A few days ago the NZH reported that Facebook was suing a New Zealand company for allegedly selling likes, engagements and followers to the tune of $14million.

The business in question has since taken down its website. Add to this all the major global advertisers who have publicly demanded transparency over the past year, and the fact that that the global influencer industry has been busy sharpening its pencils with increased professionalism and, well, things have changed.

Read more:
Facebook sues Upper Hutt company for $14m over 'fake' likes

Plenty of people have called out 'fake following' in influencer marketing. It certainly was an issue, in the early days with rapid, raw unregulated growth. But the tide has turned, so much that the term 'influencer' is already out of date for some; preferring 'digital-first
talent' or 'content creators'.

And the whole issue of follower transparency is not nearly as bad as some might think. Consider this; would a business buy advertising in a media channel, say in a magazine or on TV, without knowing exactly who will see it? Well, plenty of marketers do every day,
the way readership and audience ratings are devised is a swiss cheese scenario, not due to any intent to mislead, I might add. There's just no precise data available, it is mostly extrapolated out of survey or 'representative' samples.

But here's the thing, it's possible to audit an influencers' audience pretty much instantly, and get a great deal of information, check out tools like HypeAuditor, where it's possible to buy 50 instagram reports for around $100 USD on any influencers with 1k +
following (and yes they can report on any Kiwi based ones). With tools like this, marketers get a level of audience detail that often goes far beyond what traditional media channels offer. That's not to say marketers should pick one over the other, the point is we seem to be holding influencer marketing to a standard of precision, and transparency, that other marketing channels and approaches don't offer.

HypeAuditor's free sample on Chris Hemsworth (for no particular reason) provides a pretty good example. You'll find a pretty good dashboard with everything from gender breakdown of followers to country of origin, and audience interests. It will also identify 'suspicious accounts' and 'mass followers' (accounts who follow too many, meaning it's unlikely they would see the brand's content), leaving a 'quality' audience of 22.3 million. The choice is then about whether that quality audience is the audience you want to connect with.

The primary marketing role of social media, with or without influencers, is engagement. It's not there to do the job of a billboard.

Use it (and judge it) for what it is. A good strategy is essential here, it's important to have a holistic social media plan, and then assess the role of influencers within that.

Social media is rife with people claiming to be influencers. Photo/Getty Images. Social media is rife with people claiming to be influencers. Photo/Getty Images.

Influencers can play a role in selling products for example, but leading with engagement
is key, so the strategy here might be to give carefully selected influencers their pick of a product range, and if their followers also really like it, then they could offer a unique code on that item. Whatever brands do, they need to be sure they are building
and investing in their owned brand assets first, relying on any third party platform to build a brand in isolation dilutes its power, and puts its assets at risk when things change. Consider the ever-changing world of the algorithm for content, does any brand
really want to be at its mercy? It's also worth mentioning that influencers can play a powerful role in developing content for a brand's own platforms, in fact there are many businesses who now source all their owned content from influencer partnerships (hence
the change in title to 'content creator'), it can be a fast and cost-effective option.

Influencer marketing is better understood as good old fashioned PR

PR professionals have been 'influencer marketing' for decades. I launched the first smartphones into New Zealand (before social media was a thing) for Vodafone, by giving people of influence a great experience, that involved the product. The purpose was to drive word of mouth, and referral. This would still be best practice for a new product today, it would simply have a digital lens over it. Yes, times have changed, and yes there's a commercial exchange with Influencer marketing, mostly, not always - some brands can adopt a 'gifting' policy, depending on what they have to offer. It's just worth remembering any gifts need to be disclosed, #gifted and a hashtag for the brand will work for transparency.

The point is, that just like a good PR strategy, a good influencer strategy seeks out the people who fit most naturally with the brand, and whose community/network mirrors the target audience (see point 1 for the importance of auditing), and it relies on those
individuals to be authentic and use their own words.

Influencer marketing is not celebrity endorsement, or advertising for that matter. Celebrity endorsements in the advertising world usually rely on the most simple, heuristic of connections.

Think of every fragrance ad ever made, it's usually a highly produced visual of a star posed to reflect a mood state, right next to the brand, it's a 'this makes you feel like that' formula.

Influencer marketing shouldn't be confused with other forms of advertising. Photo/Getty Images. Influencer marketing shouldn't be confused with other forms of advertising. Photo/Getty Images.

But in the social world, it's not about glossy ads, it's about content. The experience is not the sort of momentary connection you get with advertising, in this arena, the content is aiming to elicit a response. The most engaging content is often low-fi, and real. It's also based on storytelling, and those stories come from experiences, not product taglines.

It is necessary to have a contract to engage with influencers, but the focus for that should be on building a safety net (think product and brand education and guardrails), not on delivering a prescription for content.

The best approach is to co-create the content, based on experiences that are inherently sharable. Brands can develop the creative territories that are appropriate and connected to the broader marketing strategy, then work with influencers to design and create content aligned to that, content that they are meaningfully connected to. Brands also need to use their point of view to design and give influencers the kind of experiences they want to share, and if they don't know what they are, they just need to ask them.

- Fleur Skinner is an Auckland-based independent PR and marketing consultant.