite Jr, Marketing Manager- Schell Games

As brands and organizations look at the future landscape of marketing, advertising, and public relations, one thing is clear- having a stance on influencer marketing is crucial in 2021 and beyond. Either you add it into your marketing mix, or you don’t. If not, you have to have a great reason why when supporting your opinion. Let’s talk about where influencer marketing came from, what shifts in consumer consumption and technological advances made influencer marketing easier, and why all communications professionals should evaluate their marketing strategy to see where influencer marketing activities can- or should- fit.

Influencer Marketing is Nothing New

I recently gave a talk during the Indie Game Business 2020 Winter Summit about influencer marketing (video at the end of this article). While I was preparing my presentation, I decided to take a look back through several of my university textbooks to see if I could trace where this concept of ‘influencer marketing’ came from. Not surprisingly, this kind of behavior, consumer looking toward opinion leaders who could then shape their own decision-making, is nothing new.

In the 3rd edition of Public Relations: A Values-Driven Approach (Guth & Marsh, 2006), an executive from the global public relations agency Burson-Marsteller (now BCW-Global) talked about how, in 2006, their team looked to discover whom they called “E-fluentials”.

Through a series of telephone interviews and online research with a panel of consumers, we soon discovered that a small segment of internet users- perhaps no more than 10 percent- were disproportionately more influential than others. We dubbed these online influentials “e-fluentials”, and now know how they influence friends, family and colleagues.

In the 4th edition of Advertising & Integrated Brand Promotion (O’Guinn/Allen/Semenik, 2006), those authors wrote of a trend of tracking ‘reference groups‘, and in particular, the rise and power of ‘brand communities‘, which they defined as “…groups of consumers who feel a commonality and a shared purpose grounded or attached to a consumer good or service.”

The promise of community- not to be alone, to share appreciation and admiration of something or someone, no matter how odd or inappropriate others feel it to be- is fulfilled in online communities.

This information suggests that people have always been looking for a sense of community, and, as Seth Godin would put it, looking to find a tribe and be led. Now let’s consider how technology fueled this search for community and community leaders.

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The Proliferation of the Citizen Reviewer

I distinctly remember my 101 Communications professor at Elon University pulling me aside and encouraging me to enter my paper, “Rise of the Blogosphere”, into the university’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum (fondly known as SURF in the Elon community). I was (and, still am) incredibly curious about the boom of blogs, citizen journalism, and most importantly- the insatiable appetite the consuming public had for information from non-experts. This, by the way, was in 2005. Since then, the tide continues to roar, with no clear indication of slowing down.

Online forums are not any different from blogs. Again, at Elon, this time during my Integrated Marketing Communications course, in 2007, our class split into teams to take on a marketing case study featuring a small business in Mebane, NC, a small town about 20 minutes away from campus. There, we learned that there was a HUGE knitting and yarn community in Yahoo! groups. There were even questionnaires you had to answer before you were admitted into the groups. And again, with the rise of technology, we see Facebook Groups, LinkedIn groups, and mobile-first communities like AnimoApps, and more.

Rise of social media is something generations will always remember

Generations to come will look at the years 2003-2015 to research how social media changed society. Social media changed the way we interact with people, keep up with our loved ones (or hated ones), how we work, how we’re entertained. If social media changed all that personally, it is only natural that it would have a profound impact on the marketing and communications industry.

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New Media Matures

We all continue to watch the news, read the articles and follow our own favorite opinion leaders about the latest and greatest when it comes to social and digital media. What was once the wild west is slowly maturing. Now, instead of brands asking the question, “should we be on social media?”, many properly ask, “which social media network(s) should we as a brand focus on?” But, as media matures, we still see iterations to keep our hearts pattering. For example, shareable or ‘snackable’ media, short video or images, is becoming more popular. We can thank the international phenomenon TikTok (and its addictive algorithm) for that.

Another reason why we should continue watching new media, and why influencers have risen to popularity amongst the communications industries, is the (continued) growth of apathy and distaste towards advertising and earned media. It’s interesting to point out, though, that people still use and appreciate advertising in helping with their decision-making. Why the disconnect? There are many variables to consider, but a relevant reason is that person who get their information from content creators believe that these influencers are more genuine than the brand that is advertising. Why?

We need to recognize that communal consumption and digital communities are real, and important to people when it comes to gathering information for products and services. My wife is in a Facebook group for Mothers, and if there is a product or service that a group of mothers are against, there is no way that product is coming into our house- no matter or glitzy the ad is (or even if the group doesn’t have all the information).

