Once seen as a side hustle to supplement income, influencer marketing has become a veritable career for the social-media celebrities capable of turning their online reputations into brand ROI.

In fact, these breezy B-listers have proven so successful that the global influencer market is now worth a weighty 24 billion US dollars, which just goes to show that there’s more to user-generated campaigns than meets the eye.

 Beyond traditional advertising

The average brand makes a return of $6.50 for every $1 spent on influencer marketing, according to the latest Tomoson poll. Companies looking to boost both conversions and engagement have much to gain from this modern advertising strategy, which centres around building authenticity and trust.

A study from Think with Google has revealed that 40% of millennial YouTube subscribers feel closer to their favourite online creators than they do to their own family and friends. This illustrates just how influencer marketing works. Reviews, comments and mentions of products from online personalities we feel we know and trust resonate more with the consumer than messaging that comes from our nearest and dearest or direct from the brand.

Take for instance an eco-friendly shampoo. Both the cosmetics company and your best friend can sing its praises, but for those of us influenced by the social media sphere, this will never be as powerful as a direct endorsement from our favourite sustainability TikToker, who has already demonstrated commitment to a low-impact lifestyle. This is a unique advantage for brands to tap into, benefitting not only from an existing following aligned with their goals, but also capitalising on the seemingly personal and authentic relationships these real people – not detached celebrities – have built with their communities.

Why influencers matter

The sphere of influence that social media users have built is simply unrivalled. Indeed, a style and social media survey by cultural intelligence platform, Frontline, has revealed that as many as 45% of European Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) purchase brands they’ve seen an influencer wear – versus just 18% who are influenced directly by their friends.

It’s not just individuals who are influenced, either. LinkedIn Sales Solutions has found that an overwhelming 75% of B2B buyers rely on social media to make their purchasing decisions. It’s all part of a larger trend of consumers no longer believing everything they read online, looking for authentic resources from real buyers to support their choice.

The need to go niche

So, how can brands cash in on this potential for success? Whilst users with the largest following boast the most allure, the key to unlocking user-generated prosperity actually lies in finding your niche. In other words, you have to look for partners whose audiences already align with your brand. This way, viewers won’t be put off by a seemingly incongruous product position, instead, remaining receptive to what the influencer has to say.

Whether it’s a beauty guru raving about a skincare product or a fitness enthusiast extolling the virtues of their new Pilates ring, the point is to capture the attention of an already willing audience to have any real impact on purchasing choice. Generally speaking, those with highly engaged followings prove most influential, with relatable personalities achieving the greatest success (61% according to brand elevation agency, Matter).

Finding the right fit

Relatability is such a desirable quality that it trumps even expertise (43%) and aspirational living (28%), according to one 2023 study. Nevertheless, the qualities you will look for in your user-generated partners will ultimately depend on your marketing goals and the products and services you’re looking to sell. For instance, if you’re vitamin company hoping to make your new hair-growth mix go viral, the likelihood is that you’ll benefit from influencers with more scientific backing. Conversely, products related to minimalist living tend to perform better when promoted by an advocate for this aspirational lifestyle.

It’s all about matching influencer persona to the ethos of your brand, remembering that, above all else, a successful partnership hinges on resonance and authenticity.

Other forms of user-generated content

Of course, partnerships with well-known influencers aren’t the only organic way to promote your brand. There are plenty of other user-generated methods for becoming an online sensation, such as inviting regular, everyday users to share their experiences of your product on their own social media pages, under common hashtags to strike up conversation. Take the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign. By personalising cans with names, Coca Cola was able to convert its existing consumers into ambassadors, sparking a wave of user-generated content and excited discourse across multiple platforms. This ultimately translated into a huge boost in sales.

Final thoughts: The battle for customer trust

It’s campaigns like this that truly stand out in an increasingly AI-generated world. What audiences truly crave is authenticity and the human touch. It’s all about those raw, unfiltered narratives that break down social barriers and form connections, perhaps explaining the success of real-body campaigns from brands like Dove.

Yes, traditional advertising still has its place and it’s equally as important for brands to work on their own voice as they amplify their core message through their ambassadors. But user-generated content most definitely has a place in the battle for consumer trust, which must ultimately be based on feeling and authenticity.

Head of Media at Climb Online | + posts

Tom Wilson is a leading authority in digital marketing, helping brands unlock their full potential through compelling digital and media strategies. His wealth of experience has seen him work across several high-profile enterprise brands including Curry's, Disney Store and Johnson & Johnson before joining leading digital marketing agency, Climb Online, as their Head of Media.