• Is Influencer Marketing Dead?

Is Influencer Marketing Dead?

Originally published in PSFK.

“Is influencer marketing dead?”  a client asked 20 minutes into our presentation.

Honestly, it’s a fair question. With FDA guidelines kicking in (#ad, #paid) and several lead marketers claiming to pull funding for overpaid influencers, it seems the bright-and-shiny, guaranteed-to-win influencer marketing approach is losing its appeal.

Great Snapchat stars are original and authentic, creating great content for an audience that loves them—for a reason. When done right, they make a shit-ton of money. But too often we’ve seen those posts filled with disgustingly fake love of, say, a luxury car brand—or that wonderful shampoo that they certainly don’t use—making emoji eyes roll, and ultimately, exposing the fatal flaw in today’s influencer marketing model: media KPIs.

It bears repeating, media KPIs are where influencer marketing fell apart.

Influencers Are People Too

Creating a lifestyle brand connection requires a human approach, not a media approach. When compared to display advertising, of course, influencer marketing comes out ahead. But comparing the advocacy of real people with the blunt-force, pixel-serving banner ad? It’s like apples and oranges.

Put another way, paying $250K for a few Instagram posts—really, the eyeballs of an audience—to generate reach and frequency is ultimately forgetting why people follow others.

Influence is being bought like display advertising. And that model does not work when applied to the creative, human exchange of ideas. Influencer marketing needs a new model.


I’m an avid traveler. And after two decades of flying Alaska Airlines out of the Pacific Northwest, I consistently reach its top frequent-flyer status. While Alaska’s been the premier travel supplier for years, Delta is now making a huge competitive push in the area.

Like a lot of very frequent fliers, I know many others. We’re a small group—united in misery—and we influence each other. We trade tips on different airports and share information about travel gear. A few months ago, while on Facebook, I experienced the pang of being left out when I saw two frequent flyer compatriots post a gift they received from Delta for their loyalty.

Now, I have a similar elite status with Alaska Airlines, but I didn’t get any such love—much less free bottles of champagne.

Brands, take note of Delta’s move.

It seemed like everyone I knew was benefitting—but me. For marketers, this is a prime example of FOMO, or fear of missing out. It results from the simple truth: we want to experience what others are experiencing. If we see someone trying a new game or product, we want to do what they’re doing.

Beyond The Buy

The simple truth is emotions motivate us; we want to belong. CMOs must think about influencer marketing beyond being a media buy. Currently the traditional, reach-and-frequency approach reigns supreme. We size up an influencers’ audience and pay them to endorse our products. We buy the attention, full stop. But ROI?

 It’s time to get back to basics of advocacy programs and aim for the emotional reaction. This means a new approach to influencer marketing that’s about human beings. Humans influencing other humans based on delight and authentic emotion.

 Influence is not a media buy. Once CMOs and brand leaders accept this truth, it revolutionizes the distribution of brand messages. The big ally in doing this? The Majority Illusion.

First identified by a team at USC, the Majority Illusion states that in a networked world, you can be greatly deceived by how prevalent something is simply by how pervasive it seems. If certain people in your network are talking about something, it may seem like a ubiquitous event, even if it’s not. In my airline example, only a tiny percentage of people overall received champagne (and likely less shared it), but a disproportion number of my connections did, so to me it seemed everyone was getting the VIP treatment, when very few people actually were.

In my case, influencers were simply other business travelers in my network.

The Majority Illusion helps us programmatically create influence, and more importantly, approach influence as a part of our marketing strategy with a wider lens. We’re not just buying audiences from influencers, we are generating influence by first using data—third-party modeling, custom audiences, etc.—to identify who we want to influence and who is best to influence them, friend or celebrity, and connecting the two. Simply put: It’s the connection that’s the sweet spot—not simply the output. 

 Hack The Algorithm

The power of the connection—the overlapping individuals surrounding your target audience—is where the magic happens. It isn’t just important to find those with the biggest following, but identifying a connection that starts with the customer in mind will create a majority illusion—the impression that everyone is having a positive experience with your brands. Remember, my frequent-flyer friends were not YouTube stars. They simply had a great brand experience, shared it, and created some crazy FOMO. Paying an online celebrity $200K for a tweet won’t get you that. 

Influencer marketing isn’t dead. In fact, it’s likely the only way brands will hack the pay-to-play algorithms built by social networks. But as marketing leaders, we need to remember successful influence is pervasive, not invasive. There is a simple humanity to creating influence that begs us to look beyond buying what media execs sell to replace banner ads. Getting more for your media spend requires looking at influence at a macro-level and orchestrating every facet of influence, from paid to earned. 

And, okay, I feel a little silly for being jealous about not getting free champagne. But the truth is this (likely) small investment is paying off: Delta created a good deal of FOMO and made me want to join their program, plain and simple. (@AlaskaAirlines: You can reach out to me via LinkedIn. I still love you, too.)

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