Influencer Marketing A Year in Review

by Michael Satterfield

As someone who works in the world of influencer marketing, 2019 has been a great year, brand partnerships with Pirelli, Zero Halliburton, Omologato Watches, BMW, and resort destinations have taken me on many exciting adventures. In the world of influencer and content marketing, I tend to be a bit of an outlier, as the living embodiment of my men's lifestyle website and magazine I founded The Gentleman Racer®, I am treated as a journalist one day and a lifestyle influencer the next. I am often the only man at many events, and my selfie game isn't great.

The Gentleman Racer won several awards in 2019 for journalism and design, I was ranked #1481 out of 86,791 influencers by Fohr, and I was able to book more advertisers than any year previous. As a storyteller, there has never been a better time to be alive, even 10 years ago, it would be nearly impossible for an independent publication to have the reach we do at TheGentlemanRacer.com, and while there is a lot of good happening in the industry, there are also some major issues that are costing brands money and stifling creators.

Having been working in content and social media marketing since the early days of the internet I think I have some pretty good insights on what works. what doesn't, and what's next.


Here are my takeaways from 2019:


A Shift to Advertising Agencies and Managers:

2019 saw a big upswing in the number of influencers who had professional representation, managers who negotiated contracts, booked gigs, and in some cases actually managed the social media accounts of the influencer. While this has often been the case for traditional celebrities, today, Instagramers, YouTubers, and even TicTok Lip Syncers are coming to the negotiating table with representation.

On the other side, brands have pushed much of their influencer marking on to agencies based in NYC and LA. Having a third party agency manage the campaigns has had both positive and negative effects on the industry. On the plus side, it has given influencers a single point of contact for multiple brands, but often with large NYC agencies, they forget that the rest of the country isn't New York or LA. The result is some strange bedfellows on campaigns I have been on, such as a makeup vlogger at a NASCAR race or a vegan health and wellness influencer on a BBQ tour.

For brands looking to appeal to customers in "the flyover states", this shift has been a hard one, not only do the NYC agencies not understand the world outside their bubble, many in leadership at these companies have openly made statements writing off large portions of the population. If you are trying to sell products outside of the coasts, or a product that has any appeal to rural Americans, you might need to look for an agency in Dallas, Denver, or Atlanta, over the Big Apple.


Instagram Isn't Everything:

Most agencies and brands are about a year behind where attention is currently. Instagram is still a powerful tool, but recent reports show that the public is disengaging, accounts aren't seeing the growth they once did. Instagram is constantly changing the way the app works, leading to frustration for users, and resulting in the average user only posting to their main feed a few times a week. While story posts are up the overall engagement rate is still under 2%. That being said, Instagram still has value, depending on the demographic your brand is trying to reach and the Influencers you work with.

The demographics of Instagram now skew older. Instagram turns ten in 2020, meaning that the18 to 30-year-olds that made the app what it is today are now in their late-20s to mid-40s. As that generation of users shifted away from Facebook to Instagram, their parents and grandparents also came over to follow the lives of their family and friends, thus aging the app's average user up. My own follower demographics bear this out, most are over 25, more than 60% are married, and most hold some kind of professional position. Compare that to TikTok which is just a few years old and according to a report by Common Sense Media, has over 500 million active monthly users with an average age of just 13. Adjusting your marketing to make sure you are generating the right impressions, not just a lot of impressions, is more important than ever.

While most agencies are still pushing Instagram as the go-to platform for social media marketing, I would suggest working with influencers who use several platforms. For our own sites, Pinterest regularly outperforms Facebook and Instagram combined when it comes to driving traffic.


Brands Need to Return to Long-Form Content"

The term "Blogger" is almost used as a slur these days, no one wants to be a blogger, they want to be an author, a journalist, an influencer. Regardless of what you want to call it, long-form online content is still one of the best things a brand can do to reach an audience. With the continued collapse of the print industry and the fundamental mismanagement of major online newsrooms, websurfers are finding sites like TheGentlemanRacer.com for their general and niche interest reading. Stories that have been posted years ago still get regular traffic and drive brand awareness and sales because long-form content is evergreen and SEO friendly.

