So what’s been the overriding trend in Influencer Marketing this year?

The past few years have seen a number of trends on the world of Influencer Marketing. When I look back at these I can’t help noticing that none of these trends have been, in my opinion, good for better understanding who really influences an organisation’s prospects & customers. The largest trends have been short-term diversions and their shortcomings soon realised. The result is they’ve just confused the subject matter, and left the understanding of the subject in no better a place than it was five years ago. I’ve resolved to unearth some more positive trends in future posts. No point complaining.

In 2011 we saw the rise (and later fall) of the supposed ‘online influence platforms’. In 2012 there was the wide-scale transition of Influencer Marketing programs from being managed in-house (where marketing depts. didn’t know what to do with them) to being contracted out to PR and ad agencies (who didn’t care that they didn’t know because they now had a new revenue stream). 2013 saw the ‘pay for play’ blogger / broker networks make a concerted attempt to redefine ‘influencers’ as bloggers and tweeters who’d willingly endorse products and companies for payment. 2014 is actually harder to identify one over-riding trend but I think it’s been the finessing of which social media metrics are most relevant to ‘influence’. I’ve seen no end of graphics illustrating ‘relevance’, ‘appropriateness’, ‘authenticity’, etc.

What each of these have in common is that they’re all marketing-centric, and increasingly generated by the marketing agencies themselves. I’m seeing surprisingly few vendors and brands driving any more productive trends. Why is this?

 

Why would you be tempted to sign up to a ‘blogger influencer network’?

Would love someone from the vendor side to explain to me why they’d be tempted to sign up to a ‘blogger influencer network’. I can understand them being misled by the title into thinking they’d be connecting with real influencers, but outside of those people, and once they’d realised that wasn’t the case, why would a vendor contact one of these database hawkers? Their databases don’t hold influencers, they hold the names of tweeters and bloggers who, in exchange for payment, are willing to write promotional guff while not declaring it to whatever readership they have. How ‘inauthentic’ can you get?

So someone tell me what’s the attraction?

What’s wrong with the current state of Influencer Marketing?

A starting point is that it needs to get back to having the prospective buyer at its center, not the vendor’s marketing dept., or worse still, the vendor’s PR agency. Five years ago it was of clear benefit to the salesforce, helping them better understand who was most influencing their sales targets. Marketing depts. took it on because they could see it at last being the glue ensuring sales & marketing alignment.

Then social media, which plays a very different role for marketers than it does for buyers, took hold. Marketers saw that through social media, influencers could simply become an additional database at which to aim their promotional messages. Which then led to a series of problems.

1. The term ‘influencers’ was given to any tweeter or blogger with even the smallest of networks

2. Systems like Klout emerged that allowed these tweeters to big themselves up – wasting a lot of people’s time in the process.

3. Marketers – desperate for metrics to show their bosses – could now show impressive graphs of outreach, retweets, likes and more.

4. New marketing tech firms emerged looking to sell the identities of these tweeters & bloggers to brands desperate for new outreach channels.

What this has created is a new marketplace for those acting as middlemen providing access for brands to ‘pay-for-play’ bloggers. Of course, the two sides are sold very different stories. The bloggers are told to endorse the paying brand as surreptitiously as they can, knowing that the more they can smuggle in brand references the more likely they are to earn repeat business. The brands are told that these bloggers & tweeters have been individually selected for their authenticity, sensitivity and audience. And that all their bloggers operate a full disclosure policy to their audience. When the brand notices that the blogger hasn’t disclosed their association they’re told this was a one-off mistake. And far from being individually selected, the middlemen are playing a numbers game. They aggressively advertise for increasing number of willing bloggers, just as low-end taxi companies promise endless numbers of would-be car drivers the best-paid job of their lives. For their part, the bloggers & tweeters game their own numbers – audience numbers, Klout scores, subject coverage, etc. in order to out-compete their rivals for any type of payment.

But these are very far away from being influencers. The problem is that it’s not in any of these circle’s interest to admit that. Brands want to be able to show they’re reaching real influencers, the bloggers & tweeters want to appear as attractive as possible to attract the money, and the middleman broker agencies (for which there’s absolutely no barrier to entry!) want to promise brands access to the largest possible database of would-be promoters. It’s an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ scenario. And it wont stop until the vendors’ salespeople remind their marketing dept. of what they expect from their influencer outreach. Legitimate sales prospects!

What ‘bloggers for hire’ claim to offer

I’ve been receiving quite a few approaches recently from ‘bloggers for hire’ assuming that Influencer50 operates a so-called ‘influencer marketing platform’ – in reality just a database of bloggers willing to promote products & services in their posts for an upfront fee.

This raises several issues for me. How poor the targeting of these bloggers must be – we don’t operate such platforms, I must be one of the most public voices against them, and they clearly haven’t done even the minimum of research on what we do do.

Secondly how generic their approach is – see below at one I received yesterday. They’re selling their claim to be a ‘social media influencer’ and will endorse pretty much anything. What they have to offer – they claim – is a high Google PageRank and a regular level of traffic.

