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BusinessFebruary 1, 2019

Why social media influence is a lot harder to measure than you think

Young woman holding hashtag sign in studio

Last week, a survey attempted to measure the impact of more than 30 local social media influencers on Instagram. But Lucy Revill, a Wellington-based blogger and social media influencer, argues that the survey should have zero influence over New Zealand’s content creators and brands. 

On my blog, I’ve worked with many brands both big and small, from Allbirds to Estee Lauder. In my day job, working in the finance industry as a policy advisor, research is the basis of what I do and make my assumptions on. As an award-winning content creator, I like to think I have a good handle on what works and what doesn’t in the world of ‘influencer marketing’. I apply the same rigorous standards I would to my policy work when examining the variables in what makes something popular online, especially on Instagram.

Bearing all this in mind, I want to respond to a recent survey undertaken by the MoneyHub website that claimed to determine which influencers and celebrities in New Zealand were most influential and, controversially, least influential on Instagram. This was then used to create a very crude and somewhat cruel ranking of the five most and five least influential New Zealand ‘influencers’ on the platform.

But to anyone with a more nuanced view of influencer marketing, it’s clear that the survey was highly flawed and even harmful, driving negative perceptions and misconceptions about influencers and the industry in which they operate. Yes, I’ll agree that disclosure of ads is lousy in New Zealand and the Advertising Standards Authority needs to take more affirmative action (also Taika, poor show not disclosing those Samsung ads!). However, many of the people in the report are entrepreneurial, creative talent. Yes, some are not. But to rank them reinforces the dumbing down of what can be termed, at best, creative storytelling and, at worst, digital marketing.

Here are the reasons you can’t base influence on Year 5 maths alone:

1) Lumping everyone together is misleading

Assumption: Every influencer is basically the same – they just hold stuff up and tell you to buy it.

While not stated in so many words, the MoneyHub survey starts with the assumption that brands which work with content creators are the effectively doing a media buy. If you have the money, you should buy the person who gives you the most ‘influence’.

Fact: Influence is really about a creative connecting to their relevant specific audience and each audience is different. A good content creator knows how to connect and inspire their specific audience.

‘Influencer’ has always been a poor choice of word to cover the immensely complex phenomenon of those online personalities who have an impact on the behaviour of their audience.

The difficulty is that New Zealand influencers are often lumped together in a way that doesn’t happen as much in the US and UK. Whether you’re on Shortland Street or writing a blog about quilting, everyone is lumped into one pile. That’s because the way of looking at content creators is frequently seen as being simply a cheaper way to media buy.

But it’s not that simple. Some of these creators are making really interesting content that’s useful for their audience and niche. Their followers like them because they consider them an expert in what they do. It also doesn’t take into account that an Instagram might not be someone’s whole shtick. Personally, my blogging is at the heart of what I do and Instagram is only a small part of my appeal to brands. For a beauty vlogger like Shaaanxo, YouTube is her most vibrant platform. How does that make her in any way ‘the least’ influential influencer? If she continues to make content that appeals to an audience that wants to know how to do a smokey eye, fantastic! Treating the work of an ‘influencer’ as just a type of media buy is reductive; it fails to take into account their whole set of skills and talent.

That’s not to say some popular figures aren’t phoning in their content. They pose with a product, write a few lines underneath, and that’s it. Part of the problem is that in New Zealand we don’t have great role models for interesting and effective content. Hopefully, we can change that as the industry matures.

I love looking to someone like Emily Writes who has a loyal following of mums who are inspired by her funny and honest blogs. Her collaborations make complete sense. She recently promoted a net-safe product for her family and it was a good match. With people like Emily, you know what they stand for and what you’ll get, audience-wise, when you work with them. Her authenticity shines through. Brands should be wary of ‘influencers’ who say yes to absolutely everything. As they say, if you’re talking to everybody, you’re talking to nobody.

Palmerston North’s Shaaanxo

2)  The methodology is flawed

Assumption: Likes divided by followers equals influence, right?

MoneyHub’s methodology involved recording the number of likes an influencer received on posts dated 1 August 2018 to 31 October 2018. It then contrasted this to said influencer’s total number of Instagram followers as of 10 November 2018 to give it a number indicating average engagement per post, or ‘like ratio’. “Currently, there are a range of metrics to measure Instagram traction,” says Christopher Walsh, MoneyHub senior researcher. “We believe that analysing the ‘likes’ received over three months for every post from an individual account is an accurate measure of social media power.”

Fact: No like (or comment or follower) is alike – fraud is everywhere

This grinds my gears. Walsh’s claim is in no way accurate. Not even slightly.

The follower divided by engagement ratio alone has long been debunked as a very unreliable way to measure influence. Before you give me my tinfoil hat, let’s consider the variables.

First it assumes that all of the likes and followers on Instagram are genuine. That makes sense if you’re a normal person who has no interest in making money from the platform or getting freebies.

However, as many people working in PR know, many personalities on Instagram buy likes, followers and engagement in the hopes of improving the opportunities they get, including paid and non-paid. This is against Instagram’s terms of use. To do this is relatively cheap and can be difficult to detect. You can also buy ‘bots’ which automate liking and commenting, or follow 2,000 accounts one week and unfollow them all the next because engagement begets engagement. This becomes hard to hide when a person working in PR asks for an influencer’s demographic: why on earth would a normal 21-year-old from the North Shore have 80% of their followers in Brazil?

If you find yourself scratching your head, it might be time to check out where it’s possible to see how many people followed a content creator during a certain week or month. While it is difficult to prove, spikes in follower numbers (such as losing ten followers a day over a week and then gaining 400 in a single day) indicate usually that foul play may have been involved.

