The beginning of the influencer craze, like most manias, started slowly before skyrocketing. Bloggers used various platforms to write about various topics and most supplemented their writing with photographs to create a pictorial journey for the reader. These were the original influencers, and many were able to carve out a lucrative niche.
As camera phones made anyone with a device a photographer and the launch of Instagram in 2010 marked a move from online written content to the fast-paced consumption of still images, the traditional blog became a highly consumable, scrollable database of instantly gratifying pictures. The platform began to grow organically and users began to amass “followers.”
The potential was quickly adapted to a marketing context. Katch International was one of the first PR & Marketing companies in the UAE to utilise influencers and make a significant impact when they handled the launch of the Rolls Royce Phantom II in 2012. Companies and brands understandably began leveraging these accounts, which were in effect an organically grown database of an engaged target demographic. The benefits were outstanding. Any brand could reach a captive audience in a particular niche, often for just a token payment or free gift, sometimes for nothing at all.
Image from @hipsterlola
At this point, Instagram was still in its infancy and major influencers had 15 to 18 thousand followers. Engagement rates were high. Content was primarily genuine, and the benefits for companies could be substantial with very little risk and often very little cost or commitment. But once this potential was realised by both businesses and influencers alike, it began to spiral out of control.
The benefits were outstanding. Any brand could reach a captive audience in a particular niche, often for just a token payment or free gift, sometimes for nothing at all.
“Katch were one of the first to use influencers in Dubai, and it was a resounding success even for a major luxury brand,” confirms Georgie Woollams, Managing Director of Katch International. “It was a necessity to completely and efficiently screen each individual and ensure they aligned completely with the brand. If they weren’t on point, they weren’t on board, because the targeted audience in relatively small numbers had to generate buzz and furthermore, sales. Utilising influencers was tactical and had great advantages, but it was just in addition to a comprehensive campaign, it wasn’t the campaign itself. Although, it wasn’t long before all that changed.”
Influencers began to saturate the market, and this in turn initiated the fierce competition to stand out from the crowd with ever more followers and campaigns. These online personas also demanded significantly more investment, purporting an audience in the hundreds of thousands, five to six times the customer base brands were promised previously.
By virtue of that fact the investment seemed worthwhile. More eyes on your product, meant more awareness of the brand and increased sales. But this didn’t quite work out as either the brands or the influencers themselves had hoped.
People are no longer blindly ‘following’ their favourite personality, but returning to trustworthy sources that offer something more. Whether it’s an aspirational lifestyle or a make-up tutorial, consumers want depth and integrity
With no real means of qualifying the potential ROI other than sheer number of followers, many influencers used automated programs to artificially inflate their numbers. In this way the numbers rose, but the organically grown base which was immensely valued by brands as a targeted advertising instrument largely evaporated. The same ‘dilution’ effect also caused a disparate connection with influencers who reached their large numbers without the aid of bots. As the numbers grew the engagement fell, as customers lost faith in the genuine nature of these advertisements.
For the influencers this worked for a time, as brands continued to splash out on big names. But this also came with its own set of problems. The more these ‘big names’ were targeted, the more diluted the message became. One day a person was promoting one fashion brand and the next its rival, while clashing brand personas became commonplace as the same person was often employed to promote unrelated or even opposing products.
Image from @hipsterlola
“Companies were throwing money at those with the most numbers, no matter what public persona they had. So one day John would be modelling with a bottle of some new craft barley drink, and the next advertising kids strollers for new parents … it just didn’t make sense. ‘Infuencer’ was the new celebrity but companies didn’t know how to manage campaigns, measure ROI, or decide if the extortionate prices being demanded by the biggest names were somehow reasonable.” – Georgie Woollams
Due in large part to the meteoric rise of social media and possibly the inability and hesitancy of brands to adapt to the shifting landscape, it took some time for the public to realise that an exorbitant number of followers did not correlate with ROI, or make many of these influencers in any way influential. A relatively recent 2016 study by Makerly confirmed this, suggesting that the higher the follower count rises, the lower the engagement rates on the account, often with up to 10 times the difference in active engagement.
The sweet spot seems to be between 10k and 100k followers, but this also varies dramatically depending on your brand, and <10k often means that the influencer has great sway over their followers. People are no longer blindly ‘following’ their favourite personality, but returning to trustworthy sources that offer something more. Whether it’s an aspirational lifestyle or a make-up tutorial, consumers want depth and integrity, which is what brands have always wanted to ensure their message is heard.
Image from @hipsterlola
It’s not just a regression however, the very way consumers and influencers interact is changing and developing. Jay-Z for example has made his own subscription-based Timo channel in order to interact directly with his followers, eliminating the need for brand sponsorship completely. Of course, that isn’t a realistic option for those without the status of the famous rapper, but similar changes are happening across all levels of influencer engagement. Geographical area plays a huge role in regions like the Middle East, for example, 60% of all YouTube in the region is consumed in Saudi Arabia, offering niche influencers a captive audience in the country.
“Now that the dust has settled on the industry, there’s far more transparency, and companies aren’t as willing to dish out significant percentages of their annual marketing budgets on social media posts with meagre returns,” Woollams continues. “Of course, the type of influencers that can help your brand will largely depend on the type of business you have. If you’re a small local café there’s not much point in using an influencer with 1 million followers, because your customer base is limited by geographical area. Similarly, if you’re an online fashion store, 1,000 isn’t enough as you need to reach a wider audience, but the influencer needs to be trustworthy and align with the brand, because there’s a substantial move back towards the more refined style we saw 6 and 7 years ago, which in turn means brands need to be ever more selective to ensure it’s a valuable collaboration.”
Businesses are now moving back toward micro-influencers, targeting specific demographic segments and investing their hard-earned money in much more measurable audiences, at far more reasonable rates, with a much-improved chance of a realistic return on investment
Celebrities and well-known faces will always have a role to play in advertising, but as with everything else from Batman to Bitcoin, after the initial craze-phase, the excitement and therefore the total effect has plateaued. Businesses are now moving back toward micro-influencers, targeting specific demographic segments and investing their hard-earned money in much more measurable audiences, at far more reasonable rates, with a much-improved chance of a realistic return on investment.
In other words, influencers are becoming influential again, as long as they align with your brand and speak to the audience you actually want to reach, rather than acting as a mouthpiece that spouts to the masses.
Under the UAE’s new media regulations, influencers who are paid to promote brands or products now need a licence to do so. For more information on influencers or to help choose the right one for your brand, product or event, contact Katch International and get your brand the attention it deserves.