What is up with influencer marketing? What is it, who's doing it and what are the rules of engagement?

Influencer Marketing in 2020 | What Are We Even Doing Anymore?

Updated 1/20/2020.

So here’s the rub.

Instead of writing my book, editing photos or drafting my screenplay (it’s gonna be so good!), I’ve spent the better part of my working hours this year fielding emails from brands and destinations who want to “do influencer marketing” but have little idea what that means on a practical, day-to-day level. I was so disheartened by a couple of conversations last week in particular that I considered cashing in my chips and getting a job at Hobby Lobby. (A Hobby Lobby jobby?)

It’s not uncommon for me to meet a brand at a blogging conference, spend months chatting about opportunities, develop a comprehensive campaign proposal per their request and then to hear, “Oh, well we can’t pay for any of this. But you can come stay at our hotel for two nights! And here’s a four page contract of deliverables and expectations.” This is B-A-N-A-N-A-S, and not at all how it’s supposed to go.

In taking stock of how much time I spend responding to emails that are ultimately fruitless, I vented about it in one of the Facebook groups for top bloggers. And you know what? It’s not just me. Many friends who do this professionally are floored by the lack of knowledge surrounding influencer marketing… by the people running influencer marketing for their brands and destinations.

It that’s a bit whack because it’s 2019 2020. Working with influencers for marketing purposes is not brand new. So what’s going on? And how can we all get on the same page? Read on.

 

What is Influencer Marketing All About?

Studies tell us that influencer marketing is so hot right now. According to a survey from Influencer Marketing Hub:

  • Influencer marketing is expected to grow as an industry from $4.6 billion in 2018 to potentially $6.5 billion in 2019. B I L L I O N.
  • When done right, influencer marketing can earn up to $18 per dollar spent on earned media. Influencer campaigns are a part of that figure.
  • Content marketing as a tactic continues to grow. Almost 80 percent of brands surveyed increased their content output since 2016. Sixty percent of those have a budget dedicated just to content.
  • More than 320 new influencer marketing platforms and agencies entered the market over the last year. There are almost 1,000 such entities now. There were 0 ten years ago.

This is all super exciting for brands to hear, and so the directive comes down from the top: DO INFLUENCER MARKETING.

Everyone wants a piece of the influencer pie, and there’s more than enough to go around. But most brands and destinations are jumping into the deep end of influencer marketing with both feet… and no swimming lessons whatsoever. 

At this point, if you’re not working with influencers, you’re well behind the curve, but it’s worse to do it wrong than to not do it at all.

 

No One Even Knows What an Influencer Is

A big part of our problem as an industry is public perception. In the same way that being “in publicity” was once considered perhaps a career choice for the slick, slippery and smarmy sort, the word “influencer” conjures ideas of Internet celebrities hawking diet products and YouTubers doing foolish things to get views. 

Know what? Influencer is a term most professional content creators dislike. We didn’t choose it; it was foisted upon us! Foisted, I say!

Influencer is a catch-all term that’s lost much of its, well, influence. It’s a term news anchors like to spit out when discussing the latest INFLUENCER controversy. I see headlines every day about a fitness influencer who faked this and a YouTuber who lied about that. So let’s just get it out on the table – celebrity influencers and Instagram models are not the folks we’re talking about here. 

 

Many bloggers are influencers; not all influencers are bloggers. Some influencers only use Instagram. Others focus mostly on YouTube. My favorite ones are multi-platform superstars, meaning they have staying power if Instagram goes out of fashion.

The influencer umbrella is large and there are many different types nestled underneath, including professional bloggers and content creators. That’s people like me who create content for brands and destinations for a living. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a pastime, it’s not something I do on weekends because I have nothing else going on. 

Because there’s no barrier to entry, literally anyone can wake up one day decide to be a blogger/influencer. There’s no one stopping them. For the uninformed publicist, it can be tricky to identify who is doing this for fun and the occasional free bottle of sunscreen or who makes their living this way.

Maybe tricky is the wrong word… because the creators, like me, who do this professionally make it quite easy to work together. (See my painstakingly crafted WORK WITH ME page.)

 

Isn’t “Pay to Play” a Bad Thing?

When I was in my journalism ethics class in college, the message was crystal clear: you don’t pay for positive coverage ever. It’s against everything in an honest journalist’s code of ethics to get paid to write positive things about a destination, product, politician, what have you. This lesson translated practically to my early PR agency days, where even tried-and-true tactical press trips were a sticky issue. We invited journalists on splashy, once-in-a-lifetime trips so they could experience the destinations we represented, and we never once talked about guaranteeing positive coverage. It just wasn’t done. Coverage almost always resulted – that was the underlying point – but journalistic integrity prevented us from really discussing it. 

