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Influencer Relationship Marketing & Influencer Marketplace – Why you need to know the difference

Four paper boats on a white surface representing influencer marketing.

Influencer marketing is taking off and for good reason. The power of authentic sponsored content from adored content creators has turned the once well-kept secret into a standard practice—and an $8 billion industry.

And while this rapid rise has led organizations worldwide to find success, the practice is still new and unfamiliar to many.

At this stage of the industry, organizations looking for influencer marketing services have more options than ever, whether they opt to manage campaigns in-house—potentially aided by influencer marketing workflow tools—work with an influencer-specialized marketing agency or, among the most recent industry trends, purchase access to influencers through an influencer marketplace.

And while organizations may find success in a variety of arrangements, the way they manage influencer relationships will play a large part in how their campaigns perform. We’ll examine influencer marketplaces and how their approach differs from the best practices we endorse.

What is an Influencer Marketplace?

An influencer marketplace is an online platform that helps users connect with a variety of influencers for work on marketing campaigns. Typically, organizations can search through influencers across different industries, social media, and audience sizes—a fashion YouTuber with more than 100,000 followers. These services generally aim to ease the work involved in finding and vetting influencers, with some of the more elaborate platforms offering workflow tools.

What is Influencer Relationship Management (IRM)?

Authentic, long-term influencer relationships—termed influencer relationship management (IRM)—is about creating real, genuine connections between audiences, influencers, and brands. Brands engage in IRM by identifying authentic influencers whose personality and subject matter show they’d likely have a genuine interest in the brand and its products. They then develop a relationship that leads influencers to feel an authentic connection to the brand. Influencers and their brands can then creatively collaborate on promotional content that transfers the audience’s love and enthusiasm for influencers to the brand itself.

Authenticity is Everything

Understanding the sole factor that makes IRM so powerful is crucial: authenticity.

Authenticity is nothing less than the fuel influencer marketing runs on. In a world where the social is connected to the digital and digital spaces are highly commodified, people filter content by what feels natural, familiar, and honest. In some ways, digital advertising, which was once a much more effective advertising channel, declined in value because it was loud, spammy, and often misleading.

When consumers go online, they want to hear from their peers rather than professional copywriters. If influencers aren’t perceived as authentic by their audience, they’re far less likely to care about any promotional content they release. Influencers succeed by creating a genuine relationship with their audience, which they build through expertly-created content and community management.

This authenticity must also extend to the relationship between the brand and the influencer. Truly authentic influencers know they risk losing their audience if they half-heartedly promote products irrelevant to their lives. Influencers can create content that successfully engages and drives affection for brands and products by demonstrating a genuine connection to outcomes.

Authenticity in influencer marketing humanizes brands and commercial messaging. By acting as a trustworthy and admired peer, influencers transform brands from faceless enterprises to reliable advocates. And when applied to the content of commercial messages, they’re changed from easily-ignored promotions to earnest recommendations from trusted peers.

Why Influencer Marketplaces are not sustainable and do not produce sales

Searching for the right influencer takes time, and there’s no guarantee that the influencers you find will be amenable to collaboration. Sixty-seven percent of brands surveyed by Mediakix said they struggle to find the right influencer for their campaigns. Marketplaces seem to address this confusion directly.

Ultimately, these marketplaces present a false choice. They may simplify a seemingly daunting process, but they’re based entirely on the false premise that one can skip vetting influencers and running successful campaigns. And their marketing gives the impression that influencer marketing should be approached just like any other marketing channel. In reality, selecting and vetting is half of the battle of influencer marketing.

In addition, marketplaces provide a limited selection—far too few for brands to find a good match—and the influencers they do feature aren’t as well vetted as marketing materials may suggest.

