What is Influencer Marketing: An in Depth Look at Marketing’s Next Big Thing

Influencer marketing is now a mainstream form of online marketing. It has been a buzzword for a while now, and the mainstream media regularly refers to it. Yet, there are still people who don't really understand what influencer marketing is all about. Indeed, some people come across the phrase for the first time and instantly ponder, "What is influencer marketing?"

The Influencer Marketing Hub is now an established website with hundreds of articles explaining the intricacies of influencer marketing, along with other types of online marketing. The original version of this post was the first article we wrote for the site. We know, however, that there are still people who come here for the first time, wondering what influencer marketing is. So, we have updated this article to focus on the basics of influencer marketing in 2021, heading towards 2022.


What does Influencer Marketing look like in 2021:


Influencer Marketing is a hybrid of old and new marketing tools. It takes the idea of celebrity endorsement and places it into a modern-day content-driven marketing campaign. The main differentiator in the case of influencer marketing is that the results of the campaign are collaborations between brands and influencers.

But influencer marketing doesn't just involve celebrities. Instead, it revolves around influencers, many of whom would never consider themselves famous in an offline setting.

In our article, What is an Influencer we defined an influencer as being someone who has:

  • the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his or her audience
  • a following in a distinct niche, with whom he or she actively engages. The size of the following depends on the size of his/her topic of the niche.

One of the biggest mistakes that traditional media makes is a failure to see the difference between celebrities and online influencers.

It is also important to realize that most influencers have systematically built a keen and enthusiastic audience. It is not accidental that these people follow influencers rather than a brand. The audience doesn't really care less about your brand. They only care about the opinions of the influencers. Don't try to foist rules and business practices onto your influencers. The audience is theirs, and they can simply walk away, taking their followers with them.

influencer marketing course


What is Influencer Marketing?

Influencer marketing involves a brand collaborating with an online influencer to market one of its products or services. Some influencer marketing collaborations are less tangible than that – brands simply work with influencers to improve brand recognition. 

An early example of influencer marketing involved YouTube celebrity PewDiePie. He teamed up with the makers of a horror film set in the French catacombs under Paris, creating a series of videos in which he underwent challenges in the catacombs. It was pitch-perfect content for PewDiePie's 27 million subscribers and received nearly double the views as the movie's trailer. Everybody won.

That's a simple example. It's easy to imagine a celebrity teaming with a company to pitch a product—even if the pitch is a series of 10-minute videos instead of a 30-second television ad. 

But people wouldn't be talking about influencer marketing—you wouldn't be at a website called the Influencer Marketing Hub reading about it, either—if it didn't have a much broader set of applications. And the key is in that word, influencer.

Influencers, unlike celebrities, can be anywhere. They can be anyone. What makes them influential is their large followings on the web and social media. An influencer can be a popular fashion photographer on Instagram, or a well-read cybersecurity blogger who tweets, or a respected marketing executive on LinkedIn. Within any industry, there are influential people—you just have to find them. Some will have hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of followers. But many will seem more like ordinary people. They may only have 10,000 followers, less in some cases. Yet, they will have developed a reputation for being the experts in their field. They are the go-to people who provide the answers to people's questions. Depending on their sphere of expertise, they are the people who make the most engaging social posts on their specialist topics. They share the best pictures, make the most entertaining videos, and run the most informative online discussions.


Influencer Marketing Statistics

  • Influencer marketing is expected to grow to be worth $13.8 billion in 2021.
  • Businesses are making $5.78 ROI for every $1 spent on influencer marketing.
  • There has been a 465% increase in searches for the phrase "influencer marketing" on Google alone since 2016.
  • 90% of survey respondents believe influencer marketing to be an effective form of marketing.
  • 67% of brands use Instagram for influencer marketing.
  • 1360 Influencer marketing focused platforms and agencies entered the market in the last 5 years alone.