And those rules are still firmly in place — FOR EDITORIAL.

When I am on assignment for a magazine, newspaper or TV show, I wouldn’t dream of accepting payment from the brand. That’s because the outlet pays for the content I create on their behalf.

Since my days as a J-school Florida Gator, influencer marketing has created such a stir! Content campaigns, earned media, influencer programs, etc., are a different vehicle to reach consumers. Let’s talk about those vehicles:

  • Traditional media relations is a reliable, gas-guzzling station wagon. Old school, gets you where you’re going.
  • Advertising is a slick electric Tesla. Big budget, lots of bells and whistles. 
  • Influencer marketing is a Prius, a sensible mix of the two. 

A hybrid. A DIFFERENT vehicle entirely. So the same rules we have always used for editorial and advertising do not apply to content marketing.

 

This means that paying for editorial in a magazine, newspaper or TV show is still wrong, but paying an independent content creator, someone who funds their publication, to create content for you is not. (There are still folks who don’t like it and believe that you can’t write honestly about an experience if you’re paid by a brand. I respect that viewpoint. In 2020, it falls to the reader to determine which outlets/bloggers they find to be trustworthy, and it’s up to the influencers to disclose any paid relationships per FTC guidelines. But that’s a whole other post!) Content could include photos, blog posts, videos, social media posts – there are lots of options.

Now hear this: influencer marketing is not meant to be pay for play in the sense that you’re paying for positive coverage. That’s advertising/advertorial, when you pay and get to craft the message. Influencer marketing is when you pay for a creator’s time and professional deliverables, but you are not paying for their good opinion.

RELATED POST: 9 Things Bloggers Want Brands to Know

 

The industry has completely changed in the past 10 years, and still there’s resistance. There are PR firms who flat out refuse to pay influencers “on principle,” expecting independent content creators to work hours and hours (literally, sometimes a week or more) for their clients (who are indeed paying them!) for a free night’s stay or a bottle of shampoo or exposure. So the principle they’re standing on is asking someone to do work and then not wanting to pay for it. I wouldn’t call that a principle, would you?

The most anti-influencer firms are run by analog management who apply editorial rules to influencer marketing. Again, you absolutely shouldn’t pay for editorial coverage in a magazine (and guess what, there’s a whole mechanism to make that happen, but that’s not my tea to spill)… but this is not that.

It’s 2019 and influencer marketing is its own unique strategy with its own rules. You don’t have to embrace the changes, but you can’t claim it’s “editorial” so you don’t have to pay for content. If there are contracts and deliverables, that’s an influencer campaign. 

I hate harping on the whole “I don’t work for free” trope, because I know how it sounds. Shrill and angsty and not nice – the opposite of who I actually am as a person. Or, who I used to be before 15 destinations a week asked me to create hours upon hours upon hours of compelling content for them every day! I bring it up because it needs to be said until everyone gets it.

Let me say it again for the folks in the back. You’re not paying for positive coverage when you pay an influencer. You are paying for the time it takes to create the coverage and the years of experience that go into creating quality content that lasts and reaches the audience you want to reach. (Wondering how to tell the difference between an influencer campaign and a press trip? I’ve got you covered.)

Numbers are Shenanigans and Instagram is Inexplicably King

It’s easy enough to fake social media numbers, as many an influencer scandal has shown us. You could buy a million followers on Instagram for a few thousand bucks. Your engagement would be .0000000000001% and it would be easy to spot your fakery, but it’s been done.

You can fake it until you make it, but most would-be influencers give up long before they get anywhere close to making it. It’s just not sustainable to fake influence in this digital age where so many people have real influence and have put a decade into cultivating an engaged audience across platforms. You can’t fake a 10-year career. And why would anyone want to? Oh I know. Because “influencing” is thought to be a golden ticket.

Look, I’ve been doing this for 13 years and still have to write ranty posts about getting paid. Why does anyone think this is a get rich quick career? 

But let’s talk about real influencers – what are they worth? When it comes to influencer data and ROI, it varies greatly from niche to niche. Fashion bloggers can show immediate results if their followers buy a skirt or hat they wore in a recent post. But people don’t book trips the same way they buy hats, right? If I post about a trip to Northern Ireland, it’s going to influence my followers to add Northern Ireland to their consideration for future trips. It rarely, if ever, results in an immediate booking.

