Marketers no longer have total control of their brand narratives. Now they’re spending time influencing influencers

This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

Marketers no longer have the control they once did over how their brands are perceived and talked about by consumers. For decades, traditional advertising allowed marketers to feel like they were the true stewards of their brands, making decisions about how their brands would go to market, what consumers should think about them, how they should advertise and where they would show up.

That perception of control — regardless of whether it was true — is waning. While in the past consumers certainly had ideas about brands that didn’t line up with how marketers wanted those brands to be perceived, they didn’t have the ability to voice those opinions en masse in the way that social media allows now. How an influencer talks about a brand can have a direct impact on a brand’s perception, sales and overall stature in a way that has marketers spending more time figuring out how to influence influencers.

“There’s no amount of money that could allow a brand complete control of their narrative now,” said James Nord, founder of influencer marketing shop Fohr, adding that consumer voices are more powerful than advertiser voices which changes the job of an advertiser. “It goes from, ‘How do I tell a story? What story do I want to tell?’ to ‘What story do I want other people to tell about me? How do I encourage that? How do I curate that?’ If you can work with influencers and they start talking about a brand they can kind of train the audience to do the same thing.”

As influencer marketing continues to mature and marketers recognize the power of influencers, some brands are changing their relationships with influencers. From spending more time briefing them on projects to spending more time fostering relationships, brands hope the moves create more affinity for their products and brands overall. At the same time, brands are recognizing they need to give influencers more control of the content they create for their brands. That then allows influencers to create content that makes more sense for their audience and feels more organic about the brand, making it more likely to have an impact for the brand, according to agency execs.

“It’s kind of like old school influencer engagement, which is what we used to call it when I was first doing these engagements,” said Danielle Wiley, founder of influencer marketing shop Sway Group. “Before we were even paying influencers, we were sending them products and talking to them like journalists. Then it flipped to you having to pay them for everything. Now I think we’re in this new world where there’s a little bit of both.” 

Marketers who spend time connecting with influencers, commenting when influencers say something about their brand and nourishing a relationship so that they can take “maximum advantage” of that connection are able to get more value out of influencer marketing now, explained Wiley. Brands that recognize the need to foster relationships with influencers will spend time engaging them, wooing them, sending gifts, taking care of them in some way are then able to encourage influencers to feel a certain way about their brand and likely talk about them how they would like to be talked about to their audience.

Some marketers are taking it beyond gifting or inviting influencers to events. As previously reported by Digiday, some marketers are hiring influencers as creative directors for brands. Others are bringing influencers into the fold asking what they think of potential concepts, what themes are resonating with them or what they think about potential products. By bringing influencers into the brand that way, there’s a sense of a true relationship rather than a fully transactional one that likely helps the brand influence how the influencer feels about the brand in a more positive way.

“We are really building relationships between creators and brands,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO and founder of influencer marketing shop Obviously. “If you’re a good fit for the brand, we’ll welcome you into their network. We’ll actually have you do meet and greets with the marketing team, we’ll have events on campus.”

Karwowski continued: “It’s almost like treating the influencers as if they were kind of like the Vogue editors, the media influencers of the past 20 years. Building strong relationships with [influencers] too is now very important. You’re like, ‘Hey, I want you to know your honest opinion [but] I also want to influence your honest opinion about my brand.’”

Consumers can see through when an influencer touts an affinity for a brand without an actual relationship to it, making it all the more important for brands to foster a real relationship with influencers, according to agency execs.

“It really is a sweet spot of having an influencer who talked about [the brand] authenticity early on [and partnering with them],” said Randi Matthews, CEO and founder of PR shop Multihyphen Media, adding that brands building on an influencer’s affinity for a brand works best as that influencer’s fans will believe the relationship much more than something that doesn’t seem like a natural fit.

Brands that seek out and foster influencer relationships in that way as well as give influencers the ability to create content that will fit for their channel and audience will have more success with influencer marketing than those that don’t, according to agency execs. 

“The brands influencers tell us they most want to work with are those that allow influencers to let their own storytelling ability shine,” said Lisa Singelyn, vp of celebrity and influencer at Platinum Rye Entertainment, the talent and IP procurement branch of The Marketing Arm. “More and more, we are seeing agents redline editing and reshoot ability by brand and agency teams. We’ve seen influencers turn down lucrative deals because they aren’t getting enough creative control over their branded content.”

Singelyn continued: “In my opinion, the only scripted content you should give to your influencers is required disclaimers and FTC disclosures.” 

Resisting change to maintain control will likely have marketers wasting efforts, according to agency execs, who believe that marketers will need to change how they think about influencer marketing going forward.

“Marketers need to embrace a different attitude when it comes to influencer marketing,” said Sara Robino, director of influencer marketing at Exponent. “Reach and engagement are no longer guaranteed on social. Unless you pay the platforms directly, an audiences’ attention must be earned. Viewers have low tolerance for staged and scripted content, and superficial endorsements represent a bygone era of influencer marketing. Brand managers and marketers who insist on retaining absolute control are ultimately wasting their money.”

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