Some claim that influencer marketing is dead, but the numbers don’t lie. Business Insider reported on new data that projects the influencer marketing industry will be worth $15 billion by as soon as 2022—an 88% increase from its $8 billion value in 2019.
Positive results are driving those projections. Data from a 2019 survey of marketers showed that 65% of influencer marketing budgets are slotted to increase in 2020, 89% say ROI from influencer marketing is comparable to or better than other marketing channels, and 17% of companies spend over half of their marketing budget on influencer marketing.
And in the midst of the current situation surrounding coronavirus, influencers have only become more valuable to brands as companies search for ways to keep their audiences engaged without coming across as tone deaf.
Others agree with this sentiment. Amy Luca wrote in AdAge that reports indicating ‘influencer marketing is dead’ have been greatly exaggerated. The reality, she explains, is that influencer marketing will only become more legitimate over time for brands who’ve created long-term partnerships that drive real, meaningful impacts and results. Luca Writes:
Now is the time for brands to totally rethink their influencer partnerships and compensation models, re-evaluating the true metrics that drive the business and optimizing toward them. Other metrics such as purchase intent, brand awareness, brand affinity, etc. should be deployed so that influencer marketing can be compared properly to other marketing channels.
On influencer marketing within limited verticals. Before we study the present and beyond, let’s first look back at how influencer marketing has evolved in recent years. Over the past five years, influencer marketing has experienced rapid growth, as evidenced by the surge in platforms and agencies focused on influencer-driven strategy. Data from IMH showed that while there were just 190 influencer platforms and agencies in 2015, there are now more than 800 in 2019 — a 321% increase. Google Trends data also illustrates a rapid uptick in interest around the term ‘influencer marketing’ beginning in 2016.
Platform-wise, Instagram has been the gold standard for these campaigns with 79% of brands tapping this particular channel for influencer-driven content. Other platforms lag behind: 46% use Facebook while 36% use YouTube.
And although interest has grown around influencer marketing, the verticals deploying it have remained somewhat limited: Fashion and beauty brands have historically dominated the landscape. In fact, a report from Glossy indicated that of 133 fashion and beauty brands worldwide, just 12% were not using influencers.
But now, influencers aren’t just effective for marketing products within those limited verticals. Modern brands are finding that influencers can be leveraged in new and different categories as well. The range and scope of influencers is expanding—and there’s still endless opportunity.
On influencer marketing during a pandemic. At present, influencer marketing is seeing a surge in interest and deployment in light of the situation around coronavirus. Many brands are leaning on partnerships with influencers more than usual in the face of their retail stores being closed and in response to consumer attention that’s increasingly directed toward social platforms.
Why? Because working with influencers allows brands to continue to tell stories and move product (albeit indirectly) through an external voice while remaining mindful of the pandemic context.
Influencer marketing proves extremely powerful in times of crisis if managed well and with significant expertise. Influencers can create persuasive content…and drive e-commerce sales as consumers find themselves in a new, extended stay-at-home economy. Influencers have the unique ability to reach brands’ audiences on the very devices and platforms they are turning to for information, enjoyment and connection.” 
But again, we must look to the numbers to arrive at an informed conclusion based on facts and data rather than assumptions, “hot takes,” and blanket statements.
Research from a study of 300 international marketers in 2019 showed that 93% were using social media influencers (most often for content promotion and product launches.) Of those surveyed, 84% said they believe influencer marketing is successful, while 35% said influencer marketing has the highest return on investment out of all marketing efforts. Additional data indicates 57% of marketers say influencer content outperforms their own brand content, while other survey insights show the average earned media value per $1 spent on influencer marketing is now $5.78 (more than 5X.) Vice President of Marketing at #paid, Roger Figueiredo explains:
Influencers are one of the quickest ways to get content that’s relevant. Especially during this time of uncertainty, we’re seeing brands turn to creators as the new agile creative agency to produce content at a fraction of the time and cost. Plus: these creators get real-time feedback and can quickly adjust their content to match the tone of culture.
So…is influencer marketing dead? The short answer: No. In fact, it’s alive and well. When executed correctly, influencer marketing is still very much a powerful tool.