Brands Will Not Achieve Brand Love Through Marketplaces and Inauthenticity 

There’s no getting around the importance of the selection process. With marketplaces, that critical work is done for you, and you can’t be sure it’s done in your brand's best interest. Because you’re limited to a preexisting pool of influencers, you’re less likely to find partnerships that meet your authenticity, reach, and audience-product fit criteria. Working with them may give your brand exposure, but you're less likely to gather brand affinity or conversions without any authentic connection between the influencer and the brand. And the consequences can be severe if a particularly troublesome influencer is picked. In one incident, reality TV star Megan McKenna sparked controversy for promoting teeth whiteners despite her well-known use of veneers.

It’s also important to note that influencers aren’t always credentialed and officialized. The best-fit influencer for a brand may not be actively selling their services online or may not call themselves an influencer at all.

Many influencers purchase a significant portion of their audience, running the risk of marketing their brand to an audience with a large share of unoccupied accounts. A CBS report found that brands lost a total of $1.3 billion to fake followers in 2019 alone. And not only will this impact campaign performance, but brands are also at risk of being associated with bad actors, SocialBlade. It is a great tool that can help expose fake followers). As influencer marketing scandals continue to generate headlines, this is an association most brands would pay to avoid.

And because influencers in these competitive marketplaces are incentivized to take any paying promotion, coupled with a limited pool of influencers, a poor brand-audience fit is practically guaranteed.

Another critical aspect of the marketplace business model is the exclusivity of its influencers. So long as you work with marketplaces, the influencer’s primary relationship will always be with the platform, not your brand. Not only does this make ongoing collaborations difficult, if not impossible, this means there’s little to differentiate yourself from competitors, who theoretically have access to the same influencers.

Performance Issues Means Marketplaces May Not Be the Future of Influencer Marketing

Given many of the problems associated with them, influencer marketing may not be the best avenue for most marketers and the industry at large. Future iterations of the service may address current shortcomings—like better-vetted influencers and options for exclusivity—but as long as their model inhibits long-term, authentic relationships, they may always be associated with poor performance.

Change the Way You Find Influencers to Build Stronger and Longer Relationships

Positive change in the influencer marketing industry is possible. Many brands already know these challenges and appear to understand on some level that influencer marketing requires a distinct approach. Marketers polled by Mediakix overwhelmingly (96 percent) said they don’t believe that influencer marketing can be automated and rank content quality as the most crucial factor when assessing influencers.

The next step: educate brands on how to find and vet influencers.

Brands should start their search by first considering their ideal audience and working backward to identify influencers who authentically engage this audience and are likely to have a personal interest in your brand or product.

Identifying the authenticity of the follower-influencer relationship is also crucial. No metric can convey such a complex quality, but carefully reading their web presence can provide countless valuable indicators. Look for a low ratio of sponsored content to bread-and-butter posts, see if their content fosters real conversation from a wide variety of followers, and check if their audience responds equally enthusiastically to sponsored and traditional content. If you know your market well, recognize the standouts with a demonstrable passion, and can artfully bring out that passion in followers.

Genuine Relationships, Real Connections, Real ROI

Brands must approach influencer marketing more like brand ambassadors than faceless marketing channels. That means working relationships that more closely resemble collaborative friendships than a series of business transactions.

Research from the Keller Fay Group found that influencers passionate about their recommended products “have significantly more buying conversations, and consumers are more likely to act on their recommendations.” Facilitating this passion should be a top priority.

Relationships with influencers need to be approached in this way from the first point of outreach. This may require adjusting for brands used to purely transactional relationships. Still, since the secret sauce here is being a considerate, informal, and honest collaborator, it’s a skill set within reach of just about anyone.

You can start the relationship based on their social presence. That means likes, comments (But not too many), and shares – basically, how they engage with their audience. From there, take any available opportunity (within reason) to nurture the relationship through communication and by providing appropriate freebies and benefits. These provide opportunities for more brand-friendly content and help fuel the authentic passion that drives their legitimate affection for your brand.

Change the way you think about influencers.

Influencer marketing is a powerful and transformative way to acquire lucrative and loyal customers. And remember, if authenticity doesn’t flow evenly between brand, influencer, and audience, it’s merely advertising by another name.

This article originally appeared in the Grin.co blog and has been published here with permission.

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