More and more, in a world where follower numbers and likes can hold far more power than logic, creativity and strategic thinking, it’s easy for brands and agencies to fall into the trap of relying heavily on quantitative data metrics to inform campaigns and strategies. The fine line between ‘popularity’ and ‘influence’ is becoming more blurred with every new reality TV show. Beyond just the science, influencer marketing demands a particular art form – the marriage of cultural insight and a longer-term strategy.

The reality is that our industry is a relatively young one. Many of those who work with influencers on a day to day basis have grown up with social media and are digital natives and, at times, our industry can lack the wisdom and experience of traditional marketers who understand the core principles of marketing.

I’m by no means saying that I, my colleagues or my counterparts across the industry don’t understand marketing – that’s clearly not the case. However, what I am saying is that there is a lot we could learn from more traditional, old-school channels in the way in which a mix of data and human insights are used to plan and inform campaigns.

Having worked with brands across almost every kind of product and industry – from sanitary towels to private investment banks, all with different levels of understanding of how to work with influencers, most clients’ starting point when planning an influencer marketing campaign is ‘who can we afford to work with’ and ‘how many followers do they have?’.

In the same way that design that doesn’t achieve its aims is just art, if the purpose and effectiveness of any influencer marketing are ignored, it just becomes social media.


Most clients don’t want social media – they want results. Sales. Profits. In the end, that’s the only thing that creates a sustainable competitive advantage and adds true brand value.

Understanding the purpose and objective

Our job as marketers is to take a step back and reverse this thinking.

Who you work with should absolutely be part of the strategic decision and planning process – however, there is a huge amount of groundwork that needs to be thought about before we get to this point. Like all marketing campaigns, there needs to be an understanding of the purpose and objective, the cultural landscape, what strategies and tactics are most relevant and how we want our audiences to react. 

It’s this that requires a deep level of human insight and thinking – and crucially – there needs to be an understanding of the

real world and how the brand fits into people’s lives. Creative marketing is great but people need to feel it’s relevant to them and resonates with their lives. 

Real-world human insights

One example of how real-world human insights have been successful is

the projects* work on an American beer brand launching in the Netherlands. The brand wanted to launch into the close-knit cultural communities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. But to support their ATL message at a grassroots level, a more bespoke approach was needed; a deep understanding of the people, place, and culture needed to be taken into consideration. The very first stage of planning involved detailed interviews and focus groups with influencers and key players within the target audience. They were asked about their opinions of brands, marketing, content, art, music, culture, socialising, their ambitions, where they eat, who inspires them and more. Every detail of how the brand could impact their life was explored, giving a layer of invaluable insight and qualitative, human data. 

These human insights alone still weren’t enough to build a campaign around. But it did give a starting point, allowing quantitative data to help define a strategic direction and using media planning tools to understand who the brand’s audience was, beyond just simple demographics. The combination of this data and human insight gave a robust and strong grounding to build the creative around, knowing that the right message would be received by the right people, on the right platform.

Only then were specific influencer names considered – in the same way that a play is usually written before the actors are cast – but still with a focus on achieving the balance of data and the human touch.

Data alone doesn’t determine the right fit

Influencer identification and vetting tools are fantastic – as someone who’s spent more hours than I care to think about scrolling around the internet looking for partners to work with, database platforms allow quick and easy access to long lists of people waiting for brand deals. But with all tools and databases comes the same issue – data alone doesn’t determine the right fit.

We come back to the notion of popularity versus actual influence. An influencer may have 1,000,000 followers, a high engagement rate, and a high percentage of their audience who align to your brand’s target age, gender and location, but that doesn’t mean the style of their content, tone of voice, values, morals, ethics or suitability is right.

This can only come from a human – no amount of data or technology can provide this insight and that’s where good old experience, expertise, and strategic thinking is so important. It takes a huge amount of skill to identify and analyse these qualitative metrics – a skill which is underestimated and undervalued – to identify whether or not a brand could benefit from collaborating with them.

The data we can glean from tech platforms

is amazing (and completely necessary) – it gives us vast amounts of insight into people’s behaviours, thinking and actions ‘IRL’ and ‘URL’, but it’s only valuable to clients, partners and content creators when it’s applied to the real world with a cultural lens and a layer of common sense. As an industry, we need to place equal weighting on qualitative human insights and the hard data that supports it, and importantly, on the people who can effectively analyse and interpret this information to drive our industry forward in a creative and strategic way.

After all, our aim as marketers is to build genuine, authentic and real-world connections with audiences, so isn’t it about time we redressed the balance between data and human insight?

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