THE UGLY TRUTH ABOUT SCALING INFLUENCER MARKETING
You've probably heard about Van Halen's famous brown M&M clause, but if you haven't, here are the details. When they were touring, their contract included a very specific, odd requirement: the backstage area needed to have a bowl of M&Ms to munch on, but there absolutely could NOT be any brown ones. Inclusion of the forbidden M&Ms resulted in the immediate cancellation of the show with no refund to the promoter.
Though this may seem like nothing more than a case of rockstars being divas, there actually was a very specific reason for the no brown M&Ms stipulation. If the band arrived at a venue and there were brown M&Ms, it told them that the promoter hadn't read their contract closely.
Van Halen put on an incredibly complex show with a huge amount of equipment. They wanted to be sure that the venue could handle their sophisticated equipment, both in terms of technology and safety. If the promoter had missed the brown M&Ms requirement, there was a good chance they missed more important ones as well.
Though this is certainly an extreme example, it highlights some of the challenges that come with working with influencers. Though they might not be as big as Van Halen, every influencer has their own rates, production calendars, blackout dates, personalities, niches, requirements, and more.
It takes quite a bit of effort to thread all the needles and connect all the moving parts. You've got to simultaneously get a product and talking points to one influencer, review a photo shoot done by another, strategize for future campaigns, and more.
And at its simplest level, this is what makes influencer marketing difficult to scale. But what is the cost when you don’t expand your influencer program?
After all, when you find the right fit, it can produce fantastic results.
Your influencers align both with your target audience and they have the trust of their audience. They use their experienced storytelling abilities to share why they genuinely believe in the product or service they're promoting. And as a result, it drives greater brand affinity and conversions for your brand.
It's one of those lightning in a bottle moments where everything just works. It feels like magic and you immediately want more.
The Challenge Of Scaling
Of course, once you see the results you get by doing things manually, you immediately want to scale it to see how much growth you can drive from it.
You envision being able to leverage some sort of SaaS tool that will let you simply plug in your variables and then, much like the "Showtime Rotisserie" chicken roaster promoted by Ron Popeil, set it and forget it. We can automate so many other things. Surely there's a way to get that influencer automation engine running, right?
Unfortunately, no. At least not in the way you're probably thinking.
Influencer marketing is significantly more complex than other types of marketing, like email marketing. There are too many variables and moving pieces to have a one size fits all, plug-and-play, set it and forget equation (though many brands try).
Trying to automate your influencer marketing program in order to scale it is kind of like putting a Tesla on "autopilot". Some elements can be handled automatically, but you still have to be closely involved in the process.
Let's look at some of the specific challenges of trying to scale influencer marketing.
Every Creator Is Different
Influencer marketing, perhaps more than any other type, is highly relational. Yes, certain characteristics and metrics will remain relatively constant across influencers (vertical, average views, demographics, etc.), but you're not comparing apples to apples. Even within a single vertical, influencer marketing is more like an entire fruit basket, with a wide variety of nuances and variables.
Creators don't want to be treated like a number in a marketing equation or transaction. Unlike click-thru-rate(CTR) on marketing emails or impressions of pay-per-click(PPC) ads, creators don't want to be reduced to yet another metric to be measured.
They want to be valued, both as individuals and for the particular skills and creativity that they bring to the table. If you treat influencers more like metrics rather than individuals, you'll get subpar results that do little for your brand.
Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Who are you going to give your best efforts to? A brand that doesn't seem to care about anything other than what you can add to their bottom line or a brand that genuinely cares for you as a person? Obviously, the second.
It's a much better experience for both creators and brands when genuine, warm relationships can be formed. And it's precisely this that's hard to scale. It's like saying, "How can I scale the number of best friends I have?"
There's a hilarious/heartbreaking scene in the show The Office when manager Michael Scott shows a video of himself as a child, making an appearance on a children's television show. A puppet asks Michael what he wants to be when he grows up and he says, "I want to be married and have 100 kids so no one can say no to being my friend."
That moment both clarifies so much of Michael's neurotic behavior and highlights a truth that applies to influencer marketing: true relationships don't just happen. They can't be forced.
Authentic relationships require effort, and when it comes to scaling influencer marketing, there's a fine line between creating genuine connections and meaningless networking that does nothing to strengthen a relationship. If you aren't able to put in sufficient effort to develop relationships, you'll come across like a person at a party who is simultaneously talking to you while also scanning the crowd for someone else to talk to.
The Need For Long-Term Relationships
Some people argue that giving your product to influencers can solve this issue. This is like buying a round for everyone at the bar. It might earn you some "friends" for the night, but it's not going to win you any friends for life.
If you want to succeed with influencer marketing, you want to build long-term relationships with your best influencers. The kind of relationships that go beyond simply giving them your product for free. After all, the novelty of free products wears off pretty fast. An influencer only needs so many t-shirts or boxes of organic granola bars or whatever it is you sell.
There should be at least some element where the influencer knows that you truly value them and what they offer, and vice versa. This kind of relationship can't be earned simply by gifting free products.
Long-term, authentic influencer partnerships are the sweet spot, both for creators and brands. For creators, they can be a source of consistent income from a brand they already know and enjoy working with. They're familiar with the brand and what it's trying to achieve, and are able to produce the type of content the brand wants much faster than for an unfamiliar brand.
For brands, long-term partnerships can result in potentially better rates from the creator, as well as confidence in how the influencer will represent the brand and the general results that can be expected from campaigns.
Additionally, if an influencer is seen to be loyal to a brand sponsor, it maintains the influencer's credibility and continues to positively impact the brands’ reputation.
What Can Be Scaled and What Can't?
So, given the issues mentioned, what elements of influencer marketing can be scaled and which can't?
You can scale influencer identification.
There are tools that can help you rapidly identify potential influencers who are a good fit for your brand, based on their audience size, demographics, etc. This is the first step in the influencer marketing process.
You can also scale the process of giving products to influencers. But as we noted, this shouldn't be a primary pillar of your marketing process. Additionally, this strategy tends to be used more with micro-influencers. Influencers with really large audiences receive so many free products that getting one from you probably won't make a big difference to them.
What you can't scale without putting in the effort is the relationship building process. There is no automation tool available that will remove you from the equation. If you've ever been on the receiving end of an automated email sequence from a person or business that tries to feel like it's personal and not automated, you know exactly why you can't automate relationship building. It just doesn't feel real.
You need to have regular interactions with a creator in order to:
Have a good idea of their production calendar and availability
Know their standard rates across their platforms and where the have flexibility in deal terms
Have a good idea regarding which creators can work quickly versus which have frequent delays
Know which creators are likely to need fewer reshoots versus needing to re-do large portions
Have a standing relationship with talent managers and agents for larger creators
Most marketing strategies are in large part data/information driven. For example, SEO requires keyword research, technical optimization, content creation, etc. The results of these tasks aren't tied to the strength of a relationship. They're more dependent on knowledge, technical proficiency, etc., and you can use a variety of tools to scale the entire process.
This isn't the case with influencer marketing. If you try to use a single tool to scale your overall program, you’ll end up with thin/fragile relationships, internal disorder, and potentially a bad reputation in the space.
The only true way to scale an effective influencer program is to scale your relationships and the only way to do that is through headcount. This isn’t to say that tech/SaaS tools aren't a part of the equation, but you'll need a dedicated team working on your behalf, either internal or external.
That’s one of the main reasons we’re frequently hiring. We recognize that if we’re going to do influencer marketing right, the best way we can help brands to scale influencer marketing is to build a team of folks who can go deeper with our creators.