retail clerk with a shopper
Knowledgeable retail associates carry the weight of authentic influence. PHOTO: team nikon

Let’s start with what you know: A recent study reveals only four percent of consumers trust traditional advertising and marketers.

As a forward thinking marketer, you pivoted away from tried-and-true methods. You found an influencer network to work with, filled with individuals who possess all kinds of metrics to substantiate the spend.

But here’s what you may not know: Influencer marketing is also at risk of losing consumer trust.

What Customers Really Want

In fact, consumers are now savvy enough to see right through influencer marketing campaigns. Consumers have grown weary with this method, as a recent Forrester study found only 18 percent of consumers trust influencers.

Want to know who consumers haven’t grown weary of? Knowledgeable retail associates.

Despite the proliferation of online shopping, consumers want to shop with someone who can help them make an informed purchase.

This study found the majority of consumers still prefer traditional buying experiences. They enjoy shopping in real stores because they get to shop with real people. Thirty percent of those surveyed specifically point to the value in receiving advice on a product.

The Value of Retail Associates

As marketers, we should be jumping to reach these retail associates, because unlike paid influencers, these people carry the weight of authentic influence. Consumers actually trust them.

That trust should be music to retail’s ears. For brick-and-mortar to survive, the saving grace is influence, but not exactly the (hyperbolic buzzword) “social media influencer” kind.

The future of these retail locations largely rests on the influence their sales associates wield next to the cash register. Yet they are often ignored in marketing strategy.

Passion, Experience and Knowledge

Marketers have instead bought into the myth that someone with large digital reach will provide stronger resonance than the influential expert standing right in front of them. That somehow the more passionate, experienced and knowledgeable associate’s reach is less valuable.

With a good retail associate, you have someone who is a true brand advocate. This person doesn’t need to fit you into a publishing schedule because they already participate in passionate conversations about your product and company.

The best retail associates don’t believe their job is just to sell you hiking boots because they believe their job is bigger — it's to help you discover a love for hiking. Their passion is seen through the knowledge they provide, and their influence results in a consumer experience far more valuable than the one-off purchase.

With even a good social media influencer, on the other hand, you have to disclose you paid for their influence.

Not Influencers: Social Media Publishers

Rather than refer to these highly followed people as influencers, let’s call them what they really are – social media “publishers” who create and curate content.

For most of these so-called social media influencers, the motivation is monetary, and therefore no different from other publishers who make their money from paid media a la Vogue or Real Simple.

The reach may be real, but being able to reach a bunch of people — who may or may not even care to buy a product — doesn’t equate to someone stepping in a store, intent on a purchase.

In fact, while it’s more difficult to measure, we intuitively know that retail associates have dozens of conversations each week with people actually in the market for your products.

As this Keller-Fay study reveals, influencers make an average of 5.85 recommendations per week. But retail associates? They’re recommending products nearly 18 times in a week.

'The Year of the Influencer,' But …

It seems as though nearly every marketing blog has published a headline stating 2017 is the year of the influencer, and while they’re not necessarily wrong, their focus on those Instagram famous individuals — with their emphasis on estimated impressions, reach, and engagement — is where the articles stray.

Sure, their influence is theoretically measurable, but good marketing decisions can’t rest solely on ease of measurement. In only focusing on easy-to-identify online influencers, many marketers fail to recognize just how obviously ad-like their influencer strategy has become.

Influencing consumers to purchase isn’t novel, and marketers continue to lean on recognizable faces for perceived trust.

But as LeBron James’ egregious Kia endorsement proves, the days of believing a celebrity’s opinion to be authentic are long gone.

What’s scary is that marketers and brands consider the shift to online influencers more authentic. In reality, these social network famous individuals have more in common with celebrities than the real people who actually purchase the products.

If you want someone who can actually connect with the consumer, then look no further than retail associates.

An Endorsement or an Ad?

A major clue into the degeneration of this strategy should have been the FTC’s crackdown on blog and social media disclosures.

After all, if the FTC says it’s an ad, then by definition it is an ad. And we shouldn’t be surprised when ads that come from online influencers suffer from the same lack of credibility of those that come via more traditional marketing channels.

Make no mistake: An influencer strategy can be important to a brand’s success, but as platforms like Instagram began to provide demographic information on their users’ followers, marketers fell prey to the same old pressures of reach-based marketing.

As with other reach-based tactics, the job we expect influencer marketing to do should be to raise awareness, not to influence a lower-funnel consumer action. Influence stems from trust and trust stems from authenticity.

Many of the most authentic voices a brand can tap work in retail stores. And these authentic voices, by the way, probably also have loyal social media followers.

As brands pursue a well-rounded influencer strategy, they should seriously consider the numerous individuals who directly influence at the physical point of purchase. It simply doesn’t make sense to only invest in Influencer Jane’s reach, ignoring Retail Associate Carly’s hundreds of in-person conversations with real-life consumers.

Invest in the influencers with authentic voices that people trust. Their resonance will provide far more value than any number a social media influencer can promise.