Influencer marketing success story: NOBULL
Athletic apparel brand NOBULL is leaning into influencer partnerships amidst the coronavirus crisis, recognizing an opportunity to rally its community and to keep people moving while safely complying with shelter-in-place laws.
With a roster of influencer athlete partners already on board, they’ve found strategic and creative ways to leverage those existing relationships, including things like livestreaming a home tie-dye activity with CrossFitter Sam Dancer to more than 10,000 viewers on Instagram to a TikTok challenge that garnered over one million views. They’re also offering athlete-led workouts hosted by athlete partners @BrookeWellss, @KatrinTanja, and @TiaClair1 on Instagram Live.
These influencer-led engagements are already paying off: Since March 17th, NOBULL has gained more than 15,000 new Instagram followers, earned more than 21 million impressions, and achieved more than 170,000 engagements. NOBULL’s Vice President of Marketing, Todd Meleny explained on these efforts:
We’re doing our part to lead the community with optimism. The audience engagement has been overwhelming, and despite our retail stores closing and several other revenue channels being impacted, we’re proud to have a community of people who are willing to come together to motivate and encourage each other, even from a distance. These efforts have helped us maintain a strong online business during uncertain times.
Influencer partner spotlight: Katrin Davidsdottir
One of NOBULL’s most notable influencer partnerships is with Iceland-native Katrin Davidsdottir, the most well-known female athlete in the world of CrossFit. Davidsdottir won the CrossFit Games not once, but twice, and was featured on the cover of ESPN’s Body Edition in 2019.
Her relationship with NOBULL started through her coach, Ben Bergeron, who trains with Katrin in Boston and was a friend of the brand. “I got to watch their business start from the sidelines,” Davidsdottir said. “Seeing how they worked behind the scenes, I knew they had solid core values.”
This was the beginning of the road that would ultimately lead to their partnership—and to Davidsdottir leaving long-time sponsor Reebok to work with NOBULL. Davidsdottir explained:
Leaving Reebok was a hard decision for me, but ultimately I felt like NOBULL had a very strong sense of who they were, what they stood for, and where they wanted to go…which drew me to them. I saw big potential.
Since their partnership began last year, NOBULL has leveraged Davidsdottir as an influencer in a variety of ways: From content shoots in Iceland and Austria to inclusion in NOBULL’s short film Who I’ve Always Been that spotlights her journey toward becoming one of the fittest women in the world. The expanded reach this partnership provides has helped build brand awareness, driven sales, and boosted engagement across the brand’s social channels. NOBULL Co-Founder Micheal Schaeffer:
Katrin fully embodies everything it means to be NOBULL. Her dedication to the process of improving her fitness fully aligns with our belief that the reward comes from putting in the work day after day.
An added bonus: Davidsdottir has a whopping 1.7 million Instagram followers of her own, which is an additional platform for NOBULL product features that also acts as a stamp of approval from a trusted source.
On influencer marketing expansion. Looking forward to late 2020 and beyond, influencer marketing will flourish as brands find creative new ways to leverage these context-rich marketing partnerships. However, we can expect to see a few things change in the future as marketing departments work to become more strategic about these types of collaborative engagements.
On more data-driven decision-making. While results of many past and present influencer marketing partnerships have been evaluated based on vanity metrics like follower counts, likes/comments, or general website traffic, in the future we’ll likely see a much stronger focus on data and metrics that paint a clear picture of ROI for each campaign. This will likely be aided by tools and platforms that enable more effective tracking and/or more hands-on involvement with influencers’ social accounts.
On advertising budgets put behind influencer content. As marketers become more data-driven with their influencer collaborations, they’ll look to invest more advertising dollars into these campaigns to boost the content’s reach and to extend its lifespan with the target audience. The kicker: Brands will likely look to sponsor content through the influencers’ accounts as well as their own brand-owned handles.
On long-term partnerships. In place of one-off engagements, brands who engage their influencer partners on a long-term basis will win the future of influencer marketing. When brands and their respective products are reinforced over time to influencers’ loyal followings, deeper connections can be established. We can expect to see less fleeting brand spotlights from influencers and more partnerships where the influencer is a true representative of a brand that acts as an extension of the company.
