Influencer marketing is fast becoming brands’ go-to option for speaking to consumers in an authentic way at scale. It is seen by many as the perfect way to boost reach and relevance, but in the highly measurable world of digital, it often fails to offer the directly attributable ROI of programmatic or paid social.

In fact, 38% of marketers say they are unable to tell whether influencer activity actually drives sales while 86% are unsure how influencers calculate their fees, according to a survey of 200 marketers conducted by Rakuten Marketing.

This lack of clarity means the potential for fraud is high. In August, influencer marketing agency Mediakix revealed it had conducted an investigation that lured four brands into deals with fake Instagram accounts, populated with stock photography and followed by users bought for $3-$8 per 1,000. The brands offered the fake influencers money, free products or both.

These findings fail to shock Michelle Stoodley, head of digital marketing at Benefit, who believes they accurately sum up the current state of play in influencer marketing.

“No one really quite knows what the best route to measure the impact of influencer marketing is,” she says.

“It’s probably the only thing in digital marketing that exploded before there’s been any real benchmark for success. It kind of goes against a lot of what digital marketing is normally about, which is numbers, data and tracking.”

Brand first, sales second

When it comes to analysing the impact of influencer marketing, the Rakuten Marketing research shows marketers typically look at improving brand reach, site traffic and brand awareness, before they consider the impact on sales.

Head of strategic partnerships at Time Inc, Lillian Betty, believes this is exactly how brands should approach their influencer strategy.

“It would be a mistake for any business to commoditise any partnership or campaign that has an influencer at the heart of it as it’s more than just shifting product. It’s about brand identity, keeping the right sort of company and ensuring your brand is being shown in its best light with the best partner,” she adds.

Influencer marketing is probably the part of the digital marketing world that has the least amount of measurement and reliability, so to put all your eggs in one basket would be quite risky.

Michelle Stoodley, Benefit

Betty works in The Foundry, a central division that leads on all influencer activity across Time Inc’s editorial brands. ROI is the starting point of all discussions between brands, Time Inc and its editorial teams in order to match them to the right talent.

A recent project saw Time Inc provide the editorial and influencer talent for a digital show created for Matalan in collaboration with ITV. The influencers represented the voice of the viewer in the chat show format, with the Time Inc editors on hand to offer their expert advice.

“We ensured that we picked an influencer that best represented that scene, but also who would be able to resonate well with the audience. The influencers were really keen to extend their reach into TV,” Betty explains.

Despite the fact Matalan’s sales figures improved during the show’s 12-month run, the real goal was to shift consumer perceptions of the fashion retailer and engage new audiences by developing the store chain’s Instagram, Facebook and YouTube platforms.

“It’s exactly where want to go with our relationships, because it doesn’t need to sit just on one platform,” Betty adds. Going forward she sees Time Inc “merging” editorial and influencer talent in to order to create better solutions for brands.

“We certainly see good quality influencer content as a big part of how we communicate with our audiences,” she explains.

“It has become a symbiotic relationship where the people who are creating quality content to the standard of our editorial experts will start to feature widely within our content streams, whether that’s in mag, online or on social.”

Price hike

Over the past year brands have spent more than $1bn (£776.7m) on Instagram influencers according to Mediakik, which tracked the number of sponsored posts on the platform. It expects this figure to double by 2019.

Marketers are willing to pay more than £67,000 per video post with a YouTube influencer, rising to £75,000 for a single Facebook post by a celebrity influencer, according Rakuten Marketing’s research. Brands are also prepared to splash out £53,000 per…