by Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) What is influencer marketing? Is it Selena Gomez promoting Coach on Instagram? Or Roger Federer celebrating with Moet & Chandon on Twitter? While it’s tempting to yell “NO!”, I’ll settle for a conditional “not quite.” Because influencer marketing and celebrity endorsement are very different, but related, aspects of the social media marketing landscape.

Celebrities are influential — nobody can deny this — and celebrities with large social media followings are very aware of the power of their influence. Selena Gomez, with 122m social media followers, charges in the region of US$550 000 for just one post.

Nothing new

Celebrity endorsement isn’t new. In the 18th century, marketers in England would vie to be appointed to a royal house. Why? The royal crest added lustre and perceptual value to the merchants’ products. Two centuries later, cigarette brands used comedians, movie stars and sports heroes to endorse products — ‘influencer’ marketing was already in full swing.

All that’s changed now is the channel. But the terrain has become a lot more tricky. Today, brands face sceptical and distrustful social media users (millennials, Gen Y and Gen X) who are savvy to blatant marketing of products, even by their heroes.

While celebrities boast reach, do they drive real engagement? Gomez, Pantene’s brand ambassador, is the highest-paid celebrity with the greatest reach but reportedly only 3% of Pantene’s target demographic engage with her photos.


Then there’s the question of credibility. When Naomi Campbell signed up with Adidas, she made a disastrous copy-paste mistake. Instead of promoting the sneakers with a snappy message, she reposted the entire message request from Adidas’ marketers:

“Naomi, so nice to see you in good spirits. Could you put something like: Thanks to my friend @gary.aspden and all at adidas — loving these adidas 350 SPZL from adidas Spezial range. @adidasoriginals.”

But thanks to technology and smart algorithms, brands are now learning that there is gold in their social communities. Here we’re talking everyday people who love your brand, and love ‘talking’ about your brand. Let’s call these influencers ‘brand influencers’. These influencers may not have a lot of reach (less than 1000 followers) but have a huge amount of relevance and resonance. They like your brand; some of them even love your brand. They engage, they retweet, they share stories about your brand. And they spend their money on your brand.


Brands have spent millions building audiences on big social networks. But, in return, the titans of social networks — Facebook, Twitter and Google — have pulled the biggest bait-and-switch of all time. They’re making marketers pay to engage with the very audiences that brands helped grow. Did you know that organic reach on Facebook is now only about 2%? Brands have to dig deep to rise above the noise and connect with social communities.

Despite the massive investments in social media, brands have no control over the algorithms or management of these platforms. Social giants make changes that suit their business models, not those of advertisers. Another important factor is that brands don’t own social data. Facebook, Twitter and Google do.

But, with the right technology, brands can migrate their social audiences into loyalty programmes, onto ecommerce platforms, or even into CRM databases.

Inauthentic relationships

So why are brands spending thousands of dollars building inauthentic relationships with people who often aren’t regular users of a brands products? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to tap into a pool of real influencers already in your online community?

Engaging with people who genuinely love your product may reap significant rewards. How is this done? Once these influencers are identified, one of the ways is to invite them to try out new products or attend special, ‘sneak-peek’ events.

In the US, PAX Labs held events in Los Angeles and New York to preview two new products. The e-cigarette company invited people which it had identified as influencers on its social media channels. All 18 influencers invited showed up and were treated to free samples of the products. They made 21 posts, including photographs, without any extra compensation, which reached more than 1.6m people, and generated some 30 700 likes.

Trust recommendations

Studies (including Neilsen’s Global Trust in Media Report) have shown that people trust recommendations from real people — even strangers — more than any other form of advertising.

This is what brands should be doing — partnering with real people who truly use and love their products. Not only are these people more authentic than celebrities, they’re also easier to engage with over the long term, and much more cost-efficient.

So, let’s keep it real, folks, and remember that real people add real value. Or as John Bohan, founder and CEO of Socialtyze, said in a recent Forbes piece: “Real relationships beget real influence.”


Bradley ElliottThe founder of Continuon and Platinum Seed, Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) is a serial entrepreneur who’s created a number of businesses in the digital and technology sectors. He believes that marketing needs to be reinvented so that it becomes more useful to humans and brands. He’s also a collector of fine whiskey. Bradley contributes the new monthly column, “Only Connect”, which focuses on influencer marketing, to

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