**Originally published January 1st, 2020. Updated March 24th, 2021.**

Influencer marketing has experienced exponential growth over the past few years. Once viewed as an experimental channel, it has since evolved into a core strategy for marketing organizations. According to Markets and Markets, the global market size for influencer platforms will grow from USD 6.0 billion in 2020 to USD 24.1 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 32.0% during the forecast period.

However, as is the case with any emerging market, Influencer Marketing must continue to adapt and evolve if it is to survive. And as the industry continues its growth and rapid ascent, it’s become increasingly difficult for brands to achieve consistent success. Companies are attempting to maneuver within a market that is still, in many ways, in its infancy. This begs the question; how can Influencer Marketing mature in time to keep up with demand?

Influencer Marketing Hub’s Influencer Marketing Benchmark Report 2021, covering over 5000 marketing agencies, brands, and relevant professionals indicates that 2021 is set to be a year of growth and dynamism, following last year’s pandemic-induced downturn. Competition will be intense, however, with resources in short supply. Brands will need to pivot fast and adapt.

One thing is very clear from these results. Despite all the uncertainties caused by COVID in 2020, influencer marketing is still a highly popular and effective form of marketing. Indeed, we can look at it as being part of the mainstream marketing mix now. Although the media occasionally run reports from naysayers criticizing the industry, those who actively participate can clearly see influencer marketing’s effectiveness. At least now, more people understand what influencer marketing is all about. 

The definition of an “influencer” is changing by the day. it used to be a term for content creators that started in their bedrooms. These days, the modern ‘influencer’ also includes mainstream celebrities, like Will Smith, who are constantly creating content for Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms.

Many influencers have been diversifying and focusing on growing their own brands over the past couple of years, instead of relying solely on brand deals to support themselves.

“It is interesting to note how influencer marketing was such a defining phenomenon in the year 2020. Now that brands have fully realised the kind of credibility and cachet that influencers bring to the forefront, one can only wonder how they will now spread their eventual overarching bosom and become an indispensable must-have for a holistic marketing endeavour. 2021 will see the rise and prominence of commerce-led influencer marketing, which will make it imperative for influencer-curated content to drive a relatable conversion. Brands would now like to see how an influencer churns out content that is authentic, and how that content is so relatable that it will lead to a sure-shot, subsequent conversion. If content was King all this while, 2021 will be a game of chess where ‘relatable content’ is the Queen.”

-Ramya Ramachandran, Founder & CEO, Whoppl: in the publication, Business Insider – “The Influencer Marketing Trends To Watch in 2021”

There’s no doubt that we are in the midst of a revolution in the industry, as it continues to mature and grow in popularity. But for brands and marketers alike, keeping their finger on the pulse of the latest influencer trends is vital to their success. So here are the trends we see dominating Influencer Marketing in 2021.


Gen-Z Influencers Becoming More Prevalent

With Gen-Z becoming a growing segment of the population, their growth in the influencer world is equally notable. Samantha Rabinovits is an Account Manager here at Viral Nation and has taken notice of the intense engagement seen from the audiences of Gen-Z influencers. “It would be really interesting to do some research into why their audience is so zoned in and trusting with their brand partnerships,” she says. “Two of the strongest talents I’ve worked with are Ben Azelart and Jayden Bartels for Facemoji Keyboard.”

Rabinovits highlights that their content is not necessarily ‘high-production value’, but that’s because it doesn’t NEED to be. By simply showing the utility of the app through their content and encouraging followers to swipe-up and download, they generate approximately 4-6K clicks per/Instagram Story.

jayden bartels facemoji Instagram post


Increased Emphasis On Performance Metrics

One of the initial obstacles that influencer marketing encountered was that it was difficult to accurately measure success. In turn, an overemphasis on the metrics that were the lowest hanging fruit occurred, like the number of followers somebody has. Of course, it wasn’t long before people realized that it was actually quite easy to fake your follower numbers.

As a result, people have had to put an increased effort into determining both genuine engagement and conversion statistics on social. Increased spending on influencer marketing is continuing, particularly by brands who have been reluctant to embrace it in the past. So businesses are keeping an even closer eye on the most relevant stats than ever before. Brands have come around to the idea that they need to set clear, attainable goals for an influencer campaign.

In turn, influencers are likely to place a greater focus on driving likes, clicks, comments, shares and other forms of engagement in their content.


The Rise Of AI Influencers

AI influencers haven’t exactly ‘taken over’ the influencer marketing space, but they are certainly beginning to grow in both popularity and relevance. We touched on the growth of AI influencers, particularly Lil’ Miquela, who partnered with the iconic fashion brand Prada for Milan Fashion Week, released a few songs on Spotify, and only launched her Instagram profile roughly five years ago in 2016.

lil' miquela Instagram ad with Calvin Klein

But as the prevalence of AI increases, not everyone is buying into the hype. Alvin Ma is another Account Director here at Viral Nation and has his own take on the rise we are witnessing in the use of AI influencers. “I’ve been thinking about this AI thing,” he said, “and I don’t believe my opinion on them is the same as others. Many people are huge advocates for them, but I personally am not.”

