Are influencers and the market surrounding them over as we know it? With the rise of social media and platforms like Instagram and TikTok, the Influencer has become the new marketing or public relations firm. Instead of working with a group of marketing pros that’ve gone through years of schooling and who devour every issue of AdWeek, instead, companies are seeking out influencers within their niche to help promote or market their products. Or at least, they were until recently.
The idea behind influencer marketing is a simple one. Instead of elaborate and expensive advertising campaigns that run in major publications, on television and on radio, brands are seeking out individuals with big followings on social media platforms to sell a product. These influencers were believed to have influence over their audience and thus they turned into the media powerhouses of yesteryear. For years, the Influencer has dominated marketing as the media platforms of the past–television, radio, newspaper, and magazines–continue to fall behind. This was a concept I and others were taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Journalism School in a course titled “Rising Eagles, Settling Doves.” To spare you a semester-long lecture, basically, what once was mighty and powerful in terms of media eventually falls and becomes less imposing and softer in terms of impact. That’s now happening to the influencer market as we know it.
As the years have gone by, the flaws of the Influencer market are more evident today than they were say a decade ago. We used to be wowed and in total awe of anyone that had a following of 1,000 or more people. People that managed to amass followers in the 20,000 or more range were seen as experts and celebrities. Nowadays, however, big follower counts doesn’t equate to influence. Someone can have a big following and very little influence. Brands that hand over thousands of dollars in marketing budgets haven’t been seeing that money have much of an impact because the Influencer as we know it isn’t that effective in communicating a message. The idea of paying someone big money to endorse or push a product seems … dated and ineffective. There’s still a lot of Influence marketing going on–just turn on YouTube and try to get through a video without either a commercial or “sponsor” message interrupting the thing that made you want to watch that video. That’s Influencer marketing at play and though it’s still around, it’s not really where it is today.
Personally, I believe we’re entering into the Blair Witch era of marketing. If you’ve never seen The Blair Witch Project, it’s basically a horror movie shot on an iPhone 4 with about a $10 budget. There was no glamor to the movie; no polish; no big production. It was a raw, real take on the horror genre and that’s what made it memorable. That’s where we are with marketing and why Influencer marketing as we’ve known it is being replaced with UGC, which stands for User Generated Content.
I’ve worked for several industries that have always relied heavily on UGC over Influencer marketing. At one point of my career, I worked for a gardening magazine that never seemed to have a budget. Instead of big photo shoots as you’d see in Better Homes and Gardens, we had to get creative in how we got photo shoots done. We held “photo contests” that did have a prize attached to them but the fine print also stated that any photos submitted to the magazine could be published and used by the magazine as it saw fit. This was our photo bank for the next year (this was long before affordable options like Adobe Stock and iStock Photo existed). At another point of my career, I worked with magazines that dealt with different tobacco products. Have you tried promoting a heavily regulated product like tobacco or alcohol on social media? No? Don’t worry, you’re not missing out on anything because in most cases, you can’t. Instead, these companies relied on their customers to generate photos for them. A customer would take a nice photo or video of a cigar or bottle of alcohol, they’d do a video review, they’d write a review and the company would retweet or repost that piece of content and would get the promotion they so desperately needed.
UGC and Influencer Marketing are, in many ways, different sides of the same coin but one is cheaper and more manageable than the other. For creative types, instead of pitching yourself or your services in the form of an Influencer, a better angle for today’s market is to present yourself as a source of UGC. Companies are desperate for content that they can use. Videos, reviews, lifestyle images or even a podcast built around a certain product are all strong marketing content that companies are looking for and are usually in short supply of as they themselves don’t have the time or resources to product it.