The New Rules of Influencer Marketing

By Salvatore Ciolfi October 26, 2020

New Rules of Influencer Marketing – the latest in BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series – took place on October 22nd, and featured four influencers and influencer marketing experts from Levitate Style, Pinterest, Edelman and SAP. 

You can watch the full panel discussion here:


Influencer marketing – when brands engage personalities with large social-media followings to spread the word about their products and services – was already booming when the pandemic hit this past spring. But while many influencers saw shelter-in-place as an opportunity for growth – 21 percent of American consumers reportedly bought something at an influencer’s recommendation for the first time between March and August of this year – it has also forced influencer marketing to adapt. 

We spoke with executives from Pinterest, Edelman and SAP, as well as Levitate Style influencer Leo Chan about the surprising benefits of influencer marketing, where the field is heading, and tips to make it work, whether you’re an influencer or a brand looking to collaborate with one.

Authenticity is Key in Influencer Marketing

The growth of influencer marketing is a direct response to audiences’ increasing savviness – largely a result of influencers’ authentic voices. As Rachel Miller, Global Influencer Marketing Lead at SAP, explains, “The power of influencer marketing, particularly for B2B, is the storytelling. It’s a long sales cycle, so your audience gets to know this person, they trust them, and you build rapport. You’re not just bringing in a new face constantly; you have that trusted individual – or individuals – which really resonate with your target audience. Influencers provide necessary third-party validation, that peer recommendation, and they often tell your story better than you can.”

There’s often a seamlessness between influencers’ organic and paid content – this is what gives sponsored content its impact. There are two important considerations here: consistently high quality, and transparency about what’s sponsored and what’s not. New FTC guidelines stipulate disclosure requirements, but this may actually be to influencers’ benefit, as it helps boost their legitimacy. As Leo Chan, Influencer Content Creator and Founder at Levitate Style, describes it, “You have to include #ad and #sponsor, but as an influencer, it doesn’t really make that big of a difference. It still comes down to content. If you have good content, it doesn’t matter if it’s an ad, because it should fit with the quality of your posts. It should fit in seamlessly with the rest of your work. It’s actually better to clarify, for the followers and for brands as well.”

Authenticity shapes not only the way content is presented, but increasingly, its subject matter as well. “For influencer content,” says Larry Beaman, VP of Influencer Marketing at Edelman, “we’re seeing more and more influencers pushing back and saying, ‘These filters are kind of insane, and I don’t look anything like this.’ Now, a lot of content is moving to stories, no makeup, and showing true life. We’re seeing a shift more and more to showing behind-the-scenes, true life without those filtered options layered on top.”

Alexandra Nikolajev, Global Creator Inclusion Lead at Pinterest, agrees: “It means greater shifting not only in the content that influencers share – curated content versus more in-the-moment or real-life content – but also in the conversations that they’re willing to have. It’s no longer just ‘Where did you get that top from?’ It’s shifted now to ‘This is a sustainable item. This is the social impact that the brand has.’ That social-impact piece of the conversation, and the way influencers are having deeper conversations online, is resulting in stronger community-building, and ultimately deeper engagement with their audience.”

Barrier to Entry is Low, ROI is High

“Budget should not be a barrier to jumping into influencer marketing,” Miller says. “While I have access to the latest and greatest tools for influencer identification and engagement, I frequently just use native Twitter or Instagram to search hashtags to find new voices. That’s free – anybody can do that.”

Depending on the type of product or service a business provides, there may also be non-monetary ways to compensate an influencer working on their behalf. “While transactions should be mutually beneficial, they don’t have to be monetary,” Miller continues. “There’s a lot of win–wins for certain individuals; it could be networking, content, syndication, access to sneak previews. A lot of ways you can get creative.”

Chan echoes her sentiments. “I work with brands purely because I’m a huge fan of the brand and because I have a good relationship with the marketing person – I’m happy to help them out. Different times of the year, there’s different pushes. It’s good to build that relationship. And that brand could also help an influencer, help feature me to bring me to their audience as well. It’s good cross-promotion.”