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Brands Notice and an Industry Emerges

If a consumer can’t put trust in your advertising, but you need to make sure good and reliable information gets out, what can you do? Brands have been watching this trend for a long time, it was only a matter of the right juxtaposition of need, technology, and timing for Influencer marketing to arrive. To answer the question, brands found a way to empower these opinion leaders, provide them with goods and services to review, using the influencer’s choice of platform, while the consumer enjoys the feeling of community while listening to their community leader.

‘Influencers’ Becomes a Dirty Word to ‘Content Creators’

I pointed out in my presentation on influencer marketing that there ‘used’ to be a difference between ‘influencers’ and ‘content creators.’ Influencers, in its early stage, were people searching for paid opportunities only and reviewing goods and services, and developing a following there. Are there still some of those? Sure. But the cream of the crop and the ones proudly serving their communities are ‘content creators’, people who do a mix of paid and organic (real) content to delight their audience and community. These creators would only work with brands and products they would genuinely use, and have a built an audience because those people relate to that creator. The latter definition is the new ‘influencer.’ We like those people.

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Federal Regulation Appears and The Need for Standardization Emerges

Influencer marketing, in terms of a piece of your marketing mix, is still evolving. For example, there is still no standard in pricing or contracts for brands and content creators. The Federal Trade Commission is lagging far behind in creating regulations that will protect all parties involved with influencer marketing- the consumer, the brand, and the influencer. We are in exciting times to see how influencer marketing will shape up in the years to come.

What’s Next?

Influencer marketing will only get bigger, as new media pushes boundaries in how people communicate and consume information. Brands are getting more creative and competent in using influencers in their marketing mix. And finally, content creators are figuring out how to make a living in delighting their communities, so that’s pretty exciting too.

Sender Beats Subject Line: The Power of Blog Branding

Sender Beats Subject Line: The Power of Blog Branding

By Christopher Gillespie

Originally Posted on 11/20/2020 at the National American Marketing Association Website

Words can’t do everything on their own—a strongly branded blog will entice readers much more than an emphatic headline

Digital channels have grown crowded this year. The events industry is on pause and no small number of businesses have diverted that spend to online media. The resultant battle for clicks is nothing short of epic.

Fifty percent of marketing teams have purchased new tools to address new channels. Paid search and social spend both rose more than 25%, says the IAB, and yet sales still dropped 17.8%, according to The CMO Survey.

The issue has come to a particularly painful head with blogs, where digital content operations were not built to navigate these waters. We’re coming off of the decade dominated by content marketing where good advice was stripped to its bare essentials and repeated endlessly, often incorrectly. The experts all said “quality” but companies heard “volume” and now everyone’s armed for daily, multi-channel content publishing in a world where more is no longer more—it’s all just noise.

Amid this maelstrom, I began wondering: How does my team write more enticing headlines? Ones that actually get noticed? What I discovered was that the key has very little do with the writing itself—a rather tough pill to swallow for many writers. In the inbox or on Google, the person sending the message matters more than what they say.

In short, your blog team would do well to focus a lot less on “emotional” or “strong” words in their titles and a lot more on the blog’s branded appearance, style and tone.

Headline Analyzers Are a False Prophet

Every month, more than an estimated 800,000 writers visit CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, a web tool designed to “optimize” your headlines. It is incredibly popular. Nearly everyone I spoke to in my informal study had heard of and used it.

The analyzer is built on the assumption that adding more strong, novel or emotional words will increase the rate at which people click. The assumptions here are many. Who decides what word counts as emotional? What constitutes a strong word? Where exactly is this data coming from? You might think such a highly-trafficked tool would be based on some analysis of actual headline success, but it seems not to be.

I ran a test and found that the analyzer seemed to disdain the headlines from articles that were among the most successful from publications like Wired and blogs from companies like Google, Shopify, and Whole Foods. None scored higher than 62%. Instead, the analyzer delighted in lingual rubbish: “Rare ecstatic exploit killing it nematode” earned a 76%.

Below, headlines that were hugely successful everywhere but in the analyzer.

How a ‘Diabolic’ Beetle Survives Being Run Over By a Car = 59%

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Storms Twitch = 29%

How Brand Discovery Is Changing for Today’s Consumer = 60%

Building a Niche Board Games Business Through a Million-Dollar Crowdfunding Campaign = 38%

And so on.

If the headline analyzer can’t confirm real-world success, can it really be predictive? And furthermore, why were some admittedly drab headlines from the publications and blogs I discovered still so successful? For example, “What Our Leaders Can Do Now” and “Market Update” were objectively uninteresting, but universally read and shared. It had to be that there was something more I didn’t yet understand.