On new roles in new verticals. In the past, celebrities were the people brands turned to when working to build influence and authority with an audience. Today influencers are becoming celebrities within their niche communities—and they’re far more accessible and relatable than celebrities often feel, too. As such, influencers are becoming consumers’ go-to source for product recommendations, which means in the future we can expect to see them hold new roles across verticals.
Influencers will no longer be limited to categories like fashion and beauty, either: We’re already seeing them used (especially by DTC brands) to promote food and beverage products, lawn care items, disaster preparedness kits, home goods, and more.
Brands within these expanded verticals are already influencer collaborations pay off. For example, Casey Craighead with DTC furniture brand Sixpenny said that as a company only selling products online, working with influencers is a rich, contextual way for potential customers to see their products styled in different environments and integrated into peoples’ lives—all without that content coming across as a hard sales pitch. It’s working, too: As a result of their influencer marketing efforts, they’ve seen up to a 300% increase in website traffic on days when influencer content is shared. VP of Marketing, Roger Figueiredo:
Influencer marketing isn’t dead—things are just getting started. In the next couple years or decades, the medium for communication might change. Wherever it is, creators will be there—with their cameras on, sharing experiences, entertaining, and educating people. Influencer marketing will go on.
Influencer marketing isn’t dead
Influencer marketing still holds endless opportunity for brands that understand how to leverage these partners in authentic, relevant ways—and this will remain true even after we get past the current pandemic-imposed restrictions and limitations on businesses.
Regardless of the vertical, influencers are often the authority figures modern consumers look to when making purchasing decisions. As such, companies that find relevant influencer partners for their unique audiences will have a major competitive advantage (as well as expanded reach and influence) while advertising costs continue to climb, as attention spans continue to shrink, and as email inboxes become even more crowded.
Addressing confusion around the basics
Based on the polarized opinions around the topic of influencer marketing, it’s clear there’s quite a bit of confusion and discord at present. Rightfully so. From the effectiveness of macro vs. micro influencers to what you’re actually paying for, there’s a lot for marketers to know and understand around these engagements and partnerships—like what makes them successful, which channels to use, who to engage with, and more.
Roger Figueiredo, VP of Marketing at influencer marketing platform #paid, sheds some light on the answers to some of the more common questions.
Macro vs. micro-influencers
Which should marketers use: Macro or micro-influencers?
Figueiredo shared that smaller influencer audiences often mean more targeted audiences. As creator follower count grows, their audience becomes more diverse, which makes it harder to deliver personalized messages to a specific audience segment. So while brands may pay premiums to partner with macro influencers, the message may only appeal to a fraction of that influencer’s total audience. “Brands should pick batches of creators with smaller follower counts (5,000-25,000) to match each of their target segments, then personalize messages from there,” he said. “If your appeal is broad enough, however, macro still makes sense.”
Gifting vs. paying your influencers
Gifting in influencer marketing happens when you send your brand’s product to influencers hoping that they’ll talk about you on their social feed. Daniel Wellington turned into a $200MM business with this approach. There’s a place for this. No doubt. For one, it makes it easy to get started with influencer marketing. It’s affordable. The cost of the program is pretty much the cost of the inventory. Even if you splurge on packaging, it’s still less costly than a paid campaign.
Here’s another advantage: you get your product directly into the hands of creators—many that probably never heard of you. By sending your product, you’re giving them the chance to try it without having to discover it on their own. If they like your product, you’ll potentially expose your brand to a whole new audience. Sounds like gifting is the way to go, then. It can be. But it also has its challenges.
Challenge One: sitting at your favorite creator’s doorstep are a bunch of other “gifts.” All screaming for attention. On top of competing with other brands who are gifting, you’re also up against products and brands the creator already loves and uses—brands and products the creator is probably eager to promote. Brand and products that are compensating her for the time she invests developing that oh-so-coveted engaging content.
That delicious creative work doesn’t just come out of thin air. It takes literal sweat. Sometimes even tears. For the best creators, this is how they make a living. So while your product is cool, that dope pair of shirts you just sent won’t pay the rent, tuition, or medical insurance. If you want to work with meaningful creators (the ones with word-of-mouth-like influence), show them that you appreciate the work and pay them.
