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Influencer Marketing – Another Old Model Reborn With A New Buzzword.

The problem with having lots of experience spanning many decades and being a nerd who studies and thinks about retail and product marketing – in its totality as the core business discipline – is that you really have seen it all before and seen the cycles repeat themselves many times. Think the fashion cycle endlessly re-interpreting the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s over and over. Human nature it seems is locked in a loop of ‘discover it: do it: learn from it: abandon it: forget about it: re-discover it (without the benefit of the lessons learned last time): plagiarise, repackage & exploit it: etc etc etc’. Marketers are at the extreme end of this phenomenon.

Truth be told in marketing (as in much of life) very little is new save the enablers and capabilities provided by technology and the competitive economic context. We just keep inventing new buzzwords to repackage old ideas.

‘Influencer Marketing’ has been around since Moses descended from the Mount imploring everyone that they needed to “get yourself a copy of the tablets”. The early technology was word of mouth, that later proceeded to print and on to the present day ‘virtual world’. Endorsements, testimonials, peer group leaders, editor and journalist reviews, tribes and influencers are not new. But the technology and competitive context is.

The lessons we have learned every time we have gone down this track though are as immutable as the theory of relativity.

The five key lessons are as follows:-

1. The Product or Brand Is Subservient to the Influencer (or Insert alternate new buzzword here).
The power of an Influencer (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) is that they establish themselves as the lead of a group of followers. The followers are enticed to try things they recommend. History tells us this leads to unsustainable peak item sales and that the products or services are nothing more than canon fodder to give them another subject to ‘communicate’ with their followers about.

2. Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) Only Promote Individual Products or Services Not Brands.
Historically – and perhaps even more so today – followers emulate the consumption or usage pattern of the Influencer (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) and this is based on a product or service not a wholesale brand. The effect of the endorsement only extends to the item unless there is a very clever strategy by the business that flows from the shallow trial of the product by the follower.

3. Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) Are Really Only In It For Themselves.
Third party ‘airplay’ has only ever been driven by the economics of whether it was free content for the media outlet or paid endorsement and technology has created a new media world in which ‘followers’ translates directly into dollars. Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) care solely about increasing their following and exploiting that database for revenue potential. Just the same as media proprietors sell cost per thousand reach. As someone famous once said “It’s all about integrity and when you learn how to fake that, the world is your oyster.” Not new, but certainly becoming more mercenary.

4. The Halo Effect Has A Use By Date
Any impact created by Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) in isolation has a very short shelf life as most followers today are increasingly restless and always looking to be on to the next thing. Sales can peak due to the ‘fad’ or ‘hot now’ nature of the endorsement but without an ‘X factor’ in the product or a follow up strategy sales cool down rapidly.

5. The Most Powerful Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) Are Friends & Family.
It has always been true that the most powerful influencers on product and brand choice for sustainable sales are family and friends. That is why the most powerful influencer group are your most regular customers. Marketing strategy has always been about trial, conversion to repeat purchase and referral by higher volume or higher value consumers.

In the fragmented modern media world we live in effectively all we have created is a complex media web of nano-second connections. If you treat this world as nothing more or less than public relations and Influencers (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) as journalists – as many of them actually used to be – then it is clear where they can fit in a blended promotional strategy. But that is all they are.

Marketing strategy has no silver bullets and has never been singular in dimension. The problem with the way the modern marketing vendors pitch themselves however is that they sell themselves as the answer to all your questions (before they even know what the questions are) in order to grow their own revenue streams. They care little for your financial return on investment and instead promote measures that cannot be linked to sales and profit outcomes. Self-serving measures supporting their revenue models.

Technology has made the world a much more interesting place to live in. It has enabled things previously impractical or impossible to do. But it hasn’t changed fundamentals and in many cases is dumbing the human race down. With more and more ambitious people seeking increasingly niche applications of technology to make tasks easier, cheaper and faster some of the clarity is being lost in the analysis of the application of these so called ‘solutions’ because they are shiny and new and packaged to look ‘hip’.

Influencer (or Insert alternate new buzzword here) Marketing is a regurgitation of what has been done before. It has a place. It is not the centrepiece of building a sustainable business but it can play a role if used in the right context, supported by the right activities to make sense of it. We marketers have always fallen for the ego punch of seeing our brand in lights. This kind of promotional activity can give the appearance of fast tracking awareness.Great marketers know that sustainable business success is based on a strategy which cleverly combines multiple executional streams to acquire customers, embed their purchase behaviour and use them to grow their sales and profits.

The bottom line is this – whatever attracts a customer to you is what drives their retention and purchase behaviour. And purchase behaviour dictates profit outcomes.