What is influencer marketing and how does it work?

As many of you know, I tend to use Answer the Public to discover what people are asking about a topic before I write a post. And after entering the topic, “influencer marketing”, I learned that people have lots of questions. Here are 10 examples:

  • How did influencer marketing start?
  • How much does influencer marketing cost?
  • Is influencer marketing dead?
  • Is influencer marketing effective?
  • Is influencer marketing worth it?
  • What is influencer marketing and why does it matter?
  • What is influencer marketing strategy?
  • When did influencer marketing start?
  • Will influencer marketing die?
  • Will influencer marketing last?

Now, I can’t answer all of these questions in a single post. But, getting raw search insights before I start writing enables me to know that the topic I’m tackling is driven by the genuine interests of my readers.

Of course, I still need to provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis. I also need to provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic. And, I need to provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results.

But, as Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) says in A League of Their Own (1992), “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

What is influencer marketing?

So, let’s start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, influencer marketing “is a form of social media marketing involving endorsements and product placement from influencers, people and organizations who have a purported expert level of knowledge or social influence in their field.”

Now, if you’re an influencer who works with brands to recommend or endorse their products in the U.S., then you should also read the guidance from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is entitled, “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers.” Why? Because you need to comply with the law, which requires you to disclose your relationship with the brand, when making these recommendations.

Here’s a video from the FTC that provides some tips to help influencers comply with the law.

By the way, it’s also worth knowing that:

  • Influencers can’t talk about their experience with a product that they haven’t tried.
  • If you’re paid to talk about a product and thought it was terrible, then you can’t say it’s terrific.
  • You can’t make up claims about a product that would require proof which the brand doesn’t have – such as scientific proof that a product can treat a health condition.

Why should you adopt these best practices? Because it’s the influencer’s responsibility to comply with laws against deceptive ads.

When did influencer marketing start?

Now, if you use Google Trends, then you might get the mistaken impression that “social media marketing” has been around since 2004, but “influencer marketing” didn’t take off until 2015. But, you would be wrong.

 I started teaching a module entitled, “Engaging Influencers through Social Media,” in the Social Media Marketing Mini-MBA program offered by Rutgers Business School Executive Education (RBSEE) in September 2013.

And, as I told the executives in my class back then, the search term, “influencer”, might be relatively new, but the concept of “opinion leader” dates back to a study of American voters during the 1940 and 1944 presidential elections by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. They published their findings in 1948 in a book entitled, The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign.

At the time, many believed that mass media had direct, immediate, and powerful effects on a mass audience. However, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet discovered that this theory, which is called the “hypodermic needle model” of communication because it assumes that an intended message is directly received and wholly accepted by the receiver, ignored the role of opinion leaders.

Their landmark study uncovered a two-step flow of communication. The first step, from media sources to opinion leaders, was a transfer of information, but the second step, from opinion leaders to their followers, also involved the spread of interpersonal influence.

In the second edition of my book, YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day, which was published in November 2011, I used this two-step flow to explain the role that opinion leaders play on YouTube.

In my book, I also shared an observation by Everett M. Rogers that I’d read in the fifth edition of his book, Diffusion of Innovations, which was published in August 2003. According to Rogers, “The interpersonal relationships between opinion leaders and their followers hang in a delicate balance. If an opinion leader becomes too innovative, or adopts a new idea too quickly, followers may begin to doubt his or her judgement. One role of the opinion leader in a social system is to help reduce uncertainty about an innovation for his or her followers. To fulfill this role, an opinion leader must demonstrate prudent judgement in their decisions about adopting new ideas. So the opinion leader must continually look over his or her shoulder and consider where the rest of the system is at regarding new ideas.”

In other words, to maintain their influence in a social network, opinion leaders shouldn’t talk about their experience with a product that they haven’t tried. And, if their experience with a product was terrible, then they can’t say it was terrific. Finally, influencers can’t make up claims about a product that would require proof which doesn’t exist.

How does influencer marketing work?

Unfortunately, most marketers haven’t read The People’s Choice, Diffusion of Innovations, or YouTube and Video Marketing. So, I’ve had to squeeze the two-step flow model into the three-and-a-half-hour modules that I’ve taught on “Engaging Influencers through Social Media” at Rutgers Business School Executive Education from September 2013 until October 2018.

And I had to detour to provide this context in the six-module course on “Influencer Marketing Strategy” that is offered by Rutgers on Coursera, which I’ve been teaching since September 2018.

But, the vast majority of the people enrolled in those courses were marketers, who were trying to identify the right influencers, find the right engagement tactics, and measure the performance of their programs.

