Consumers are bombarded by news and advertisements on a daily basis, but direct experience with a company—visiting its website or hearing positive word-of-mouth—can have more of a favorable effect on reputation than other touchpoints, according to the 2020 Global RepTrak study.

Word-of-mouth can come from friends, family members, coworkers, or other people a person knows. But increasingly, it’s coming from “influencers.”

Over the past few years, the term “influencer” has taken on a new meaning, with people around the world making money by entering into partnerships with brands to promote that company’s products and services. One need only look at Instagram or YouTube to know just how mainstream that kind of influencer has become—feeds are dominated by big name influencers like the Kardashians and Ryan Reynolds, and micro-influencers with smaller but more engaged followings.

Technically, of course, anyone with influence is an influencer. And these people can vary by industry. They can be thought leaders and subject matter experts, government officials, professors, celebrities, or just everyday people who spark others to take action. Depending on how large their audience or network is, these individuals can have extraordinary sway on public opinion and reputation. 

Influencers’ insights are valued and are considered trustworthy, so when they share information, it’s often considered more credible than when a business shares it. They’re also able to speak in a more authentic, human way about a company than that brand might be able to. 

In addition, they tend to be knowledgeable and have access to broader information since influencers typically are passionate about a topic or industry beyond just one company, so they can add context that an individual company itself may not be able to—giving them additional credibility. 

In short, the simple act of an influencer associating with and advocating for a brand can provide a reputation lift for that company. This is true for B2C and B2B companies. 

But, this authenticity and expertise can be unpredictable, and can work both ways. Due to the influencer's knowledge, passion, and actionability, their influence can sway the reputation of a company in one direction or the other. So brands can be exposed to risk if an influencer says or does something that’s not in line with the company’s messaging. And if an influencer speaks negatively about your brand—even an influencer you’re not in a relationship with—that can have a lasting effect, as well.

That’s a big reason why influencers are a top-10 priority for reputation leaders in 2020, according to our report on the year’s most important Global Trends.

Managing influencer risk

Influencers in some industries have received attention because their impact there has been stronger than in others. And influencers are also drawn to certain industries because of those industries' reputations. To that end, Consumer Goods, Industrial, and Hospitality industries lead the way in terms of having a strong reputation with influencers, according to our 2019 Global RepTrak study. 

But as noted, influencers are not without their risks. Another one they present is simply a lack of effectiveness, which translates to a low ROI. To ensure higher ROI, some businesses have specific guidelines in place that set expectations, and others pay based on results rather than up front. 

“Influencers have an outsized effect on other stakeholder groups and need to be managed optimally for maximum downstream benefit,” one reputation leader told us in our Global Trends study.

Another recent development has been the formation of “influencer advisory boards”—groups composed of businesses, YouTubers, Instagrammers, and other influencers, where the goal is the creation of marketing policies, best practices, and content that will better resonate with audiences—and hopefully, head off any reputational risks before they arise.

High interest continues

Interest in influencers shows no sign of slowing down, both by businesses and the media. Prominent trends around the coverage of influencers typically include the impact on tourism and the environment as a result of destinations highlighted by influencers receiving additional traffic, as well as the burden on companies to reach and engage with specific demographics, and the effectiveness of algorithmic recommendations versus experts. 

While there have been plenty of cases where influencers have driven attention or business to a brand, there is also no shortage of stories of unethical influencers who take advantage of businesses for their own gain—emphasizing, again, just what a risk these partnerships can be.

Regardless, this positive and negative attention is already fueling a whole new generation of influencers who see it as a credible and lucrative profession to strive for. For your business, the decision to work with influencers can be equally successful, if you know how to manage the risks.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL 2020 GLOBAL TRENDS REPORT.

Ana Angelovska Director, Strategic Initiatives The RepTrak Company aangelovska@reptrak.com