Dear Marketers: Please Don’t Do Influencer Marketing —We’re Begging You

This piece was inspired by an article a friend of mine wrote about book marketing and is more or less paying homage to his style (hence the similarities).

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There’s a reductive narrative circulating in the advertising world lately: if you need to meet your marketing goals, then you should do influencer marketing.

Want to reach millennials? Influencer marketing speaks to teens! Want to be more efficient with your advertising budget? Influencer marketing is cheap! Want to be ahead of the curve? Influencer marketing is the future!

I understand the allure of this narrative (it’s one I’ve contributed to at length). Influencer marketing is commonly presented as the mother of all marketing shortcuts. But that’s just the thing: there are no shortcuts.

Influencer marketing is sustainable when it’s built on a thoughtful relationship among a brand, a creator, and the fans that consume the content. Like any relationship, it takes time, energy, and money to maximize its potential. Brands are often unwilling or unable to make that kind of investment, so as a result, they engage influencers carelessly and enter a “me-too” race to attempt what is trendy or has worked well for others.

Just because you “did influencer marketing” doesn’t mean you did it well.

Brands often make the mistake of taking a lackadaisical approach, doing just enough required to check the box for hip marketing. They make use of automated platforms that connect them with influencers-for-hire where there’s no relationship to speak of; they’re not even communicating on the phone. This “spray and pray” approach  results in virtual strangers touting brands in which they have no vested interest.

Consider the case of one social agency reaching out to well-followed Instagram user Coltrane Curtis, offering him an influencer gig to promote Dove skin care products. Had the agency done any homework on Curtis ahead of time, they would have quickly learned that he ran his own agency and was, in fact, the competition. He publicly shamed the agency for its carelessness. Thoughtless influencer marketing is a liability, not an asset.

Operating this way dilutes the credibility (for both the brands and the influencers) that makes this tactic work. Credibility is all about representing one’s true values and beliefs. If representing a brand’s true values was as easy as writing an email and signing a check, then everyone would do it. And that’s exactly the problem.

My message to companies adopting this attitude is simple: please, don’t do influencer marketing.

No Fortune 500 company got to where it is today by taking shortcuts. They designed real products, built real infrastructure, and hired high-quality, full-time teams. Thoughtful brands play the long game. Why should influencer marketing be any different?

Having worked on thousands of influencer campaigns, I can say that the best collaborations are those in which the brands have invested in getting to know the creators. They’ve brought the influencers to company headquarters, shared their brand values, outlined the goals of the campaign, as well as the thinking that got them there; they mixed education with entertainment. The face-to-face interaction that is so uncommon these days leads to influencers being invested in the people and campaign in a way that has tangible results -- they want to do right by the brand. Because they understand what they’re working on (and care more), they promote it more often and more effectively.

Along the same lines, I've negotiated multi-year contracts with creators on behalf of brands -- the brands benefit extensively by getting economies of scale, efficiencies and category exclusivity. But, more than anything, the creator understands the brand after working together for so long and his or her audience knows that the creator is more than a paid shill - this is something that he or she believes in enough to work with a brand on an ongoing basis and really collaborate deeply.

Ultimately, if you aren’t willing to invest in meaningful, long-term commitments to influencers, why should the influencers commit to working with you? Influencer marketing can be a silver bullet for messaging -- only when there is a deep collaboration at the heart of the brand-influencer relationship. This is why brands must take the time and effort to find creators whose sensibilities mesh well with their goals.

If your marketing goals are qualitative, wanting to see your brand’s message taken to a talented creator’s audience, then influencer marketing is a powerful tool for getting there. If your marketing goals are quantitative, wanting to ensure some number of impressions and conversions without much thought, then please don’t do influencer marketing.

Brendan Gahan