Long-form content offers incredible ROI, be it sponsored content or just earned media from having a good PR representative, unlike most social media posts, stories can provide years of marketing value to a brand. I can't count the number of times I have been offered thousands of dollars for an Instagram post, with zero interest in spending a dime on creating meaningful long-form content. A project I did was a major racing sponsor, had several content creators who were there specifically to take photos and share stories on Instagram. The budget for the campaign was well over $60,000. I decided to do doing a long-form story on the site anyways since great content is great content. In the last 90-days, the static Instagram posts from all the influencers have had zero new interactions while the long-form story has organically had over 6,000 new readers without additional promotion in the same timeframe.

Long-form lifestyle content is the perfect platform to tell brand stories, feature products in use, and create narratives that promote your brand values. Earlier this year we did a road trip sponsored by a menswear brand, not only did we create several great stories about the destinations and capture great content in amazing locations, but we told a story that the brand was a part of without it feeling like an ad. It worked, we had great engagement and provided the brand with photos they have used in traditional and online marketing campaigns.


Trusting the Content Creators:

Agencies and brands are placing a chokehold on the creators they hire. A stubborn attempt to shoehorn traditional marketing into the content and influencer space, it almost never works and comes off as inauthentic. Audiences follow Bloggers, Instagrammers, TikTokers, and YouTubers because they like their content, their style, and their personality. Forcing branding into a storyline or not allowing the creator to tell the story in an authentic way is a waste of everyone's time and money. Finding creators who represent your brand and you can trust takes extra effort, but is well worth it when it comes to creating content that has meaning and connects with the consumers you are trying to reach.


Many agencies like to position themselves as the gatekeepers, protecting the brand from influencers who can't be trusted to create content without a 13-page brief and 32 edits on a post about "National Coffee Day." While influencer marketing has its risks, all marketing does, the backlash from the Peloton holiday ad is proof positive that even with Mekanism, an award-winning agency at the helm, advertising is inherently risky, so why not error on the side of the creator who has built and understand their audience.


Budgets

Daily I am contacted by brands, agencies, or PR reps who want to "partner" on a project that has ZERO budget, yet they still expect a signed contract with outlined deliverables. I reject 9 out of 10 of these offers immediately if they don't have some kind of budget attached to them. Unless the project is going to make for amazing content that will organically perform well or it is a brand that I have a personal attachment or affinity for, I simply don't have the time to work for free. Brands are always welcome to send products to our general address and some of that stuff does make it on the site if it is unique enough, but if you are expecting deliverables, you should also expect to send a check. While that sounds a bit harsh, it is a reality that myself and other people who create content for a living only have so many hours in a day.

As a small company that is in the business of telling stories, this past year alone I have hired multiple freelance photographers, video production teams, editors, and other staff. Some stories have required international travel, permits, coordinating with automotive brands, booking models, etc... Be it branded content that is going on one of our own media properties, or content created for a brand to use on their site/social media, the quality and ability to tell the story depends on the operational budget we have to work with. Do creators sometimes work in trade for a product, experience, access, of course, but at a point, they have to become more selective about what trade projects they take on and what they offer in return for trade.

Unforuntently for creators, the shift to agencies means many budgets are absorbed by the agency themselves, leaving on a sliver of the marketing budget to actually tell stories. This doesn't mean that every project needs to be a major production with a huge budget, but if the creator is providing value to the brand, the brand should be providing some value to the creator. So unless the brand is offering something really unique, valuable, or exclusive, you don't be surprised if the reply includes a rate card.


With major magazines shuttering across many categories, I think we will see a major shift towards long-forms sponsored content as print budgets look for a new home and former magazine staffers find new outlets to write for online. Brands need to be more involved in the process and may need to even pull some of their projects inhouse as I expect to see major consolidation in the influencer agency world this year as so many of them are wholely focused on Instagram for their business model. One thing is for sure content and influencer marketing aren't going anywhere in 2020.