See all stats in our latest Benchmark Report


What works in Influencer Marketing

Carefully consider your approach to influencer marketing

  • Be organized, put together a strategy, plan, and budget, spend time on research
  • Decide on your approach to finding influencers – find them organically, subscribe to a platform, or work through an agency
  • Be patient and be human – people talking to people, not companies talking to companies

Develop a schedule

  • Does the influencer prefer monthly/quarterly/biannual calls or newsletters?
  • Integrate with your PR schedule, product release schedule, etc.
  • Send emails on behalf of key executives. Plan travel schedules for executives and arrange face-to-face meetings

What Influencer Marketing is Not

Influencer marketing isn't just about finding someone with an audience and offering them money or exposure so they can say good things about you. That's what viral celebrities are for. Influencers are people who've spent time building their own brand and cultivating their audience; they will be naturally protective of their reputation and the people who trust them. They're people who have the patience and focus to succeed in social media, one organic follower at a time—people like this aren't interested in doing influencer marketing solely for the money.

Influencer Marketing is also not about quick results. It's the same kind of slow-and-steady approach as Social Media and Content Marketing, where your campaign isn't about directly selling your wares. Instead, it's about demonstrating your authority, credibility, and thought leadership within your industry. It's about becoming synonymous with whatever it is that you offer, like when people say they're going to Xerox a document instead of photocopying it, or to Hoover the floor, rather than vacuuming it.

With Social Media Marketing, it's a slow game of acquiring the kind of followers who are going to be loyal and engaged. So it's tempting to think that joining forces with an influencer is going to be an easy way into the hearts and minds of his or her followers—it's not that simple, though. Because to ally yourself with influencers, you've got to earn their trust and respect. But how?

benchmark report influencer marketing


What doesn't work in Influencer Marketing

Generalizing your approach to finding and making use of different influencers. One size doesn't fit all influencers: tailor your approach to the specific influencer

Simply looking at the popularity of the influencer. Influence does not only mean popularity. Remember that your goal is to elicit a particular action from your customers. Don't automatically assume that the people with the most followers are the influencers of a niche.


One Simple Rule: Influencer Marketing is Marketing to Influencers

With traditional social media marketing, a brand can set up its identity on whatever platform it chooses, and as time passes and its follower bases grow, it can see who its brand champions are. These are the customers who like and share content or mention the brand itself in a post. Followers like these can be further nurtured through personal attention and as part of a highly segmented group of all the brand champions. Efforts to market to this group focus on ways to keep them spreading the word.

One problem with this approach is that some of a brand's followers just don't have enough followers themselves to make much impact. In fact, most ordinary people on social networks don't. Most people have a small network of maybe a few hundred friends and associates representing all kinds of tastes and preferences. Meanwhile, brands struggle to curate and create content that they hope will resonate with their followers in some meaningful way while staying engaged with day-to-day interactions. 

This scattershot approach to social marketing yields predictably erratic results. Instead of blindly trying to grab likes and followers or throwing various bits of content out to see what sticks, influencer marketing tells us that our time is better spent marketing directly to influential people whose likes and dislikes we already know — they align well with our own. This means engaging with these people across social accounts—not just following and liking but commenting and demonstrating knowledge and a personality. It can also mean curating or creating content that's hand-picked to get the attention of influencers. So, while it's the influencer's audience that's the ultimate prize, the target market for brands includes the influencers themselves.

This scattershot approach to social marketing yields predictably erratic results. Instead of blindly trying to grab likes and followers or throwing various bits of content out to see what sticks, influencer marketing tells us that our time is better spent marketing directly to influential people whose likes and dislikes we already know — they align well with our own. This means engaging with these people across social accounts—not just following and liking but commenting and demonstrating knowledge and a personality. It can also mean curating or creating content that's hand-picked to get the attention of influencers. So, while it's the influencer's audience that's the ultimate prize, the target market for brands includes the influencers themselves.

