The year 2020 could mark a turning point regarding how advertisers approach influencer marketing going forward. Over the past decade, the industry has been shaken up by influencer fraud, attribution challenges, public scandals and the negative effects of social media on our self-esteem. Amidst these challenges, we’ve seen influencers sell out capsule collections, drive cultural trends and inspire unprecedented career aspirations among Gen Z and Millennials such as becoming a “YouTube star.” Like it or not, the rise of the influencer has had an irrevocable impact on consumer culture.

By some estimates, the $8 billion influencer economy is slated to nearly double in size by 2020. Increased investments have resulted in a marketplace of influencers all competing in the same saturated space. Yet, the “aspirational” influencer model that made so many fashion creators a success on Instagram is finally facing a reckoning.

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In some ways, influencers today are becoming less opinionated. Because the space has become so heavily sponsored, many influencers are starting to give up the unique point of view that they defended for so long. If 2009 could be described as the year that fashion bloggers democratized fashion, 2019 could be described as the year that influencers oversaturated our feeds with branded distribution. That “natural, authentic” video you just watched? It was likely manufactured by a prescriptive brand brief, at least three rounds of edits and a $50,000 price tag. It doesn’t seem quite fair to call it a “collaboration.”

Incentivized by driving likes and securing sponsorships, some influencers are willing to give brands complete creative control — allowing them to rewrite their content and dictate what they should be shooting. Essentially, they’ve become an extended content studio for brands. While this may have felt like a win-win for brands in need of content and influencers in need of a paycheck, brands aren’t necessarily reaping the strongest performance from this approach (and they often don’t realize they’re part of the problem).

Consumers are engaging less with content that feels manufactured, and there is a growing fatigue with inauthentic, aspirational influencer clichés. There are hundreds of thousands of micro-influencers creating similar content and it’s challenging for brands to identify which partnerships will increase brand equity or drive sales. The problem with cookie-cutter influencers and their content: It’s not about too many influencers, it’s about too many influencers we can’t tell apart.

Manufactured authenticity will surely lead to the demise of the aspirational “Instagram influencer” but what can we expect in its place? What does the future of influencer marketing in 2020 look like?

Succeeding in a “likeless” world…

The recent shakeup with Instagram’s test to remove likes from the platform has prompted a lot of concern. In response to the discovery of fake follower counts, marketers claimed that “engagement rate” was the superior metric to reach. In response to a “likeless” Instagram, marketers now have to rethink the engagement rate. The truth is, double-tapping a photo has always been a passive, vanity metric that doesn’t signify business impact. The more interesting change is that Instagram is making major shifts to enable monetization of creator content. The platform’s move to enable shoppable influencer accounts, launch Instagram Checkout, and hide likes all within a relatively short period all signal one thing. It’s not about protecting our mental health, it’s about moving ad spend toward Branded Content ads.

Instagram is finally paving the way to become a true e-commerce platform powered by user-generated content and creator content. But the removal of likes signals positive change for the industry as a whole. In the future, the goal of successful influencers will be driving action, instead of quick likes. Rather than posting content that instantly excites someone in and of itself, the content must educate or inspire someone to actually do something — such as watch a video, engage in a conversation, learn more or shop now. Instead of measuring the success of an influencer partnership off of an engagement rate, a “likeless Instagram” requires that brands develop sophisticated attribution methods that more holistically measure attention and action.

It’s time for influencer marketing to grow up…

The “business of influence” is still a relatively new field but the industry has to clean up its act in order to exist and become relevant in the future. This doesn’t simply mean detecting fraud, ensuring brand safety, and better measurement. Very similar to how social evolved from its “Wild West” phase to become very sophisticated, influencer marketing is also going through this evolution. It’s time for influencer marketers to get more strategic.

It naturally follows that more attention and action will be generated by great creative. As any performance marketer will tell you, the audience, targeting and optimization are only half the equation in a successful marketing campaign. The other half is the creative — and influencers know how to create content that audiences love. But the industry can no longer accept blanket statements like “You need to trust the creator” at face value.

Smart brands will create a more complex, tiered approach to always-on influencer programs that leverages strategically selected influencers across full-funnel objectives. They will also incorporate influencer channels into their attribution models and test and control to measure which influencer creative and tactics drive a desired action.

Ultimately, the content creators and influential opinion leaders who know how to partner with brands to drive business objectives will come out on top. These true creators have an ability to create fresh, original content, experiment with new platforms and formats before they hit the public’s radar, leverage paid social amplification and analytics, and approach their own brand the way an editor does—with an authentic and unwavering point of view, not just another media buy.

Angela Seits is the director of influencer and branded content at PMG.

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