What 20th century military officers can teach us about influencer marketing

Et tu Instagram? As the influencer industry comes under attack on everything from engagement rates through to faked metrics, the platform of choices decides to do away with likes in selected countries. Depending on who you listen to, this will either kill off the discipline completely or make no difference whatsoever.

But the naysayers who declare influencers the end of civilisation and the cheerleaders who will evangelically preach that your brand will die if it doesn’t shift all its budget into influencers are both wrong.

And if both sides really want to understand how to get the best out of influencer marketing, they could do worse than spending a few hours learning about early 20th century military officers.

More specifically, this means taking a trip to the Museum of Brands in London’s Ladbroke Grove. One of the main attractions is the Time Tunnel — a walk through the evolution of advertising and packaging. And at the start of the tunnel is a very classic approach to influencer marketing.

The early influencers

Featured prominently on cigarette packaging and advertising are a number of distinguished military officers who were, if you will, the celebrity influencers of their day. There’s no selfies but plenty of headshots exhorting the ordinary rank and file to make the brand their cigarette of choice.

Sure, there were no likes or engagement rates to measure — although some of the pictures could pass as early selfies — but the cigarette companies knew who made up their target market, in this case soldiers and their families, and knew the type of people who would could influence their target market by endorsing the product.

It’s not a million miles away from a celebrity endorsement or partnerships. And while the industry may split hairs about the value of celebrities versus influencers, the principle remains the same: somewhere, a marketer has decided that the individual in question has enough appeal with their target market to influence purchasing decisions.

So, whether they’re an officer promoting cigarette to the rank and file, a beauty blogger featuring a mascara line may, Lucille Ball and Alfred Hitchcock promoting Western Union or George Clooney sipping a Nespresso they’ll have been selected in planning as having influence with their target audience.

So, let’s put our budgets into influencers, yeah?

Not that this means we should start funnelling all our budgets into influencer marketing because we’re repeating a tried and tested tactic over 100 years old. Influencers are still a deeply problematic medium — although the same could be said for a lot of marketing tactics.

The problems with fake followers and comment pods to inflate engagement are well documented. Pricing is inconsistent and ROI is a lot harder to prove if you haven’t put good measurement parameters in place.

But probably the biggest issue is one that plagues all of social media: namely, social platforms sold their products as that they could solve and measure every part of the advertising funnel.

It’s the same with influencers. Expect them to build brand awareness, recall and recognition, drive consideration, while also hitting bottom-of-funnel direct response goals, and chances they’ll achieve none of the above. That isn’t an influencer issue, that’s a marketing team issue.

On the other hand, if you issue a clear brief with a single-minded objective and an understanding of how the impact of the work will be measured, and chances are you’ll be able to tell if their endorsement hit the mark.

Successful influencing

Influential doesn’t necessarily mean you need to turn to an ‘influencer’. And influencer shouldn’t be narrowed to just people with followers on Instagram. There’s plenty of individuals or groups who can influence your target market but have very little clout through their Instagram account.

Ultimately, it’s the objectives that dictate who should be attempting to influence your audience, what platform you should be focusing on, and how you should measure success. It’s still classic marketing at heart, whether it’s brand building or a good old fashioned call to action.

So when tech publications gleefully publish articles citing a recent report from analytics firm InfluencerDB about declining influencer engagement rates and musing on the death of sponsored posts, they’re just wrong.

You can build awareness or consideration without needing to show likes. And you can drive sales without needing to show on platform. It’s a useful proxy. But it’s not the killer metric. If you’ve got your objective set up and know how to measure it, then influencer engagement rates are probably no more than an interesting footnote.

Of course, none of this will stop brands throwing money down the drain with poorly thought through influencer campaigns. And it won’t stop individuals with questionable influence taking pay cheques with very little to prove at the end of it.

But if you spend any time at the Museum of Brands, you’ll probably spot one or two endorsements that fell very flat. Because, like modern day influencer marketing, they’ll always be a celebrity or a warrant officer for advertisers to waste money on. And that’s not a new phenomenon either.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.

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