By laying this groundwork, you can achieve two things as a brand:

The first is that by merely interacting in positive and constructive ways on influencers' social pages, you gain early access to their followers. You're not promoting anything to them; you're showing your face as a member of their community, adding to your credibility down the line.

The second achievement is that, eventually, when you do propose some kind of influencer marketing collaboration, they'll already know you. Influencers aren't celebrities, per se, but their online life can look a lot like a famous person's real-world one: lots of interruptions from people they don't know, wanting a piece of their time, either to praise them or to pitch them. You need to be able to stand out from the noise of attention they get in the form of emails and tweets. This means that when you finally reach out to them, they'll already know what you're about, and they'll know whether you're a good fit for their audience.


The Remarkable Rise of Influencer Marketing

Each year we conduct an online survey to help us understand how companies see the state of influencer marketing. The results are definitely optimistic, indicating that influencer marketing is genuinely mainstream now, on an upwards trajectory as a preferred marketing method.

Here are the key results from our Influencer Marketing Hub 2021 Study and a few other relevant recent statistics.

1. Sizable Increase in Searches for "Influencer Marketing"

There has been a 465% increase in searches for the phrase "influencer marketing" on Google alone since 2016. Clearly, it is now a hot topic, leading to more people wanting to educate themselves about influencer marketing and find influencer marketing platforms and agencies. The period leading up to 2019 was particularly frantic, with a 1500% increase in searches for "influencer marketing" between 2016 and 2019. Searches have slowed slightly since then, however, with influencer marketing now mainstream to many.

2. Influencer Marketing Expected to Grow to be Worth $13.8 Billion in 2021

Coronavirus accelerated the growth of influencer marketing in 2020, and this is estimated to continue in 2021. From a mere $1.7 billion in 2016, influencer marketing is estimated to have grown to a market size of $9.7 billion in 2020 and is expected to jump further to $13.8 billion in 2021.

3. Influencer Marketing Focused Platforms and Agencies have more than Doubled in Two Years

Influencer marketing has become sufficiently mainstream that companies are continually setting up platforms to help the influencer search and selection process, as well as making the system more transparent and easier for both brands and influencers. Quite a few agencies have now opened that specialize in providing influencer marketing services. Not wishing to lose clients, quite a few traditional agencies have added influencer marketing to the services they offer. There have been 240 new influencer marketing-focused platforms and agencies entering the market over the last 12 months, on top of 380 doing so in the previous year.

4. High Average Earned Media Value per $1 Spent on Influencer Marketing

While we didn't have updated figures on earned media value (EMV) in our 2021 Influencer Marketing Benchmark Report, we did have new figures in 2020. Businesses earn an average of $5.78 promotional publicity for each $1 they spend on influencer marketing. Some companies gain up to $18 EMV for every influencer dollar spent, although 25% either lose money or just break even.

5. Many Firms Now Budget for both Influencer Marketing and Content Marketing

Content marketing is now so firmly established that 59% of marketers have stand-alone budgets for it. This figure is in some ways lower than expected, as HubSpot reports that 70% of their respondents use content marketing. Some firms who use content market clearly fund it from a centralized marketing budget.

Influencer marketing is sufficiently mainstream that 75% of our survey respondents indicated that they would be dedicating a budget to influencer marketing in 2021. This rate is up substantially from the 37% who claimed they would allocate a budget to it in 2017.

6. The Majority of Firms Intend to Increase their Influencer Marketing Budget

Companies clearly see influencer marketing as a direction where they intend to head, with 62% of those respondents already budgeting for influencer marketing planning to increase their influencer marketing budget in 2021. Only 7% of firms declared they would decrease their influencer marketing budgets or move away from it.

7. Most Marketers Judge Influencer Marketing to be Effective

Marketers and brands clearly believe in the effectiveness of influencer marketing, and this has led to an explosion of new content created over the last year. 90% of our survey respondents believe influencer marketing to be an effective form of marketing. This statistic has stayed relatively static since 2017, and the signs are clear that this positivity towards influencer marketing will continue into the future.


