Is Influencer Marketing Killing Culture?

By On Influence and Influencers Archives
Cover image for  article: Is Influencer Marketing Killing Culture?

Influencer marketing stands at a crossroads. Influencer scandals, the introduction and growing acceptance of fakeness and overall low quality of influencers themselves have all contributed to a declining relevance among consumers. Despite the canary in the digital coal mine, brands continue to increase their influencer marketing budgets and employ more digital tools in an attempt to connect with consumers and drive engagement.

Where they can, many marketers also try to use influencers to ride cultural waves, hoping it will lead to relevance. By doing so, they run the risk of seeming inauthentic to consumers or looking like they're trying to co-opt the cultural wave for their own benefit.

The toxic mix of increased spending, lack of relevance, and low-level influencers are harming culture as a whole. It's even possible that influencer marketing could be killing culture.

Navigating Culture

The word "culture," while commonly used, is just as widely misunderstood. Culture's ambiguity derives from the fact that it takes on a different meaning based on the context. It is entirely possible to recognize that culture is essential while also struggling with defining and pinning down access to it. Brands exist within (at least) two cultural realities: internal culture, i.e., how they operate and provide meaning to their staff; and, external culture, i.e., how they navigate the broader world in which they exist.

Culture is complex and, ultimately, it is the complexity problem that data attempts to solve. But, the complexity inherent with culture is precisely why that data so often fails. Expecting data to drive what are actually cultural issues comes with its pitfalls; for example, the reliance on data to produce measurable and replicable results, particularly in influencer marketing, has flattened the culture conversation. A once vibrant cultural backdrop has become a monoculture, which was originally an agricultural term referring to the practice of planting one crop at a time within an ecological system. The repeated exercise would eventually weaken future generations of the harvest and destroy the valuable topsoil necessary for a healthy environment. The prevailing influencer marketing practices encourage monoculture, resulting in an overall weakening of the cultural ecosystem, potentially creating a cultural dustbowl.

That brands are risk-averse is no secret. Accessing culture is high risk and high reward. To manage the inherent risk that is part of any culture-led conversation, brands have increasingly turned to influencers. They provide a bridge to audiences that a brand might not otherwise be able to speak to authentically.

But risk aversion leads to monoculture. Ads are designed less with creative in mind and more with serving algorithms that aim to fit snugly into programmatic initiatives. Influencer posts are wordsmithed and created with the intention of "going viral." The more similar everything is, the more comfortable brands might feel, but it also makes their efforts less likely to succeed. The stifling "sameness" across influencer marketing is not only becoming fodder for satire, but also adversely affects marketing reach.

Influencer marketing is ripe for a severe shift in focus and reevaluation of its efficacy. Change readiness is vital, so it's essential to create a matrix that will help you understand where your organization and its goals sit within that construct.  On the X-Axis is the organizational "Willingness to Change" and along the Y-Axis is "Lots to Lose."

Many organizations are clustered in either "Stubborn Resistance" or "Thoughtless Adoption." They are either convinced that their current strategies are working, or they are so rudderless they will try anything and everything with little underlying strategy. Both are failing positions, just within different operating environments. Expert curation is either devalued or ignored because the AI is going to do the heavy lifting of explaining who brands should be partnering with and what those partnerships should look like. Monoculture thrives in these environments.

Happy Accidents

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Culture is robust and will likely "find a way," even in a challenging environment that favors a monoculture. Organizations that resist the urge to do business as usual and commit to a radical renewal are the ones that will win.

Culture defies measurement and brands need to seek more accidents actively. What do I mean by "accidents"? They are the serendipitous connections that are only possible in the radical renewal quadrant. Brands have to reconcile their risk-averse nature with the riskiness of culture. Instead of avoiding risk, brands have to embrace it and understand there will be losses. Not every activation will work, but the willingness to experiment and fail is part of any relevant creative process.

The yearning for certainty is antithetical to the uncertain nature of culture. Pushing back on monoculture is going to take intuition, accidents and, yes, a bit of magic. The potential rewards far outstrip the risk and the culture demands that we fight for it.

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