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While influencer marketing has steadily gained traction since it emerged as a largely exploratory tactic, the first half of 2016 saw it reach a fevered pitch rivaling the earliest days of online advertising. With the increased attention and advertising dollars comes VC-backed solutions ready to scale this new industry to unseen levels of efficiency. Automated processes, uniform goals, and standardized methods of calculating ROI are traditional signs of market maturity but are they still relevant for a channel that demands a more human approach? Does one size still fit all?

You Can't Automate Authenticity
Influencer marketing has developed in the noisiest era of advertising messages to date. At a time when people are fast-forwarding through TV commercials and installing software to block banner ads, consumers are even more responsive to product and service recommendations from people they trust. And thanks to the internet, that circle of trust has grown far beyond the handful of acquaintances they spend time with regularly; it now includes relationships born on social media and built on an expectation of authenticity and transparency.

This authenticity expectation has created a very different, and much more delicate, paradigm than that of other advertising channels. With traditional interruption marketing, TV, print, and radio made a clear break between editorial content and ad messages, minimizing risk to the publisher’s credibility. In contrast, in branded influencer content the relationship between an influencer and her audience is much more integrated and thus at risk with every brand collaboration.

The risk to brands is higher as well. Each new influencer is a complex human voice, not a corporation with legal counsel to keep them in check. Both parties have a lot to gain but also a lot to lose. Can this process really be automated and distilled into a dashboard interface? A lot of platform companies seem to think so: “Tinder for brands and influencers” appears to be an irresistible pitch to venture capitalists as press releases announcing new platforms arrive almost daily.

A platform is not an influencer marketing solution.

It’s an appealing idea, but there are three primary reasons why a platform is not an influencer marketing solution:

1. Strategy
The internet is littered with weak, ineffective, or even damaging influencer campaigns executed by well-meaning PR firms, ad networks, SEO consultants, and in-house teams. Like many things, it looks easy until you try it. While different from traditional advertising in many ways, one thing still holds true: effective communication is rooted in solid strategy. Without that, your execution will fall flat.

2. Goals
Just as every campaign requires a unique strategy, goals should also be tailored to reflect real challenges that are ready for impact. An awareness campaign for a new service and a direct response campaign for a legacy brand are completely different beasts, and efficacy for both can’t be measured with the same yardstick. While one metric representing success makes it easy for machines to optimize toward, it is not representative of the nuances and complexities of individual campaigns.

3. Measurement
Imagine a machine that gave you $6 every time you put in $1. That is the average return on investment referenced time and time again in platform sales pitches, and it’s typically driven by platform-created algorithms, not traditional ROI measurement tools. And while the appeal is undeniable, the methodology for arriving at these fantastic ROIs is suspect. By assigning arbitrary values to different types of content and engagements, platforms once again assume all influencer marketing campaigns have the same goal.

Earned Media Value Is Monopoly Money

Even if you buy into the notion that a single dollar amount can be assigned to a series of campaign results regardless of the near endless factors that make them unique, one has to wonder just how earned media value is being calculated across the platform players. Was there a town hall meeting to decide the value of a Facebook share? We reverse engineered the EMV calculations from three major players and found some bold assumptions and wild discrepancies:

One Size Does Not Fit All EMV comparison

Some assumptions by the platforms that call into question the ROI metrics:

1. Flat Rates
Posts are often assigned a flat rate regardless of audience size, engagement rate, or any other metric. The same tweet from Kim Kardashian and someone who has one follower is valued at $100 in some algorithms. Blog posts? Those are worth $683 whether from Michelle Phan or Wordpress’s newest user.

2. Cross-Channel Uniformity
In many cases, engagements are valued the same across all platforms regardless of the fact that they have very different viral effects on each. On Facebook, a like causes a post to appear on many more news feeds beyond your circle of friends. On Instagram, likes don’t translate to new audiences being exposed to content, and thus have less of an impact on a campaign’s total exposure or reach.

One Size Does Not Fit All Endorsement Amplification graph

3. Comment Agnosticism
All comments are assigned equal value regardless of content, sentiment, or purchase intent. There is no difference between “I’m going to buy that right this minute!” and “You look pretty” (or worse). Yet one indicates purchase intent and the other makes no reference to the brand.

4. Estimated Reach
Not only do earned media value calculators estimate the number of people who see each post with rudimentary percentages, they assign quite a premium to them. In one case, a $250 CPM is applied to 10-25% of an influencer’s followers depending on the channel.

The Path Forward
Clearly, influencer marketing isn’t as simple as plugging into a dashboard and waiting to collect your 6x earned media value. Once again, the elusive silver bullet is a no show. Where do we go from here? How does the unbridled enthusiasm for influencer marketing escape the temptation of scale and uniformity and instead translate into thoughtful and effective campaigns?

One Size Does Not Fit All Influencer Marketing Checklist