In December 2019, 1nfluencersMarketing, a technology platform using AI to help brands get the most out of their influencer marketing programs, partnered with MMP WorldWide to launch its services in the region. Jeanette Okwu, Co-Founder & CMO, explains how recent global events have transformed the industry, and how the shift from ‘aspirational’ to ‘action’ is key for brands aiming to disseminate their own message for change.

How have the pandemic, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and other global, social, political, and economic issues affected the influencer marketing vertical in your view?

Media budgets came to a screeching halt at the beginning of the pandemic and influencers were affected tremendously because campaigns were halted, postponed, or canceled altogether. The challenge for them was to pivot – particularly for those that had a big focus on travel, which was no longer possible. Many influencers’ bread and butter income prior to the outbreak came from travel and events to showcase the ‘picture perfect’ lifestyle that brands were keen for their audience to see. Then, almost overnight, we saw influencers quarantining inside with the rest of the world. Their content was far from glamorous all of a sudden; yoga clothes replaced evening gowns and long eyelashes made room for mental health remedies. And the audience responded, following and engaging with influencer content like never before. During the first few weeks of lockdown, nearly 80% of influencers reported higher engagement. In particular, engagement on sponsored content increased by over 40%.

Now, as we hopefully slip into the post-Covid phase, we most likely won’t see influencers abandon this new creative direction. I think that instead, we will see a much more balanced feed between the real life influencers most certainly have and their professional endeavors. The shift from ‘aspiration’ to ‘action’ is here to stay, especially in light of other global issues finding a platform on social media today. This is just the beginning for change on a scale we haven’t yet seen in this vertical.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for influencer marketing today?

The past four months have been a big challenge for everybody; no-one has emerged unscathed. Well-established influencer programs put content creators, as well as brands, on an uncertain path leaving both sides with many questions. This was disruption to our daily lives like never before. But sometimes, the best ideas can come when the chips are down. There has been some amazing storytelling happening across the board, particularly on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. What aided creativity is the unparalleled output of new features on all major platforms. Live-streaming took off in a way no-one saw coming. [Global] usage of Facebook Live and Messenger Live shot up (50% and 70% respectively) since January. IGTV found a new place in the public’s social consciousness. Facebook worked quickly to roll out new features to allow content creators to publish more freely with personalized filters and monetize from their streams. As things evolve further post-lockdown, we’ll likely see more sophisticated tools emerge across all the key platforms. In fact, some new features made me think that even social networks themselves were thriving on constraints presented by the lockdown.

What percentage of budgets do you expect to see brands allocating for influencer marketing in Q3/Q4 and into 2021?

That’s tricky to predict right now, as the market is still so volatile and everything has shifted from where the year started. Although a relatively young phenomenon, the rapid influencer marketing growth rate and the popularity of social media influencers aren’t going to cease, especially now. From being worth $1.7 billion in 2016, [the market] has grown more than three times to reach $5.6 billion in 2019. Pre-Corona projections were that budgets would rise up to $10 billion in 2020. That might still be the case when brands have rejigged their marketing budgets for Q3 and Q4. For the future, I see the discipline maturing and becoming an integral part of any marketing strategy. I believe that the pandemic has fast-forwarded adoption, especially as the ROI from influencer marketing is x11 more effective than banner ads.

What are brands looking for from their influencer marketing strategy today, particularly in the wake of Covid-19?

There is a lot more to social media influencing than just posting content and increasing followers. Sophisticated influencer marketing campaigns that bring ROI need to be treated like any other marketing discipline. There is no shortcut or magic wand that can be waved to guarantee instant success, massive sales, and a brand that is top of mind for everyone. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s a nimble process.

Even though there are now tools and platforms, like the 1nfluencersMarketing platform, that help streamline and scale the process, there is still a lot of work that goes into a program. Imagine you are running influencer activities in numerous countries with hundreds of influencers; that needs to be managed and optimized regularly. You can’t automate everything. I still see brands treating the discipline as an add-on or standalone, rather than integrating it into their overall strategy. Doing it this way is a missed opportunity, and if I’m being brutally honest, is like throwing good money down the drain. A solid strategy paired with an effective process lays the groundwork. What follows then is the technology that will allow the Influencer Marketing Manager to confidently search for the right brand partner. Our goal is to help educate and inform on the process. Digital success is more important than ever as offline events are still not happening, and this can only be achieved if you are working with people who can help take the guesswork out.

What are influencers looking for in their brand partners?

I see the relationship as an equal opportunity partnership. The brand reaches out to an influencer because they are a shortcut to their ideal target audience; that is invaluable for both parties, as the influencer will also have spent a long time building up their following.

Brands can have difficulty giving up control at the beginning of the influencer partnership, sending a brief that is basically a carbon copy of their marketing messages, without much room for interpretation. Influencers are mostly looking for long-term partnerships in order to predict their cashflow. Brands, in turn, are moving away from transactional collaborations and instead favor partnerships that allow both sides to grow and profit from the engagement.

The way I see the perfect influencer/brand partnership play out is that a marketeer has an understanding of the influencer creative process and trusts their expertise when it comes to creating that content. I would also like to see influencers become marketeers themselves, so they have an understanding of how everything works together. This way, they can create content that serves several needs for the brand – i.e. flexible and adaptable assets that can be used on their social channels, in their email communication, or even in advertising, whilst also learning how they themselves can improve their personal brand.

How do you think influencer marketing has evolved over time?

