Marketers have been tracking attribution for owned and paid media for years. The effectiveness of attribution tracking and modelling has been so unambiguous that it has led to a massive increase in digital spend relative to other advertising channels.
With the rise of social media and influencer marketing, however, brands are having a more difficult time solving the attribution problem. Without certain tools to show how influencer marketing directly affects revenue and sales, advertisers have been unable to properly manage their marketing mix.
The question of marketing mix – the practice of allocating spend across various marketing channels according to their effectiveness – grew considerably more complicated with the rise of social media. In the early days, brand-owned social media accounts were popular and ubiquitous as stand-ins for lifestyle content in the eyes of many consumers.
Facebook cemented its dominance as the world’s leading social media network with its acquisition of Instagram in 2012. Then came the great Facebook realignment of the last several years, whereby the company refined its algorithms to de-emphasise brand-owned content (which didn’t generate much revenue) in favour of updates from friends and family in users’ news feeds.
With the diminished value of owned social media accounts, brands had a harder time reaching their customers on the channels that were increasingly demanding more and more of the world’s attention. This set the stage for the social media influencer.
Born, perhaps, with the rise of the Kardashians, the era of the social media influencer has enabled a generation of savvy entrepreneurs to develop their own relationships with brands and audiences. Armed with follower counts that could rival the reach of linear TV, social influencers could deliver more nimble results at a lower cost by incorporating banded content. The social media influencer now serves as the connective tissue between brands and audiences on the dominant platforms where most people spend most of their time and attention.
The role of attribution on social platforms
The problem persists that earned media and influencer marketing have yet to develop effective attribution models. When a social influencer or blogger produces content favorable to a specific brand, the monetary value of that uplift has been impossible to track with any real accuracy because it doesn’t correspond with specific sales data regarding who saw it and made a purchase. In a world of diminishing ad budgets and rising costs, success or failure can depend on very slim margins of efficiency.
How to make influencer attribution work
Unlike paid and email campaigns, marketers have never been able to show convincing ROI for influencers, yet the evidence is there that they work. Like scientists working to uncover the “missing link” between our early ancestors and biologically modern humans, the marketing community knows the evidence is out there, they just haven’t been able to show it yet.
As influencers command a growing share of advertising budgets, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to quantify the return on investment. Once upon a time, the fees an influencer could command were determined merely by follower count. Then came fake (or bought) follower counts and haphazard accountability. When held to performance marketing standards, influencers clearly had value but the proper value couldn’t be determined.
Technology and data
The evidence the market is looking for will arise when visionary data scientists apply the right technology to connect the dots. Once that happens, the influencer market with its proven attribution models will continue to change and evolve, just as other marketing channels do.
In order to make the influencer attribution equation work, a model needs to account for the quality and quantity of their reach on social networks, the nature and quality of their content, and other variables that tie influence to revenue. Ever cautious of their budgets, advertisers need better tools for influencer and social attribution if it’s going to take its rightful place in the performance marketing toolkit.