Where will influencer marketing be in 5 years?

I recently went to Europe with my family. Before I booked the flights, I wanted to check out where we would stay. But rather than looking at a travel website, I went on Instagram for some inspiration.

Instagram is a place I go to discover, investigate, and try new things — the latest fashion trends, a new restaurant, even a cute dog or two — all from the comfort of my couch!

But it sometimes feels like paid advertising is taking over Instagram. Every time I open the app, my feed is flooded with posts using hashtags such as #ad, #sponsored, or #partner. It feels like Instagram is becoming less and less authentic.

A single post of branded content by an influencer — often defined as someone who has over 50,000 followers — can be worth anything from $125 to $900,000. And researchers project that influencer marketing will be worth $10 billion by 2020.

“Influencers know they are a creative director, model, photographer, location scout, and project manager all in one — and brands are saving big money leveraging influencers for both content creation and as an advertising channel,” says Danielle Lewis, CEO & Co-founder at scrunch.com.

In fact, influencers are six times more powerful than celebrities in marketing, according to Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of the PR firm Edelman.

But it is not a perfect science: brands need to find influencers who match their aesthetic, brand identity and can promote their vision authentically to their audience.

So, how can brands do that?

A growing backlash against influencers

Today, anyone with a phone can be an influencer. Luxury hotels and brands are inundated with requests for free products or free hotel stays.

So several large brands have made the decision not to partner with Instagram influencers.

The Daily Edited (@thedailyedited) — Instagram is full of selfies with people using The Daily Edited’s personalized phone cases. This easy and organic marketing has helped turn the company into an A$30 million fashion empire just six years after launch!

The Fox Tan (@thefoxtan) — The tan accelerator doesn’t work with paid ambassadors. Instead, the brand’s Instagram feed is full of photos from happy customers — a marketing strategy that has helped them amass 323,000 followers.

A luxury hotel in Dublin, Ireland recently banned all influencers from staying at their hotel for free.

So, what does the future look like for Instagram marketing?

The rise of the micro-influencer

Despite the bragging rights of having over 50,000 followers, it does not necessarily guarantee that the person has a lot of influence — especially when you dive into some of the numbers.

Cookin’ with Mima — a profile that shares easy to cook recipes — has 2.3 million followers, but a sponsored post from June 2019 only has 4,483 likes and 42 comments. That is an engagement rate of just 0.19%!

“Leveraging data is key to finding the right influencer for your brand”, says Danielle Lewis.

“Tech exists now so you can assess an influencer’s audience before you even bother reaching out to them. If you are not targeting and not optimizing your influencer campaigns, then you are not doing them effectively,” she says. “It’s 2019, you can absolutely measure ROI!”

Instead of looking at followers, brands should focus on the engagement rate. That is why some brands are turning to micro-influencers instead; people with between 2,000 and 50,000 Instagram followers.

Because they have a smaller following, they are likely to be more authentic which means their audience will engage with them better.

The Travelista — a self-described UK Travel & Lifestyle Blogger — has 19,500 followers, but an ad from June 2019 has 398 likes and 27 comments. That is an engagement rate of 2.2% — over 10 times better than Cookin’ with Mima’s post, which is a much better return on investment in my opinion!

What about the influencers?

Many of today’s influencers are taking their online success into the ‘real world’ by building a physical product or brand.

Nicole Warne became wildly popular on Instagram using the handle @garypeppergirl, now known as @nicolewarne. Fashion brand Dolce and Gabbana took notice and asked her to take part in a 2016 photoshoot, both as a model and art director!

image from GaryPepperGirl.com

That is what Lucy Mountain (@lucymountain) did. After building a following of 306,000 people, she branched out to develop a clothing line, cookbooks and workout guides under her No BS brand. In December 2018, she left her job to build her brand full time.

But will micro-influencers be able to do the same? Most likely. Because they have a lot of sway over their audience, they will be able to leverage this in different ways offline — so, they might not be a micro-influencer for long.

Take Olivia, owner of @clothesmyboyfriendhates, for example. She recently graduated out of being a micro-influencer, and currently has 55,700 followers.

The concept is simple: she posts photos of her outfits that her boyfriend does not like. The photos that she posts are not anything particularly special — she will normally be standing in front of a generic and familiar space like a wall, a door, a mirror, a street — but the outfits are actually very stylish. This has helped her get affiliate links with top brands like LK Bennett, TopShop, M&S, Dune, and ASOS, among others.

A lot of media outlets picked up on her story last month, which opened her account to a bigger potential audience (in fact, this is how I first heard about her!)

But her success is now offline, too. She will be on a panel for an upcoming Wear The Dress Party event hosted by Glamour, the fashion magazine. What other ‘real world’ event will be next?

Will influencer marketing be around in five years?

Danielle Lewis certainly thinks so.

“It’s definitely going to be around in 5 years time; they are predicting it will be a $10 billion market in the next 24 months. Because it is inherently social (most of it is on social media), the way we consume it may change — what will the next Instagram be? — however, it will still be around!” she says.

And don’t forget: Instagram itself is changing. The platform recently expanded a pilot test to hide the ‘like count’ on individual posts, which now covers seven different countries: Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. What impact will this have on the future of influencer marketing?

Yet the reality is that if you can mobilize a large number of people — either because you have so many followers that even a small percentage of them are still a lot of people, or your small audience is very engaged — you can find success as an influencer.

But it is up to the brand marketing teams to decide which influencer will give them the biggest return on their investment, both now and in the future.