Over a decade ago, the term ‘social media influencer’ would be something entirely unheard of. A job where all you needed to do is capture and edit pictures, review free products that are sent to you, and travel the world? The notion itself seemed too good to be true that many were still unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of this occupation. However, it is undeniable that social media influencers are on the rise, and they indeed play an important role in shaping the business landscape in the 21st century.

Why are they so important, you might ask? Well, social media influencers are the key players of influencer marketing. Influencer marketing is a relatively new term in the advertising industry, whereby people with considerable social media following utilize their influence to market certain goods and services to their audience. If you are still confused, you can refer to the simple table detailing below to understand the differences between content, social, and influencer marketing.

MarketingContentSocialInfluencer
Medium of CommunicationBillboard, TV, newspaper, internet, etc.Billboard, TV, newspaper, internet, etc.Social media
PurposeStimulate interest in product and service by offering value and educationChanging or maintaining people’s behaviour for the benefit of individuals and society as a wholeUtilizing social media influencers’ reach & trust with their audience to promote brands
Explicit brand promotionYesNoYes
Example of CampaignCoca-cola’s ‘Share A Coke’ CampaignALS Ice Bucket ChallengeDaniel Wellington #DWMOMENTS

Social media adoption has increased dramatically throughout the years. Most notably, Facebook has garnered a total of 2.375 billion users as of Q3 of 2018, about 1.6 times the total population of China. Instagram, on the other hand, has 1 billion monthly active users, and 60% of them have said in a survey that they had discovered new products through the platform. This has led marketers to be increasingly interested in reaching out to customers through social media platforms.

Traditional advertising is often interruptive, whereby a large pool of potential customers will be exposed to the brand daily. A good example here is how one is interrupted by advertisements while watching a video on Facebook. Unfortunately, its interruptive nature would likely annoy social media users, and many had resorted to using a variety of advertisement blockers (AdBlockers) to improve user experience. This led to a reduction in audience engagement, causing marketing to be ineffective.

Businesses had to evolve to adapt to this phenomenon. Thus, influencer marketing had become a good alternative for marketers. By nature, influencer marketing is categorised as permissive marketing, in which the audience will only see marketing content after they had explicitly opt-in for marketing information. In this case, the audience had agreed to receive marketing content when they chose to follow the social media influencer. Those who do not follow the influencer will not receive any marketing information made by the aforementioned influencer. This has provided businesses with a great alternative to online marketing.

Influencer marketing provides a unique take in marketing because social media influencers are often deemed as more relatable in contrast to celebrities and artists. This has allowed these influencers to form closer bonds with their audience, increase engagement, and ultimately establish trust with thousands or millions of people. The effect of this is evident – 6 in 10 of millennials would trust purchasing advice from social media influencers over movie or TV personalities. This efficiency could explain the surge of product reviews and ‘unboxing’ videos on social media platforms in the past year, with the total watch time of these videos on Youtube reaching unchartered heights of 50,000+ years. Influencer marketing is also a prime way for businesses aiming to increase female customers as it has been found that over half of the surveyed women had admitted that they had made purchases after seeing posts made by influencers.

Why would consumers be affected by influencer postings? To understand this, we must look at the intricacies of consumer behaviour. A consumer’s purchasing decision goes through different phases, which is depicted in the purchase funnel diagram included below:

An alternative take on the purchase funnel diagram is the AIDA framework, in which consumers will experience 4 stages, namely Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action before making a purchase. Awareness happens when customers are aware of the existence of the product or service. Then, the consumer will show Interest in a certain product group. Desire then takes place when the company had successfully enticed the customer to desire the product or service, which will finally lead to the initial Action from the customer to purchase the commodity.

Influencer marketing assists companies during the Awareness stage by exposing the brand to their loyal audience. The influencers’ relationship with their audience will stimulate interest for customers to know more about the brand and this is made possible because influencers are public figures that people look up to, and are often referred to as trendsetters or culture-shapers. A campaign with the influencer that involves a product review will then stimulate the desire for purchase which will then accelerate the purchasing action among the influencers’ audience.

Through influencer marketing, companies can piggyback onto the trust that influencers have built with their audience, which would then aid in market penetration. Even if the audience did not purchase the product, influencer marketing could induce higher discussion as audiences often engage with these influencers through comments and messages. Oftentimes, higher discussion allows the brand to be known to people outside of the influencers reach. For example, an audience that leaves a comment on an influencer’s sponsored post through Facebook would allow the post to appear on the timeline of the audience’s friends. This opens up the possibility for more people to be aware of the marketed commodity.

Influencer marketing can find its roots from word-of-mouth marketing, in which people are more likely to base their purchasing decision on recommendations made by friends and family. This form of marketing is a natural evolution of word-of-mouth marketing in the current digital age. With the rise of social media, people are forming genuine connections as they follow and engage with other people over the internet. Friends and connections no longer require a physical presence to manifest; in fact, 4 out of 10 millennial subscribers on Youtube feel that the influencers understand them better than their real-life friends! With that, word-of-mouth has now extended to include these social media influencers. Consumer’s purchase intent experience a 2.5 times increase once they are exposed to influencer marketing. When the line between the physical and virtual world blurs, businesses must catch up and innovate their marketing strategies accordingly.

The factors mentioned above had propelled influencer marketing to be one of the fastest-growing marketing strategies these days. It was predicted that influencer marketing would become an industry worth $6.5 billion in 2019, and the term ‘influencer marketing’ has experienced a 1,500% increase in Google searches over the last three years. There was a recorded 49% increase of businesses that are now establishing a dedicated budget for influencer marketing as compared to 2017. This trend is predicted to increase in the future, seeing that influencer marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways of advertising. Typically, marketers can expect an average of 6.5 times return from the initial cost of influencer marketing, which surpassed many traditional channels of advertising. Another study even went as far as to claim that influencer marketing has the potential to trigger 11 times more in return on investment as compared to traditional advertising. It is claimed that 94% of businesses that had utilized influencer marketing in the past had found it to be effective.

One might firmly believe influencer marketing to be the next big thing and may plot one’s future career as a social media influencer. Do hold your horses, though, as the roads of influencer marketing and social media influencers are not lined with a bed of roses. Since social media influencers thrive off the audience and engagement that their posts can garner, dabbling into influencer marketing means that they are putting their reputation on the line for the brand. Thus, many social media influencers are very strict in selecting the brands and companies they partner with. Most influencers only accept a quarter of the marketing offers that they receive. After all, if the brand failed due to reasons such as poor quality of goods or service provided, they would lose the trust that they had built with their audience because their name would now be directly associated with the negligence of the company.

Besides, social media influencers spend a large amount of time curating their profile by taking countless pictures, editing and posting regularly so that they could gain more engagement and obtain more followers. Moreover, influencers also track rising hashtags and write relevant content to capture the short attention span of millennials. All of this can be very exhausting, especially when maintaining your public image becomes a full-time job. Gone were the days where you could post goofy pictures online; as a social media influencer, your post now could be nothing but aesthetically pleasing photos, and you would also need to schedule postings and arrange your feed according to a colour scheme or theme in mind.

In essence, it is undeniable that businesses now are curating better and more advanced strategies to better utilize the platform that is influencer marketing. Companies, no matter how big or small, should quickly catch on with the change in marketing preferences and adapt their advertising strategies accordingly. Better performance measures should also be curated to maximise the potential of influencer marketing. Only when these infrastructures are in place can influencer marketing and social media marketing thrive in this ever-evolving marketplace.

Researcher: Jia Qi

Editor: Saras