When people like this start permeating blogs with their undisclosed promotions, all casual blog readers need to be on alert. And what does it say about those sponsors willing to reach their audience this way?

Dear Sir/Mam
I’m a tech&auto blogger at xxxxxxxxxxxx.com and social media Influencer for Brands like Toyota,Allianz,Cars.com,Victorinox,Brainwavz,Asus,Videscape.com etc under sponsored digital marketing campaigns.

I’m interested to participate in paid/sponsored social media promotion and marketing campaigns of tech products& gadgets,
Please assist me to connect with the concerned team.
Regards

Blog Details:
Blog:https://www.xxxxxxxxxxxx
Google Pagerank: 02
Monthly Traffic: 7,000-10,000
Domain Age: 1 year

The direction Influencer Marketing could have, and should have, taken.

The mass-market direction for Influencer Marketing over the next year seems pretty clear to me. Today’s hype is all about brokering commercial deals between pay-for-play tweeters & bloggers and ‘brands’. Brands are desperate to get as many people talking about them as possible, to explore every outlet, and tweeters would love to be paid for their tweets. Both sides want each other, even if the customer or prospect is the one to lose.

The problem is that reaching out to real influencers is difficult, with no guaranteed RoI and certainly no predictable rate of that return. And that doesn’t fit comfortably with today’s need for guaranteed, predictable measures.

It wont last, but it’s set for the next year or so because it helps the metrics that marketers have set for themselves. Having adopted one of the many marketing automation systems (a la Eloqua, Marketo, etc.) they now need to ensure their marketing programs are well reflected in it, and # of social channels, # of retweets / reblogs / shares, size of potential audience, are valuable metrics for this. Forget they’re having no effect on sales, they are reaching an audience.

So marketing agencies, and it is the agencies who are moving this agenda, are improving their odds by reaching out to the most willing individuals. These individuals may not be influencers, almost certainly they’re not, but they’re willing, they’ll reliably add to the brand’s outreach channels. Most importantly, they’re available for hire.

I’ll give it nine months before the groundswell of opinion turns on it. But there’s so clearly a better direction Influencer Marketing could have taken.

The fundamental reason for reaching out to real influencers was, and should continue to be, to improve your chances of completing a sale. These ‘social influencer’ services divorce any connection between marketing and sales.

To reconnect marketing with sales you have to first analyze which individuals are involved in the prospect’s decision-making process – and which aren’t. Now if you could reliably understand who was important and who wasn’t to a sale, in advance of any purchase decision – and be able to scale that process across industries and across regions – well, that would be truly powerful. But it’s not a direction most in Influencer Marketing seem to be pursuing.

Why would a marketer turn to bloggers they’ve never heard of to help their outreach?

Why would a marketer turn to bloggers they’d never heard of to take their brand message to their highly valued prospects? I’ve never been able to work that one out.

Every marketer should strive to understand their company’s customers and prospects. That’s a given surely. In some B2B markets there are no important bloggers. None. Now if those marketers know their market at all, and let’s hope they do, they’ll already have an idea which, if any, bloggers in their space carry any credibility. Let’s be generous and say that 10% of bloggers on a particular B2B subject are listened to by potential buyers. Don’t you think a marketer would have a pretty good idea which 10% were most credible? And which should just be ignored.

So why would they pay a ‘blogger platform’ company to ‘suggest’ tens or even hundreds of previously unknown bloggers, none of which the vendor then has a direct relationship with. Those bloggers, all of whom have made themselves available for hire, then agree to promote or reference the marketer’s message in their posts? It’s a nonsense, doing untold damage to the marketer’s brand. And all while the talk in marketing circles is for brands to create ‘authentic conversations and relationships’ with their prospects and customers.

Marketers are always looking at starting intelligent conversations with their customers and prospects. The problem is that most often they don’t know where to begin. Why not begin by asking your prospects which bloggers they follow? Maybe give them a list to select from, if you really don’t want to leave a free choice. You’re asking them an intelligent question, you’ll probably get intelligent replies.

If any marketer were ever to compare the list of bloggers as voted by prospects, with those provided by the blogger platform sellers, the two would be very different. Blogger platforms offer up only those bloggers available for hawking. It’s insulting to hear them called influencers.

Why paid-for bloggers have nothing in common with ‘Passion at Work’

I once knew an extremely impressive man who wrote a book called ‘Passion at Work’. His book became the go-to reference for how to create stimulating, challenging and motivating workplaces throughout Britain and beyond. He actually made ‘passion’ sit comfortably alongside ‘work culture’. Not many can do that.

So when I get an email from a blogger outreach company advising on ‘worthwhile points when dealing with bloggers’, I immediately treat sentences like “Here’s one I’m really passionate about” with plenty of skepticism. When it leads on to “keep in touch with bloggers who genuinely love your company’s products” I’ve all but switched off.

The exact advice was, “Keeping in touch with bloggers who genuinely love what you offer is important. Send updates, new products and random gifts to stay on their minds and show up in their posts. Furthermore, when you need help promoting a piece of content or a new product, they’ll likely assist with authentic posts.”

