Op-Ed: Influencer Campaigns: What Works and What Doesn’t

The following is an exclusive guest contributed post to MMW from Ian Wu, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Cheetah Mobile.

As the use of influencers has become a standard tool in a marketer’s arsenal, the level of scrutiny that influencers are subject to has also increased. More government regulation regarding sponsored posts on social media has forced influencers to be transparent about product placements and promotions, which in turn has heightened public awareness of influencer marketing. As a result, brands need to tread carefully when it comes to influencers and make sure that the people they choose are aligned with their brand goals. This goes both ways — influencers themselves have to be aware that associating themselves with a bad product or company could serious damage their future ability to influence.

The Fyre Festival is a perfect example of influencer marketing gone terribly, terribly wrong. In this case, influencers were rebranded as “Fyre Starters,” a group of 400 or so with significant followings on Twitter and Instagram. They were each instructed to post an orange square on Instagram at the same time on the same day to announce the Fyre Festival to the world, an announcement that was preceded by a photoshoot with well-known models (including Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid). On the strength of this influencer campaign, the Fyre Festival managed to sell out its general admission tickets — costing $1500 each — before announcing the lineup.

The festival was a disaster. Guests were promised luxury accommodation, gourmet meals and musical performances; instead, they were given tents (some of which lacked beds) and sorry-looking sandwiches, with no entertainment to speak of. Much of the blame has (rightly) been placed on the shoulders of the festival’s organizers, the rapper Ja Rule and 25-year-old CEO Billy McFarland, but it doesn’t rest exclusively with them. Instead, the Fyre Festival illustrates the pitfalls of influencer marketing; or, more specifically, what happens when influencers promote a product they know nothing about.

People hate inauthenticity, especially in ads. This might seem obvious, but the number of brands who have been keen to jump on the influencer bandwagon without taking the time to create a proper strategy is staggering. The Fyre Festival is the perfect case in point: despite the initial success of the influencer marketing campaign, the company was unable to follow through on their promise to create and host a luxury music festival. As a result, the credibility of the influencers who promoted the festival is badly damaged — which in turn could impact the success of future campaigns.

So how can brands craft the perfect influencer campaign? By thinking long and hard about which influencers they reach out to. The biggest mistake that a brand can make is to enlist an influencer based solely on their follower count. In order for an influencer campaign to be successful, people need to feel that the influencer has a real connection to the product — that they’re promoting it not because they’re getting paid, but because it’s a good product.

In April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent letters to over 90 celebrities informing them that they had to disclose any “material connection” between themselves and the company whose product they were promoting. This, unfortunately, was too late for many of the so-called “Fyre Starters” — most of whom did not disclose their financial ties to the festival itself, and who faced an immediate backlash once news of the disastrous event broke.

The best influencer is always going to be the person who’s already using the product. Some brands already understand this: Sperry, the brand best known for its boat shoes, has been working with about 100 “micro-influencers” — people with smaller but dedicated followings– who have posted popular pictures of their Sperry products. There are a few benefits to this approach; firstly, it’s incredibly cost-effective. The influencers who worked with Sperry’s campaign were not compensated for their efforts, although they were credited whenever the company shared one of their images. Secondly, the audience for these influencers should be the target audience that the brand or product is trying to reach, which increases the likelihood of conversions. Finally, the use of micro-influencers lends a sense of authenticity to any campaign. Instead of paying supermodels to tout your product, which is more along the lines of traditional advertising, using micro-influencers helps consumers build more intimate, trusting relationships with the brand.

The point of using an influencer instead of a traditional marketing campaign is that, in addition to their facility with social media, they have a dedicated following on the basis of their persona. The public sees influencers as people with good taste and whose recommendations they trust. Brands who decide to go the influencer route must be mindful that having more followers doesn’t necessarily translate to more people buying the product; instead, targeted campaigns with micro-influencers whose audience demographic matches the target demographic for the brand are more likely to have a high degree of success. A campaign that utilizes micro-influencers and traditional media buys could potentially be more successful than hiring a famous influencer or celebrity. In other words, put your focus on the people who buy your products, not the celebrities who promote them.