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Visual Influencer Marketing Is On The Rise, But Is It Worth The Investment?

Visual Content

Images, videos, infographics, and other visual content have become increasingly popular forms of digital expression for individuals and content marketing fodder for bloggers and marketers.  This content has spurred the growth of social networks in which such content is produced and shared such as Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram.  So it should be no surprise that advertisers and brands are once again seeking to capitalize on perceived “influencers” within these sites despite the fact that these social networks are still in their infancy.  There’s no question that visual influencer marketing is on the rise, but is it worth the investment at this point?

“Beyond YouTube, the new visual influencer marketplace is anything but established or mature,” said Weber Shandwick’s global president of digital Chris Perry. “It’s growing and fragmenting across newer networks like Instagram, Vine and others as we speak. And access to cheap production apps and networks are fueling more content being created and shared.”  Current estimates have the PR firm dedicating approximately 20% of some client’s PR budgets to  engaging social media influencers in these networks.

As with the now largely discredited social scoring platform Klout, there’s a new crop of influence marketing platforms emerging that claim to identify, engage, and in some cases act as talent agents for those people who have amassed large followings in these visual networks. While some agencies like Weber Shandwick build their own relationships with popular social celebrities, many, such as Staples, Clinique, and Nordstrom are turning to third party influencer managers and software for a short cut.

What’s In An App?

According to Wall Street Journal writer Nathalie Tadena, “Social media celebrities can not only help brands generate enormous buzz but can also help advertisers and agencies who are less experienced with a certain platform craft content that will thrive on these specific web sites.”

HelloSociety, for example, is one new firm that focuses on connecting “Pinterest influencers” with brand marketers and/or their agencies.  Another service growing in popularity is Niche. Founded in 2013, this company is expected to generate more than $8 million in revenue this year. One of Niche’s clients is HP, which worked with Niche-identified influencers on Vine to create six-second videos featuring a new HP notebook that could turn into a tablet.

Sponsored Post or Influencer Marketing?

Social networks are businesses and as such, require revenue to keep their investors and shareholders happy. Paid advertising is the fastest way to generate that revenue once the network has accumulated large daily engagement by members. Pinterest, for example, has developed an audience of nearly 70 million unique visitors per month, according to comScore.  Pinterest allows members to “pin” an image of an item, webpage, website, etc. to one of many visual bookmarks (known as “boards”) that they’ve created within their profiles. Other members can search, like, and comment on other people’s boards and pinned images.  Pinterest now allows brands to purchase “promoted pins” on the network in order to have their images displayed to more people on the popular network.

Yet, for the most part, people shun blatant advertising and broadcast messages from advertisers within their social media channels. As a result, it’s not surprising to see more brands attempting to directly engage those with large followings on these networks in hopes that they will promote the brand to their followers. It’s also not surprising to see a new crop of influencer marketing services like Niche and HelloSociety pop up to take advantage of the opportunity.

Influencer marketing is in direct competition with the paid advertising programs that social networks like Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook offer. For example, brands including Tommy Hilfiger, VH1, and Benjamin Moore have all advertised in Pinterest recently, but none of them have purchased promoted pins. These firms – and others like them – have spent from mid-five figures to seven-figure budgets with influencer marketing services like Niche, which get popular and well-followed “pinners” to subtly promote the brands’ wares.

Something New or More of the Same?

Now that social media channels have allowed individuals to amass followings that compete with some popular television programs and magazine circulations, advertisers must pay attention. However, I’m not convinced that those embarking on these paid influencer marketing schemes will meet the expectations of the C-Suite approving the budgets.

I’ve been critical of many social media influencer schemes in the past, including Klout and to a lesser degree Kred and PeerIndex. However, I’ve always seen the value in the concept of influencer marketing, when done well. Danny Brown and I outlined that value in detail when we authored Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage, and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing for Pearson Publishing.

The reality is that while advertisers who engage influencer marketing companies and software in hopes of encouraging socially popular individuals to shill for their brands may be generating buzz, there’s still no correlation between the buzz generated and direct sales made when these brands are engaged. The metrics of mentions and likes are still soft metrics. Further, there’s little connection between the lead generation effort and how they affect customer lifetime value, something that businesses must be increasingly cognizant of in our multi-channel, multi-media, multi-touch world.

We still recommend that agencies turn to social media analytics companies such as Sysomos to first gauge which content creators are the most engaging around a certain topic, how their audiences match up to the demographics of highly convertible prospects, and then generate specific influencer marketing content and campaigns that target those in the buying cycle.  Alternatively, for smaller businesses, we’ve found success in working with social relationship software firms like Nimble, which can identify and monitor the conversations of those who are most likely to buy specific products at a specific time by monitoring social conversations occurring among those targeted in the contact list.

That said, we’re definitely seeing improvement in influencer marketing programs like Niche, which help brands and influencers create content that will most likely engage their target audiences. At the end of the day, even the most engaging content won’t guarantee that it will be seen by those in the appropriate stage of the buying cycle. If you plan to engage these services, be sure you’re able to segment the audience that will be targeted to be sure they’re your “most likely buyers.” Next, ensure the campaign drives those targeted to brand-owned properties where individual profiles can be captured for better performance tracking.

