Influencer marketing is about to take a serious kick in the balls. If you haven’t heard, Klout is shutting down. Godspeed to the social media douchebags who put their Klout score on resumes. Now it will officially be a made up number that represents nothing substantial, rather than an unofficial made up number that represents nothing substantial.

No, I’m not here to hate on Klout. I’ve long said that influencer measures have merit, so long as you don’t consider them in a vacuum. Klout is one way of looking at influence. Kred is another. Web traffic another. Social followers a fourth and so on. When you take them all into consideration, especially the factors that impact your industry, niche, geography, specific brand or audience, then and only then can you prioritize and isolate the influencers that matter to you.

But there’s an unsettling problem facing influencer marketing no one is talking about. And it’s a problem you only encounter superficially from skeptical clients and brand managers who ask, “How do I know this is going to work?” For most influencers, you don’t know until you try. But that skepticism is pointing at the problem.

Influencers Broadcast like Microphone AnnouncersYou don’t actually have to tackle it unless or until you experience one of two things first hand:  1) An adverse encounter with a certain type of influencer, or 2) Measuring a program involving the same type of influencer.

The problem? Influence is incredibly subjective.

What does that mean? Very simply, a person may be known in a category, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can motivate an audience to do anything. Popularity isn’t influence. And all these tools and softwares and strategies claiming to help with your “influencer marketing” you hear about in the market today? They’re not necessarily specific to influencer marketing. They’re marketing to popular people.

Shaquille O’Neal garners a lot of attention from a lot of people. But who in the hell is going to buy insurance from a cartoon general because Shaq did a commercial with him? No one. Yet, I’m writing about him and you’re likely aware of him because of that “influencer” play. So if their goal was awareness, it worked. If their goal was conversions, they got them because of something other than Shaq.

Influencer Marketing by Marketing the Influencers

I came to know that influence is subjective in an unfortunate way. In order to become “known” in the digital space — dare I say an “influencer” myself — I had to get to know others already there. Going back a decade or so there’s an inside baseball list of social media and digital marketing rock stars that shape our industry. Most are circuit speakers and book authors. Most have or had influential blogs. All have sizable social media followings to this day. I sat out in 2006 to know them, then become one of them. It worked.

Over the years, two said influencers and I had personal fallings-out for insignificant reasons. If I were a brand, the influencer marketing strategy I should have used would be to play nice and maintain a professional, but arm’s length relationship. You don’t want public criticism or attacks,  so smile and tolerate.

Have you met me?

Both dust-ups were somewhat public, or at least out there for others to see — Completely against the advice I would give a client on how to deal with an influencer. But, I generally don’t give a rat’s ass what any one person thinks of me, so I just said my peace, unfollowed, blocked, tuned them out and moved on with my life.

And guess what?

Not a damn thing happened. No one noticed. I’ve not heard hide nor hair from either of them — nor anyone they’ve told horror stories about me to — in 3-4 years and my life is neither better nor worse for it. I don’t need either of them to promote my next thing. I don’t need them endorse me to get good clients or speaking gigs. I don’t need referrals from either to do great work. Their opinion of me has no impact on whether or not the industry considers me influential. Not having them as a connection in my marketing arsenal has had exactly zero impact on my life or career, whatsoever.

So how influential are they really? One of the two has hundreds of thousands of followers and probably thinks he could ruin my career by publicly denouncing me. (Which he has done passive-aggressively.) But I’ve realized through intentional conversations over the course of the last few years that most of the people I work with and for have never heard of him. The other guy? Even people in the digital marketing space have never heard of him. And yet he was once a common fixture on those “top X social media influencers” listicles our blogs were once overrun with.

And guess what else?

No one they are trying to sell to or persuade is going to read this or has heard of me. This is a big damn world. Those two guys have influence over some people, sure. But do they have influence over everyone in the industry the way statistical analysis of reach and follower counts implies? Do I? Not at all. Are we even influential on scale within our own industry? Not as much as one might think.

And not nearly as much as the industry insider — the brand-side person who knows how everything from the customer experience to the product innovation to the supply chain works within their company — who has managed and implemented programs, not danced around keynote stages Powerpoint jockeying how-to lists.

The More Real Way To Know

But not everyone has the good or bad fortune to butt heads with buttheads. The rest of us figure this subjectivity out when we measure our influencer marketing programs and see that some influencers drive traffic, conversions and even revenue, while still others drive little more than a product shot and some superficial “Likes.” Yay!

Measuring influencer marketing success is fraught with problems. First, you have to assume you — the brand (or agency on behalf of the brand) — know what the goal of the influencer program is. And I mean high-level goal. Are you trying to drive awareness? Are you hoping to change perceptions on a brand or an issue? Is the goal to create sales opportunities or leads? Is a successful outcome increased web traffic? More social media followers? A positive impact on search rankings?

Then you have to build out measurement mechanisms that record the information you need to determine whether or not the effort accomplished those goals. As much as we wish it could, Google Analytics simply cannot spit out whether or not you increased awareness. It can tell you if more people went to your site and from where, plus indicators awareness may have increased, but you measure awareness by polling your audience before, then again after, on whether or not they are, in fact, aware of the brand/campaign/site, etc.

Then you have to work with influencers who will share those kind of data points with you, if they are using platforms that measure the right things. And I’ve got bad news for you: Most influencers are so caught up in how many followers they have, they don’t know what the word “analytics” means. They won’t stop and report anything. Most of them think a media kit is something from Revlon they use before a photo shoot.

And sadly, those are the ones who cost more and generally produce less. They are the popularity ones, not true influencers. (But I’m generalizing. Some of them do have impact. They just don’t yet know they also have to prove it to actually convince people they’re worth the investment.)

On the flip side, you will find influencers who totally get it. They tell you their average click through rate, how they plant conversion calls-to-action or measure success, different ideas they use to motivate their audience to take action for the brands they work with AND they share full post and campaign metrics to help you validate your investment in them.

Those are generally the ones who produce the value you’re looking for because they know the end result has to be that you see an end result.

Influencer Marketing Tools Don’t Measure Impact

Until the influencer marketing tools have clear paths to know the campaign goals and see the campaign metrics, neither of which most brands are willing to share with an outside vendor, they won’t give an accurate read on who is an influencer versus who is popular. So you, as a brand manager or digital marketer working with brands, have to decide who is worth investing in as an influencer parter.

Are they able to show previous success in moving the needle for brands with more than just reach and awareness? Do they build content that at least asks their audience to participate actively in some level of engagement with the brands they work with? Are they willing to share their analytics openly to enable your team to see for themselves the impact of their audience on content related to you?

Ask for better qualifications of your influencers and you will get closer to working with those whose influence is less subjective than your company or your clients are likely comfortable with.

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