UX lessons from our complicated relationship with Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing is ubiquitous for any online service in the 21st century and the presence of internet celebrities has become part of everyday life.
Recently however, the major social media platforms have been introducing strategies to stamp out the very user champions who bring customers to their platform.
I’m going to explain why this is a mistake and how, from a user research and UX point of view, influencers are actually a good thing (or at least a necessary evil) for the development of your product or service.
Instagram has introduced a feature that allows users to follow hashtags, rather than just specific accounts. This lets users add a random scattering of popular posts related to their interests to their feed, even if they aren’t from accounts they follow.
Likewise, Twitter has been advertising a similar feature to users over the past few weeks. Thankfully, there hasn’t been a lot of uptake for Instagram, but Twitter is being more aggressive in marketing this. If it’s ever used commonly, it could well be the end of the platform.
You see, if tweets start appearing in people’s feeds without the need to follow the account that posts them, then the posting account will be unable to profit from the content. Influencers will then see their revenue streams cut-down or even removed completely.
Why spend time creating a following and offering that renown to marketers, when the marketers can just create a one-off account with a single tweet, tag it properly, pay to promote it, and exceed the reach of the influencers?
That would generate a lot of money for Twitter and be great from a marketing perspective, but if users start to follow Twitter’s curated list of tweets instead of individual accounts, how can influencers develop a following?
In this scenario, only Twitter will be profiting from the content they produce, so influencers will take their content and put it on another platform. Twitter will rapidly become a wasteland with nothing but paid marketing posts and no-one will want to use the service.
So why are Twitter and Instagram willing to jeopardise their own platforms just to get one over on the very people who popularised their service?
Influential for a reason
Simmering tension has been rising over the years. Social networks have been watching influencers profit from the platforms these companies maintain without them being able to get hold of any of that revenue. This tension has finally boiled over into action as they try to ram their whole platform into the influencers’ profits in a final act of defiance.
Of course, that resentment is completely misplaced. No-one particularly likes influencers – that’s part of their model. Just as many people follow them out of jealousy or outright hatred as ones who actually like them. You can’t, however, underestimate just how useful influencers are.
Your users will follow their favourite influencers to a new competitor platform long before influencers cease to be a thing. This is precisely what YouTube is finding as popular gaming streamers like Ninja and Pewdiepie desert YouTube and Twitch for upstart services like DLive and Microsoft’s Mixer platform.
Even discounting their followers, the existence of influencers brings people to platforms in the hope that they can join them. I would be very surprised if anyone reading this doesn’t know at least a few people who’ve started a movie review vlog or cookery blog thinking they might become an internet celebrity. Even more common, we’ve all tweeted at a company account to complain in the hope our VAST SOCIAL INFLUENCE will cause them to grovel over their mistake.
Both actual influencers and users aspiring to be influencers make or break a platform and trying to get rid of them is a folly. The fact that new social networks lack both of these is the whole reason why Twitter and Facebook still exist, no matter how many improved UIs are rolled out by up-and-coming new services like Mastodon or Ello.
Nowhere is safe from influencers
You may well be wiping your brow in relief that you’re not running a social network and you don’t think influencers are an issue for your model, but – trust me – they are.
The pilot users of your B2B service – they’re influencers for the later adopters.
That client who recommended you to a friend and that one who complained about you in a comment on a review site – influencers.
That stakeholder who is constantly skeptical about your presentations in front of his colleagues – influencer.
Influencers have always been an issue; it’s just that the more we empower our users with great UX, the more influence influencers have. Every one of your users is an influencer to a greater or lesser degree and the sway they have to move your other users towards or away from what you want them to do can make or break your user journey.
A few years ago, fast-talking promoter Billy McFarland decided that he wanted to put on a music festival with a luxury twist. He hired a tropical island and put some vague plans in place to put up some tents. Before he went any further, he began recruiting Instagram models, rappers and influencers to post promotions for this Fyre Festival, which was little more than fictitious at this point.
The recommendation of their favourite Instaceleb had the rich and extravagant throwing money at McFarland to buy seats on private planes to the island for the festival. Celebrity bands like Blink-182 even signed up to play based solely on the buzz.
In the end, even the insane revenue from the ticket sales couldn’t cover the costs of what McFarland claimed would be offered and the customers arrived to find an unlit campground with about half the number of tents needed, most of which were flooded, and “luxury food” amounting to crackers and cheese in a kebab-shop takeaway box.
The festival turned out to be a Purge-level dystopian nightmare played out over Instagram while the world watched and laughed. McFarland justly ended up in prison, but if he can manage all of that with nothing, just imagine what utilising influencers can persuade your users to shell out for.
Offer premium perks to loyal users and keep them happy – they’ll do your work for you. Listen to what your most-loyal users are saying about your platform and take action to make it work for them. Get them involved in your design process. Make them your user research group.
Suck up your pride and embrace your influencers as part of the UX process – they are important users and putting your users first is the most fundamental principle of user experience. Don’t let possessiveness of your product prevent you from profiting.
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Neil Sheppard has been a UX copywriter and content strategist for nearly a decade. Starting out as a pharmaceutical stock markets journalist, Neil quickly moved into digital copywriting, managing a team optimising product content for a busy commercial website. Nowadays, Neil helps companies create easy-to-use internal websites and digital employee manuals that make complex processes simple for everyone from CEOs to service desk agents.