Sensei Debates

Are advertisers relying on influencer marketing software too heavily?
Is the five- to seven-figure investment worth the payback?

Have your say in the comments below.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Image Credit: Lonely Brand

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Join the Conversation

seansimons15 5pts

Your point about Pinterest users shunning messages that are blatant advertisement, or clearly sponsored is interesting. It is clear that there is some merit to a strong YouTube influencer program. However, if you look at the best and most successful YouTube influencers, they are entertaining, knowledgeable, and genuine. People like their channels, and even if they know that something is sponsored, they are still willing to listen to the influencer because they like and trust them. I think that a similar thing would have to happen on networks such as Pinterest. The disadvantage that these networks have is the lack of video element. The video element allows the consumers to connect to the influencer. This is a hurdle these other networks will have to overcome.


leachmark707 5pts

I need more visibility. I have an idea for an app and I want to make sure that I am successful. I am still having the debate of sponsoring a post or doing influence marketing.

CaseyJones1 5pts

In my opinion, I think it is awesome that marketing is starting to be more on a peer to peer basis.  People are more likely to accept a product when someone they know and trust from youtube or other forms of social media endorse it.  I would be much more interested in a product my favorite youtuber endorses than one that some random celebrity does.  People feel much more connected to YouTube celebrities than the big TV names.


supriya81 5pts

This was a very interesting and informative article. Thanks for sharing Sam. 

It was interesting to see all the view points from the readers and also interesting to note that there is " no correlation between buzz generated and direct sales". I totally agree with Sheldon, the buzz generated would help be top of the mind recall. It may not convert to direct sales but the potential customer will remember you when it is time to buy. I believe the key aspect here would be 'timing'. Are you around when the target market is looking for your product? Are you engaging with them even if they don't buy your product right away? 

I also agree with Raheela's point, it does boil down to what you consider valuable. Some company's / brands are only looking for the " Buzz". These companies are only looking for brand awareness on social media and if they are able to create a buzz they have achieved their goal. 

This brings us to the main question, is it really worth investing social influencer programs to create buzz/ convert to sales etc. I feel it depends on the size and resources that the company has. If you are a company with limited budget ,then you need to be even more sensible with the budget. Targeting the right social influencers may be key rather than just going with paid advertising hoping that you will be seen by the right people. If investing in these services means I can target the segment that is " most likely to buy" the product or service then I say it would be money well spent. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@supriya81 Definitely...the creation of buzz or brand awareness is not ineffective. Often, I'm criticized for thinking that earned media or relationship building is social media is worthless.  The opposite is true.  These are important aspects of an influence marketing strategy; however, they're just one, small part. 

My point is: generating buzz may influence brand awareness/recall but the link to actual sales or acquiring the highest value customers is anecdotal at best.  Causation vs. correlation. 

cyclaudiia 5pts

Great article Sam! Thank you for sharing this.

I agree with Raheela's point on the fact that some companies may not consider the "buzz" as the single factor attributing to a direct sale, but it's definitely a key factor in a purchase decision. I do think that depending on the company's target audience, the 5- to 7-figure on a social influencer may be worth the payback. I know there are a lot of make up brands that will endorse social influencers on YouTube, and because people react better towards other people rather than paid advertisements, they may raise sales in that sense rather than paying for an advertisement. So for make up companies who target young women, it's a smart idea to invest in social influencers that are make-up gurus on YouTube as they will reach the targeted demographic. 

I think, like you mentioned in your article, as long as you segment your target audience and you're sure of who your buyers are, social influencers can definitely be worth the investment.

KayChatz 5pts

Thank you for this article, Sam. It was a really useful read. 

I strongly agree with what Madolyn mentioned. Is 5-7 figures really worth it when it is difficult or impossible to see the correlation between the buzz generated and direct sales? Yes, every brand would love to increase conversation about their brand, and sometimes thats a business' goal. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to $$$. Is all the time, money and effort really worth only byzz? 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@KayChatz Sadly, marketers have convinced many executives that building awareness and brand recognition is the way to drive leads. Once leads are created, any failure to convert is blamed on the sales team, the product, etc. 

In my mind, marketers can - and should - do a better job at closing the sale by better understanding the purchase life cycle and better targeting those most likely to buy and/or more likely to become high-value customers. It's possible, it just requires more effort and commitment. 

raheela_n 5pts

Thanks for this, article, Sam.  I found it both interesting and useful.

As I am fairly new to the social media world, I am really surprised that there is "no correlation between the buzz generated and direct sales" despite the time and investment that brands have put in.  I think that this also comes down to the definition of success for the brands.  In my opinion, the buzz may not be the single factor attributing to a direct sale, but it is often a key factor in a purchase decision.

It would be interesting to see the difference in a potential customer's buying behaviour when they receive an endorsement for a product or service from an influencer Vs receiving an endorsement for a product or service from a personal contact.  Is there any research on this that you can share?

I also agree with Sheldon's comments below about the importance of the demographic of the influencer and how getting the "right message to the right people" can influence purchase at the right time.  

