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economyInterviewsHow influencers make a living: fake profiles, performance and transparency

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If you’re an influencer today, you have 2 paths to choose from: take advantage of the moment and monetize as much as possible, or create a future for yourself by learning to say ‘no’.  Karim De Martino

Marketing influencers are showing no signs of losing their status as an effective and productive marketing tool. Recent research has suggested that brands are still investing a significant portion of their budgets in influencer strategy. But what’s the real reason? Is it that they engage lots of users, or that they simply attract the right target?

Certainly the problems cropping up around the trustworthiness of opinion leaders, fake profiles and the difficulty of tracking results haven’t lessened the phenomenon at all. Quite the opposite in fact — they’re becoming even more significant. So what does the future hold? We spoke to Karim de Martino, VP of  Business Development Europe at Open Influence, to find out.

How are marketing influencers changing, and how do they compare in Italy and the United States?

In the last 4 years, marketing influencers here have evolved significantly, both in terms of technology and how widely they’re used by companies and brands. Transparency and ROI are becoming key words: clients want more information about an influencer’s audience. Do their followers match the target for a product? How many do they have in Italy? How many are real and how many are ‘fake’? Clients have bigger budgets and greater awareness, so their expectations are rightfully higher, and this can only help the market. In terms of the differences between Italy and the United States, we could say that there’s already been a ‘bubble’ and a ‘crash’ in the US, so big players have emerged on the market (Open Influence being one of them) while lots of less organized structures disappeared. In Italy, and in Europe in general, we’re still in the bubble phase, so you’re equally like to work with professionals or people just cashing in on the ‘boom’.

How does an influencer earn money today, and what might be their winning moves? 

If you’re an influencer today, you have 2 paths to choose from: take advantage of the moment and monetize as much as possible, or create a future for yourself by learning to say ‘no’ and choosing collaborations carefully. This strategy led Chiara Ferragni to success, but it doesn’t guarantee the same results to everyone. That’s why plenty of people choose the first path, sometimes using questionable methods to do so. Buying just 10,000 followers will let you start to work on micro-influencer platforms that aren’t regulated, and this naturally undermines the credibility of the whole system for investors. 

There was a big scandal about “fake influencers” and how their following may be phony. Open Influence looks like it’s investing in artificial intelligence. Has that solved the problem? 

It’s a bit utopian to think that the problem can be solved at all. Click bait, click fraud and inflated numbers are, and will always be, a problem on the internet, as long as there are unscrupulous players in the game who are ready to cheat to get ahead. Crafty influencers figured out a system: they buy followers, get work with brands, buy more followers and get even more work. Unfortunately, companies have been complicit in this because they benefit as well. Why pay €1,000 for one influencer with 100,000 “real” followers, when you can pay €100 for the same number of fake ones if the client has no way of finding out? But of course now there are ways to find out. Without even going to the trouble of using artificial intelligence, you can just check Social Blade to see who buys followers. 

In a targeted marketing strategy, how can you identify the right niche in the market–the one the client wants to engage?

Our platform lets you analyze the audiences of influencers at different levels. The first looks at the socio-demographic profile of their followers: age, gender, location. Most companies have a strategy with a specific baseline target. The second level involves an analysis of engagement with certain themes (so through hashtags and mentions) or image content. Thanks to our partnership with Amazon, we’ve been able to integrate their AI into our tool, which can recognize objects in images and then analyze how different audiences respond. For example, if I want to launch a new pizza brand, I can search for influencers with audiences in Italy between 25 and 45 years old, and who are particularly reactive to posts that contain images of pizza, even if influencers don’t necessarily use the hashtag #pizza. This is a real game changer.

Many observers think influencer marketing is already at an advanced stage, and the future will split into 2 trends. One is micro influencing, based on reward mechanisms where everyone (even people without thousands of followers) contributes. The other is a more refined market where we’ll have fewer influencers but more quality content. What’s your opinion?

We’re talking about 2 different segments that could meet different marketing strategy goals. Open Influence concentrates on quality, choosing influencers that are right from any angle and who can convey the brand’s message. Micro-influencer platforms on the other hand aim for “gamification,” since they’re mainly populated by kids and aspiring influencers that usually have a solid 2,000-3,000 followers, but from dubious sources. I’m not saying that all micro-influencers are fake, just that you need to go in with your eyes open. In the end, any money invested there gets so dispersed (either through choosing the wrong target or because of non-transparent influencers) that the high levels of engagement that characterize this segment of influencers doesn’t justify the investment.

That’s why these platforms have now started to calculate and display the “ROI” to reassure clients. Unfortunately it’s just a formula that counts each post, message and comment but isn’t an effective measure of whether these interactions are useful to the brand. Or even worse, if they were ‘constructed’ by bots.

How do you track results? Can you do performance marketing with influencers?

Things are moving more and more in that direction. Now you can include links in stories, and data from the US market shows that these links are 5 times more likely to be clicked compared to links in the profile description. The more we move forward, the more Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat will give brands tools to actually measure conversion, and invest accordingly. Influencer marketing’s main role today is to promote awareness; this is undeniable.

Initially this was essentially a market just for fashion, but today lifestyle and food are increasingly talked about. What direct experience to you have in this market?

The mistake that a lot of brands make is that they look for influencers by “category.” I have to promote a beauty product, so I find a beauty blogger, or a food item so I find a food blogger. Today technology lets us shift the focus from the influencer’s interests to those of the audience (I’m referring to what I explained earlier), so it’s short-sighted to only look at one type of influencer or keep talking about categories. By doing this, brands are focusing on a few names in every sector, creating a surplus in supply that inflates prices (and egos) and forgetting that overexposure of these influencers limits their credibility and their ability to communicate.

Any emerging influencers we should watch?

That’s a question I can direct to our Italian team. We have 15 people in our Milan office to better serve local clients and maintain close ties with influencers and their companies. We don’t think that influencer marketing can ever become “automated” — experience and human relationships are indispensable whenever you’ dealing with people instead of bots.

Michela Di Nuzzo

Michela Di Nuzzo

« Se scrivo ciò che sento è perché così facendo abbasso la febbre di sentire». - Fernando Pessoa Giornalista e co-founder, vivo il digital come imprenditrice e appassionata. Percepisco il cambiamento come un'opportunitá mai una minaccia. Occhi spalancati e orecchie aperte, sempre pronta alla condivisione, la chiave di ogni evoluzione.

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