It’s not been a linear process, and I think the last six months have certainly accelerated the evolution. Influencer content in the past was expected to look perfect and sell a certain type of lifestyle. The lockdown has changed that narrative. Content expectations have changed. We’re now drawn in by more raw, ‘in the moment’ snapshots, because our reality is not some filtered perfection. Escapism is great, as long as it’s authentic. As such, influencers who can work across multiple content categories, and reach audiences with BTS (behind the scenes) creative work for brands will thrive.

Whatever happens in the future, going back to the old way of doing things just won’t work. Covid-19 and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement have changed our perception of the world. The audience understands and is very much aware of the power it has on social media to affect change, which means both brands and influencers need to tread carefully with the kinds of content they put out and engage with. The age of accountability in influencer marketing is here. It’s the consumer need that should be served right now, not a brand or influencer agenda. It seems many changes are happening bottom to top, with customers putting pressure on brands to be honest about their messages. My advice is that if you think about hopping on the bandwagon just in order to sell your stuff… DON’T.

Let’s talk about the role of tech vs creativity. How important is finding the right balance in today’s influencer marketing campaigns?

The sheer amount of influencers that brands have to search for, vet, and then approach has become almost unmanageable. If Marketing Managers want to scale their influencer marketing efforts, technology is a must. Let’s say I want to run a campaign with 20 influencers. I would need to approach at least 100 influencers. And that’s after I have spent time looking up, say, 300 to 500 influencers overall. Doing this manually and via Google Search is hard and time-consuming. I also won’t be able to go beyond the vanity metrics that are visible on social media, which tell me nothing about the actual ‘makeup’ of an influencer account. Still, with all the technology available, the human element remains an important part of the overall process. Successful influencers do not want to get generic mass emails when being considered for a collaboration. They want to speak to a person who knows who they are and why the brand wants to collaborate. It’s a people business after all. Technology simply helps to make everything easier and more transparent.

What role do you think experiential technologies will play in the future of influencer marketing and brand activations?

Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other big players are all making incredibly interesting moves that will likely set the tone for the next era of social and tech. Themes like augmented reality, encryption, news, and equality are all coming into play more and more. UI evolution plays a pivotal role as the platforms become more sophisticated. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will soon be the norm for sure, but it’s Snapchat that is leading the pack here, as they were one of the first to capitalize on this tech, building bigger and better features with each iteration. They truly do come out with products that excite and thrill their users. Main ingredients like computing, augmented reality, and the cameras in our phones and headsets will be the perfect combination to turn creativity into utility. This means that AR will move away from being solely entertainment and will enable our everyday items to have multiple functions. We’re just at the beginning of this experiential journey.

What is the growth potential of the 1nfluencersMarketing platform market?

1nfluencersMarketing was built with two things in mind: creating harmony between people and brands by bringing trust and relevance to advertising; and delivering ROI for both brands and creators. We advocate meaningful, transparent, and authentic exchanges between our brand and agency customers and our network of influencers. We use technology every step of the way to make initiatives efficient and effective, whilst allowing for campaign managers to manage influencers with a human touch. It’s paramount that we make sure our clients don’t pay for fake followers, run smooth campaigns end-to-end, and optimize for future programs and ROI. We see our MENA expansion as a way to bring this platform to a fledgeling influencer marketing market. Adoption in the region is picking up and the pressure is high to measure up to other, more established influencer markets. Our aim is to help regional influencers adopt global best practices, whilst still ensuring local nuances are observed. Our partnership with MMPWW is built on a shared philosophy of keeping things simple, open, and transparent. Their core programmatic offering lends itself naturally as a content creation partner, so expect lots of exciting developments coming very soon from us.

What are the top strategies that players are expected to adopt in the coming years?

In the past, activities were often focused on using macro social celebrities, beefed up by vanity metrics. It was more quantity over quality. This kind of approach gave a bad rep to the budding marketing discipline. There was a lack of understanding of what it actually meant to be ‘influential’ to a brand. Transactional, one-off campaigns were not able to create a rapport with an influencer and more than once, so much potential went to waste. Influencers have influence; it’s easy to forget that. They have the ability to really help grow your brand awareness and drive sales in a powerful way, but they can also do more harm than good if you’re both not aligned. Investing in a long-term relationship with the right influencers for a brand allows for greater storytelling opportunities. Taking the work that you’re doing with influencers and integrating it into other aspects of the marketing organization as a whole is where I see programs being taken in the future. This could be online events or creating a co-branded product, for example. There are many different ways you can take a key narrative theme that primarily lives on social media and use it across your brand’s own marketing stack. Not only is this more cost-effective (remember, it’s already optimized for social), but it also allows for this really cohesive message that’s clear across all touchpoints. Finally, when creating an impactful influencer marketing program, it’s important to ensure a community-focused mindset. This means looking at influencers as being part of your broader brand community, whether your community consists of your customers, your affiliates, or just fans. Whoever it may be, including influencers into that community can offer multiple benefits.

Which markets hold the most promise for influencer marketing?

Since we are still in the formative years in this industry, it is hard to say. While the US is by far the most advanced in leveraging various programs, I see great potential in Europe and the Middle East. In this region, it’s exciting to see a shift going through the industry right now, as the typical influencer remit prior to Covid-19 was to attend events and do a few posts around that. Now, however, influencers have to reinvent themselves and think of a different offering that extends beyond PR events. I see the market maturing well on the back of the pandemic; it’s already experiencing a growth spurt as influencers go back to basics, identifying what their core offering is, and looking at how the content they create helps their audience and not their own red carpet experience. Overall, I see a bright future for influencer marketing when we keep in mind that it is a serious discipline that needs to be treated like any other marketing discipline – with professionalism.

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