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The Road Ahead for Influencer Marketing: 2018 and Beyond More micro-influencers, bigger budgets and attention to tracking will be the trends moving forward.

By Kamiu Lee Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Kevin Mazur | Getty Images

Influencer marketing has expanded exponentially over the past several years -- it's now four times its size just two years ago. As such, the industry has evolved from a promising marketing tactic to an essential part of many marketing budgets; today, it's a leading priority for huge conglomerates and startups and small businesses alike.

Related: How Your Business Can Benefit From Micro-Influencer Marketing

Significantly, the success of influencer marketing has occurred not just because of the value it's shown as a marketing tactic. In fact, research has shown influencer marketing's effectiveness at meeting a myriad of goals.

Our own research, for instance, found that a whopping 67 percent of marketers surveyed thought influencer marketing campaigns helped them reach a more targeted audience.

In the past year, we have also seen some key points of growth. Cross-channel social campaigns became more common, due to the tactic's ability to boost engagement, exponentially. Moreover, brands began to expand their influencer contacts to ones outside of their own industries. Meaning that just because a brand operated in the food or CPG industry didn't mean it had to stick to "foodie" influencers.

Rather, marketers are finding success in branching out to a range of influencers who can interact with that brand. A food brand, for example, might engage fitness bloggers, mommy bloggers or even travel bloggers. Witness how Chobani activated fitness micro-influencers to support its launch of Drink Chobani.

Of course, these changes haven't come without government oversight: As inluencer marketing has become a major part of marketing campaigns, and influencers have begun working with larger portfolios of brands, the Federal Trade Commission has increased its regulatory actions, sending more than 90 warning letters to brands and influencers -- including those with both large and small-scale influence.

We have seen substantial if incremental growth in the industry this year (2017) and the previous year, and future growth projections estimate that the industry will experience five times more growth by 2021.

Here is a look at what 2018 will likely hold for influencer marketing and how individual entrepreneurs can latch on to this growing industry for the betterment of their brand.

Influencer marketing budgets will increase.

We know that social media content has had a huge impact on the customer's overall path to purchase. According to Forrester, the average consumer engages with 11.4 pieces of content prior to making a purchase. As such, a clear opportunity for influencer marketing exists, to make an impact throughout the customer journey.

Related: 5 Reasons Micro-Influencers Shouldn't Be Ignored

Influencer marketing can be instrumental for the inspiration phase of that journey, when influencers expose audiences to new products or services. Influencers can also sway audiences during the consideration phase, through educational content like tutorials.

They can be useful again, during the purchase/decision phase, by leveraging influencer content for retargeting ads, and incorporating affiliate/promo codes. Given the possibilities that influencer content poses, marketers are starting to set aside a larger proportion of their budget to carry out these impactful engagements.

Still, there's a ways to go. Our research tells us that 41 percent of marketers surveyed today are spending only 5 percent or less of their budget on influencer marketing.

Many brands also have been confining "influencer" budgets to test budgets to try out and assess the effectiveness of this channel. But an important consideration here is how traditional advertising and marketing spends -- like TV, print and desktop ads -- are becoming a less effective use of ad and marketing dollars, due especially to the growing popularity of ad blockers.

As a result, marketers are increasingly turning their efforts to social media, whether through direct spend with the major social platforms or through key tastemakers on those platforms -- the influencers.

Tracking and measuring campaigns will be key.

As influencer marketing becomes table stakes for most brands, and companies' budget allotments become more consistent, marketers will need to further evolve the strategies with which they're approaching influencer partnerships.

Some brands will still put stock in celebrity influencers – think about Coach's ongoing partnership with Selena Gomez -- while other brands will look to work with micro-influencers. La Croix is a great example of a brand seeing results with micro-influencers: Last summer La Croix initiated a campaign challenging these people to create their own cocktail recipes using the various flavors of its sparkling water product.

With increased spend in an area like that, marketers will need to find more scalable ways to track and measure their influencer marketing campaigns. This will mean investing in proper software to track content (impressions, clicks, shares, repins, page views, etc.) and to measure and predict influencer success.

For both major brands and smaller businesses, 2018 will be the time to get ahead in the industry. Take another look at your own marketing budget, understand your goals -- do you want brand awareness, engagement, influencers at scale or something else? -- and consider whether you need a big celebrity endorsement, or whether working with a series of micro-influencers will provide you the awareness and engagement you need.

Increasing your budget for influencer marketing will be at its most successful only when you've aligned your influencer strategywith your objectives.

Brands and influencers will foster long-term relationships.

One of the major ways we predict that influencer marketing campaigns will evolve in 2018 is the relationship between brands and influencers. Genuine reciprocal relationships, where there is mutual respect and trust between the brand and influencer, are becoming increasingly important.

In the past, traditional influencer programs were very one-directional: The brand talked to the influencer, the influencer talked to the audience; and the objective was a quick, one-off campaign to create quick buzz.

Over the course of 2017, however, we've heard repeatedly from marketers and influencers alike that they increasingly see value in building holistic "always-on" relationships with influencers operating along the lines of an "ambassadorship" model.

This kind of partnership contributes to a more organic content share -- with influencers usually representing a brand they use in their daily lives anyway. Additionally, influencers and their audiences have proven to be a crucial source for trends, feedback, even new ideas.

Influencers have unique leverage across social media to source direct consumer feedback through their engagement data, comments and Instagram polls across different types of content to see what resonates best with key audiences.

If your company is already using influencer-marketing tactics, consider whether there are influencers you've worked with well in the past with whom you might reengage in a more regular, "always-on" manner. Or, if you're new to the industry, start by working with a series of influencers and grow the relationships to become bi-directional over time.

Influencer marketing will become a more efficient marketplace.

Today, the vast majority of partnership opportunities still go to the top 1 percent of influencers, in what's a not-very-efficient marketplace. The reason? It's hard to find up-and-coming influencers; and it's particularly cumbersome to work with 25 micro-influencers than with one large influencer.

In addition, brands have largely been nervous about working with less well-known creators. But marketers are coming to realize that micro-influencers can create incredible content, and drive significantly stronger engagement than mega-influencers can.

So, the upshot for 2018 is the combination of marketers' growing acceptance of micro-influencers, together with the emergence of technology platforms that create efficiencies in working with a large set of influencers.

Related: How to Set the Right Price for Your Next Influencer Marketing Campaign

The result is that we will see the industry begin to shift into a more effective marketplace, making it easier for new brands to engage in influencer marketing.

Kamiu Lee

CEO, Activate

Kamiu Lee is CEO at Activate, with 10 years of experience in influencer marketing, social media, digital media, venture capital and investment banking. Activate partners with brands and influencers to tell engaging and compelling stories across social media, at scale. In the last 12 months, the company has engaged over 75,000 influencers and creators, publishing more than 6,500 pieces of collaborated content per month. Lee started her career in investment banking and venture capital, as well as business development and strategy roles at Rent the Runway, Refinery29, and Ralph Lauren.  


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