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Power Essays 2017: The self-paparazzi 2.0– by Ross Molloy, senior account director, MEC

Influencer marketing is arguably the most paparazzied content marketing trend of the last two years. So far, its checkered journey has been full of twists and turns, stops and starts. The signs show that it’s here to stay, with Instagram estimating its global market value at $1bn this year and set to reach $2.3bn by 2019 (a growth of 143 per cent). According to The New Yorker, the Middle East region is seen as the fastest growing influencer market. On top of this, Amazon in the US is exploring marketplaces too. Through influencer collaborations like WhatsUpMoms, they seek to link featured products directly from the content to e-commerce (Techcrunch). Marketing intent, buoyant valuations and marketplace potential are all powerful signals for the continuance and growth of influencer marketing.

Two things are paving the way for this trend. Mass adoption of ad blocking continues and people are turning to earned media territories when looking for new products. To reach people, the emerging solution lies in culture. Influencers are viable conduits with 71 per cent of 18-40-year-olds claiming they would be interested in buying a brand endorsed by an influencer (according to BPG Cohn & Wolf, UAE research).

Influencers thrive in the land of social media, especially in this region. Latest statistics from social platforms show that Saudi Arabia commands more than 3.9 million daily active users on Instagram, 8.4 million a day on Snapchat and more than 300 million video views a day on YouTube.

The freedom to create, publish and distribute endless forms of content, every day, has led to an explosion of followers in the region, creating a content marketplace for influencers ranging from mass to niche.

There is a new wave of “power middle” influencers who bring another dimension for brands to consider. With highly engaged audiences around unique interests and topics, they offer more flexible solutions to smaller brands with lesser budgets.

User-generated content (UGC) is the currency powering this whole operation, with a recent US study revealing that 90 per cent of shopper respondents agree that UGC is their go-to source for making a purchase. An outstanding example would be Find It with Nike and ASOS, which is a visual search technology that tracks down your perfect item match based on images you spotted on Instagram.

As influencers keep multiplying and social platforms continue to evolve into rich areas such as live video, Facebook Watch and story formats on Snapchat and Instagram, the impact of UGC is set to snowball even further.

Before we get too excited we must remember there are problems to fix. In practice, influencer marketing has been shackled by three main issues: transparency, measurement, and strategy.

Audience verification has required closer inspection to validate profiles and follower counts. Instagram responded and shut down Instagress for botting fake accounts, while YouTube increased its qualifying subscriber count to 10,000 for aspiring creators. More dark arts will persist and the platforms must work harder to safeguard the one thing the model’s success hinges on: transparency.

Another hurdle is the lack of regulations around the clear labelling of sponsored, paid-for posts. Users need to know the contractual origin of what they are being targeted with. #sponsored or #ad in the caption is one soft caveat, but it is not a big enough step. Instagram just released a native feature to visibly label influencer posts as being paid for by a brand. This is a positive step for all parties, especially for users who want consistency before they lean in. How will users respond to sponsored ads? I believe quality co-creation will survive while lazy product placement will lose out.

Brands can also be tagged in sponsored posts and be granted permission to boost them as soon as they appear on the creator’s page, while maintaining their original form. This will enable more targeting and will extend the reach of the asset to other digital platforms. This cohesion with other paid channels will improve measurement consistency and encourage more testing and investment.

This will help formulise current pricing structures. Depending on the chosen platforms and the individuals involved, many variables can be used to agree costs and fees. The industry needs to move away from a cost-per-post model and embrace more content performance metrics such as cost-per-engagement, – acquisition, -active views, and so on.

Many brands are still in the beginner zone with influencer marketing and are outsourcing these initiatives to partner agencies or third parties. These middlemen in the region come in two guises: influencer specialists and agency content arms.

Both tackle briefs and projects with a part-science part-art approach. Influencer specialists source the power middles through a unique verification technology that automates the entire process from talent selection and content creation through to distribution and measurement.

Agencies such as Wavemaker will also seek to activate social listening tools with verification software into their wider planning tech-kit. Their holistic view of the broader digital communications plan and deeper knowledge of their brands and audiences puts them in the right place to effectively leverage influencers and integrate them into their wider content strategies.

While the science of automation provides useful data to vet decisions, art is an equally vital ingredient for influencer marketing. Chemistry is needed to co-create and bring a brand’s story to life in a meaningful way. Strategists will be the key to unlocking this creative potential and bridging the gap between corporate and culture.

The stars are aligning for influencer marketing and it looks poised for prominence. Once the stage is set, exploiting its full potential will lie in collaboration and co-creation. Whoever can bring creators and brands together using both art and science, in ways that matter to people and belong in culture, will take this phenomenon to the next level. Watch this space.