As Beaman points out, “Microinfluencers have the highest engagement rates. Typically, they have the lowest cost threshold. So it’s a great place to test at a low dollar-value. And usually, if you’re a niche product, that might be the right choice anyway, because microinfluencers have a more specific connection to your brand. And if your business is one that makes sense for affiliate codes, if you’re a direct-to-consumer brand that’s selling products online, they may be open to working with you on a conversion basis instead of a flat-rate basis.”

While influencer marketing can provide an excellent return on investment, measuring that ROI can be a challenge, especially for B2B, where purchases may play out over months or even years – though there are now more sophisticated ways to achieve this. “Metrics vary greatly depending on the goal of the campaign,” Miller says. “Sometimes, it’s brand awareness. You may be looking at reach or driving registrations to a webinar, but you need to know what success looks like, and that should be something that you build in up front.” 

Increasingly, this means bringing data science into the realm of influencer marketing. Beamen explains, “The things we most frequently look at these days are ad recall, brand awareness, consideration of the product, or a company actually lifting in sales. And even more commonly right now, brands are curious if they’re relevant to the consumers they’re going after, and if consumers trust them at all. It’s not just about pushing products anymore. Some of this is done through survey questions to influencer audiences, to see if they’re remembering what we put through their feeds from an organic standpoint and a paid standpoint, and seeing how we’re shifting their perceptions over time. It’s pulling together a lot of what was available in performance marketing and paid social marketing, and bringing that into the influencer space.”

Influencer Marketing is a Marathon

“As an influencer, one of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s easy to achieve success quickly, or that one viral piece of content translates into long-term success,” says Nikolajev. “We need to recognize that this is a real industry. This is real work. And influencers, big or small, are really dedicating their time and energy to creating content.”

Chan concurs: it takes time. “Outsiders looking in think it’s so simple – you just take a photo, post it on Instagram. But it’s really not just that. If you’re a content creator, you’re constantly getting better at taking photos, taking videos. How can you find your voice? How do you build a platform? To build an audience – that’s really hard to do. It’s a real business. You need a whole marketing team, a whole PR team to create a successful campaign, because there’s so many moving parts. There are managers that manage contracts and negotiations and deliverables. And then you have the influencer who goes out and do the work and edit the content, and then – finally – we post. There’s all these amazing people behind the scenes to make the one photo happen.”

As Nikolajev explains, it can be difficult for an influencer to know how much to charge for their work. “Having candid conversations within your communities and your influencer network will help you to understand how you should be tiering your rates and what you’re looking for, and allow you to be open and honest and direct with a brand. You tend to devalue the impact and effect that you could have. You don’t want to be priced at something astronomical, or be insulting to a brand – but you need to understand the value that you bring. Be able to back it up with what you’ve done in the past, and show that you can have that impact as a content creator and feel confident in what you’re asking for.”

Just Go For It

Because the cost of investment is so low, it doesn’t make sense to hesitate. “Just go for it,” Beaman says. “People discuss and discuss, and think it’s too new and not ready. I’ve been doing this a long time, and my advice is to just jump in, because otherwise you’ll be behind instead of ahead.” Even if you’re not totally comfortable with social media – well, influencers are, and it’s their expertise you’re trying to leverage. “Brands get to benefit from influencers’ expertise and this technology that they don’t really have to participate in directly,” Beaman says. 

One of the great benefits of using social media for marketing is the abundance of different channels, each of them suited to a different type of content – each capable of reaching a different audience. “I understand people look at Tiktok and think, ‘Oh, it’s for teenagers, I’m too old, it’s not for me,’” Chan says. “That’s the kind of voice our parents or grandparents had about Facebook and Instagram. You don’t want to get left behind with social media and technology. With new platforms, I just try it out.”

Diversifying also means you’ll be more resilient to the changes that social media platforms make to their terms of service, to the evolving types of content different platforms favor, and even technology fails. “You should always be trying out different platforms like Tiktok and Snapchat and LinkedIn and Twitter,” Chan says, “so in case Instagram goes down for a day, you have other platforms to fall back on. You never want all your eggs in one basket – if anything happens, any big change, you’re ready to go.”