Forget Influencers. The truly digital marketer harnesses the crowds.

Too much "digital" marketing is just traditional approaches in new clothes. Can marketers lead the way into more transformative approaches to solving real problems?

Chilling news for many in the marketing business this week. Influencer marketing, the great ‘innovation’ of the past few years, appears to be in trouble:

Most global internet users lack confidence in what they see and read online, with only 8% believing that the bulk of information shared on social media is true, dropping to 4% when it comes from influencers.

The effect of years of undisclosed promotions are having a corrosive effect on the much vaunted “authenticity” of many influencers, which is often about as inauthentic as you can get. Carefully staged lifestyle pics that topslice the best of people’s lives without ever exposing the reality of day-to-day living might be becoming passé.

Indeed, we’re already starting to see a generation gap open up in influencer culture:

Fast-rising young influencers such as Emma Chamberlain, Jazzy Anne, and Joanna Ceddia all reject the notion of a curated feed in favor of a messier and more unfiltered vibe. While Millennial influencers hauled DSLR cameras to the beach and mastered photo editing to get the perfect shot, the generation younger than they are largely post directly from their mobile phones. “Previously influencers used to say, ‘Oh, that’s not on brand,’ or only post things shot in a certain light or with a commonality,” says Lynsey Eaton, a co-founder of the influencer-marketing agency Estate Five. “For the younger generation, those rules don’t apply at all.”

At its heart though, this style of influencer marketing is a rather dull affair. Ever since the internet destroyed the role of the press and the broadcast industry as the only gatekeepers of information, those who are not prepared to ride the transformational wave have been seeking new gatekeepers. Once they found them — the big influencers — they just popped their old wine in new bottles and marketed away as they always did.

Marketing in an age of fluid communication

This is not to denigrate influencer culture completely. There are social media users of genuine influence, but they tend to be more focused and niche than the big “celebrities” of the digital age. But even the shift towards these micro — or even nano — influencers (sounds like the old iPod naming scheme, doesn’t it?) marks an increasing sophistication in the way we see the communication that’s essential to the heart of marketing.

Digital facilitates the fragmentation of one mainstream world into many niche worlds of obsession, passion and focus – and that much better reflect the reality of our experienced lives.

Indeed, the myth of the central figure, the influential driver of change, is a dangerous one, as it poorly reflects how change actually occurs. As Alexis Hope of the MIT Media Lab put it in a re:publica keynote this week:

Many narratives about innovation and progress center the “lone genius” and his or her (usually his) ambitions to change the world with a singular, visionary idea. But this is not how radically better futures are imagined and created—instead, they are created in community, often unrecognized and unsupported by institutions that broadcast visions of the future.

Words like “community” and “crowdsourcing” have faded somewhat from the digital lexicon in recent years, and perhaps that retreat was ill-advised. We live in worlds of messy interconnected systems, as Indy Johar made plain at NEXT last year.

Acknowledging the complexity of systems

True solutions to the challenges that await us need to reflect that. As one speaker at an event I attended in London this week about more engaged education systems put it:

If you conceive of the problem as a complex adaptive system, it changes who you invite into the system.

Modern day marketing is very much a complex adaptive system, and that means we really have to think about who we invite into the process. We’ve moved out of the industrial age, and we’re not yet entirely sure what the post-digital age will look like. We do know that the industrial systems of “design a product, build a product, market a product” are breaking down in this environment. Even the great product company of the early 21st Century, Apple, runs its marketing operations in very different ways to 20th century model.

But even their model is far from the evolution we need. In an era of fluid communication, people’s ability to tap into the collective passion and creative of heterogenous, self-organising groups is an under-explored resource. In fact, all too often, we’ve seen that ability tapped for negative ends, rather than positive ones.

At least one politician recognises that. German environment minister Svenja Schulze released a position paper at the conference this week, outlining some core principles:

Her position paper lists ten theses, including a call for publicly available and transparent environmental data, environmentally-friendly digitalisation, and a systematic use of artificial intelligence for the good of the people and the environment. The paper names the Fridays For Future student climate protests as the most recent example of how participation and access to political decisions change through digital interconnectivity. Schulze aims to present an environment policy digital agenda by the end of 2019.

Could smart marketers be making better use of that? What role does corporate innovation have to play in this process?

Marketing Leads

Porsche announced a competition this week for ideas to deliver sustainable mobility – a worthy goal in the era of Extinction rebellion. But it’s hard to tell from the outside wether this is a genuine attempt to create an atmosphere of creative co-development by inviting new voices into the process, or a standard marketing push via competition.

But there’s no doubt that digital’s ability to thin or even dissolve the walls between client and producer, between customer and innovator, have yet to be truly absorbed into the corporate mindset.

And, with marketing already sitting at that intersection, who better to take the lead?

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash