Influencers are all the rage.
Every brand is scrambling to grab their perfect famous person and pay them (a hefty amount, I might add) to boost their brand image and products.
In a simpler world, this strategy would be perfect.
Because these insta-famous people have a huge following, so adding a post with your brand’s product or service mentioned by them would reach a ton of people who trust the influencer enough to buy what they promote.
Unfortunately, this world is not so simple, so this doesn’t work quite as effectively as we’d hope.
Because, legally, these influencers must mention that they are being paid to spread the word, which dilutes the experience for followers, and then followers may or may not be inclined to support the product or service once aware that their famous role model has, in fact, financial motives for giving it a shoutout.
So, are influencers truly influential?
One thing is for sure: influencers and non-influencers alike have almost completely replaced the value of traditional celebrities’ authority on what’s cool or not. Just 3% of US consumers said they would be most likely to consider buying a product in-store if a celebrity endorsed it, according to Collective Bias.
Even so, it’s difficult to determine who (or how) brands will leverage prominent people in the community to spread the word otherwise.
That’s why one of the most heated debates surrounding word-of-mouth marketing strategies is whether influencers or brand advocates are more worth your brand’s time and money.
To answer this question, we're going to have to take a look at a few things:
Overall, the short answer is...it depends.
The long answer requires delving into the reasoning for both sides, and only then can your brand decide which is truly a better fit for your goals.
An influencer is an individual who is popular due to having established credibility with his or her audience, has a large follower base, and is considered a key leader in a certain community or tribe, such as on social media platforms of choice.
Marketers leverage influencers in their strategy by convincing these people, typically by hiring them for a duration of time or paying them per post, to promote their brand’s products or services to their audience. When this strategy is effective in increasing sales, it’s typically because these influencers can persuade their followers on account of their authority or reach.
Influencer marketing is more like a partnership, maybe even a sponsorship, between the brand and the famous person, and requires incentive (read: money) to get the influencer to agree to it.
Influencer marketing, by definition, requires compensating the influencer or influencers for their promotional mentions or posts about your brand. Linquia found that 78% of marketers said that determining ROI of influencer marketing is their top challenge in 2017. Let’s find out if that’s still true.
Deloitte’s survey uncovered that customers acquired through word-of-mouth (such as influencer marketing) are retained at a 37% higher rate than those acquired through other means.
Furthermore, influencers sharing your content can lead to a 3 to 10 times increase in conversion rates. When it comes to conversion rate optimization, influencer marketing seems pretty promising so far.
Burst Media discovered that on average, businesses generate $6.50 for every $1 invested in influencer marketing, and if your business is more established than the average, Tomoson found that the top 13% of businesses make $20 or more for every dollar spent on influencer marketing.
A ratio of 20:1 is not bad if you’re willing to gamble.
It’s important to remember, however, that these stats are based on averages, so some brands experienced an ever higher ROI, and some inevitably experienced a significantly lower one.
Nonetheless, the data shows that, overall, influencer marketing generates 11 times the ROI of traditional digital marketing. (TapInfluence x Nielsen Catalina Solutions)
The bottom line is that, while influencer marketing requires some money up front, when executed well and for the right reasons, it can yield great results for your sales.
eMarketer found that influencer campaigns have proven effective for over 80% of marketers who have tried them.
Influencer marketing is the fastest growing channel for customer acquisition by far.
This may be because people no longer trust ads. Instead, they trust influencers who have proven their expertise or point of view that is relatable to consumers, which is why influencer marketing is good for fostering the engagement that is lacking in traditional advertising.
Influencers work wonders if they are enthusiastic about the brand and it’s not just obviously an ad, but it’s difficult to pull off as such, which we’ll discuss in the cons section.
There are a couple reasons as to why consumers may believe influencers: they look up to the person, and they want to be more like them and have their lifestyle. What better way to show admiration and emulate your favorite influencer’s way of life than by getting the same products and services that they have and use?
There are marketers out there who believe this strategy truly works (and those who don’t, of course): Linquia found that 94% of marketers who used influencer marketing believe the tactic to be effective.
They also created a list of why it works; the top benefits entail: creating authentic content about their brand (87%), driving engagement around their brand (77%), and driving traffic to their websites or landing pages (56%).
Twitter’s data matches up, too: Twitter users report a 5.2x increase in purchase intent when exposed to promotional content from influencers. This is because 49% of people say they rely on recommendations from influencers when making purchase decisions.
Since the goal is to get more people to buy from your brand, the strategy works based on the results.
Influencer marketing also yields higher quality customers, according to the marketers who have tried it. Launch Metrics reports that 76% of marketers consider influencer engagement effective in garnering customer loyalty.
Tomoson’s data lines up too, with 51% of marketers believing that they get better customers from influencer marketing, because the relationship started with trust in the influencer.
However, everything good in this world has a dark side, too.
82% of marketing professionals were using influencers in 2016, with the most popular platforms being YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
Though this sounds like good news, think again: the market is oversaturated with influencers, and there’s hardly any room for new ones to join!
Even worse, there are so many social media-famous people trying to establish themselves as influencers, whether they’re good at it or not, that the reputation of the whole business of influencing is getting diluted - and a little tainted.
This means that you, dear marketer, need to be extra vigilant and thorough when vetting a social media star for representing your brand online. This also means that influencers may lose value with every new addition, which we may see play out in the remainder of 2017.
The next biggest con is in the requirements for successfully pulling off an influencer marketing campaign.
Influencer marketing is flat out expensive. Some stars charge $10,000 per snap on Snapchat, a platform where each post lasts for 24 hours and then disappears forever; others charge more than $30,000 per Tweet, which may last even less time because the sheer volume of Tweets going out every minute.
Not only does it take money (a whole lot of it), but it’s a blatant form of advertising - unless you want to trade the fans’ experience for legal issues. The FTC requires that influencers add #ad, #sponsored, or mention the partnership in the posts they create, or face legal trouble.
This makes sense, but has a negative consequence: influencers have experienced a significant decrease in engagement on posts that are obviously an ad.
The followers don’t want to be spammed with promotions, but are willing to buy products based on influencers’ recommendations - but since we can’t have both, injecting #ad into the caption is a sacrifice that must be made.
Now, let's evaluate the other side of the debate.
Zuberance’s definition for brand advocates is so good, I’m going to use it as the official one for this article. They say that:
A Brand Advocate is a highly-satisfied customer or other who recommends their favorite brands and products without being paid to do so.
By other, they mean an individual who is otherwise passionate about the brand - though I suspect that passionate, loyal advocates are rarely unfamiliar with the products anyway.
Brand advocates are everyday people who have a decent (read: not in the hundred thousands) following on social media, who are reached out to by companies for opportunities to try out products, review them, and recommend them to their audience.
Unlike influencer marketing, where the influencer gets paid in cold, hard cash, brand advocates can be paid in samples, discounts, gifts, love, or other connections to your brand.
But the reason they don’t need traditional compensation is because they truly support your brand’s products or services and are loyal because of satisfaction with the quality you deliver.
Consider getting a brand advocate on board as more of a volunteer opportunity, maybe an unofficial sponsorship if they’re compensated with getting free stuff.
WOMMA found that when an advocate recommends your brand, it can generate at least 5 times more sales than a paid advertisement, going all the way up to as much as 200 times more.
This is great news, and shows that brand advocacy yields a much higher return than influencer marketing does - and with less monetary risk.
Besides, consumers are not naive: they know when the messages they are receiving are financially driven. That’s why, as BazaarVoice discovered, earned media drives 4 times the brand lift as paid media.
Because brand advocates want to be part of your customer base and essentially volunteer to help you out (out of the goodness of their hearts), there is little to no initial investment, which translates into little to no risk - a big pro for brands.
Brand advocacy works because these people are unpaid and actual loyal customers - or wannabe customers, in rare circumstances - so their passion and enthusiasm for the brand is authentic and without ulterior motives.
