Brain Chatter: The Pros and Cons of Micro-Influencers in Marketing

April 13, 2017 Shane Schick

In the beginning there were the models -- the people we wished we looked like.

Next came the celebrities -- the heroes and heroines we watched on the big and small screen, and whose lavish lifestyles we wish we had.

Now come the micro influencers -- the people who are, to borrow the catchphrase of US  Weekly, “just like us,” except they resemble a blend of the first two.

The rise of social media, which gave all of us channels to create and distribute our own content, was the catalyst for “influencer marketing,” where brands would pair up with someone famous enough to have something close to the digital reach of a newspaper, magazine or TV show. The other catalyst was reality television, which turned semi-fabulous people into superstars or made B- and C-list celebrities more relatable.

The problem is that influencers are still, to some extent, performers. Even with the most subtle approach, having an influencer wear your sneakers can still come off like a ploy if they don’t look like something they’d genuinely buy. You could argue that influencers stop becoming credible the minute they put #sponsored next to a photo on Instagram.

Micro influencers, at least theoretically, are different. They’re our peers. Authentic people doing authentic things. We’re more likely to engage with them, probably because when we make a comment they might actually reply. Last week, a study from HelloSociety showed micro influencers delivered 60% higher engagement rates than the better-known creators.

“Personally I think that micro-influencers are appealing to brands because they are often the voice of the public, which is what we are trying to capture in campaigns,” one marketer recently told the New Statesman.

Of course, brands have featured “regular people” in campaigns for years, but this is not about putting a micro influencer into your TV commercial. It’s about finding a way to make your brand a part of the micro influencer’s world -- like offering them the use of a new luxury car, so long as they record themselves driving it. That may be the best way to build trust with your audience.

If it sounds easier to work with a micro influencer than forming a partnership with, say, Kim Kardashian (or, um, Kendall Jenner), think again.

It’s almost impossible to define who micro influencers are. Whereas celebrity influence is defined in part by the other platforms they use -- like a hit TV series or movies -- micro influencers create a new kind of Goldilocks problem. Is their follower count too small, just right, engaged enough? I’ve seen suggested ranges from 1,000 to 100,000, but everyone agrees it’s how prone their audience is to being influenced, which poses challenges. If someone “likes” a picture, will they buy what’s in the post? Are those who comment more likely to convert?

Marketing analytics tools will aim to solve this problem, but micro influencers may decide it’s in their best interest to game the system. Read the hilarious story of Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin trying to become a menswear influencer on Instagram and you’ll see how essential bots are to the process.

And then, once micro influencers turn “pro,” they may be just as likely to come off inauthentic as their celebrity counterparts. Once they’re signing up with managers and marketplaces, don’t they just become a sort of Kardashian Lite?

Maybe the only way to tap into bona fide micro influencers is not paying them but creating products and services so good they’ll actually pay the brand, and promote them out of sheer love, the way some people show off their iPhone, their favourite clothes or their car.

Maybe the relationship to focus on is not between the micro influencer and their audience but between the micro influencer and the brand. What’s the engagement level there?

Maybe we shouldn’t even call them micro influencers. Maybe we should call them micro advocates -- whose word-of-mouth capabilities via social media can have an incredibly macro effect.

Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and tells stories about innovation in IT, content and more.

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