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Amazon’s New Influencer Marketing Program will Fail—Though There Could be Light

I stumbled across an article on AdWeek today: “Improved Social Media Metrics Boost the Value of Influencer Marketing to Merchants.” In short, the article introduces Amazon’s Influencer Program (currently in beta) that enables social media influencers with shoppable content (think big time fashion, makeup, technology, and lifestyle social media influencers) to use a vanity URL within their content where shoppers will be able to browse through the curated selection of products that the influencer recommends, to make it easy for customers to purchase.  In turn the social media influencers receive a commission on products sold through their link.

Let me start by saying, I completely agree with the overall sentiment in the article. Having worked in B2C content marketing for over a decade, focusing exclusively on social media and influencer marketing, I understand and believe in the value of using influencers to promote products.  However, reading about Amazon’s new program sparked a conversation with my fellow in-house social media aficionados here at Centerline, which led me to the following prediction:

Amazon’s influencer program will fail.

Maybe—just maybe—there are opportunities for the program to succeed, but only if Amazon is willing to take the time to launch the program strategically, building key partnerships and implementing proactive strategies.

Before we talk about that, though, why did I immediately see failure in Amazon’s future?

For starters, the commission structure seems superficial. The best influencers—those that produce compelling content and have a deep understanding of how to use their networks to syndicate that content and drive engagement—can make anywhere from $250 to $10,000 per post. They are not likely to be enticed by the commission offered on products sold that Amazon’s program provides.

Additionally, while we don’t know the algorithm Amazon is using in their selection process, and Amazon states there is no dedicated cutoff to how many followers one must have to be considered for their influencer program, the fact that they are being selective and choosing based on audience size and engagement leads me to believe they are looking only at influencers with high-follower and engagement rates.  With this assumption it seems Amazon is alienating an obvious target for this program: those up-and-coming influencers that understand how to build a blog and produce high-quality, compelling content, but still have a need to broaden their audience in order to take it to the next level. For these people, access to a program like Amazon’s may be alluring—it could give them an opportunity to prove themselves to brands at a faster rate by using the program as a stepping-stone to launch their careers. However; Amazon seems to be leaving a big blind spot towards this group.

Finally, there are the FTC implications. In 2013, the FTC published new marketing guidelines that included social media and influencer marketing. In the guidelines, the FTC told brands: “Stop faking it! Influencer content should be real opinions based on actual experiences.” Because Amazon is not providing free products to their influencers, two things are likely to happen: 1) Influencers are more likely to fabricate reviews or produce content that is generic and unoriginal, and 2) lesser-known brands that could benefit greatly from the awareness generated by influencers are less likely to receive coverage, because it will be easier for influencers to focus on the products they already know and love. As both a marketer and a consumer, the latter implication is especially frustrating to me, because a key benefit of following influencers is learning about new products.

I do, however, see a few potential pathways that could increase the likelihood of the program’s success.

First, if the brands see this as a viable opportunity to boost sales, then they can provide products straight to influencers, increasing the likelihood of influencer participation in the program. Especially if Amazon makes it easy to identify these influencers by providing their sellers with a private list, or something as simple as offering the influencers an Amazon Influencer badge that can be displayed on their websites. If this happens, well-known influencers would be more likely to participate, as they could potentially charge brands an additional fee, making inclusion on their Amazon curated site an “add on” to their contractual obligations.This could be especially successful during creation of holiday gift guides, for example.

A second pathway to success is that influencers start using already successful tactics such as makeup “hauls” and electronic “un-boxings” in parallel with the program. In recent years, influencers and brands have become much smarter about the ways they work together, collaborating closely to produce authentic-feeling content. Makeup influencers who showcase products from shopping hauls and technology influencers who talk through un-boxing new electronic devices are perfect examples. I could see makeup influencers rotating products on their curated sites to coincide with that week’s “haul” video and technology influencers rotating products out monthly to match the unboxing, reveal, and product review content they produce each month.

Finally, Amazon could partner with social media platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat to syndicate content. Pinterest has become a go-to search engine. Imagine if Amazon leveraged influencer content (e.g., images and videos) as part of their review system, so that when users search for a product, they can see demonstrations of how it works in real life. Amazon has also mastered ecommerce by providing an easy transition for users to buy their products via social platforms. Combining Instagram’s “buy now” button, or even Snapchat’s “Snap to Store” functionality, and Pinterest’s search engine momentum could be golden partnership opportunities for both Amazon and the aforementioned networks.

Even acknowledging these possibilities, I stand by my prediction: Amazon’s influencer program will fail. The program could be successful if Amazon is willing to take the necessary steps to do it right, like partnering with social platforms and aligning with already-successful influencer tactics. However, it’s astounding how many big name brands—and even agencies—still don’t understand social media and influencer marketing, or are woefully behind. If Amazon isn’t willing to put in the time, money and energy to also educate the brands, then It’s these brands and agencies that will cause the program to fail.