Even if someone is no longer using these means but has in the past, that doesn’t eliminate the ill-gotten gains they’ve received and spoils of their fraud. Buying likes, followers, and engagement is fraud. While I would never name names or make allegations, some of the names on the list of the MoneyHub survey caused me to raise an eyebrow.

I always suggest brands ask themselves, what does that ‘influencer’ actually do? What are they actually good at? If they can’t easily articulate this, they shouldn’t use that person for their supposed influence. For instance, David Farrier is wildly popular because he’s hilarious and a very talented filmmaker. Easy.

And as an aside, MoneyHub’s survey doesn’t take into account the ‘legal’ ways you can increase likes or engagement on Instagram, such as boosting a post monetarily. MoneyHub does not leave any margin for such variables, assuming all the likes and engagement on Instagram are achieved in the same way. That’s not an assumption that can be supported by evidence – making its conclusions rather unhelpful.

3) ‘Influencers’ who have poor engagement with the content on their feed are no longer relevant

Assumption: If you’re good, everyone sees what you do, and Instagram Stories don’t matter.

Back in the good old days, people could grow quickly organically on Instagram, and it was in the platform’s best interests to promote certain people so that others would join to see what they were doing. We used to see a lot more of our friends and no ads at all. Things were pure and good and engagement was always organic, so a ‘like’ was a ‘like’. Simple.

MoneyHub used this as the basis of their survey. People who get more engagement are more interesting, right? Well, this is true, but only up to a certain point.

Fact: It’s Instagram’s world and we just live in it.

Last year, the editor of the best-known influencer magazine, Blogosphere , told me that engagement was down across the board on Instagram for most users (except for those using bots). This makes sense based on my experience from the start of 2018 until now. My growth has flatlined because Instagram now has no incentive to help me grow. It wants me to pay to be shown to my audience, in exactly the same way it did with Facebook business pages a few years back. This made me realise that at the end of the day I don’t have control over my influence beyond the quality of the content I post. Yes, there are ‘hacks’ but these are tedious or require breaking Instagram’s terms of use. I have better things to do with my life than to sit and like photos in a comment pod all day long.

MoneyHub acts like the landscape has changed because of influencers but, arguably, it has more to do with Instagram changing as a platform, which can’t be as easily measured or quantified. No one can control what is happening behind the scenes at Instagram, and those who claim to be able to manipulate or ‘game’ the algorithm are liars or trying to sell you illegal followers, bots or engagement.

It used to be that everything you posted was seen by your followers. Today, only a certain proportion of your following sees what you do: 30,000 Instagram followers isn’t 30,000 eager eyeballs, ready to take in every inch of your latest picture.

Even once you strip away all the people who didn’t see your post due to the algorithm hiding it, the numbers you’re left with include a huge degree of variation in audience attention levels. Seeing does not equal impact. In addition, bigger influencers naturally get less engagement as they grow. This explains why Shaaanxo doesn’t reach all her 1.5 million followers, as reported in the survey.

In addition, the survey didn’t even acknowledge Instagram Stories, which is a major area where creators are now connecting to their audiences using features like direct link click-throughs. In 2019, more people are watching Instagram Stories than scrolling through their feed.

We’re simply not living in 2014 anymore and marketers working with online creatives need to understand that. It’s taken me three years of working my butt off with a full-time job to establish my audience. It would cost you thousands in Facebook ads, photographers, copywriters, strategists and stylists to do what I’m doing commercially. Don’t think it’s easy.

My conclusion is that the MoneyHub survey didn’t adequately take into account the extensive impact the Instagram algorithm has had and how it’s dramatically changed in terms of promoting some content and hiding others. It also didn’t take into account Instagram Stories as a rising tool of influence and storytelling.

To truly understand the phenomenon of influencers, we have to shift our focus away from seeing the numbers as a definitive measure of influence, towards seeing them as merely a representation of the total size of a curve of influence, which includes Instagram Stories.

Relevance is key to influence

If a brand wants to work with a person who has a platform, the first question they should ask themselves is: Does this content make sense in the context of who this person is and who their audience is likely to be? There’s absolutely no point in promoting colouring-in pencils through a famous Kiwi actor, even if he’s highly influential, because his audience is not interested in art. That brand should go through the immense and talented scene of Instagram artists (for instance, Kelly Thompson) who work with colouring pencils. By finding a person who has a relevant talent and can creatively tell a story about a product to an audience who cares about what they have to say, the brand will likely communicate effectively with a relevant market of potential customers. The MoneyHub survey entirely neglects the different categories and shades of content creators that sit within the New Zealand influencer scene.

I always think of the example of an automobile company wanting to advertise classic cars via influencer marketing: They can choose between someone really big, like a celebrity or famous YouTuber, or a smaller person with a following of 500 who runs a channel about vintage car restoration. A good brand manager will see that by using a smaller yet better-aligned content creator with an audience who considers them an expert will result in better results for everyone.

There are many content creators and they have different interest niches in New Zealand. Plenty of them got into it three to 10 years ago not for the money (which didn’t exist back then) but for the creative outlet. Many of them worked unfulfilling jobs, and having an online presence helped them stay sane by having a safe place to express who they really are. They’ve stayed up late at night, worked multiple jobs and have constantly reinvested in their tools. The aim is to share their work. That’s the heart of why some of these people got to have ‘X’ number of followers in the first place: their innate, un-mutable desire to create and connect.

This is an edited version of a post originally published on Lucy Revill’s blog, The Residents

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