INFLUENCER MARKETING 2020: RISE OF THE MICRO-INFLUENCER

Influencer marketing has changed considerably over the past couple of years.

At its core, it’s really just an extension of selling ad space, or accepting a sponsorship. Influencers curate a large audience, usually one built around a cult of personality, and would lend their name to a particular brand. Before we had Instagram, we had endorsement deals for major celebrities. Before endorsement deals, we had “soap operas” where the action would break, live on camera, in the middle of an episode so the star of the show could tell us about a new vacuum cleaner or something.

With the advent of social media came the diversification of celebrity status, and the potential to curate hugely devoted niche audiences. Video game developers would pay major streamers (who broadcast their gameplay sessions to an audience) to showcase a particular game, for instance, or to say nice things about it.

Soon enough, this new marketing approach opened up a whole new job category: the professional influencer. With an insanely low bar for entry, and a high ceiling on potential wealth, the job attracted far more influencers than could ever possibly thrive. Not everyone’s screenplay turns into a billion dollar franchise, either, but it could be anyone’s, so influencers sprang up in astonishing numbers. These personalities would curate massive follower bases, and could charge upwards of six figures for a single paid product mention. All the better, at least from a brand perspective, if that mentioned seemed to be genuine.

There was a fuzzy space, a couple of years ago, where influencers were presenting paid content as though it were simple happenstance or personal preference. (“Aren’t morning greens smoothies just the best? I’m so happy with my VitaJet 220 Blender, with its Double-Size Smoothie Cup and Variable Blade Attachments!”)

If the sponsorship could fly under the radar, the post tended to carry more sway with the audience.

It wasn’t strictly clear, at first, how to process the legalities surrounding this sort of thing. The FCC has since mandated that sponsorships need to be disclosed, largely as a response to a number of amusing missteps.

We’ve mentioned a few of those missteps before. In one memorable example, an influencer hastily posted the screenshot of the email which gave him the instructions for the deceptively genuine post he was paid to make, rather than the image for the product itself.

INFLUENCER MARKETING IN 2020

It has since become a much more tightly regulated industry. In 2020, there are serious penalties for failure to disclose the sponsorship for paid content, and on balance, while there are still a few monolithic influential titans with massive audiences commanding enormous sums for sponsored posts, most brands have dodged the potential of the burst bubble and the oversaturated influencer economy has started to level out.

This has lead to the rise of the micro-influencer.

THE RISE OF THE MICRO-INFLUENCER

Micro-influencers occupy a particular sweet-spot in the influencer economy. Their follower sizes aren’t titanic, but they tend to be quite respectable. What matters for their brand potential is their engagement ratio. A billion passive followers aren’t worth a handful of active ones. More personal-level influencers have an audience that is just as dedicated, but much more engagement driven.

They like, they comment, they converse, they share, they interrelate, and they develop a dialogue with the influencer in question.

That’s the real value in these influencer profiles. A mega-star might command an audience in the tens of millions, but a tiny percentage will actually engage with a dialogue. Micro-influencers (generally regarded as having an audience in the tens or hundreds of thousands, not exceeding half a million) have an audience with a great deal more of a personal connection to the influencer’s identity.

Because of this personal connection, Micro-influences are a great deal more attractive to potential sponsors than the bigger names in the industry.

Does your local band take out a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad for your first arena show, or do they spend a fraction of that cost putting up flyers and taking out sponsored mentions on some leading music industry blogs?
Micro-influencers accept somewhere between $250 and $500 (on a very loose average) for each sponsored post. That’s a far cry from the tens of thousands commanded by larger names, but it’s not trivial either, and it reflects the work those influencers have put in to curate an enthusiastic audience.

Micro-influencers are much more affordable, with a much more engaged audience. They’re the natural choice.

INSTAGRAM’S CREATOR ACCOUNTS, AND THE ACCESSIBILITY OF PRO-GRADE TOOLS

Another major factor that has helped empower micro-influencers is the more common availability of professional grade media creation tools. Just about every cell phone on the market right now has a high-resolution camera of one sort or another, and the flagship models are surpassing even those lofty benchmarks. Indeed, phone manufacturers have been in something of an arms race to provide professional quality image and video in consumer-friendly devices.

For a modest start-up investment, micro-influencers can set up light and sound rigs that are comparable to professional-quality equivalents, at least as far as their audiences tend to be concerned.

It’s only been a few years since that kind of image quality was exclusive to the major media studios (hardly cost-efficient for an independent influencer) but since 2017 it’s become almost de rigeur to see professional-quality images, boomerang clips, high-resolution video, and slick animations on just about any influencer’s feed.

It goes without saying that, at least for now, Instagram is the place to be for influencer marketing. Now owned by Facebook, the Instagram platform has become the preferred host for the overwhelming majority of sponsored content. Instagram has taken notice, too, and has begun to offer Creator Accounts with more of those influencer-targeted tools available. Think of them as similar to Facebook’s available business pages, contrasted with their personal accounts.

THE QUESTIONS BRANDS SHOULD BE ASKING

So, a brand looking for an influencer has a lot of choice, with a high potential conversion rate and a relatively low minimum effective spend threshold. A few hundred thousand dollars will get a mention from a major pop culture icon, but a few hundred dollars will buy a tailored, personalized mention from an influencer with an audience numbering in six digits of devoted fans.

With so many influencers around, how should a brand effectively choose which influencer to partner with?

First off, a brand should evaluate a particular influencer’s real audience. A follower count is just a number, right? It doesn’t tell you anything at all about how many of those accounts are active. Some less scrupulous influencers, capitalizing on the lucrative market, pay a small fee for follows from bot accounts to inflate their numbers, hoping to sneak the paucity of their audience under the radar.

Rather than focusing on the raw numbers, read back over some of the posts and see whether they’re being commented upon or shared. If the audience routinely engages with them in a more personal way, then that influencer will be vastly more worthwhile for your brand.

That is, so long as the influencer feels like a natural fit.

AUTHENTICITY, AND STRIKING A BALANCE WITH BRANDED CONTENT

Influencer marketing works best when it comes from an honest, authentic place. If your product or service doesn’t feel like a natural fit, it’ll seem shameless and transparent, and your potential audience is more likely to disengage from your brand.

For example, many smaller creators and influencers are being sponsored by SquareSpace, or Wix. These website building platforms feel like a natural fit. The influencer can quite honestly attest that the service was useful for them in building their own website, and they’re proud of the look and the layout and so on. They would likely be posting links to their own site anyway, and the sponsorship has the feeling of being more of a partnership than a paid plug.

Curiosity Stream and Brilliant, both online learning tools, often sponsor informative content, like YouTube videos about history or physics. The sponsorship feels like a natural extension of the services they already offer.

It’s absolutely paramount that the sponsorship be acknowledged, but if leveraged thoughtfully, that can actually add to the value of the advertising message. While “Native Advertising” has taken on some derogatory connotations (it often tried to be sneaky) sponsoring content gives your brand an air of familiarity and helpfulness. The audience already trusts the influencer to point them in the right direction, and you want your sponsorship to help build that trust, rather than damage it.

The audience likes what the influencer has to say. The influencer is able to make a living by posting, with the help of sponsors. Brands that feel the influencer’s audience would benefit from their product get the message out, and everyone wins something.

So as long as your brand isn’t trying to put one past us, you’re probably in the clear. Influencer marketing, like all best practices in digital marketing, is about honesty, authenticity, and clarity.

I work to make the web a more beautiful, accessible, and functional place. I use dreams as a form of planning. And I play because it’s fun.