Nick Hayes: How has Influencer Marketing been hijacked by Social Media Vendors? – and how can it get back its link to Sales?

Nick HayesHow did this happen? When we started our company in the field of Influencer Marketing our intention was to identify the real-world sales influencers – whether they made a noise about it or not. We wanted to better understand how sales were being made – and better understand what was standing in the way when sales weren’t made.

Today when we read discussions about Influencer Marketing it’s most commonly nothing to do with those subjects. It’s invariably about social scoring, about how brands can create databases of those who are most active online on a particular subject. Want to know who tweets most often, to the widest number of people, on the subject of Android? Or who the most prolific pay-for-play bloggers on the subject of consumer goods are? How did we get so far from real-world sales?
Klout certainly affected the perception of influencer marketing by saying they were something they were not. They said they were ‘the standard for influence’ and because of their notoriety, and the level of funding behind them, people listened. Then everyone realised they weren’t – but by then all kinds of newcomers had entered the fray. Most criticized Klout for just how speculative its evaluation system was, just how easy it was for anyone to game their score, and then tried to make their own company’s scoring a little more robust. But Klout created the concept that identifying influencers meant identifying social influencers, that influence meant activity on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and the like. And that’s the connection that I think has been most damaging to the real world of influencer marketing.
Over the past eight years we have identified the market influencers for hundreds of organizations across more than forty countries – from the U.S. to Australia, from Vietnam to Sweden. And in almost every market sector the number of ‘social influencers’ – those influencing a real-world market primarily through their social media activity – amongst our top influencers has been less than 30%. Way less. Sometimes it’s almost unmeasurably low. And that’s because we’re measuring ‘purchasing influencers’ – those who have a direct effect on the sales of a company’s products & services. Occasionally, and I mean occasionally, the number of ‘social’ names within the top influencers can be significant. But only in very specific and very ‘online’ markets. A company like WordPress, who host this platform, have presumably very ‘online’ influencers because they don’t exist in an offline sense.
We’ve seen the trend over the past eighteen months. Our incoming prospect calls are now fairly regularly from an organization’s social media manager, or their digital engagement manager. When we explain that our approach will identify all of their organization’s sales influencers, regardless of whether those people are online, offline or social, that callers’ interest often wains and they emphasize their focus is only on the social media individuals. They’re only listening for the answer they want to hear. Anything beyond ‘social’ is beyond their remit. So, out of all of those within an organization, why is it the social media manager who is increasingly being asked to find their company’s ‘influencers’?
We think several things come into play there. One is that the social media manager needs to prove their business value and is very open to bolstering this with evidence that ‘social’ individuals are influential. The second is that marketing heads are investing so much in online outreach that it’s clearly in their interests to show that those online are important – and so they’re approaching the ‘influencer’ question with a heavy ‘social’ bias. And a third is that the social media manager is finding a very willing reception to their agency requests. Go to any marketing or ‘influencer marketing’ agency and they’ll be highly receptive to the question “Can you tell me who are the most important influencers online for my company?”. The fact that most can’t doesn’t affect the response.
We’re pleased that the likes of Klout seem to be increasingly classified nowadays as ‘social scoring’ vendors rather than influencer marketing vendors. I wish them luck. We have no issue with ‘social scoring’ so long as no-one takes it too seriously. It’s a game, not reality. If people want to take part then they’re welcome to. So long as they’re aware it has absolutely nothing to do with sales.
So what do we have to do to get the term ‘influencers’ back to our original understanding of the name? Those influential on a company’s purchasing decisions. Perhaps we need to move it on. Call it ‘Sales Influencer Marketing’ or ‘Sales Influencer Engagement’? Or will the market right itself soon anyway?
Nick Hayes is the principal of Influencer50 Inc.