Why interest in influencer marketing eclipses social media marketing

Thirty years ago, I worked for William B, Ziff Jr., the CEO of Ziff-Davis, which published PC Magazine, PC Week, and PC/Computing.  Some of his executives joked that he could see the future. But he often said, “We pay too much attention to events and not enough to trends.”

So, at a time when many journalists, bloggers, and pundits are trying to predict what will happen in 2023, I want to take a closer look at a long-term trend that’s flown under the radar for five years.

If you use Google Trends to compare worldwide web search interest in the topics “social media marketing” and “influencer marketing” from 2004 to the present, then you’ll see what I saw in the chart below. 

That’s right. Worldwide interest in “influencer marketing” passed “social media marketing” in January 2018 and is now about two times greater.

So, what’s the backstory? What are the current trends? And more importantly, what should marketers do differently in the future?

Backstory of the Facebook Apocalypse

On Jan. 11, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook page, “We’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.”

He added, “We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.”

On the same day, Adam Mosseri, who was then the Head of News Feed for Facebook, also published a post entitled, “News Feed FYI: Bringing People Closer Together.” He said, “Today we use signals like how many people react to, comment on, or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed. With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.”

He explained, “To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about and show these posts higher in feed. These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to – whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.”

Mosseri added, “Because space in News Feed is limited, showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation means we’ll show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.”

Many journalists, bloggers, and pundits started calling these changes the “Facebook Apocalypse.”

So, on Jan. 19, 2018, Zuckerberg wrote a second post. In it, he said, “Last week I announced a major change to encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption. As a result, you’ll see less public content, including news, video, and posts from brands. After this change, we expect news to make up roughly 4% of News Feed — down from roughly 5% today. This is a big change, but news will always be a critical way for people to start conversations on important topics.”

He added, “Today I’m sharing our second major update this year: to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality. I’ve asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local. And we’re starting next week with trusted sources.”

So, what did marketers start doing after the so-called Facebook Apocalypse? Well, as we can clearly see from the Google Trends chart about, many became more interested in the topic of influencer marketing.

Now, this trend started before the Facebook Apocalypse. As early as June 7, 2017, Avinash Kaushik, author, Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google, and co-founder of Market Motive, had urged marketers to “Stop All Social Media Activity (Organic) | Solve For A Profitable Reality,” in a post on his Occam’s Razor blog.

Back then, he noted, “Most brands get less than 1% Reach via their organic contributions on social platforms. And less than 1% engagement of any kind from that less than 1% reached (identified using the best social media metrics: Conversation Rate, Amplification Rate, Applause Rate).”

Kaushik’s definitions for these metrics have evolved over the years, but here’s what each one measures:

  • Conversation rate: How many Comments on average each of your posts has received.
  • Amplification rate: How many times on average each of your posts was Shared.
  • Applause rate: How many Reactions on average each of your posts has received.

Now, he didn’t blame the Facebook News Feed’s algorithm the dramatic decline in organic reach and engagement on Facebook. Instead, Kaushik blamed businesses of all types, including Google, for getting on social media platforms like Facebook and use them for “pimping.”

He lamented, “All that their collective imagination could manifest in a Utopia-possible environment was: LOOK ME I AM SO PRETTY!! BUY NOW!!! Stuff that is a turn off.”

He said, “This strategy by businesses led to what I now call the Zuck Death Spiral (ZDS).”

Kaushik acknowledged that urging marketers to “kill all the organic social media activity by your company” was not inspiring. But he added, “I hope you’ll see that my goal is help you think more critically about where you spend your personal time and your company’s money.”

Now, Kaushik recommended writing an insightful newsletter and switching to a paid Social Media strategy as short-term alternatives. But it appears that a growing number of marketers turned to influencer marketing instead.

This makes sense. The average influencer creates content that is significantly more engaging than the average brand. And if marketers can identify the right influencers to work with on a campaign or an ongoing basis, then they can reach and engage more people on social media than they could cranking out more “stuff that is a turn off.”

Five-year trends for Facebook video views and engagements

Yesterday, I looked at data for Facebook videos from Tubular Labs, a leading source for social video intelligence. I compared data for 2017, the year before the Facebook Apocalypse, with 2022 to see the five-year trends. Here’s what I initially saw:

ALL CREATORS20172022% change
Engagement rate3.0%4.1%+37%

So, 20% fewer accounts uploaded videos this year than uploaded them five years ago. But this smaller group of accounts uploaded 81% more videos, which got 80% more views and 152% more engagements than the ones uploaded in 2017. And the views per video are up 9%, the engagements per video are up 44%, and the engagement rate (% of engagements per video) is up 37% in 2022 compared to 2017.