But, this summer, the New Media Academy (NMA) asked me to teach an online course on “Influencers and Sponsored Content” to a class of 22 social media influencers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And while preparing a three-hour course about influencers for influencers, I learned something surprising from looking at this topic from an influencer’s point of view.

For example, most marketers look for influencers on the social media platforms with the greatest reach. But, most influencers evaluate these same platforms based on their opportunity to grow their audience and make more money.

In other words, most marketers are still using what Brian Solis of Altimeter and Traackr call Influence 1.0 tactics, while most influencers have already adopted Influence 2.0 strategies.

This explains why The State of Influencer Marketing 2020: Benchmark Report found that the top 5 social media platforms for influencer marketing are:

  • Instagram (82%).
  • YouTube (41%).
  • TikTok (23%).
  • Twitter (23%).
  • Facebook (5%).

When I saw this list while preparing my course on influencers for influencers, I realized that I could skip the history lesson and start with today’s best practices.

So, I re-imagined my standard presentation on influencer marketing. And it resonated with the social media influencers in my online class in the UAE, who all had Instagram accounts and many had YouTube channels, too. For example, my students included:

  • Marwan Parham Al Awadhi, aka “DJ Bliss,” an Emirati disc jockey, emcee, TV presenter, and radio personality, who has 239,000 followers on Instagram and 95,900 subscribers on YouTube.
  • Nabaa Al Dabbagh, aka “I Speak Football Only,” one of the few female forces at the forefront of Arab soccer, who has 88,000 followers on Instagram and 175,000 subscribers on YouTube.
  • Haneen Odeh, a former Marie Claire Arabia beauty editor, who has 68,400 Instagram followers.
  • Ghaith Al Falasi, a Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) certified driver, Drift enthusiast, and automotive brand influencer, who has 67,000 Instagram followers.

These influencers and their classmates were very interested in learning how the Instagram and YouTube algorithms worked because they wanted their videos discovered by more people. And they were interested in learning how the TikTok algorithm worked because they were already thinking about creating content for this platform. But, they weren’t particularly interested in the Twitter or Facebook algorithms, unless they represented a significant opportunity to make more money.

Now, I’m going share what I taught them with you – knowing that the vast majority of you are marketers, not influencers – because there are a lot of strategic insights that marketers can glean from looking at how social media algorithms work from an influencer’s point of view.

How does the Instagram algorithm work?

Back in 2016, Instagram stopped using a reverse-chronological feed. Since then, the posts in each user’s feed on the platform has been ordered according to the Instagram algorithm’s ranking signals.

According to the Instagram Help Center, “Instagram’s technology uses different ways, or signals, to determine the order of posts in your feed. These signals are used to help determine how your feed is ordered, and may include:

  • “Likelihood you’ll be interested in the content.
  • “Date the post was shared.
  • “Previous interactions with the person posting.”

This has a profound impact on influencers – as well as the marketers who are trying to identify the right influencers, find the right engagement tactics, and measure the performance of their programs.

For example, the first key signal is relevance, not reach. Why? Because Instagram users are more likely to be interested in an influencer’s content if it is relevant – if it’s about what interests them.

In other words, if you’re interested in football (aka soccer), then the likelihood that you’ll be interested in content by Nabaa Al Dabbagh, aka “I Speak Football Only,” is high.

But, far too many marketers are looking for celebrities and mega-influencers who have lots of Instagram followers, aka reach, instead of looking for macro-, mid-tier, micro-, or nano-influencers who are creating relevant content that their target audience is more likely to find interesting.

The second key signal is recency, or how recently a post has been shared. This gives an advantage to influencers like Marwan Parham Al Awadhi, aka “DJ Bliss,” who post frequently.

Unfortunately, far too many marketers are engaging influencers to create a single post during a campaign instead of building a long-term relationship with brand advocates who will generate a series of posts that recommend their brand on an ongoing basis.

Finally, the third key signal is resonance. In other words, how engaging are an influencer’s posts? Do they prompt interactions such as comments, likes, reshares, and views with the influencer’s audience?

And, unfortunately, way too many marketers assume that an influencer’s post that mentions their brand has increased their brand awareness, using bogus metrics like Earned Media Value (EMV). If you want to know why EMV is a bogus metric, read Katie Paine’s article, “Menaces of the Month: People Who Think Earned Media Value Is Real Money.”

So, which metrics should marketers use instead? Well, they could conduct a brand lift poll before an influencer marketing campaign. This would enable them to get a baseline on questions like:

  • Have you heard of [brand/product]?
  • Which of the following comes to mind first when you think of [brand/product]?
  • Will you recommend [brand/product] to a friend?
  • Will you buy/consider [brand/product] the next time you shop for [category]?