While influencers like Lil’ Miquela are getting brand deals, Ma seems skeptical about their actual level of influence on their audience.

“I don’t think there’s any real merit to the “influence” an AI influencer has. People are going to engage with them for sure, cause it’s “new”, but if you look at these AI influencers comments, a lot of them are just people trolling and trying to find something wrong with them, so how powerful can their influence actually be when the engagement is towards the fact that their AI rather than their own unique traits which don’t really exist until someone makes them?”

This is not to say we will see a decrease or slowing in the rise of AI influencers, but Ma does bring a unique perspective to the conversation. Many people liken AI influencers to characters on TV or in the movies, as fictionally created characters designed to produce a reaction and personal connection with the audience.

audience profile stats for lil miquela

“So how different is this person from a character in a movie or TV show? Well, I think that it’s much easier over the course of a TV show or movie to allow an audience to develop an emotional connection to the character because there’s a team behind the production bringing the story to life (and even then, it has to be really well produced in order to be effective), so people are going into the experience knowing it’s not real.”

“But I think social media, in general, is still perceived by people as “real life”, even though people are starting to wise up and realize it’s just an act that influencers are putting out there to grow their brand. On the other hand, I think what KFC did with their AI influencer was pretty cool, because basing an AI influencer on someone that is already globally recognized, and a brand that is also globally recognized, makes it much easier for people to engage and directly relate to the AI influencer.”


Increased Transparency In Social Advertising

Concern from government agencies and watchdog groups about the blurred lines of sponsored social media posts is continuing to rise, even as regulations have been put in place to make branded content more transparent on social media. So much so that the Federal Trade Commission sent out letters to influencers and marketers ordering them to “clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products on social media.”

The best thing about transparent advertising is that it also levels the playing field, making it so influencers and brands are all playing by the same rules. So even if the content seems like an obvious ad, the partnership must be disclosed in each and every paid post. One popular option that has been employed is using hashtags such as #ad, #sponsored, or #paidpost to make it clear that a social post has been sponsored. Here’s an example of a sponsored ad where the disclosure is used in the caption in the form of a hashtag.

screenshot of sponsored instagram ad from Olivia Culpo


Growing Emphasis On Original Content

If there is a single thing that makes a marketing campaign look bland or generic, it’s through the use of stock images and videos in the campaign content. This issue exists primarily when marketers and creators use free-image sites to source their marketing material. To be fair, there is only a limited selection of different pictures on these sites that are relevant to any specific keyword, which is why they tend to pop up regularly across the internet.

This is important because when somebody sees a familiar image in their feed, they switch off psychologically. In simple terms, using stock images is basically just another version of banner blindness, and it’s self-inflicting. As brands now become more aware of this, they are shifting their focus towards creating completely unique, brand-centric content that sticks out from the crowd.


Increased Use Of Social Listening To Create Influencer Campaigns

Even in 2021, there are brands that still see social media as a financial black hole when it comes to ROI. And while some of this stigma may be somewhat understandable due to stigmas that remain about the influencer marketing industry, we should also take into consideration how social listening can be a game-changer when it comes to what you get out of your brand’s social presence.

Social listening is not a just growing trend for influencer marketing, but for business as a whole. With an increasing need for brands to focus on their digital presence, social listening is a powerful tool in gathering data and insights around your presence, share of voice, and many other important metrics of success. Thanks to brands like Talkwalker, we can visualize great viral marketing as a result of social listening. 


Using Influencers For More Than Just Social Posts

When it comes to influencer marketing, the value of the tactic is not limited to just social posts.

Most brands are seeing optimal results from more integrated strategies, as opposed to influencers simply posting organically on their pages. This is happening in a number of different ways.

One way brands are doing this is by understanding that most of the main social media platforms have undergone algorithmic changes over the past few months, and as a result, organic reach for both brands and influencers themselves have been throttled to some degree. This shift has created a growing need for paid media boosting behind influencer campaigns in order to counteract the decrease in organic reach and to maximize the effectiveness of the influencer’s audience that you are paying for.

Secondly, brands are focusing more heavily on licensing the influencers’ content from campaigns. When a brand licenses the usage rights to an influencer’s content, it provides them with the opportunity to re-purpose that content into additional pieces of content for their overall brand marketing efforts, and fully extract the value of the influencer partnership. This content can then be utilized natively on a brand’s own social channels, their website, tutorial videos, digital ads, etc.

We are also seeing a shift where brands have wisened up and begun to utilize an influencers’ channel as a direct marketing channel for the brands themselves. How does this work exactly? Here’s an example:

Say you are a brand looking to boost sales, and you have been considering running social media ads in order to promote your product or service. Instead of taking the budget that was allocated for ad spend on social media, you can take that money and use it to partner with an influencer and have them promote your product or service directly on their own social channel. This allows for your marketing efforts to be seen as more organic by potential consumers and typically will produce much greater traction in terms of engagement on the post than brands would see if they were to post and promote the content through their own channels natively.

