Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Traditional influencer marketing is associated with the glitz and glamour of celebrity lifestyles, but increasingly, the real power of influencer marketing lies in authenticity. Consumers aren’t interested in unattainable holidays and lifestyles. They want to follow real people who share their values and interests and who create meaningful and entertaining content that speaks directly to them. The result is that authentic content that resonates with individuals is taking centre stage, and more and more, it’s influencing the way people shop online.

Influencers have a stronghold on consumers

According to Social, GWI’s annual flagship report on global social media trends, Gen Zs are almost as likely to follow influencers as brands, followed closely by millennials. However, those influencers are not celebrities – they’re role models: people who have a wide variety of interests, from personal health and wellness to wildlife, photography, DIY interests and even volunteering. They are individuals who like learning new skills, challenging themselves and contributing to their communities, and they are sharing their experiences, tips and insights with their followers. In other words, they are micro- and nano-influencers and they are shaping the consumers of today (and tomorrow).

GWI’s data also reveals that followers actually want more raw, unfiltered content. In a post-pandemic world, glitzy backdrops are no longer important, but real people are. We’ve seen the same shift in consumer and social media patterns on our own platforms. Influencers who acknowledge their own frustrations and open up about their feelings, challenges and what excites them are engaging their followers in more meaningful ways.

There’s enormous value in being real. A model eating a fast-food burger is the opposite of authentic – few followers, if any, would believe that takeaways are her go-to lunch choice. On the other hand, a mother sharing her experiences with a new baby food brand is extremely authentic. At its core, marketing is driven by trust, not the number of followers a person has on Instagram or Facebook, which is why content matters.

We’ve also seen a backlash against celebrity influencers who have been oblivious to the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic. For example, in January, a group of British influencers and reality TV stars posted images of themselves enjoying a luxury holiday in Dubai while the rest of the UK headed into another lockdown while hospital admissions and death rates soared.

The backlash was fast and ferocious, and the influencers found themselves trending for all the wrong reasons. Several of the stars lost thousands of followers. The message was clear: influencers will always hold a place in our hearts, but there is a strong indication that the type of influencer that consumers are drawn to is changing.

Connecting the dots between consumers and influencers

What does this mean for brands – and e-commerce brands in particular? First, it’s important to note that while search engines (34%) and ads seen on TV (33%) remain the most common modes of brand discovery, ads on social platforms are catching up. About 27% of internet users who responded to GWI’s survey stated that they use social media channels to find products to purchase. This is considerably higher in Kenya (73%) and Nigeria (72%). Social media has become a space where advertising content is expected, and possibly even desired, provided it is authentic and aligns with users’ values.

Brand discovery is also shifting. Previously, consumers would use tools like Google to research products. But research is intent-driven. You are looking for a specific brand, product or solution.  Discovery is something different, and it’s the reason that platforms like Instagram, Etsy and Pinterest are growing bigger each day.

Scrolling through beautiful images with little to no text input on your mobile phone is key to discovery, and it’s the reason that many consumers are finding exciting new brands to connect with. Online scrolling is emotional and impulsive, and it centres on who people follow and engage with.

Which is where influencers once again come in, because what can be more authentic than a micro- or nano-influencer offering unfiltered insights into their purchasing decisions and preferences?

Author Seth Godin says: “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.” The challenge is that it’s very difficult for a brand to tell a story – brands need people to do that for them.

For example, only 1% of millennials trust advertisements when making a purchase, but 33% of them trust blog reviews. This stat is from a few years ago, and we know that blog reviews have largely been replaced by influencers and social media posts.

Research versus shopping

For more than a decade, social media has been an excellent way for e-commerce businesses – particularly smaller, independent businesses – to access consumers. Some brands, such as local baby carrier brand Ubuntu Baba realised early on that authenticity was the way to go, and only used real moms and Ubuntu Baba customers in its advertising and social media posts. Authentic posts don’t just promote a product. They often educate and show potential customers what a product would look like on their bodies or in their lives.

A study by Twitter highlights just how much of an impact influencers have on consumer behaviour: 49% of people said they rely on influencer recommendations when it comes to making purchase decisions, and 40% admitted that they’ve bought an item from an online store after seeing an influencer using it on Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.

There is no doubt that online research has shifted from googling a product and looking for reviews on Hello Peter to using social media platforms. Almost half of all internet users do brand and product research on social media channels – which is where technology is once again changing the game. 

Take Instagram’s shopping feature as an example. The feature enables businesses to add product tags in their posts, allowing buyers to click on pictures displayed in posts and instantly see prices, fabric types, sizes – any information they need at a single click. Customers can even order products directly on Instagram. As e-commerce grows, influencers become more important and vice versa.

Influencers and e-commerce today

Influencers use hashtags to drive traffic, they share personal and authentic experiences to win the trust of their followers, and they often make use of promotion codes to boost sales. The challenge is that a lot of online shopping is the result of impulse buys. This makes influencers even more critical. They create and share the content that triggers impulse and even emotional buys – particularly when a consumer feels affinity towards the influencer and the brand.

The next evolution will be influencers who create curated collections on their platforms that can be purchased then and there, which is why it is critical for brands to engage influencers, build relationships and allow influencers to be authentic in their engagements with their followers.

Murray Legg leads the strategy of Webfluential, a digital platform linking influencers with brands.

The big take-out:

Consumers want to follow real people who share their values and interests and who create meaningful and entertaining content that speaks directly to them.

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