Why engagement trumps reach when measuring influencer marketing impact

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As influencer marketing matures, the agencies and strategists who favor the tactic are finally starting to wake up to the fact that true ROI comes from engagement — not reach.

Many are predicting that “the influencer bubble” is primed to burst in 2018, and in my book, it’s about time. Not that I’m opposed to influencer marketing when it’s done right. Forging real, mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with people who have engaged, relevant audiences? There’s arguably no more effective way to get a brand message out into the world.

It’s the influencer hype machine, with its vanity metrics and media-buying marketplace mentality, that I’m eager to see go down. Treating sponsored Instagram posts as another advertising channel, with success measured according to CPMs? That’s just folly.

And yet the money keeps pouring in, as this data visualization from Santa Monica, Calif.-based influencer agency Mediakix illustrates:

Last fall, Digiday’s Grace Caffyn asked an anonymous influencer agency exec about the extent to which brands still care about the follower counts of the influencers they hire, and the candid response was encouraging:

They are learning now that followers count for f***-all. Engagement is harder to fake. If it’s less than 1 percent of their follower count, then you need to question where the followers come from. That’s why you need to look at the quality of the content. People are still too focused on that number, and that number can be manipulated.

Perhaps the tide is indeed beginning to turn.

Sharpening the industry’s focus

After working with brands like Adobe on campaigns that have reached over 9 million people with engagement rates exceeding 4 percent, Aron Levine is confident that he’s got campaign optimization down to a science. In his mind, if your campaign is actually going to boost sales conversions and brand recognition, then you don’t have a choice but to look at engagement as your most important predictive metric.

“Engagement rate shows a true picture of who your collaboration will impact,” he told me. Levine leads the marketing team at Relatable, the LA- and Stockholm-based influencer marketing agency he co-founded last January when he left his post as the head of growth at Spotify.

Source: Linquia’s The State of Influencer Marketing 2017

Approximately 25 percent of marketers already find cost per engagement to be the most effective influencer marketing pricing model, and 81 percent see engagement metrics as their top success indicators, according to Linquia’s The State of Influencer Marketing 2017 survey.

It makes a lot of sense. You can spend a lot of money on reach and still accomplish nothing. When influencers talk about their “reach,” they’re usually referring to their follower counts, which, in best-case scenarios, indicates potential reach. Engagement rates, on the other hand, indicate action.

And with influencer marketing getting more difficult over time — between social media algorithms, increased competition and networks starting to try to take a piece of the pie — driving engagement through your influencer collaborations is more important than ever.

Scott Disick, who’s best known as the on-and-off love interest of Kourtney Kardashian, has 20 million Instagram followers, but when he posted a promotion for Bootea protein shakes last May, he drew just over 4,200 likes. That is, of course, until the internet went wild over his accidental posting of pasted caption instructions from his sponsor.

Consider, then, the rise of micro-influencers, and their reputation for being more effective than influencers with larger followings. The reason they’re better at bringing campaigns results is that they have more engaged audiences — not because they have smaller audiences.

In fact, Levine said that Relatable finds working with fewer “big name” influencers drives better impact. Over the course of a recent location-based campaign with Samsung, they partnered with only 24 New York City influencers to reach 2.1 million people and drove over 37,000 interactions in two days.

To truly unlock valuable engagement, you need to make sure that you partner with influencers whose audience members’ lifestyle interests and values match your brand positioning. You need to make sure that these influencers’ audiences actually perk up when they have something to share. And you need to make sure that their creative output is compelling enough to hold people’s attention.

So it all comes down to relevance, attention and quality. Let’s take a closer look at each of these parameters.

Maximizing audience relevance with influencers

Whereas mega-influencers might earn over $250,000 for a single post, the companies and topics they cover are too broad to nail down. “Influencers gone wild” poster child Kendall Jenner, for example, has worked with brands as disparate as Givenchy, Pepsi, Topshop, Fit Tea and the Fyre music festival.

Influencers with higher engagement are those who have organically built loyal tribes around their own interests. There’s more focus and therefore more action, which makes for more value.

This is a huge part of why micro-influencers are so desirable. As PRmention’s Taral Patel noted in a column on the Spin Sucks blog:

People from their close-knit circles follow them, which gives them a niche fanbase. Their content is, therefore, more personalized, authentic, and engaging. Higher engagement typically results in better conversions.

Using influencers with communities that aren’t relevant to your own target audience won’t drive any long-term, or even short-term, impact on your business.

So while a mega-influencer may have a large audience, maybe only 1 percent of it engages with their content in your niche, as opposed to someone else with a smaller but targeted audience who consistently drives a 5 percent engagement rate.

Hacking attention with influencers

When influencers sport high engagement rates, it means their followers are paying attention and taking action on their content. That’s what you need for a successful influencer marketing campaign.

To drive real results for your campaign — audience growth, referral visits, conversions or sales — that audience needs to engage with the influencer’s content about your brand.

For example, when Leesa.com ran a campaign using social media and YouTube influencers, they focused on relevance and engagement rate in their influencer research and selection. They even enlisted a specialist to help them evaluate the relevance of each potential audience. The results were huge, directly driving over 400 mattress sales and over 100,000 clicks to their website.

Not only is reach a less accurate indicator of active attention than engagement rate, it can also be less accurate in general, thanks to the proliferation of inactive accounts, triggered algorithm throttling and fake followers.

Quality of creative output

Finally, don’t discount the work and content quality it takes to foster a high engagement rate within an audience. Given social media attention spans and saturation, becoming more than “just another post” for users to scroll past takes a level of creative vision and talent.

Higher-than-average engagement rates are signs that an influencer understands his or her audience, knows how to create content that appeals to it, and does so consistently enough to hold their attention.

Remember that when you collaborate with influencers, they are creating content for your brand. It’s key that they’ve already cracked creating engaging content for their own audience so that their content for you will hit the marks you need it to. As Relatable’s Levine wrote on LinkedIn:

When you work with the most talented content creators in the world and entrust that they will craft content that their audience will love, you’ll end up with authentic and engaging storytelling that outperform any other media channel.

You can tell which creators are capable of that storytelling and content by looking at how they’ve engaged their audience.

When Polaroid Eyewear was looking to shift their brand’s story and image, they worked with the Relatable team and looked at engaging influencers who could tell a certain narrative.

Krister Karjalainen, Polaroid’s global creative and digital media director, explained in The Drum, “We wanted to engage with consumers that can transform the message of our brand and also the story of our brand.”

Drive results

Ultimately, you’re interested in influencer marketing primarily to drive results for your business — not to just be seen. An influencer’s reach is only an indicator of how many people might see your message.

By measuring engagement, you get a gauge as to how your campaign will actually be received by their audience, as well as how many people you can expect to take action on the collaborated content.

And thankfully, marketers are taking note and starting to optimize their campaign KPIs accordingly, whether or not we ever hit rock bottom.

“As with all slippery slopes, it’s easy to hop on but also easy to end up in a heap at the bottom,” is how New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman describes the state of the influencer ecosystem. “Which raises the possibility that we are on the verge of a new (hopefully more considered) age in the evolution of Influencer culture.”

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Ben Jacobson is a marketing strategy consultant based in greater Tel Aviv. He specializes in content, email, social media, branding and influencer marketing. Ben’s writing has appeared in publications including The Next Web, ClickZ, the HubSpot blog and Orbit Media.


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