The percentage of marketers who realize this is embarrassingly tiny and yet 80% of brands polled by Influencer Hub said Instagram was their No. 1 priority social network.

This is why choosing the right influencer for a campaign is so, so important. A hot Instagrammer might be able to sell 1,000 bikinis, but what percentage of the bikini-buyers also spend money on $20,000 trips to Tahiti?

 

When marketers of the old guard demand ROI from influencers, they’re comparing apples to oranges if they try to do it the same way as editorial, or the same way from niche to niche. There are plenty of marketing agencies who attempt to quantify influencer data, and some make a valiant effort, but it’s all creative mathematics. Rather than relying on big numbers and likes, for me, the main priority when choosing influencers comes down to fit. Are they the right fit for the brand? It doesn’t matter if they have 10,000 followers or 100,000 or 1,000,000. If their followers are a match for the brand, that’s a much better way of choosing.

You’ve got to choose quality over quantity, otherwise it’s just straight up shenanigans. 

It is important to separate the real influencers from the fakes, and there are plenty of resources to help you do that. It’s not that hard to look over a person’s platforms and get an idea of their audience engagement and what they’re selling (clothing? supplements? a lifestyle? energy drinks?) to see if it matches with what you’re trying to sell (a destination or room nights). 

I’ll let you in on a little secret, just between us. Influencer measurement isn’t the only vague and intangible measurement in the communications world. PR and advertising agencies have relied on data with cloudy significance for years. I always struggled with reporting data to my clients as a publicist because it’s all so arbitrary. Not that there’s ill intent, but there’s just no way to truly measure how many people are reached by editorial coverage.

For example, there’s a formula for measuring print impressions, but what do those numbers even mean? Do 2.5 people really see every article or ad in a print magazine? Probably not. How could anyone really know? And yet brands pay through the nose for print advertising and prioritize a 100-word blurb in a magazine that dies when someone chucks it in the recycle bin over 2,500 words on a travel blog that will live, searchable and accessible, for years online.

My point is not that measurement in public relations or influencer marketing or any other tactic on that spectrum is wrong or created with deceptive intent… but that’s how ad value is determined, and it’s ultimately just an educated guess. Very similar to influencer numbers. We can give them to you, but they sure don’t guarantee that all of our followers are going to book a trip to your hotel tomorrow. It’s a lot more nuanced than that.

And I get it. You spend money on an influencer campaign, you want to know that it’s going to be money well spent. But focusing your whole influencer marketing strategy on just numbers is shortsighted. Ultimately, you might find yourself very disappointed with the results if that’s your main criteria for choosing influencers. 

 

Influencer Marketing is a Long Term Strategy, Not a Short Term Fix

I glossed over this in the last section but it bears repeating because this may be the biggest disconnect I see between marketers and bloggers.

An SEO-optimized blog post lasts exponentially longer than an article in a print magazine or newspaper.

If that’s not one of your top reasons to work with bloggers, you’re missing the whole point! Especially the OGs who’ve been around as long as the industry. We know how to get our stories on the first page of a Google search. We know how to keep them there for years. We know our audiences and what they want to read about. When you pay a content creator, you’re not just paying them to have fun in your destination for three days or take cute pictures of themselves – that’s not the half of what goes into creating content that will return dividends to you, your brand or destination, for years to come. Professional content creators want to attract traffic to our sites as much as you want to attract attention to your brand or destination.

And that’s why it pays to work with professionals – you’re getting expertise and content that lasts, not just pretty pics of us at the pool that die on Instagram within 12 hours.

 

It does seem like this fact is lost on many of the marketers I interact with these days. Influencer marketing is still technically the new kid on the block, and (apparently?) it’s not always taught as its own strategy, independent of traditional media relations, in school. Everyone gets lumped in together as if all the “relations” were created equally. I’m here to tell you – they aren’t.

Maybe it’s just not taught in school, but I think there’s something else. PR/marketing agencies tend to have a pretty high turnover rate, and that doesn’t gel with the fact that influencer marketing is best used as a long-term strategy. By the time you start to see results from a 6 month – 1 year content campaign, it’s not unusual for the publicist who began the project to be promoted or quit.

I worked with five different junior publicists in two years on influencer project I was consulting on. That’s five people to train, bring up to speed, explain influencer marketing, introduce to the influencers in the program, etc. Before we could even launch the program, the first gal was off to the next project and there was another junior publicist in her place. And that junior publicist wasn’t invested in the project because she didn’t start it. 

