Reclaiming Influencer Marketing

An outside observer would have to think we in the business community are schizophrenic online when it comes to influencer marketing. Every week brings new tweets and blog posts about the benefits and how-to’s of influencer marketing, as well as new tweets and blog posts that assert it’s on its way out and scoff at the whole notion of influencers. So what’s going on here? How can there be such a huge divide on the question of whether or not influencer marketing is sound business strategy?

The answer is simple: Influencer marketing, as it is most commonly understood online today, is not influencer marketing. Those who are bashing influencer marketing are not talking about influencer marketing in its true sense.

The majority of people blogging and tweeting about influencer marketing associate it with social media and ‘online influence’ scores. I can’t even begin to count the number of blog posts I see that, purporting to explain influencer marketing, go straight into discussing social media and Klout, as though that’s the only thing influencer marketing could possibly mean. This is frustrating to say the least, and not just because of the inflammatory K-word. For influencer marketing was around and described as such before the mass adoption of Facebook and Twitter.

Influencer marketing started offline, not online. It grew from the reality that vendors’ marketing dollars needed to be better spent and that there were people around the buyers unseen by the vendors who influenced the buyers’ decisions. Vendors knew who their customers were but not the people influencing their customers, which created a space in the market for Influencer Marketing to fill. The advent of Twitter or Facebook was in no way necessary to the rise of influencer marketing as an industry. Not at all.

In the last couple years, however, “influencer marketing” has been co-opted by online marketers and marketing services. It often feels as though the thinking went something like this: ‘There are people chatting on Twitter and Facebook about brands and products, so let’s try to market to them. And they’ll probably like it if we call them influencers.’ But they’re not. Influence consists in effecting a change in thinking or behavior. Getting someone to follow you on Twitter or retweet your tweets simply doesn’t count. (I think Spike Jones hit it on the head with, “They’re not influencers, they’re broadcasters.”) Unfortunately, this is what many people who spend a lot of time online really think influencer marketing is all about.

The danger in all of this is that influencer marketing may come to be seen as a fad. It’s not just that the deficiencies of the Klout approach give influencer marketing a bad name. It’s that the growing dismissal of Klout could lead people to think that influencer marketing is just another trend that should be dismissed as well. We need to ensure this doesn’t happen; otherwise everyone loses. I don’t just mean those like myself who work in influencer marketing, but businesses, be they startups or corporations, who can benefit a great deal from identifying and engaging with their influencers.

The people between the buyer and seller who influence the buyer’s decision-making – they’re  not a trend. They’ve always been there and always will. Companies can’t afford to ignore them. So the next time someone tells you influencer marketing is on its way out, ask him which influencer marketing he’s talking about. Chances are he’ll be flummoxed and say the Klout, social media kind is the only kind there is. And he’ll be wrong, on both accounts. Be sure to let him know.

David Fine is a Manager at Influencer50 in San Francisco. 
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