Influencer marketing has become a key part of many brand’s marketing strategies and budgets. Marketers are doubling down on this tactic as a means to reach and engage with new audiences, and drive sales through social media influence. In 2018, Adweek claimed the influencer market would be worth $10 billion by 2019. InfluencerDB estimates market value to be up to $16.616 billion by 2020.
The vast majority of consumers using social media have a general idea of what influencer marketing is just from seeing it in their feeds. They follow some sort of public figure who posts regularly, and sometimes those posts are product endorsements. To consumers, influencers in turn become reflections and advocates of the brands and ideals they represent.
Behind every perfectly polished sponsored Instagram post is a carefully constructed partnership between a brand and an influencer. Brands select influencers based on their ability to reach their target demographics and serve as a modern day spokesperson for their products and vales. High follower counts, an engaged fan base, and a unique style are all elements that factor into this decision making process.
But in selecting influencers there is a key part of this process that brands aren’t taking into consideration: who are these influencers being influenced by?
Who is Influencing Your Influencers?
Part of a brand’s responsibility in this complex world of social media is to do thorough investigations on any influencer they consider. Otherwise, brands run the risk of opening themselves up to the possibility of aligning their brand with the wrong narratives.
This requires more than simply looking at who the influencer follows. Due diligence should also include identifying the types of conversations the influencer engages with and groups they are a part of.
Just like brands, influencers are not immune to the vulnerabilities of operating online. They can just as easily find themselves liking false posts, being targeted by fringe groups, and at the center of a controversy. In mapping out an influencer strategy it’s important to consider the opinions, political leanings, and susceptibility to false information of any influencer and how these influencers can be potential targets for adversarial groups.
What is Influencer Gaming?
Influencer gaming is the concerted effort on the part of internet factions or individual agents to put their narratives in front of a broader audience by leveraging the reach of influencers. It involves first identifying appropriate influencers - usually politicians, celebrities, or paid brand advocates - and then convincing them to share content.
By focusing their work on persuading an influencer to promote a specific narrative, groups and factions can benefit from their indirect access to a large audience as a means of popularizing an idea, recruiting more promoters, or generating media coverage on the topic.
Take this recent event involving political talk show host Tucker Carlson and the attention he devoted to a HuffPost video on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Though not a brand-specific scenario, this story illustrates the process of influencer gaming.
Step 1: A small group of Twitter users begin discussing the 1960’s television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and their joking or sarcastic concerns about the messages it sends. They use the same hashtag to centralize their conversation.
Step 2: HuffPost gets wind of this conversation and gathers up the tweets for a feature in their comedy section. Huffpost then creates a short video based on the tweets entitled “Rudolph the Marginalized Reindeer”, further stripping the conversation of its’ original intent.
Step 3: The easily-shareable medium of video is shared to larger audiences by a few influencers, including Donald Trump, Jr. Tucker Carlson becomes alerted to the video and devotes airtime to it, reacting with outrage at the “liberal attack” on Rudolph.
Consider for a moment that one of your brand influencers promoted this story (instead of Donald Trump, Jr.), and it immediately becomes clear what a devastating impact influencers can have.
What Can Brands Do to Combat Influencer Gaming?
Brands must be mindful of how and who their influencers are being influenced by as they continue to invest more and more in influencer marketing. The idea of combing through all of an online influencer’s social media accounts and associated data sounds like a pretty daunting task. Here are a few critical ways to get started:
Conduct an Influencer Health Audit: Request a list of all the accounts an influencer follows at the beginning of negotiations. For each account, browse through recent posts. Determine a set of keywords that your brand should never be associated with, and search on those keywords. Ask the influencer directly why they follow each account and what key messages resonate with them. At New Knowledge we provide companies with influencer health audits to help ensure that every influencer that you work with is inline with your brand values. We determine the health and risk score of influencer accounts, the conversations and topics they engage with, and the factions that interact with them.
Learn how they respond to direct messaging and follower engagement: Request specific examples of conversations between the influencer and followers. What does a typical conversation look like? What kinds of conversations are they having with followers? Where have they gone off the rails in a conversation, and what could they have done better? For all of these cases, compare their behavior to what your brand would have done.
Understand the influencer’s values: Much can be learned by evaluating the behavior of an influencer, but it’s also important to ask directly. Can they articulate their own values? If so, what are those values? Can they give you examples of how they act to align with each value? Consider this process almost like a job interview - but one where the stakes are a lot higher.