People trust people more than brands, so there is huge value in human-to-human endorsement.  Social media is such a new channel for Marketers so it will be really interesting to see how interactions on these platforms change and respond to consumer needs, and how new organizations are created/evolve to assist companies to maximise the exposure of brands on the platforms in a way that delights consumers.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@raheela_n Correlation vs. causation. Sadly, most marketers - and especially in social media marketing - base metrics and self-kudos on correlation. Identifying if the a marketing campaign causes change in the value of a customer (customer life time value) or directly affects the business's bottom line requires effort and knowledge. Too few take the time (or are allowed the time/budget but executives).

40deuce 5pts

Hey Sam,

First, thanks so much for recommending that people use Sysomos. We always appreciate that!

Second, you raise some interesting points in here. It is very hard to know if working with an influencer is going to reach your target at the proper time in their buy cycle, but at the same time, it's sometimes worth a shot to try. The most important thing about working with an influencer is to do your homework to make sure that they really fit in with your brand, your audience and your campaign. If you can get a lot of those things right you're most of the way there. Trying to determine when in the buy cycle someone is going to see a video or "pin", but if you're getting the right messages out to the right people when you run these campaigns, you have a better shot of influencing someone's decision when it comes time for them to make it than you would have if you didn't do this. It's a lot like most social media marketing, in my mind anyways, where you may not be targeting people who are always ready to buy, but if you do something that they enjoy there's a much better chance that you'll be top of mind when they are ready to buy.


Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@40deuce Great marketing often isn't about creativity but trial and error (and learning/adapting from lessons learned).  Influence marketing can work that way too, provided that you don't just rely on a general broadcast message from those with large social followings. 

Understanding who is in the buying cycle, who will be in the buying cycle, who is already a customer, and who will never buy from your business is hard to do without some trial and error. The key is you must be aware that this is the goal - and to then work on better analyzing  your existing customer base, match that to the "influencers" audience, and finally, create trackable campaigns that will help measure how accurately is their advocacy connecting to the right people. 

Hmm...someone should write a book about this. ;) 

ethnicomm 5pts

@40deuce Looking forward to when you come in and personally share insights on Sysomos and how it can be used for social media monitoring and analytics. 

Let's not forget that this issue of correlating action with results is not unique. "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half" ~John Wanamaker (back in 1919) and to this day, you can't tell me what actually worked with traditional marketing. It's all hypothetical and generalizations. Did the customer buy a Tim's Dark Roast because of the print ad, billboard, newspaper, or seeing someone walk by carrying the paper cup with Dark Roast on the sleeve? It was top of mind due to advertising but what triggered the action? Could they have NOT done the billboard for example and obtained the same results?

The benefit of social media imho is that there ARE tracking tools like Sysomos that help you follow customers down the funnel. Still not an exact science but more rigorous than traditional.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@ethnicomm @40deuce - Oh! Oh! And when you do, be prepared for the class to seek out the implications of this research/monitoring on influence marketing. I'm prepping them as we speak. 

Madolyncn 5pts

This was such a great read, especially because as Marketers we are constantly being pushed to our limits in regards to coming up with creative content that engages, and resonates, with our customers.

"At the end of the day, even the most engaging content won’t guarantee that it will be seen by those in the appropriate stage of the buying cycle."

From a business perspective, I wonder if this investment of 5-7 figures is worth it? And because you are not "guaranteed" results, at what point do you change direction.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Madolyncn Agreed - that's the difference between influence marketing that generates buzz and those designed to measurable sway purchase decisions. The latter require more upfront investment (time/budget) but invariably results in a better ROI.

natashavermanew 5pts

Well the most difficult thing is to find the right influeners related to your brand. One can use platforms like izea or fromote (search google for exact websites) to search for the influencers related to your niche or even post his requirements and let influnecers bid on them.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@natashavermanew you're right that the "Most difficult think is to find the right influencers" but it's not necessarily the right influencers "related to your brand."   There are very good services available today that can match blog and social media conversations with brand messages.  I'm thinking @traackr, for example or @InNetworkInc for bloggers. 

The challenge, in our experience, is identifying who among the influencers' social graphs are people either in the buying cycle or have the potential to be in the buying cycle.  It's about turning awareness into sales, completing the cycle.  We can't rely on influencer software to do this, as marketers we need to find a way to use the best software as part of a complete 'life cycle marketing" effort. 

natashavermanew 5pts

Well said @samfiorella but I was not talking about expensive softwares.. their time is already over.. what I was referring to was something like Uber for Influencer Marketing, wherein a platform connects buyers and suppliers of social network i.e. advertisers and influencers and it is all P2P in which the advertisers can check the profile of influencers and even talk to them before finalizing the content and frequency.. it is more like building relations with the influencers.. and the platform helps in identifying the right influncers and facilitating the transaction.

I think this route is much more effective than paid ads as well as other conversion techniques because the influencer puts across the advertiser's message more like a recommendation and we all know word of mouth works better than any other media!

Hope you would agree!!!



  1. […] Images, videos, infographics, and other visual content have become increasingly popular forms of digital expression for individuals and content marketing fodder for bloggers and marketers. This content has spurred the growth of social networks in…  […]

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