Influencer marketing has become an increasingly important aspect of the marketing mix. It’s an effective way to amplify reach, an efficient way to create content, and an impactful way to create authenticity for brands. It’s become such a force that according to eMarketer, spending on influencer marketing in the U.S. is projected to surpass $3 billion by the end of this year and The Insider Intelligence company projects a total of $4.14 billion for 2022. Simply put, influencer marketing is getting huge funding. So how do we know if it’s getting funded correctly?
By correctly we don’t just mean are companies getting the ROI from their campaigns, but are we being intentional and responsible when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion?
Influencer marketing is huge, but it’s still lagging in terms of adequately addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. Influencer marketing is such an effective way to authentically reach your audience. So, if authenticity and connection are a core benefit, then in order to connect it’s imperative that influencer marketing address the diversity of our clients’ audiences. The Brookings Institute found that the U.S. is diversifying even faster than predicted and all population growth from 2016 to 2020 comes from gains in people of color. This audience-first approach is not just a cornerstone of our agency but also a key to influencer marketing success.
To put it simply, working with representative influencers is just good business. According to Marketing Dive, 32% of respondents report having purchased more products/services from businesses endorsed by influencers of different racial and cultural backgrounds than businesses endorsed by homogeneous influencers. People trust recommendations from folks they identify with. Furthermore, many influencers seek to work with brands that promote inclusion and live out their core values. Authenticity is critically important to influencer success as well. Thus, many influencers seek out partnerships with inclusive brands because those relationships help them publicly reinforce their own identities and beliefs.
Engendering inclusivity needs to happen from the outset. If brands do not invest in diverse voices, then those voices have a harder time being heard. They will have a harder time achieving the share of voice they deserve and one that mirrors our clients’ diverse audiences—in other words, they can’t achieve equity. To push towards greater equity in influencer marketing, we need to look beyond traditional metrics and the way we have evaluated potential partners. To understand why, let’s re-ground ourselves in what diversity, equity and inclusion really mean.
- Diversity: The existence of individual or social differences that contribute to identity. Diversity not only includes variance in racial identity but also ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, socio-economic status, language, culture, religion/spirituality, age, [dis]ability, military/veteran status, political perspective/association, etc. Working with our partners, GS&F aims to work with influencers who intersect various labels so that brands can effectively reach more people within their target market.
- Equity: Practices, policies and approaches that ensure all people receive fair and just treatment, access, opportunity and advancement. Equity is achieved when we approach fairness by first identifying and overcoming the barriers that may put an individual or group at a starting disadvantage.
- Inclusion: Intentionally fostering an environment in which every individual or group is and feels respected, valued, supported and listened to so that all people feel welcomed to participate in sharing their ideas and perspectives.
Overcoming the diversity deficiency in influencer marketing requires that we address the systemic inequities faced by diverse influencers. Here’s a simple illustration to bring this idea of equity to life:
Bringing this back to how we evaluate potential influencer partnerships, we need to be thinking about not only diversity but equity and inclusion as well. If we only address diversity, we may be considering influencers of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations or other factors that contribute to identity, but that doesn’t begin to address equity and inclusion. What happens if a white, cis-female influencer has more followers than an influencer of color? Often, follower count wins out. Not only does this decision come with potential reputational risk, but more importantly the brand may miss an opportunity for connection with its target audience. While there is some good news suggesting that influencer marketing is becoming more representative, for several years influencer marketing has looked mostly white and female. The opportunities afforded to these influencers allowed them to grow even larger platforms, thereby affording them even more opportunities. In other words, the investment that brands made in these influencers was also an investment in widening the gap between white, cis-female creators and content creators of diverse identities.
The past few years have been a season of reckoning for many brands that have failed to address the negative impacts of their influencer partnership decisions. Last summer, TikTok came under fire for not crediting Black creators. One of the most pronounced examples was a dance started by Jalaiah Harmon. At the time, she was 14 years old and didn’t get much recognition until the media began reporting on the issue. However, her dance went viral, largely due to white creators who didn’t credit her. Some of those white creators were invited by the NBA to sit in primo seats, provide interviews, and dance on the court. Harmon didn’t get an invite until social media lit up with backlash. This all-too-common occurrence illustrates how those with the megaphone—in influencer marketing terms, often the influencers with the most followers—will most often benefit, even if they have a less authentic connection to or ownership over the content.
We have a responsibility to our clients to help them see that not all influencers have been afforded the same opportunities to build their platform, followers, etc. We must look beyond the traditional metrics such as follower count and begin evaluating influencers in ways that build equity, drive inclusivity, and create a connection with our audiences. In some cases that means giving potential partners a metaphorical stepstool. We need to shift the conversation to whether potential partners provide mutual benefit, share a brand’s values, and can credibly and authentically reach our client’s target audience. That means paying more attention to engagement, understanding an influencer’s followers and their core beliefs, and determining fit based on tonality and content type. Despite their mega-followings, we wouldn’t recommend working with a Kardashian for our LP Building Solutions client because they would not resonate with our target audience of builders. Rather, we recommended that LP partner with target-right, authentic influencers who represent and resonate with our audiences—even though those influencers may not have the largest following.
For several years we have invested in a partnership with Kyle Stumpenhorst, a builder in Illinois who has a pulse on the building industry’s challenges, crafts great content, enthusiastically engages with his peers on social and, as a result, has significantly grown his following. Stumpenhorst is incredibly talented and personable—he was already well on his way to large-scale success without LP’s investment—but at least some of his growth can be attributed to the visibility LP helped provide. Now, a disclaimer: Stumpenhorst is a cis-gender white male, but the point here is that LP and GS&F looked to metrics beyond followers to determine a brand fit.
Additionally, because the building industry is seeing rapid shifts in demographics, LP and GS&F are actively working to address other markers of diversity—race, gender, geography, type of builder, etc.—so that we can authentically speak to the various issues builders face. After all, diversity encompasses more than race and color. It’s also about diversity of perspective and experience. Recently, LP has taken another step towards greater inclusion in marketing by starting to codify a DE&I approach to working with marketing partners. This includes guidelines for evaluating partners to ensure they also stand for equity and inclusion, preventing LP ads from appearing next to sensitive content or inappropriate platforms, and embedding DE&I considerations across the content development process.
And our agency isn’t the only one pushing towards these goals. According to IZEA—a marketing technology platform that provides influencer marketing services—influencer marketing is becoming increasingly representative of diverse identities. Six years ago, 73% of influencer sponsorship dollars went to Caucasian creators. IZEA suggests that now about 37% of sponsorship deals are with racial minorities, which is much closer to the racial makeup of the U.S. The gender gap is also starting to close. According to the same study females are still receiving the most sponsorship deals, but the pay gap between men and women shrank from 47% in 2019 to 24% in 2020. The abundance of female influencers, however, is still driving down average compensation per post for women as compared to men.
Like in all aspects of business, diversity, equity and inclusion in influencer marketing must remain an ongoing focus. We have to keep pushing for an evolved influencer landscape in which creators of all identities and backgrounds are given equitable opportunities, fair compensation, and adequate credit for their work. Ultimately, we’ll connect most effectively with our clients’ target audiences by showing customers that we understand who they are and how to reach them through authentic voices that resonate with their lived experiences.