Does Influencer Marketing Really Work?

All hail the power of influencers, right? If one popular person can be your brand’s mouthpiece, then shouldn’t you leverage that asset to boost your marketing campaigns? Marcy Massura, North American digital lead for MSLGROUP, thinks so.

“Every brand, large or small, service, CPG, and beyond, should be moving their efforts to include IRM [influencer relationship marketing] to be a pillar in their communication and marketing plan,” Massura said. “IRM is important not only to affect purchase decision and consideration, but when deployed strategically, it can benefit reputation, employee retention and recruitment, and diffuse crisis.”

From the glowing online content about influencer marketing blanketing the web to Danny Brown and Sam Fiorella’s much-buzzed-about book Influence Marketing, almost everyone seems to value the power of IRM. However, almost everyone does not include NeedTagger CEO Vernon Niven.

The data dispute

“My skepticism started right when I heard the term,” Niven said. “I know how hard it is to influence the public with your brand. I’m a data geek and I like to see evidence.”

Niven doesn’t dispute the idea that influencer marketing can benefit a brand’s reputation. Rather, he’s skeptical about its ability to fuel leads and close sales. “I’m an engineer by training, so what’s kind of missing to me is statistical data and evidence that you can sway people by sending your message through other people.”

Yet existing statistics already suggest IRM can be very effective. “Does it work? Hands down,” Massura said. “And we also have data showing its effect on SEO, share of voice, and more.” In addition, she said, measuring the success of content hubs where influencers connect directly with the brand can provide some of the best metrics and analytics available, closing the gap between earned and paid media.

Niven believes this is all fluff—marketers looking for another way to find metrics to prove what they’re doing is working. He also thinks there are better ways influencer marketing should and can be measured: not indirectly through surveys about online consumer patterns, but through rigorous scientific testing of the practice, similar to how search marketers measure online sales.

“The internal politics of large companies are like that,” he said. “If you can’t win on this battle, you move onto the next. It’s very Pollyanna-ish.”

Reading different goals

In a September blog post, Niven listed nine questions he wanted answered with statistics before he could be convinced of influencer marketing’s efficacy, including: How do online and offline communications actually influence purchases? What is the hypothesis we just tested? What is the design of our experiment? How did we control our experiment for independent variables?

For the rebuttal, Amanda Maksymiw, content marketing manager of Lattice Engines, argued that the goals of influencer marketing aren’t so easily measured with sales outcomes. “Ultimately, when we set out working with influencers, our overall goal is to increase the brand awareness, and [to get] more people into the top of our marketing funnel,” she said. “For us, it’s made a bunch of sense, but from the start, you need to figure out what the goal is.”

Influencer marketing has helped Lattice Engines reach their goal of appealing more to their audience of marketers and businesses. When they worked with TOPO co-founder Craig Rosenberg on an e-book, for example, Maksymiw said the impact of his influence was obvious in terms of surging views and downloads.

“If your ultimate goal is to increase sales, you may be able to do that, but there could be other strategies that would help push that forward,” she said. “The top two things influencer marketing can do are build awareness and improve your conversions.”

Measuring influence: the other data dilemma

How much impact do these supposed “influencers” really have, anyway? Whatever you do, don’t go running to Klout for the answer.

Studies have already debunked the claim that Klout accurately measures influence. And Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile recently explained, retweets or clicks can’t even accurately measure the influence of content—regardless of who the creator is.

“The underlying theory [of influencer marketing] is that a trusted expert can influence a sale,” Niven said. “I think it’s more of a data challenge—how to measure and pick a trusted expert, rather than pick someone based on what we call ‘influence.'”

On that point, Maksymiw couldn’t agree more. She recommends researching and understanding the audience, and finding someone not with the most Twitter followers, but who is genuinely trusted in a particular market. “You really have to look a lot deeper,” she said. “Coming from a company who very heavily relies on metrics and analytics, it may sound a little odd, but there is an art to deciding who the right influencers are.”

The retail industry could be the poster child for ignoring that art of purely quantitative influencer filtering. Business strategist and research analyst Macala Wright wrote for PSFK about how low quality standards for filtering influencers and a lack of transparency has brought about “the bastardization of influence” in retail.

Still, despite the debate about scientifically measured data, a general consensus exists that influencer marketing, when done correctly, is effective. Even Niven—who believes the question will become moot when platforms like Flipboard influence what content consumers read more than people will—calls himself a “hopeful skeptic” of the practice.

“I hope my skepticism is off-base,” he wrote. “Because proving that influencer marketing drives sales (profitably) would be an incredibly important thing to learn.”

So does influencer marketing really work? The jury is still out, but your answer to that question likely depends on how well your brand can take on the challenge while stomaching semi-scientific data.

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