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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.

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