If 2020 were a guy at a bar, he’d be the sleaze bag groping any woman that passed by and then growling, “You gotta problem?” to anyone giving him the stink-eye for doing so. He’s drunk too much, smells too bad and is a general nuisance worthy of what the folks back home call, “an ace-whoopin’.” As we cuff that jerk and send him off to jail with one last, ceremonial, knee to the groin, we look to 2021.

Can things please return to some sense of normal? Who’s with me?

For the world of influence, and influence marketing, 2021 has a boat load of promise. Two software platforms (Onalytica and AspireIQ) have shifted the very definition of “influencer.” Brands are seeing more success with micro- and nano-influencers. And the demand for proving business value is beginning to weed out the fakers and takers. But we are still in a period of time I’d call an infancy. No, not the infancy of the influencer marketing industry. The infancy of the market’s understanding that influence marketing is a new label on an age-old practice. The growth of that understanding will fuel a corresponding growth in understanding and application from brands, agencies and influencers. And 2021 will be an important period in that maturation.

Influence marketing trends - the selfie

What I’ve Been Studying

Since the launch of Winfluence – The Influence Marketing Podcast in September, I’ve spent several hours each week talking to notable people in and around the influence marketing space. I’ve also kept up Cornett‘s practice of building and managing influence campaigns for our clients. And I’ve continued networking and taking in new perspectives from others around the world about the industry. With the book coming in early 2021, I will frequently be called upon to offer insight on the influence marketing world.

So, I’m studying it. And I’m learning a lot. I share most of my thinking first on the Influence monthly e-mail newsletter first. You should subscribe if you aren’t already. In fact, this trends to watch article is actually repurposed (with a bit of revision) from my December 2020 newsletter. So you would have seen most of this content a month early if you were a subscriber. So go do that now! I’ll wait!

A lot of what I study surfaces in my regular blog posts, and the conversations on the podcast, too. So subscribe to those if you aren’t already.

But as we prepare for the new year, I feel it imperative to share the trends and indications I’ll be watching so that you might as well. These will inevitably affect our influence marketing campaigns and strategies in 2021. Thinking about them now will only better prepare us.

Trend No. 1 – Follower Counts are Now Irrelevant

Ask any major brand manager what they hope for out of influence activity today and, without hesitation, they answer, “Authenticity.” The more experienced one gets at implementing strategies involving influencers, the less dependent one is on potential reach. Here’s why:

I can spend $5,000 on a post from a mega-influencer with 1,000,000 followers and an engagement rate of 0.05 percent. That yields a true reach of 500 people. Or, I can spend $500 on a single post from a micro-influencer with 25,000 followers, and a 1.8 percent engagement rate and reach 450 people. Then I can use my $4,500 left over to put paid spend behind the micro-influencer’s more engaging content and reach 450,000 people (at a modest, $10 CPM).

Would you rather spend $5,000 to reach 500 people with mediocre content or 450,000 people with measurably better content? Now imagine the value of the micro-influencer’s content if their engagement rate was more like 3-5 percent?Influence marketing optimization exists where authentic, engaging content and paid media amplification overlap. Brands have taken a couple years to figure this out. Your business needs to, if it hasn’t already.

Trend No. 2 – The Shift Toward Creators

Though not a new concept in the influence space, seeking creators over influencers will continue to blossom. This is a logical extension of the first trend. If follower count is irrelevant and quality of content is supreme, you’re not looking for influence as much as engagement.

Many “influencer” tools use the term “creator” because of this concept. You’re hiring third-party individuals to create videos, images, copy and interaction for you. They are creating. That content can happen on their channels, of course. But it can also happen on yours. When it does, the mindset almost shifts to treating them as freelance talent, not “influencers.” Whatever that means. Finding great creators with strong engagement who also have nice followings is certainly a bonus. But it is not longer the priority. You need creators. The reach can be manufactured. (See Trend No. 1.)

Trend No. 3 – Looking Beyond “Influencers”

Akin to the idea of finding creators rather than people with reach, the market will begin to seize the idea that influence happens beyond Instagram and YouTube. Selfishly, I hope so. That’s kind of the point of my new book. As brands have shifted to engaging micro- and nano-influencers, they’ve seen higher levels of engagement and authenticity. This has opened their eyes to the idea that influence can happen without lots of followers. That will lead them to understand that online social networks aren’t required, either. 

Last year, my colleagues and I at Cornett built a now award-winning influence campaign which leveraged offline influencers. We engaged community leaders, educators, healthcare practitioners and social activists — none with large online followings — to drive engagement around a client’s content. Give me a dentist with no Instagram account, but who sees 100 or more patients in her community each week, and I’ll give you a person with actual influence. 

Trend No. 4 – Widening of the Celebrity (and Advertising) Gap

The trickle-down effect of follower counts no longer mattering may seem like a declaration that celebrity influencers are dead. That’s certainly not the case. However, the gap between how brands and agencies use celebrities, and how they use people traditionally defined as influencers will grow.

Mega-influencers (1,000,000+ followers) are expensive to work with. They typically have terrible engagement rates, so are limited in effectiveness to an awareness play. They are the billboard advertising of the influence marketing world. Brands will use them, but only in transactional, “let me buy an ad on your stream,” strategies.

Influential people who deliver authentic content and engagement will rise to the top of brand activities. But these will more often be those influencers with Macro- and down follower counts (under 1,000,000). They will also be more effective at driving action and delivering value with long-term engagements and partnerships. This will present an ever-growing gap between “influencer” marketing and celebrity endorsement or advertising. I even see celebrities falling out of the influencer equation altogether and being consider a straight media buy. 

Trend No. 5 – Increased Tension Between “Transaction” versus “Relationship”

As high follower count influencers break off and become more like advertising channels, there will be increased focus on them from media planners and buyers. Because no real delineation yet exists between celebrity influencers and other influencers, paid media teams will claim influence marketing as their domain. The relational-focused practitioners will object. Influence content as an “ad” doesn’t work well beyond impressions. Authenticity, engagement, content and creative are not things you dictate or manufacture with an insert order. While influencer campaigns need a measure of both transactional (media) and relational (social/PR) executions, the internal fight at brands and agencies for who controls the dollars and decisions will intensify. And since there’s no singular source of authority in influence marketing … or really any kind of marketing … that conflict isn’t likely to ever go away.

What With 2021 Hold For You?

When I sat out to write Winfluence – Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand, the goal was to help marketers identify a problem. We’ve allowed ourselves to become cornered into thinking influencers are Instagrammers and YouTubers. As you look through the five trends above, what do you see? Indications the market may shift to see that influence is far more than that. Bigger has a role. But smaller is sometimes better. The more we embrace that knowledge, the faster we can get to a more sound, mature approach to influence.

As 2021 evolves for you, I want to share your perspectives and stories. Have a great case study, an interesting revelation, discover a cool insight, or just have a question you feel needs answered? Email me (jason – at – jasonfalls.com ). This year is our year to make influence marketing ignite our brands. I aim to be there to help.

Happy New Year everyone!

Editor’s Note: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

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