Challenge Two: gifting isn’t always predictable, especially at the start when you have no historical data telling you how many DMs you need to slide into for a response, or how many gifts you need to send out to reach that target number of posts. Over time, you’ll develop the creator funnel, and build consistency into your campaigns. Like many things, it just takes time. You’ll get there. But you might want to consider hiring a dedicated person to support this. Managing a funnel like this is enough work for a full-time gig.
Challenge Three: You have little control, if any, over the narrative. It’s hard to make sure that your product shows up in its proper context, or that the message accurately represents what your brand’s all about and what it stands for. And of course a big part of the narrative is the production value. You can’t police the quality of the work. How do you prevent the content from being inauthentic, poor quality, and boring? You can’t really. They’re not being paid. They don’t answer to you.
Now don’t get me wrong, gifting is better than not tapping into influencer marketing at all. But it’s really just a small sniff of the channel’s potential. I’d at least explore paying your creators. In many cases, it’s a cheat code to predictability. If you’re working with the right creators, paying them means guaranteed deliverables that meet your criteria.
And most importantly, paying creators shows them you value their work. Shows that you get the potential in the partnership. They respect your business. Paying them shows that you respect theirs. If you want a true ambassador who’s going to mobilize a multitude, paying your creator partners is good marketing.
Organic vs. whitelisting
In the past, if brands wanted to get large organic distribution, they had to partner with the original influencers: Celebrities. But social media has changed that. Now the gates are open to the point where non-celebrities can build audiences and gain influence with large groups of people.
With organic influencer marketing campaigns, you’re reaching a creator’s subscribed audience. These are the people who’ve willingly signed on to follow that influencer and to be impacted by their recommendations and endorsements. Essentially, it’s undiluted word-of-mouth at scale. Roger Figueiredo:
With organic, you’re buying a distribution channel, which is a viable method for getting your messages to the right people through the mouths of influential people. The fact that it’s coming from a creator makes this distribution channel much like word-of-mouth, and because the channel is a person, that person’s reputation and credibility are vicariously attributed to your brand.
In contrast, whitelisting allows brands to reach new audiences that have not yet subscribed to the creator’s channel or feed. Creator whitelisting allows brands to pick a handful of creators and to run paid social ads through the influencers’ handles (instead of their own brand handles.) Although the ads are delivered from another handle—the creator’s—the brand manages them like the rest of their ad campaigns, including oversight of objectives and optimizations. Figueiredo:
Whitelisting allows brands to leverage the power of paid social media in a different way: Instead of working with hundreds of influencers to achieve scale, marketing teams can work with a select few a and get the same results with less oversight required.
Content vs. distribution
The reality is: You’re never buying just content or just distribution when it comes to influencer marketing. To buy the distribution, creators still have to create the content—and it needs to be high-quality. To buy the content, brands have to have creators post it to their channels so it gets distribution.
As a result, oftentimes performance marketers will team up with brand and social counterparts to split the cost: The brand and social team will cover the cost of the content, while the performance/growth/media team will cover the cost of the distribution. In this case, both teams are happy: One team gets low-cost, high-quality content while the other gets affordable distribution.
That said, there are still things to be mindful of when it comes to the content and distribution discussion around influencer marketing—like where the workload falls. Figueiredo ended with one final point of direction.
All that expensive production work your agency would normally do is being done by the creator, and one of the biggest points of frustration for creators is that brands don’t understand how much work goes into creating the content that goes onto their feeds. It’s important for brands to show enthusiasm for both creators and their content and make sure they know their work is appreciated.
Special Report by Kaleigh Moore | Edited by Web Smith | About 2PM
Editor’s Note: Thank you to the industry-leading team at #paid for partnering on this research. It couldn’t be done without the cooperation of their team. In addition, thank you to the executive team at NOBULL and author, media personality, and two-time Fittest Woman in The World Katrin Davidsdottir. Lastly, a special thank you to Kaleigh Moore: a frequent 2PM collaborator. Her work is thorough and authentic.