There’s a lot of buzzy talk of strategy in public relations and marketing, but it’s hard to carry one strategic thread from year to year when personnel is so inconsistent.

 

Someone Will Always Work for Free

When I went to the very first TBEX in 2009, there were 50 intrepid travel bloggers just telling our stories on our lil blogs. Getting paid was rare. We went where we wanted and wrote what we wanted, and sometimes we got into an attraction for free or stayed in a hotel for a media rate. That was 10 years ago. Now people leave high school/college with plans to become professional influencers… on purpose!

Today there are dozens of similar blogging conferences each year, with thousands of hopeful attendees looking for their big break and a large paycheck to “travel the world for free.” For the newbies, a couple comp nights in a hotel is ideal. (We’ve all been there.) If you send out 100 emails about a “partnership” to these attendees, chances are good at least a few bloggers will be willing to do what you ask on a trade basis. 

 

Please, please know who you’re reaching out to and the depth of what you’re requesting before you blanket a bunch of professionals with emails. It’s embarrassing how frequently brands contact me with big offers for ambassadorships and partnerships that, after hours of discussion, amount to a free cocktail or a bag of skincare samples. For the “influencers” who started a year ago and have a micro following (<1,000), maybe that’s valuable. For the veteran entrepreneurs who have been busting their butts for a decade, it’s an insulting waste of time, and it shows that either you don’t understand how to work with professional content creators or you don’t respect how much work goes into a campaign. Both are a bad look, and I like to think most professional marketers are above that.

Creating content is work and having an audience to share it with is something I’ve spent the majority of my adult life cultivating. Around here, we don’t let billion dollar brands take advantage of our hard work anymore than we let weird trolls bother us on Instagram. It’s just not happening.

We’re all professional communicators, so how is it I’m still getting multiple emails a day from billion dollar brands asking me to attend events, create videos, take photos and publish SEO-optimized content on an established, authoritative website in exchange for a beer or a pair of cheap sunglasses? With all the resources available and the bloggers with marketing backgrounds, like me, who offer consulting to help brands excel in the influencer space, it’s a wonder there could be any confusion at all.

The gist of this piece isn’t “Pay us! Pay us!” If you’re asking an independent creator to do work on behalf of your brand, the need for compensation should be glaringly obvious. My point is if you learn how to work with influencers the right way, if you manage your expectations appropriately, good things will come to you. You will see ROI for your brand. You will, I promise. But if you do it wrong and cut corners to save a penny, you’re wasting your own time and even more money in the long run.

 

No One Really Cares

While, it’s absolutely true that you get what you pay for and some marketers do understand that, the sad truth is that much of this falls on deaf ears. That’s a BIG generalization, and of course plenty of marketers do care, but the trend I’m seeing is that as long as there’s some kind of influencer marketing effort, something to tick the boxes for the higher ups, that’s enough to get by. Numbers can be manipulated, and frankly sharing digital data with a mostly analog team is like explaining what I do to my grandparents. “That’s neat, honey, and can you stop blocking the TV? Wheel of Fortune is on.”

The result of all this? In 2020, many of the top tier content creators are avoiding all but the most lucrative, long-term partnerships and mostly relying on passive income generated by affiliates, ad networks and product sales.

 

That’s been the sentiment almost across the board in the blogger groups of late. Ultimately it’s just easier to pivot and change the business model than to focus squarely on working brands and DMOs who have unrealistic expectations or untoward business practices. I speak at a few conferences a year on influencer marketing, and I’m consistently blown away by the disconnect between marketing and the influencers they want to work with. Maybe I’m particularly affected by it because I’m on both sides and I experience the chasm so intensely in my soul. Dramatic? Yes, of course, this is ME we’re talking about. Maybe that’s the cost of doing business, but I can’t help but hope there is a more civil and mutually respectful way to work together in the future.

Influencer Marketing Didn’t Work for Me

How many times have I heard, “Oh, we tried influencers but it didn’t work” or “Influencers are a waste of money.” I guarantee they didn’t properly vet the influencers, offered a free event ticket or hotel room night instead of creating a smart campaign with goals, and then expected their sales figures to blossom overnight.

The data tells us that influencer marketing is hot and so valuable, but how can it work if you do it wrong from the start? You might as well try to get to Miami by driving north on I-95. You’re not even going in the right direction, so just enjoy Maine and stop trying to pretend you’re on South Beach.