Instagram Insights

1. Huge Numbers of Photos, Videos, and Likes on Instagram Every Day

Instagram has seen an explosion of use over the last few years. The idea that its users post 95 million photos and videos and like 4.2 billion posts every day is mind-boggling. Photo posts now make up 64.4% of all Instagram main feed posts, followed by carousel posts (18.8%) and video posts (16.8%). 

2. Instagram has Seen Huge Growth in Support Over the Last Four Years

Instagram has certainly not suffered from being bought by Facebook. There has been a massive increase in Instagram users during the Facebook era, with over 1.074 billion active users currently. Stories are also highly popular, with 500 million people using Instagram Stories every day.

3. Influencer #Followers Vary Greatly by Niche on Instagram

There is a surprising variation in the number of followers that Instagram influencers have. A few niches, such as modeling and beauty, have some extremely popular influencers with up to 20 million followers each. Other niches, such as lifestyle and music, have fewer "superstars," leading to lower average influencer followings.

4. Instagram Influencer Marketing Spending Growing at a Rapid Rate

The overall increase in influencer marketing, and the growing importance of Instagram as a highly visible social media channel, has led to a significant increase in brands spending money on influencers operating there. 55% of marketers intended to use Instagram for influencer marketing in 2021, second only to YouTube. In comparison, 43% signposted using online ads, 35% TikTok, 29% tv ads, 20% OOH ads, and 20% Twitch. Marketers expect this trend to continue into 2022.

5. Number Of Brand-Sponsored Influencer Posts Growing Almost Exponentially

With increased brand awareness of influencer marketing and tighter regulations regarding advertising transparency, we have seen phenomenal growth in sponsored influencer posts. These posts trebled between 2015 and 2017 to 2.68 million posts. These were further expected to rise substantially to 6.12 million sponsored posts in 2020. With the increase in influencer marketing since the advent of COVID-19, this figure is undoubtedly higher now.

6. Instagram Engagement Rates Much Higher than those on Twitter, But Lower than those on TikTok

Possibly because an Instagram post sticks around for a while, yet a tweet can quickly vanish into a user's feed, Instagram posts tend to give higher engagement rates than tweets. With both social media channels, influencers with fewer followers find it easier to build up a high engagement rate than those with more followers. Influencers with fewer than 1,000 followers average 7.2% engagement on Instagram, 1.4% on Twitter, and 9.38% on TikTok. For mega- influencers with over 100,000 followers, average engagement rates are 1.1% on Instagram, 0.3% on Twitter, and 5.3% on TikTok.


An Influencer Marketing Campaign: Case Study

The PewDiePie example referred to earlier might have given you an idea of what an influencer marketing campaign can look like. Still, it's probably tough to see how that kind of strategy can work its way into some of the less sexy areas of the business world. With that criterion in mind, let's look at an example — a campaign to drive attendance and awareness of the Content Marketing World conference. A more traditional approach might have focused solely on SEO and Google Ads, as well as some promoted content on Twitter and LinkedIn. Perhaps a blog piece would have been written, something shareable that's insightful and gets the word out.

Instead, the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) worked with Top Rank Marketing to develop an influencer marketing campaign to spread its message. To be fair, the Content Marketing Institute already has quite an extensive network of influencers they work with; identifying potential collaborators was as easy as looking at who'd be speaking at the conference they were promoting. This is precisely what they did, asking speakers to contribute some thoughts or advice around Content Marketing. The feedback was compiled, along with other educational materials, into four separate eBooks, each with its own unique topic relevant to the programming at CMI's conference. They made each eBook available to view at SlideShare, or as a downloadable PDF, with links pushed out across social media by CMI, Top Rank, and the influencers themselves. The whole initiative was underwritten by Curata, a software developer specializing in Content Curation and Management Platforms. That's a lot of players around one campaign, but look how everyone gets something out of it:

