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Influencer Marketing

The Evolution of Influencer Marketing — Past, Present, & Future

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In recent years, influencer marketing has become the hot new strategy for brands looking to expand their reach, increase brand awareness, and boost conversions. In fact, a whopping 93% of marketers now practice influencer marketing. And this tactic has proven to be so effective that, in 2024, 69% of marketers plan to increase their influencer marketing budget.

How did we get here?

When you think about it, the concept of influencer marketing has been around for longer than many of us can recall. Before there was social media, people relied on what they saw in print ads, radio, and television for product recommendations. But even the earliest marketers figured out that featuring influential people in their ads could sway the purchasing decisions of consumers.

Today, we’ll walk through a brief history of influencer marketing and discuss what lies ahead as we prepare to navigate the ever-changing social media landscape.

The Road to Modern Influencer Marketing

Phase 1: The Pioneers

Starting as early as the 18th century, marketers have leveraged the power of influential people. Josiah Wedgwood was a British potter whose cream-colored artwork got the approval of Queen Charlotte in the 1765 — even earning him the official title of “Her Majesty’s Potter.” Knowing that the Queen was the ultimate influencer at the time, Wedgwood leveraged his new status and promoted his pottery as “Queensware,” the world’s first luxury brand. The royal endorsement catalyzed his brand, as people started flocking to his business and clamoring for his work soon after.

Phase 2: Fictional Characters

The next era brought in a wave of fictional characters as influencers. The most famous example is Coca Cola’s popularization of Santa Claus in 1932. To drive beverage sales at the height of the Great Depression, Coca Cola used the jolly image of Santa Claus to convey cheer during an otherwise miserable time, refocusing their target audience and helping consumers remember the joyful qualities of the company.

Source: Coca-Cola

Even decades later in the 1970’s, brands conjured up fictitious characters like Quaker Oats’ “Little Mikey” in order to sway consumers’ decisions. In the brand’s famous commercial titled “Mikey Likes It,” a hard-to-please boy named Mikey is shown enjoying Quaker Oats’ Life cereal. The brand wanted their target audience to relate to the boy and think: if Mikey likes it, I’ll like it. The ad was so successful that it won a Clio Award in 1974 and continued to run on air for 13 years.

Phase 3: Celebrity Endorsements

Then came the celebrity endorsements. Compared to fictional characters like Santa and Mikey, celebrities are real people who have real preferences, plus mass followings due to their fame. Because of this, they have the ability to convince consumers to buy the products that they endorse. That’s why brands like Nike and Pepsi started forming partnerships with celebrities to advocate for their products, in exchange for the publicity.

Source: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/NBAE via Getty Images

However, celebrity endorsements soon became less effective as people couldn’t always relate to their over-the-top lifestyles.

Phase 4: Reality TV

What truly merged real life and screen life was reality TV shows like The Bachelor and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us are drawn to the larger-than-life personalities on reality television. Because these shows have the basis of portraying “reality,” the stars are perceived as more relatable and authentic than traditional celebrities to a certain extent. Paired with their overnight fame and heightened engagement from viewers, reality TV personalities led the way for what was to come with social media.

Source: E!

This brings us to…

Phase 5: Influencer Marketing

As social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube arose, everyone jumped at the chance to share their everyday life online. Of course, famous people — like celebrities, reality TV stars, and even bloggers — garnered many followers on social media due to their existing popularity. But a new phenomenon quickly set in as a handful of “regular” people started accumulating large followings as well, due to their highly engaging content and close interactions with their followers.

Because of their ability to influence the decisions of their audience, these “regular” people became known as influencers.

Compared to celebrities and even reality TV stars, influencers are more similar to us. Most of them don’t own giant mansions or fly around on private jets. Instead, they post relatable content about the good, the bad, and the ugly in their lives. Their consistent authenticity has earned them the high level of trust and authority given to them by their followers.

