As I’ve noted in a number of other articles over the past year, influence is becoming a major contributor to driving sales- which means that an effective influencer marketing strategy is essential for any business looking to maximize organic sales. And when I say “strategy,” I don’t mean “go out and hire an influencer for a single campaign.” According to The State of Influencer Marketing Report, published in November 2016, only 17% of marketers think that pay-per-post or “flat rate” pricing, sadly the most widespread form of influencer compensation, is effective. Instead, to be effective, influencer marketing must be an integral part of branding; it needs a consistent voice that’s applied over a sustained period of time to develop the relationship of trust that’s essential in today’s hypercompetitive marketing environment.
Unfortunately, what I’m seeing happen in the Middle East is the distortion of influencer relationship marketing by media agencies and a select few “celebrity” influencers that view influence as a purely transactional relationship. This tells me that the region really has not yet bought into the power of influencer marketing, hence the lack of investment in terms of time, resources, and money into an increasingly important weapon in the marketing armory. My biggest concern, quite frankly, is that the situation is getting so bad that we could see a backlash, with brands getting turned off by unfulfilled promises based on a false premise of overnight success, and as a result, cutting back on influencer marketing. This would be a huge shame because, when done properly, influencer relationship marketing delivers a strong, positive ROI. A considered, strategic, long-term approach to influencer relationships is an essential complement to any customer-focused strategy.
Why is influencer relationship marketing so important?
What people buy is hugely influenced by what other people around them are buying. There is much research to show that peer-to-peer recommendation is the single biggest driver of purchase intent in this region. According to The Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Report, “the most credible form of advertising comes straight from the people we know and trust. 83% of online respondents in 60 countries say they trust the recommendation of friends and family.” And Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2016 saw 65% of respondents state that they rate “a person like yourself” as a credible or extremely credible spokes-person- so why is this clearly significant insight utterly ignored by so many brands here in the Middle East?
There’s a very good, and very human, reason for this. While it’s tempting to think that your message has a greater chance of getting through to your audience if you use as many channels as possible, that channel usage is reaching saturation point. And that’s when people turn away from traditional marketing channels altogether and instead ask their friends to help them choose.Targeting and, more importantly, communicating with consumers has never been more complex than it is today. We are living in a world of “content shock” -something I’ve written about a number of times before- where multiple platforms, sources and screens are constantly vying for attention. Traditional advertising approaches are no longer effective, and clients who think otherwise in this market are burying their heads in the sand. Poorly thought-out campaigns don’t even register on the consumer’s radar, and ad-blocking technology is pretty sophisticated and effective these days. To communicate to today’s Middle Eastern customer, brands must recognize that all communication has to come from a place of trust. Inherent skepticism can only be overcome through the professional development and nurturing of influencer relationships. It can only become effective and measurably deliver brand awareness and business impact if brand managers invest in those relationships.
So where should you start? Here are four avenues to explore:
1. Invest time in indentifying the right kind of influencer
When you’re venturing into new territory, it’s helpful to start by building a structure for your strategic development. At Edelman, we use a methodology called Fluency, which guides you through mapping influencers against reach, resonance, and relevance and then plots them against a specific role within the communications mix. By developing this kind of framework, it becomes a lot easier to not only create an approach that works for your business but also create metrics that support the investment in the strategy. These metrics are crucial. It is our collective responsibility to really understand the metrics for success and ROI with influencers. Deals should be based on alignment and exposure, as well as a deep understanding of the influencer’s audience and how that audience can be motivated. Investing in building a relationship with an influencer that’s not a good match for your brand is simply throwing money away– a strong foundation of research and data is key.
2. Take contracts and compliance seriously
Exercising control over influencers is a controversial topic. We need as an industry to agree on ways of working and ethical guidelines that protect our clients from non-compliant influencers. Conversely, influencers need to protect their own position and reputation by ensuring that they are working with ethical brands that understand the paramount importance of creating transparent, authentic, and meaningful relationships. The risk to the industry is enormous if we don’t get this right, particularly if advertisers and brands feel that the industry is behaving in a less-than-ethical fashion. It is essential that everyone -brands, digital agencies, public relations firms, and influencer marketing companies- toe the line. Playing by the rules means more and better business for influencers, so it’s clearly in their best interests to do so. That’s especially important as the cult of the super influencer emerges.
3. The rise (and rise) of the super influencer
We are already seeing networks like Telfaz11 and other super influencers starting to monetize their brands in new and exciting ways. Names like Fahad Albutairi, Charles Elachi, Chaker Khazaal, Kim Ghattas, Tima Shomali, and Karl Sharro are fast becoming the PewDiePies of the Arab world. According to Kevin King’s Global Digital Trends Re-ports 2017, many influencers will recognize money-making opportunities and establish brands of their own in the coming year. While some influencers will use their personality to create their own brand and publishing ecosystem, others will pursue ventures that might be anything from clothing and makeup lines to technology ventures and apps to social- and cause-based businesses. Some influencers might even use their community to crowdfund projects.With this increase in exposure and visibility, we anticipate agencies and publishers will look to “acquire” influencers to act as umbrella or inclusive media brands. Companies to watch in this area include Hearst, Mic, Vox, and Complex.
4. Instagram and Snapchat are essentially TV for millenials today
Instagram and Snapchat are now so ubiquitous among millennials in the Middle East that some influencer channels on these platforms are more powerful than traditional radio and television channels. So watching where the influencers you identify as a match for your branding and marketing decide to establish their brand communities will be telling for the future of the market in the Middle East. You need to be where your customers are, and if your customers are already congregating on one or the other, that’s where the meaningful dialogue will take place. Instagram is clearly targeting Snapchat’s functionality and customer base, a strategy that appears to be working if the 2016 growth numbers are anything to go by. But Snapchat now has regional representation, so we can expect to see further development and different types of influencers making the most of that platform’s Spectacles and different storytelling formats like circular video. This year, we expect to see more brands provide their communities with direct and unique ways to interact with both the brand and its influencers. No matter which platform your influencers choose, the brands that find success with influencer marketing in 2017 will do so by creating meaningful experiences for their audiences- experiences that are interactive, tangible, and seamlessly engaging for your community.