 

How to Dive Into Influencer Marketing

If you’re new to influencer marketing, hire a consultant! There’s no shame in bringing in a trusted influencer or content creator to help you out. I’ve been doing this for years for brands and destinations. It doesn’t have to be a multi-year deal either. You can hire an expert to come in for a half day session and explain some of the unique differences in partnering with influencers vs. editorial. It’s a small investment upfront, but it will save you time, money and potential embarrassment, and it’ll almost guarantee that you see real results from your influencer marketing efforts. It’s like working out, right? Sure, you can show up to the gym and chuck the weights around, and maybe you’ll even see some results. But isn’t working with a trainer so much better? You learn the right form, you have an action plan and steps and goals. Eventually, you see real, measurable results. Unfortunately most influencer marketing efforts are more like me at the gym on January 1. Not a pretty sight, and abandoned without results in short order.

Attend conferences. Can someone explain to me why brands go to blogger conferences and then don’t attend any of the brand-facing sessions? It does often feel like I’m preaching to the choir, because the marketers who “get it” are so amazing, and they’re always on the front row nodding and signing checks. The others are off collecting email addresses so they can spam the newbies with unpaid “partnership” requests.

Editorial vs. Influencer Marketing. Internalize the differences between influencer marketing, advertising and editorial, and structure your entire media relations strategy in those buckets. Repeat after me, EDITORIAL IS NOT INFLUENCER MARKETING AND THE SAME RULES DON’T APPLY. 

Take your time to prepare. Vetting is everything so don’t rush this, but don’t for a moment think you have to hire outside agencies to choose influencers for your brand. Spend time researching influencers. Follow them for a while. See how they behave and how they work with brands. Pore over their media kit and “work with me” page. Who do you like? Who gives you a good feeling, inspires you or makes you laugh? Those folks inspire others, too. Go with them. 

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I love this industry and I constantly marvel at how divine providence dropped me at exactly the right time where I get to create content for a living. It’s a dream come true, the perfect fit for me and I love it. BUT, it’s high time influencers and marketers get on the same page — at the very least we could start using the same playbook. It’s no one’s fault that there’s no official guide to doing this right, but it’s 2020 and influencer marketing is not new anymore. Let’s agree to define terms and move forward professionally in a way that’s mutually beneficial for everyone.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Are you ready for about 10 more articles on influencer marketing because I’m fired up now!

 

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  • Avatar
    March 28, 2019

    You’ve hit the nail on the head a dozen times or more here. It’s a young, new industry, evolving of course and it’s so critical that the marketeers and PRs whose influence is so important to those of us writers employed in and shaping this brave new market, are educated on how it really works – or should work. Great piece.
    Janine Marsh recently posted..The Pyramid at the LouvreMy Profile

  • Avatar
    March 28, 2019

    Oh guuuurl. So. Much. THIS! Thank you. My background was in PR, and I’m thinking all the agencies today just completely skip over the “R” and “E” in the acronym “RACE” (do they even teach this anymore?) And so often they’re not even planning or thinking long term, it’s, “hey, can you do this one post/Instagram/Tweet.”

    And you didn’t even dive into all the “influencer marketing” agencies out there that are trying to be a hybrid between a talent agency, marketing agency, and media buying agency and are doing it all wrong.
    Rachelle recently posted..How To Land Your First Press TripMy Profile

  • Avatar
    March 31, 2019

    1000% YES GURL! As someone who guest lectures at universities teaching influencer marketing, it’s unbelievable how many students are older PR/marketing individuals looking to learn “Influencer marketing” as well as young students trying to get into this space.

    This article sums everything I’ve been preaching since 2013, but better so thank you!
    Ryan Thomas Woods recently posted..9 Hotels To Avoid, Owned by Anti-LGBT Brunei — Boycott Brunei HotelsMy Profile

  • Avatar
    April 08, 2019

    Really interesteding article on influencer article. I learnt a lot from this. Cheers!

  • Avatar
    April 11, 2019

    Literally had this tab opened on my desktop for a week now and just getting to it. I wish I could insert all the clap gifs in the comments, as you know I would! Can we just do away with the term “influencer” once and for all? I feel like so many DMOs are quick to dismiss anyone who is an “influencer” when the reality is that most of us are journalists, bloggers, content creators and photographers all rolled into one. You hire this type of talent to produce your CVB assets, so why wouldn’t you hire the same types of professionals to promote your destination to a different audience?

  • Avatar
    June 24, 2019

    Oh my. So much I didn’t know! Thank you so much for writing these insightful articles + your manifesto. It’s all given me such a fresh perspective on the work influencers do and makes me feel so much more comfortable moving forward!

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