As influencers became more prevalent, brands started leveraging their influence by sending them free products (and sometimes even payment) and asking them to post about it to their audience. This tactic eventually became the industry we know and love: influencer marketing.

The Current State of Influencer Marketing

In 2024, it’s safe to say we are at the peak of influencer marketing. Today, digital communities rule the world of commerce and at the top of each community are influencers.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these numbers.

  • 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends, family, and influencers
  • 70% of teens trust influencers more than traditional celebrities
  • Influencer marketing earns 11x the ROI of a standard digital campaign
  • 74% of people use social media to discover products and make purchasing decisions

On top of the immense power that influencers hold, Global Web Index found that 40% of internet users use ad-blocking software, meaning a big chunk of consumers don’t even see the ads brands pay for. Working with influencers provides an effective solution in the age of the ad blocker, as consumers learn about products through content that is native to where they already are — social media.

In addition, our internal survey showed that 61.9% of marketers work with influencers to generate content. Influencer-generated content (IGC) is quick and cost-effective to produce. Not to mention, it is authentic, relatable, and diverse, which is why it consistently performs better than studio-shot creative. Brands can leverage it on their websites, social campaigns, emails, print ads, or even in-store displays.

For all these reasons, influencer marketing has become a great strategy for brands looking to grab customers’ attention, educate consumers, generate high-quality content, and increase sales.

But what lies ahead?

The Future of Influencer Marketing — Communities

Despite the proven successes of influencer marketing, there has been a lot of talk in the industry about fraud and inauthenticity. And although most influencers still care about being transparent and raw with their audiences, the claims about the “death of influencer marketing” don’t seem to stop. Pair that with the ever-changing social landscape (i.e. Instagram hiding likes, the rise of TikTok, etc.), it’s unclear what the future of influencer marketing holds.

The smartest brands know that it’s time to shift. That’s why they’ve been expanding on their influencer marketing efforts by engaging with their wider community. This doesn’t mean cutting ties with influencers. Rather, it means bringing on more community members as brand partners.

A brand community is typically comprised of seven types of members, all of whom bring value in different ways and can become amazing brand advocates. They are:

  • Influencers: Social media micro-celebrities that brands work with to promote their products online, expand their reach, and connect with their target audiences
  • Customers: Individuals who purchase a brand’s goods and love the brand’s products, enough to leave raving reviews online and spread word-of-mouth buzz
  • Creatives: People working in the arts, such as photographers, graphic designers, and creative directors, who create unique content and bring new perspectives to everyday products
  • Ambassadors: Long-term brand partners who consistently promote the companies they represent, educate their audiences about the brands they endorse, and implement the products seamlessly into their lifestyles
  • Experts: Individuals with legitimate credentials and specialized knowledge, who brands work with to build consumer trust, provide transparency, and establish credibility in their industries
  • Affiliates: Brand partners who earn a commission for promoting a brand’s products and bringing in leads that ideally turn into sales
  • Employees: Company insiders who work in corporate offices as well as in brick-and-mortar stores to drive growth and profit for the business everyday

These community members can provide important feedback, leave raving reviews, spread word of mouth buzz, co-create content, and so much more. A strong community will lead to improved products, brand loyalty, increased awareness, and overall success.

Remember, at the heart of every successful marketing campaign is authenticity and relatability. That’s why even fictional characters like Santa Claus and Quaker Oats’ “Mikey” were able to influence the perceptions and purchasing decisions of consumers. With the accessibility of social media, anyone and everyone has the ability to influence their peers’ purchasing decisions — especially when they are real, passionate fans of the brand.

We’re now essentially going back to the roots of influencer marketing by working with those who actually hold the power to influence. A brand no longer controls its story, reputation, and the like.

Its community does.

Ready to build your community? Get insider tips from Emily Dunn, Director of Marketing and Branding at Snap Kitchen,  on leveraging brand enthusiasts to impact the entire marketing funnel.

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