  • The target audience, those being recruited for attendance at the conference, got free, entertaining, and valuable information of personal relevance to them. Over 230,000 people viewed the eBooks on SlideShare, while another 4,000 downloaded the PDFs.
  • The influencers who participated used the platform to drive attendance to their sessions at the conference. Sharing out the eBooks gave them more opportunities to make people aware they were speaking, all of which added to their personae as credible and respected people in their field.
  • CMI got the attendance they were looking for and another notch in their belt by putting on (and pulling off) another large conference with them at the center of it all.
  • Curata, who paid for this all to happen, got over 1,000 new leads to whom they could market.

This win/win/win/win situation is part of what makes IM such a compelling strategy

There are no advertising tricks used in these campaigns, no disingenuous celebrities smiling over a product you know they've never used. Think about it this way: the CMI conference campaign was a straight-up content marketing play, commissioned by the people who wrote the book on content marketing and aimed at other campaign marketers. These are all people who know the "tricks of the trade," but the campaign worked. And that's because, in this case, the trick is that there is no trick.

  • The best social marketing works because it's nothing more than a natural social interaction.
  • The best content marketing works because the information is genuinely helpful.
  • And the best influencer marketing works because it relies on both social and content marketing tools, where credibility and genuine authority are already established in the minds of the audience.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is influencer marketing?

Influencer marketing involves brands collaborating with online influencers to market products or services. Some influencer marketing collaborations are less tangible than that – brands simply work with influencers to improve brand recognition. The important thing here is that the online collaborators are genuinely influential. They have to influence the type of people with whom a brand wishes to establish a touchpoint. Influencer marketing is much more than finding someone with an audience and offering them money or exposure to say good things about you.

What does influencer marketing mean?

Influencer marketing is a type of social media marketing that involves endorsements and product placements from influencers. These influencers have established a reputation for having an expert level of knowledge or social influence in their field. This is often misunderstood, with some people mistakenly equating influencer marketing with celebrity marketing. There may be some overlap, but somebody purportedly being famous is not sufficient to make for effective influencer marketing. Many influencers have built huge communities to whom they promote an agreed product or activity.

What is influencer marketing, and why does it matter?

As we have stated in this article, influencer marketing involves a brand collaborating with an online influencer to market one of its products or services. In all cases, genuine influencers will have developed a reputation for being experts in their field. They are the go-to people that provide the answers to people's questions. If you select the right influencer for your brand, you will access many potential customers you would have otherwise been unable to reach.

How effective is influencer marketing?

We saw in our State of Influencer Marketing 2020: Benchmark Report that influencer marketing can be a highly effective way of promoting your product. The industry was predicted to be worth $7.7 billion in 2020. The average earned media value was $5.78 per dollar spent on influencer marketing in 2019. This means that, on average, a dollar spent on influencer marketing can generate $5.78 worth of publicity for your business. 91% of our respondents believed influencer marketing to be an effective form of marketing.

How do you measure influencer marketing?

Areas of measurement will be very dependent on your goals. Many will be irrelevant to your influencer marketing campaign. Some of the most common areas of measurement include:
1. Audience Reach
2. Impressions
3. Engagement (Comments, Likes, Shares)
4. Sentiment
5. High-Quality Content
6. Conversions:
- Growth in Your Followers
- Brand Mentioning
- Traffic to a Specific Landing Page / Website
- Form Completions
- Signups to a Newsletter / Subscription
- Growth in Users of Your Product / Service
- Increased Sales

How do I run an influencer program?

The first step of any influencer program is to define your goals. Understand WHY you are carrying out an influencer campaign. Then define the target audience for your campaign, keeping your goal in mind. For influencer marketing to be successful, you need to work with influencers who influence your target audience. From that, define the best type of influencer for your brand. Search for these influencers, either manually, with a platform, or with an agency. Make contact with these influencers and then contract them.

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