Containers, Context and Clicks

For my study, I gathered headlines I both liked and didn’t like into a spreadsheet for analysis. When the pandemic went into full-force, I abandoned the project, only to return three months later to find that I didn’t recognize any of the headlines. Some that I’d ranked highly, such as

“What Happened to Lee?” no longer held any interest. It was only upon revisiting the articles themselves, in their natural environment, that I understood.

Below, the deliciously moody thumbnail is what had caught my eye.

What Happened to Lee?

Via Wired

This led me to explore the idea of “containers,” or the context within which all of these headlines lived. Time after time, I found headlines to be far more interesting in their original form. The text, I realized, could not be divorced from all else—the author, the typography, the image, what’s

happening in the news that makes the headline relevant, and so on.

Each of these elements is part of the whole message—the entire blog’s brand. And each matters. The author, for example, can even be their own brand. You may not know what the business Ahrefs does, but if Ann Handley wrote the article they published, and you like her, you’ll read it. At the more extreme end, you may not be an avid reader of The New York Times, but if the morning’s opinion piece is by Jerry Seinfeld and he makes you laugh, you may give it a try.

Do you recall the “objectively uninteresting” headlines from earlier? Below, I’ve added the author and context back in, and you can see why they were successful:

“What Our Leaders Can Do Now” — written by Bill Gates in March 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 scare.

“Market Update” — written by the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, from the same time period.

Once apprised to the idea that sender matters as much as the subject line—perhaps even more—I started to realize this phenomenon everywhere I looked. I click LinkedIn articles because of the person who posted them. Sometimes, I click rather drab titles from otherwise interesting people, assuming they must not know something I don’t. It’s the same in the inbox,

on social media, and in search.

People click for many reasons—a clever headline being only one of them. And that’s led me to the conclusion that the most powerful thing you can do to increase your clicks in a raucous digital publishing environment is not to visit the headline analyzer, but to instead ask, what is our brand communicating that will make people want to click? Then, alter your blog to make that brand clearer.

To Improve Your Blog Branding

I do realize that many readers may not have direct access to their site’s design. Saying, “Just update the blog” may come across a bit like telling someone who’s hungry to start a bakery. It is difficult. But it is, I promise, the most effective thing you can do long term. If you don’t hold the keys to the site, appeal to those who do. Publishing is only growing more crowded and this will only grow more important.

The good news for some is that you don’t need permission from the entire business to revamp your content’s brand. Lots of content teams take an “ask for forgiveness” approach and only after they’ve proven its success, pitch it to the entire company. You can even experiment by branding specific channels to see how audiences react.

Take Duolingo for instance. The language learning app has a mission that’s staid and corporate: “Personalized learning.” But its podcast is a tour de force of soaring, emotional promise: “To help you learn and expand your view of the world.” While the app is full of fake-feeling scenarios like “Let’s find the library,” the podcast interviews people about their lives and covers tough topics like genocide, kidnapping, and gender rights. I don’t know who created the podcast, but it has my undying loyalty, and that transfers onto the parent brand.

A Four-Step Process for Blog Re-Branding

1. Decide what you’re promising your audience

Write a mission statement (what you do) and a vision statement (the change you’d like to see) that are specific to the blog. What do you stand for? How will you achieve it? Who is the blog intended to help?

2. Alter the blog to make your position clear

If needed, rename your publication to fit that vision. (There are no wrong names except, “Blog.”) Add a one-sentence tagline that summarizes the mission and links to an “about us” page that goes into further detail. Then, the design changes. If you are missing any of those pictured, add them to your site. They are crucial for helping readers understand who the sender is and vital if you, the publisher, are to build a relationship that makes them want to click.

3. Devise and uphold strict editorial standards

Where many corporate blogs go wrong is they’re a bit of everything for everybody. Which means that rather than thrill one audience so much they’ll click anything you write, it bores everyone equally.

To uphold your standards, publish a mini style guide, which is easier than it sounds. As you take or receive feedback, collect all of those preferences in one document that serves as a checklist for anyone writing for the blog.

To ensure you publish only the highest quality stories, manage a content backlog and accept only on-brand stories. Then, edit ruthlessly to ensure consistency and quality.

4. Defend the brand

By now you understand the value of clear and precise blog branding. But these topics probably aren’t generally understood within your company and you’ll have to educate others about the necessity of narrowing your focus to increase your effectiveness. Publish a blog guideline which begins by explaining the blog brand and its importance. Then, decline off-brand stories, partnerships, channels, so you can focus on your mission. When you have a strongly branded blog where people recognize you simply by the topics of stories you choose, it will sing.