This includes utilizing influencers outside the realm of social media, such as experiential events. Which leads us to our next trend…


Integrating Influencers Into Experiential Events

We just talked about using influencers for more than just social posts. But what about using them outside of social media altogether? Vanessa Spagnuolo is an Account Director here at Viral Nation and is seeing a trend developing with integrating influencers into experiential events.


“I think a trend right now that Viral Nation does extremely well is integrating influencers with experiential events. Influencers help to bridge the gap between offline experiences and online sharing. Have you ever heard the saying “pics or it didn’t happen?” Influencers elevate and add value to any experiential component because they bring and organic perspective to a branded event. Influencers can also be substitutes for hiring celebrities for events as they are typically at a fraction of the cost and you can find an influencer in any niche that would best fit the brand, rather than having a celebrity that may be well known, but is so far removed from the community that the brand is trying to target.”
-Vanessa Spagnuolo, Account Director at Viral Nation


TikTok Is Here To Stay

TikTok, the platform once known as Musical.ly, is still a niche social network. Most adults don’t have a clue what it is. Yet its popularity is increasing at an exponential rate. The reason most adults don’t know about Musical.ly is that its user base is predominantly between the ages of 13-21. While Instagram continues to be the dominant force in influencer marketing, TikTok is gaining ground.

In a survey of 200 digital marketing professionals, more than 30% cited TikTok as their preferred platform for influencer marketing campaigns. Users love the easy-to-watch, creative videos on the platform, while brands love the fact that it’s easy for content to reach a wide audience. And TikTok’s audience continues to grow — it currently has about 850 million monthly active users. TikTok is a more informal platform and is thus well-suited for pandemic life, where many people seem to crave connectivity and realism. You can create casual, humorous, authentic connections by taking your influencer partners’ suggestions on how to use this platform and adding variety and human interest to your overall content strategy.

Though its humble beginnings were rooted in being a place where kids could upload videos of themselves lip-syncing their favorite songs, it has quickly morphed into a more well-rounded platform for content creators of many varieties.

You might remember Zach King from Vine, where he originally started growing his influence. He continues to have an audience on TikTok. Transitioning from Vine to TikTok, Zach is one of the most creative content creators on the platform, with a majority of his videos showcasing his digital magic tricks and funny comedy skits.

TikTok is already increasing in popularity over 2021 at an even higher rate, and as its user base grows, as does it’s accessibility for advertising. So while the adults have yet to be fully introduced to this popular platform, the 20-somethings that have been fans since their teens will probably remain on the platform, while another batch of tweens lines up to come in at the bottom.

Viral Nation has actually had the opportunity to activate influencer campaigns for TikTok. Tasked to reach 20 million views within a week, we used a variety of theme pages within different verticals and optimized videos provided by TikTok to provide the best reach possible. By devising a strategy that utilized Instagram Stories, Instagram Video, and Facebook Video, Viral Nation was able to achieve 27 million views, 62,000 clicks, and a CPM of $3.71 while exceeding the initial campaign goal by 135%.

For brands promoting products towards the younger generation, there may be no better platform today than TikTok. It’s only a matter of time until the older generation catches up to this trend, but investing on the platform now can give you a leg up on other brands who have been slower to come around to the idea.


The Rise Of Influencer Podcasts And Series

The consumption of video and audio content is rapidly expanding, and plenty of businesses are capitalizing on this trend.

This trend is not only applicable for the influencers themselves, but also for influencer marketing trends as well. Partnering with influencers on their existing podcasts, series, and videos can prove to be a seamless way to tap into their audience while they’re fully engaged. Podcasts allow for much more personal interaction and intimate discussions with the audience. So look out for even more influencer podcasts to premiere this year and beyond.


Instagram Reels Continues To Compete With TikTok

Influencers that already have a strong presence on Instagram can easily add Reels into their repertoire. Reels is already becoming the go-to destination for fast, fun content. Influencers are already creating recipes, DIY hacks, and the always popular dance numbers in short 15-second videos powered by an expansive music library. 

Brands have a real opportunity to capitalize on this new channel before Reels inevitably becomes another go-to destination for consumers looking for entertainment. We at Viral Nation already track the influencers who are creating the most captivating content and can find the right content creators to bring your product to life in a new, fun way. 

And it’s not only influencers who can employ this tactic in their content strategy. There is an opportunity for brands to do this with their own native content. For example, ESPN features videos, interviews, and a ‘best of’ series that includes branded covers and slides, which helps them maintain a consistent aesthetic on their Instagram Reels and produce a more interactive ‘live feed’ for their audience.


Final Thoughts

As we see influencer marketing continue its meteoric rise in 2021, the trends and platforms we mentioned above will be critical elements in determining the success of campaigns, this year and beyond. Influencers and audiences alike will continue to become even more transparent, savvier members in the space, which requires brands to keep up with these evolving trends and techniques.

There’s no longer any denying that influencer marketing is definitely one of the most effective marketing techniques in the world today. In order to make the most of it, your finger must remain on the pulse of what the most recent influencer marketing trends are, and continually be updating your strategy accordingly. By doing so, you’ll be able to take your influencer campaigns to a whole new level. So what are you waiting for?

We only do marketing that works.

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