There are also more reasons for consumers to believe brand advocates: they seem more like a peer, more everyday and relatable than celebrities, and they aren’t doing it for the paycheck. The company improves these people’s lives with a product or service, then the advocate relays the helpfulness of what the brand is trying to sell.
The whole process is much more organic than influencer marketing, which is why many disillusioned and promotionally-exhausted consumers buy into the strategy.
The numbers don’t lie, either: Collective Bias’ survey determined that 30% of consumers are more likely to purchase a product promoted by a regular person.
What’s more, only 18% of consumers trust influencers, but 92% of consumers trust brand advocates. (Zuberance x Convince & Convert)
That’s a much larger chunk of the population that is looking for genuine recommendations from real humans, not the better-than-real-life celebrities that are endorsed on the influencer side.
It all comes down to the preferred source of reviews for consumers, which turns out to be typically from people more like them than not.
Collective Bias found that peer endorsements tend to have a stronger impact, as nearly 1 in 5 respondents say they are influenced by peer posts when developing their lists. According to Nielsen, the trust is overwhelming: 84% of consumers say they trust peer recommendations above all other sources of advertising.
Even so, there are a few pitfalls of using brand advocates in your strategy.
Not everyone likes recommendations from average Joes, probably because their opinion doesn’t hold any water with the customer due to lack of a credibility track record.
Keller Fay Group partnered with Dr. Jonah Berger to reveal that more than 82% of people were willing to follow an influencer’s recommendation rather than 72% of average customer’s recommendations.
The numbers are close, but not quite close enough.
This is part of our world: the market is supersaturated with products and services, good and bad alike, and it falls upon the consumers to do their own research, find who they trust as experts on the matter, and then take a leap of faith.
Because of this, it’s easier to find a famous person who aligns with your preferences and values in a product and then take their word for it with every new purchase decision.
It saves consumers time, energy, and potentially, stress.
Another con to brand advocacy is that it absolutely requires high quality products or services and high quality customer service. If one or the other is lacking, good luck finding someone who will volunteer to support your cause.
Bad quality products reflect poorly on the recommender, so it’s imperative that your brand only has the best of the best to ensure that it’s worth recommending without risking anyone’s reputation.
With organic promoting, it can be a challenge to find people to advocate for you. Whether your brand is very new to the market, has a small customer base, or just hasn’t established a recognizable reputation yet, it’s hard for people to advocate for a brand that they haven’t heard of yet.
You’d spend a lot more time explaining to them who you are and what you sell, just to potentially have them reject the proposition anyway.
Finally, there’s a delicate balance between the advocate’s audience size and how much they value endorsement of a brand. The more famous advocates may demand money, which ironically transforms them into an influencer, not a brand advocate - and then you’re back to square one.
So, is it worth investing the research and money to snag your brand’s very own influencer, or is it better to skip the money and spend the time and care to organically earn a brand advocate?
After all the data, analysis, and pros and cons for both, I hate to leave you with this, but the long answer is...it all depends.
If your brand is any size but could use a boost in reach and aligns with a product or industry that is relevant to a solid influencer, it could be a wise investment for expanding your audience.
On the other hand, if your brand's products or services are not very well known but excel in quality, it may be easier - and cheaper - to scout out the perfect brand advocate instead.
While influencers expose your brand to a massive audience, reach is not all it takes to convert.
As Jay Baer excellently puts it,
True influence drives action, not just awareness.
Brand advocates, with all of the authenticity and realness they bring to the table, are on average more effective for inspiring their followers to act.
Influencers get their followers acquainted with a new brand, but that’s usually the extent of it, unfortunately.
In my humble opinion, the pros of brand advocacy outweigh the pros of influencer marketing, and the cons list is also favorable toward brand advocates.
As more people join the influencer stage and dilute the value of their voices further—and more consumers get increasingly enlightened in their purchasing decisions - the choice is clear.
While influencers are good at getting more eyeballs on their promotions, it’s the brand advocates that truly influence consumers to purchase at the end of the day.
And that’s what really matters for your brand.
Finally, here's a handy infographic for comparing influencers and brand advocates side-by-side.
So, which one fits your needs best? Have you experienced better ROI from one over another?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!