The Evolution of Influencer Programs: 2021 Trends & Best Practices

From SHIFT’s Consumer Team

Influencer programs have become a mainstay strategy in consumer PR and growth marketing. The industry grows consistently each year and is expected to hit $15 billion by 2022. But the influencer campaigns we’re seeing today are nothing like branded partnerships from years past — at least not the good ones.

For 2021 and 2022, influencer campaigns may be even more important than years past. As with almost everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic completely overhauled how consumers interact with influencers. Business Insider reported, “cooped up at home, consumers have been spending more time on social media and interacting actively with content creators.”

As this happened, people began to seek out new sources of information and inspiration aligned to new values and priorities. This brought several major influencer marketing changes to the surface — changes marketers and communicators must consider:

Influencer programs becoming more critical to more segments

One major change that accelerated during the pandemic is the expansion of who is considered an influencer. Consumers began seeking out and following new sources to enrich their lives. Think: tips on physical, mental and financial wellness; ways to grow personally and professionally; ways to connect with family and friends.

Influencers now go well beyond celebrity-types and stylemakers. The growth of micro-influencers and professional experts (such as doctors, teachers and cleaning experts) makes influencer campaigns more viable (and increasingly necessary) for brands in categories that didn’t traditionally tap into it. This includes finance, health and even B2B industries — not just the obvious sectors such as lifestyle and travel.

Social shopping taking root

General awareness and/or product exposure has long been the focus for influencer programs. But, to see impactful results, brands need to go a step further and meet consumers where they’re at in the buying process.

Today’s consumer expects a seamless shopping experience; to complete a purchase on a whim, when and where they want. Brands must meet these changing needs by considering different goals (i.e. purchase vs. awareness) for influencer campaigns and aligning their influencer content with them. Ensuring influencers are using different online and social shopping functions — such as a direct swipe-up link to a product page or link to an Amazon store — can achieve that. After all, the easier you make it to buy your product, the more likely consumers are to make a purchase.

Socially conscious, purpose-driven consumerism grows

Consumers today are more conscious and purpose-driven than ever. They care about where the products they purchase come from and will seek out products that align with their individual values — like DE&I, sustainability, responsible/local sourcing and more — even if that means paying a bit more.

Brands must choose influencers whose values align with their own — and their customers’ — to create relevant content that will resonate. When selecting partners and planning their content, focus on things like:

  • Cause-based alliances that make sense for both your brand and the influencer based on the product/content focus
  • DE&I, ensuring influencer partners are diverse and representative of a wide range of demographics
  • Values-based messaging/content that focuses on more than just the product, but also CSR initiatives, sustainability, responsible sourcing, or other messaging important to your brand

More authentic, real content

After the pandemic upended everyone’s life, consumers started craving more real-life content – rather than the perfectly curated aesthetic they’re used to seeing on social media. People became less impressed with images of perfection as they grappled with a new set of challenges themselves.

There’s no denying that times are tough, so don’t pretend they’re not. Discuss ways influencer partners content can appear less “scripted” or “produced” and more authentic and real. Realistic content will show consumers you’re in tune with their current life experience.

Best influencer program practices for 2021

As you think about how to incorporate these shifts in influencer programs, keep in mind the following best practices:

  • Build long-term partnerships: Working with the same people across several months or years creates a more impactful partnership. It increases familiarity among their audience and ensures you stay in front of new followers they gain, increasing the likelihood of that audience taking action with your brand.
  • Bigger isn’t always better: Instead of focusing only extremely high follower counts, consider prioritizing partners with smaller, niche followings. These kinds of influencers typically have much higher engagement rates. Plus, there is a better opportunity to get in early and grow as that influencer grows.
  • Integrate influencers into larger marketing strategy: Influencer programs should be treated as part of your larger marketing strategy, not just a social project done on the side. Make sure your influencer programs align with and works towards achieving your larger marketing goals. Leverage influencer content across your owned channels, supporting with paid promotions wherever possible to get the most out of your investment.

Set your influencer programs up as an always-on approach rather than siloed, one-off campaigns to allow the program to grow and drive meaningful results. And make sure to continue evolving along with consumer behavior shifts, like the ones outlined above. The world of influencers and influencer marketing is everchanging.

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