But, as Kaushik likes to say, “All data in aggregate is crap.”

He also says, “Segmenting your data is the fastest way to finding actionable insights.”

So, I dilled down deeper to discover which type of creators – influencers, brands, or media & entertainment companies – were now creating more videos with more views and more engagements.

Here’s what I saw for influencers:

INFLUENCERS20172022% change
Engagement rate3.2%4.4%+38%

Now, maybe the fact that the number of influencer accounts is flat isn’t a big problem, since all the other metrics are up.

According to a Facebook announcement by Guy Rosen and Nathaniel Gleicher on Dec. 15, 2022, “This year marked a major milestone in our enforcement against covert influence operations — we’ve now disrupted more than  200 networks worldwide since 2017 for violating our Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) policy.”

They added, “These deceptive networks came from 68 countries and operated in at least 42 languages. Most of them targeted people in their home countries, and only around one-third aimed solely at audiences outside of their own countries, engaging in foreign interference.”

Rosen and Gleicher also revealed, “The United States was the most targeted country by global CIB operations, with Ukraine and the United Kingdom following thereafter. Russia was the most frequent geographic source of CIB networks, followed by Iran and Mexico. Influence operations that originated in Russia most often targeted Ukraine, then African countries and followed by the US.”

But maybe the fact that the number of influencer accounts is flat is a big problem.

In February 2022, Zuckerberg blamed Facebook’s loss of daily active users on TikTok, according to an article in Search Engine Journal by Matt G. Southern, which is entitled, “Facebook Shifts Focus To Short-Form Video After Stock Plunge.”

In a call with investors, Zuckerberg said, “People have a lot of choices for how they want to spend their time, and apps like TikTok are growing very quickly. And this is why our focus on Reels is so important over the long term.”

Now, it’s worth noting that Zuckerberg and Mosseri’s posts in January 2018 failed to address influencers. They said the changes would be good for friends and family as well as bad for businesses and publishers. But they didn’t mention influencers, even though they were creating the lion’s share of social videos on their platform with the highest engagement rates.

So, what impact do you think this had on Facebook influencers?

Well, earlier this month I attended the 1 Billion Followers Summit in Dubai. And Nuseir Yassin, an Arab-Israeli vlogger as well as the Founder & CEO of Nas Company, was one of the keynote speakers. His presentation was entitled, “Why Creators Will Conquer The World.”

In 2016, Yassin started uploading a 1-minute video every day to his Nas Daily account on Facebook. (Nas means people in Arabic.)

In 2017, the Nas Daily team, which had grown to 3, uploaded 491 videos to Facebook. These videos got 981 million views and 24.8 million engagements. That’s 2.0 million views and 50,700 engagements per video, producing an engagement rate of 2.5%.

In 2022, the Nas Daily team, which has grown to 110, uploaded 310 videos to Facebook. These videos got 434 million views and 25.3 million engagements. That’s 3.0 million views and 81,500 engagements per video, producing an engagement rate of 5.8%.

Meanwhile, the Nas Daily team launched a YouTube channel in 2019. And in 2022, they uploaded 335 videos to YouTube. These videos got 1.8 billion views and 138 million engagements. That’s 5.3 million views and 412,000 engagements per video, producing an engagement rate of 7.7%.

The Nas Daily team also has an Instagram account with 3.9 million followers and a TiKTok account with 5.3 million followers, 100 million Likes, and an average engagement rate of 10%.

So, it appears that Facebook’s benign neglect of influencers in January 2018 prompted at least one of their rising stars to adopt a cross-platform strategy to reduce his fear of algorithm changes. This was also one of the tips that Yassin shared with the 3,000 attendees at the Summit “to become future ready.”

He urged the audience to “own your community.” Having 5.2 million followers is meaningless – if you can’t monetize your audience with sponsorship deals, ad revenue, social commerce, or all three.

