In the pursuit to create viral content, marketers have embraced the idea that using influencers to endorse a brand's message will foster consumer engagement. As the tactic trends among the marketing community, brands are spending millions of dollars to hire influencers to serve as brand ambassadors. But in an industry driven by metrics, the question remains: are influencers really worth the investment? Engaging influencers with a huge social media following can be somewhat effective for the creation of awareness, but it may not be the most effective method for creating viral content. Simply gaining "eyeballs" through a celebrity's following, while consumer friendly, does not alone translate into influence.
The simple truth is: influencers do not often pave the path to virality. The phrase "social influencer" is a constraining, mystifying label. Despite common misconception, what brands really seek when engaging influencers as brand ambassadors is the 'action' that is yielded by investing in the process. Being an influencer means that you have more than just a large following. In fact, the word itself doesn't mean anything unless it yields an outcome. Most people define influencers by over emphasizing the "popularity contest" (i.e. number of followers) with almost no attention to the context. It is the latter that drives the results.
The concept of spreading messages is analogous to spreading diseases. While it's certainly true that diseases spread from highly connected hubs, they propagate where they can best grow roots. Brands cannot rely on influential people alone to propagate their message. There is a reason that some influencer-based campaigns work and others do not. An article in the Harvard Business Review states that although a celebrity may have huge social media following, he/she may not be as influential when it comes to motivating followers to take a certain course of action. When an influencer is speaking to an audience about something that just doesn't resonate, then no matter how large the audience is the influence is minimized.
This question of an influencer's place in creating brand awareness can often be answered by the sociological phenomenon known as "homophily." Simply put, individual preferences are somewhat based on the preferences, interests, and behaviors of their friends. This suggests marketers should first discover the factors that motivate their audience before relying on influencers. If individuals are more likely to be influenced by a friend, or someone in close-proximity to their network, then a famous influencer may be far less influential. Understanding the driving force behind consumer behavior will help brands implement campaigns that are less reliant on an influencer's popularity and instead dependent on factors that will truly inspire action.
Investigating the specific characteristics that appeal first to the user's motivation can help brands find ways to engage their target audience. To do this, it is vital that organizations stay abreast of current trends as well as the conversation of their target audience. In addition, brands must take steps to remain relevant and create an environment of sustained engagement. Taking advantage of available algorithms that take the guesswork out of social media publishing can ensure the target audience is at peak receptivity. This compliments any influencer campaign, as brands can time their messaging for when their target audience is most likely to spread a brand's message to their friends and colleagues. By utilizing timing along with messaging and delivery brands can embrace social media platforms to organically perpetuate the phenomenon "homophily."
While alternatives to celebrity influencers can often better reach a target audience, brands should not turn their back on influencers completely. Rather than just selecting an influencer based on their number of followers, brands should make the most informed decision possible to create campaigns that are both targeted and effective. The goal of any influencer campaign is to find the best brand ambassador for a specific campaign. In the end, it is the person that is influenced by an influencer - the consumer - who moves the needle for a brand. Brands that begin to think about the consumer, rather than just the influencer, will best position themselves for success.