Then, they could conduct a second brand lift poll after the influencer marketing campaign to measure its impact on the perception of their brand.

How does the YouTube algorithm work?

Now, I’ve already written several articles on how the YouTube algorithm works, including:

But, these articles were written for marketers, not influencers. So, what can we learn from looking at YouTube’s algorithm from an influencer’s point of view?

Well, according to YouTube Help, “The goals of YouTube’s search and discovery system are twofold: to help viewers find the videos they want to watch, and to maximize long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction.”

So, YouTube influencers need to start by creating great content on discoverable topics.

Why? Well, YouTube is one of the most-used search engines in the world. People visit the site looking for videos about all sorts of subjects. These viewers may not necessarily be looking for a specific influencer’s video, but they’ll discover it if it ranks well in YouTube search results or suggested videos.

I showed my class of influencer how to use Google Trends to find out what their audiences are looking for on YouTube. The default results in Google Trends show “web search” interest in a search term or a topic. But, if you click on the “web search” tab, the drop-down menu will show you that one of your other options is “YouTube search” interest. YouTube influencers can then use what they see to inform their content strategies.

For example, Haneen Odeh learned that there was 31% more YouTube search interest worldwide in the topic, beauty, than in the topic, fashion.

And Ghaith Al Falasi discovered that there was 18 times more YouTube search interest worldwide in the sport, drifting, than in the sport, motorsport.

After showing my class how to optimize the titles, tags, and descriptions of their YouTube videos, I told them, “You have a competitive advantage because you can do video SEO in English as well as Arabic.”

Unfortunately, most marketers don’t know the search terms and topics on YouTube that are relevant for their brand and don’t conduct a few YouTube searches to identify the influencers who are creating content that ranks well for these keywords and phrases. That’s so sad.

Now, getting your YouTube video content discovered is only half the battle. Influencers also need to build long watch-time sessions for their content by organizing and featuring content on their channel, including using series playlists.

As YouTube Help explains, “A series playlist allows you to mark your playlist as an official set of videos that should be viewed together. Adding videos to a series playlist allows other videos in the playlist to be featured and recommended when someone is viewing a video in the series. YouTube may use this info to modify how the videos are presented or discovered.”

Fortunately, one of the guest speakers for NMA’s program was Mark Wiens, one of the most famous food vloggers in the world. His YouTube channel has more than 1.4 billion views and almost 6.7 million subscribers. So, I was able to show my class examples of the playlists that he had created, including Thai food and travel guides.

Now, marketers could also look over the playlists on the YouTube channels of influencers when they’re evaluating which ones are “right” for a campaign. But, I strongly suspect that this only happens once in a blue moon.

How does the TikTok algorithm work?

I haven’t written about the TikTok algorithm before. But, the TikTok Newsroom posted “How TikTok recommends videos #ForYou” just before I was scheduled to talk about this topic.

Hey, sometimes you get lucky.

Here’s what I learned: “When you open TikTok and land in your For You feed, you’re presented with a stream of videos curated to your interests, making it easy to find content and creators you love. This feed is powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.”

So, how does this platform’s recommendation system work? According to TikTok, “Recommendations are based on a number of factors, including things like:

  • “User interactions such as the videos you like or share, accounts you follow, comments you post, and content you create.
  • “Video information, which might include details like captions, sounds, and hashtags.
  • “Device and account settings like your language preference, country setting, and device type. “

The TikTok Newsroom adds, “All these factors are processed by our recommendation system and weighted based on their value to a user. A strong indicator of interest, such as whether a user finishes watching a longer video from beginning to end, would receive greater weight than a weak indicator, such as whether the video’s viewer and creator are both in the same country. Videos are then ranked to determine the likelihood of a user’s interest in a piece of content, and delivered to each unique For You feed.”

TikTok cautions, “While a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers, by virtue of that account having built up a larger follower base, neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system.”

It’s worth noting that Oracle has just won the bid to acquire TikTok’s U.S. operations after ByteDance rejected a bid by Walmart and Microsoft. Meanwhile, YouTube released YouTube Shorts, a TikTok-like feature, while Facebook recently launched Instagram Reels, which is basically a TikTok knock-off. So, some very big players are convinced that TikTok represents (1) a significant opportunity to make more money, or (2) a competitive threat to the growth of their own social media platforms.

I wish that I could add more, but I’m a stranger here myself.

Is influencer marketing worth it?

These are just some the strategic insights that marketers can discover by looking at how influencer marketing works from an influencer’s point of view. If I were you, then I’d follow their lead and move most of the people and budget out of creating branded content on Twitter and Facebook and into influencer marketing programs on Instagram and YouTube. As for TikTok, wait until after the dust settles later this year.

Leave a Reply