Next, I looked at the Tubular Labs data for brands. Here’s what I saw:

BANDS20172022% change
Engagement rate2.2%2.4%+9%

As you can also see, 4% fewer accounts uploaded 36% more videos to Facebook this year than they uploaded five years ago. These videos got 36% more views and 3% more engagements than the ones uploaded in 2017. But the views per video are down 17%, the engagements per video are down 14%, and the engagement rate is up 9% in 2022 compared to 2017.

Finally, here’s what I saw for media & entertainment companies:

PUBLISHERS20172022% change
Engagement rate2.5%2.9%+16%

As you can also see, 18% fewer accounts uploaded 79% more videos to Facebook this year than they uploaded five years ago. These videos got 21% more views and 41% more engagements than the ones uploaded in 2017. But the views per video are down 30%, the engagements per video are down 20%, even though the engagement rate is up 16% in 2022 compared to 2017.

So, it looks like the Facebook Apocalypse did make it harder for media & entertainment companies as well as brands to get their organic social videos into the News Feed – even if they created more engaging content.

 Now, Mosseri had warned them in January 2018 that “we’ll show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” Yes, big brands could always by more Facebook ads. But they could also shift their digital advertising and social media marketing budgets to YouTube or other social video platforms.

Zuckerberg had added, “After this change, we expect news to make up roughly 4% of News Feed — down from roughly 5% today.” Nevertheless, this was still a big change – because, as Zuck had noted at the time, news from trustworthy, informative, and local sources continues to be “a critical way for people to start conversations on important topics.”

What should marketers do differently in the future?

So, what should you do differently in the future?

Well, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you’ve already started to move some of your social media marketing team out of Facebook and into TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve already begun to shift some of your budget out of social media marketing and into influencer marketing.

So, what else should you do differently over the next five years?

Well, I just got off a Zoom call with a VC, who was researching the influencer marketing industry and trying to understand some the challenges for brands and marketers working with influencers.

So, let me share with you three of the strategic insights that I shared with her.

First, before hiring an Instagram influencer for a campaign, use the free tool provided by HypeAuditor to analyze any Instagram account for fake followers and likes. Genuine influencers should achieve scores of 80 or above. And influencers who score poorly will probably be of little value to your business.

Here’s a YouTube video from the Influencer Marketing Hub that explains how this tool works:

Now, this video was uploaded in October 2020. Since then, Instagram influencer fraud has declined, but 49% of Instagram Influencer accounts were still impacted by fraud in 2021.

So, go beyond judging influencers merely by the number of followers they have or likes they get. Heck, some of the smarter bot accounts (and even some of the more dishonest human-operated accounts) create comments to make them appear to have active engagement. The problem is that these comments are generic and lack substance. If you spot an account that continually gets comments like “good picture” or “good job,” then drill deeper.

While these comments appear to be a sign of engagement, they have no value to a marketer who is hoping that an influencer can persuade his/her followers that the brand’s product will be suitable for them.

Second, conventional wisdom says you should target influencers who are reaching and engaging Gen Z. But you should question this assumption. Knowing that a significant percentage of an influencer’s audience was born from 1997 to 2012 doesn’t tell you if they’re reaching your most valuable customers.

Now, a significant percentage of the people who you want to reach may be members of Gen Z, but an even larger percentage may be Millennials, members of Gen X, or even Boomers.

For example, if you are targeting audiences who are researching or planning to purchase travel-related products or services, then do you need to reach more people than the part a generation that is barely old enough to book a flight, book a hotel room, or rent a car?

And if you are targeting travel buffs, people who enjoy traveling for pleasure, or business travelers, people who travel frequently for work, then do you really want to limit your reach to Gen Z, who earned an average of $32,500 in 2021, according to recent research by GoBankingRates?

So, use SparkToro to conduct some audience research before looking at the social accounts, websites, press publications, podcasts, and YouTube channels that your customers engage with.

Third, consider why I was in Dubai to attend the 1 Billion Followers Summit.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the countries with the fastest growing economies are:

  1. United Arab Emirates.
  2. Egypt.
  3. Qatar.
  4. Saudi Arabia.

With at least 350 million speakers, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world after English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish and French.

But the vast majority of the 18,900 firms offering or specializing in influencer marketing services don’t manage creators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

So, if marketers at global brands want to weather the challenges posed by the global economy, then they will want to find creators in MENA who influence Arabic-speaking audiences.

Does this mean that I can see the future? No, I can’t. But I learned a long time ago from the builder of a magazine empire, “We pay too much attention to events and not enough to trends.”

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