I wondered what possible type of blogger she could be talking about.

It seems to me there’s now fundamentally three types of blogger. The first are those with something to say, an opinion they want to get across on a particular subject area – surfing, japanese design, becoming a sommelier, cloud architecture, etc. These people have a degree of knowledge and are deep-diving into the topic. They may well already be influential on that subject in the offline world and use blogging as an additional channel for their views.

The second type are those encouraged by the sound of their own voice, so they blog about everything going on in their world, however diverse or random the subjects. They go for the cult of personality. Some manage it and good luck to them. Blogging to them provides the same purpose as having a personal YouTube channel does to others. It’s personality-driven entertainment.

And the third type are those now being courted by the blogger platform peddlers. The databases now euphemistically called influence marketing platforms. These bloggers aren’t ‘passionate’ about any company’s products – they’re just willing to shuck a mention of those products in return for a payment.

I took a look recently at the most frequently referenced bloggers on a number of B2B issues over the past eighteen months. Mostly these were established consultants or journalists who use blogging as one outlet for their thoughts. I talked with five of them and asked if they’d been approached by these blogger platforms and if they knew of anyone they respected who’d accepted payments. The rule of thumb they said was that while almost 100% had been approached, perhaps 5% of their blogging peers had taken payments for commercial mentions. What’s more, this 5% were easily and immediately spotted by those inside the relevant industry sector and their credibility ‘re-assessed’. Less than a quarter of those 5% had decided to openly state on their blog that they were part of a commercial incentive.

So yes, there are influential, credible, subject-specific bloggers who are taking payments from commercial vendors. But they’re in the very small minority. Perhaps one in twenty of those approached. Do you think the vendors have thought about this?

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The influence marketing platform peddlers are trying to keep greasing the wheels of the marketing depts. by adding more and more bloggers to their PR distribution networks. That has nothing to do with either helping the salesforce or helping the buyer.

If the management team at each vendor was aware of this, do you think they’d allow their marketing depts. to continue supporting them?

More proof of the downhill slope for so-called ‘influencer marketing platforms’

I read this news story this morning. This first para explains itself.

“Influencer marketing platform, NeoReach, announces a $1.5M seed round lead by Michael Baum’s Founder.org. The company rewards users for sharing brands and products that they love. Unlike traditional influencer marketing platforms, NeoReach reduces the financial focus by leveraging a targeted matching algorithm and allowing the influencer and blogger to have the final say regarding which products they chose to endorse.”

So, “unlike traditional influencer marketing platforms”, I assume they mean the bubble gum ones that have sprung up over the past year!, this one allows “the influencer and blogger to have the final say regarding which products they chose to endorse.” So what they’re claiming is that with other databases (for that’s what these ‘platforms’ actually are), the influencer and blogger (one and the same person in their world), don’t have the final say in what they endorse!

If a brand pays its money and selects a particular blogger to say something nice about it, then the blogger has to say it!

Could these ‘platform’ companies spiral down-market any faster than they are? And could the true meaning of the word ‘influencer’ get trashed any further?

Just recorded an interview for Paul Gillin’s excellent podcast series

Nick Hayes, Influencer50, Influencer Marketing, The Buyerside JourneyRecorded a very enjoyable 20mins interview with social marketing guru Paul Gillin earlier in the week. It’s now available on the Hobson & Holtz Report site here:

We covered plenty of ground – why vendors have so little understanding of those influencing their prospects, why certain types of influencers are routinely being ignored, the trio of online to offline influencers, and of course, the perils of so-called ‘influence marketing platforms’.

Hopefully you’ll find it’s worth a listen. Hat-tip again to Paul – he does a great podcast series. And there’s no-one in our industry I respect more.

I guess it had to happen – an approach from an ‘influence marketing platform’ company!

I guess it had to happen. I was directly emailed on Friday by one of the ‘influence marketing platform’ companies. And my view on them went from very bad to even worse.

On opening the mail I assumed I was about to be harangued for so criticizing them in the past. I think the whole notion of these ‘platforms’ is terrible – they’re just databases linking vendor marketing depts. with freelancers willing to post about that vendor for payment. Can you imagine any credible individual, with real buyer authority, ever being willing to trade that hard-won credibility for a few under-hand payments and a new line in “Am posting this while snacking on some delicious new cappuccino Oreos”?

Their email actually said that they’d identified me as ‘a marketing thought-leader’, that they had tracked this blog’s subject area and that as a result, I might like to consider using my ‘undoubted influence’ (oh the irony of it) to earn additional income by partnering with brands they represented to share my ‘positive thoughts’ on those brands. It said other ‘influencers’ were earning ‘considerable’ amounts through this process. And it gave me a link to their online ‘partner’ form.

So if I didn’t know it before, I’ve now had it confirmed that no-one at this firm is actually reading the blogs & tweets of those ‘influencers’ they’re approaching – they just have bots sucking up relevant words and phrases and then a mass-mailing app which spams them. I can only assume they’re not telling their clients their ‘influencers’ have been so poorly selected.

Would you want those individuals really influencing your prospects to be treated like that?