If you’re like me, you believe a few things about yourself:

1. You make smart, independent purchase decisions
2. You know why you make those decisions

But if we really unravel a lot of the choices that we make, there is more going on inside our heads than we give ourselves credit for. That’s why a topic like influencer marketing, and marketing in general, is so much more interesting than simply presenting people with a logical set of information and leaving them to make a decision.

That might work if we lived in a world where every time we needed to make a choice there were just a handful of options. In this world, we are faced with an overwhelming amount of information and alternatives, so we rely on much more contextual inputs to evaluate whether the message that we’re being presented with really is a great deal, or whether it’s a scam.

The need for information filtering is one of the reasons that influencer marketing has become so popular in 2019, and as you’ll see, most brands have missed the mark when it comes to understanding what “influence” really is.

Before we get to how influencer marketing will evolve in 2020, let’s start from the most important question that marketers need to ask themselves:

How do we really make our purchase decisions?

Let’s take a travel booking, as an example. When you’re planning a trip there are a lot of different choices to be made: Where to go, which hotel to book, which airline to fly with, then what to do while you’re there. We only have so much capacity for sorting, evaluating, and deciding, so when we’re faced with that many choices, we really only seriously consider the most important ones and then make easy-calls about the rest. The big decisions like where to travel, we believe, are managed by our rational, deliberate minds.

The smaller decisions, like which rental car to book, are the ones more likely to be governed by instinctive and emotional thinking. For those decisions it’s easy to see, and to admit to ourselves, that we could be influenced by branded campaigns. When the stakes are low, it makes sense that we’d go with the one that requires the least emotional labour.

That may be true to a point, but let’s look closer at those big decisions. When we’re deciding where we should go on a trip we carefully lay out our options, do our research, and ask friends. Where did we come up with those options in the first place? In any purchase decision, the selection that first comes to mind is almost always going to contain the one that we’re going to finally choose, and that’s called our Evoked Set.

You may remember hearing about Evoked Sets in first year marketing class and, in the context of a cluttered media landscape with a nearly-infinite number of options, the concept has become even more important because getting our brands into that selection is the only way that our products or services will get people to make that final purchase decision. More options does not mean that people are more likely to venture out and try new things. In fact, when we’re faced with too many options to consider, most of us will revert back the safe familiar solution – how many times have you gone back to the same restaurant when you know that there are a thousand more out there?

Returning back to our travel example – if our brains are naturally wired to bring up a small set of familiar options, and if we are most likely to make our decision out of that group, then are we really so logical and deliberate in our decision making?

I’ll suggest to you that we are constantly wandering through this world, unknowingly collecting and filtering information, almost entirely unconsciously, as we scroll through posts, watch videos, pass by bus stops and read the news. All of that collecting pays off when it’s time to make a purchase decision and, regardless of the size of that purchase, we always start with an Evoked Set. That’s what we unconsciously build when we filter through all of our collected information to figure out what’s worth paying attention to.

What does all of that have to do with influencers?

Everything, as a matter of fact. Understanding how we make decisions means understanding the ways that people are influenced, and (shocking fact) it has very little to do with the number of followers that an account has.

Influence hasn’t changed in 100,000 years. It’s how we how we communicated which plants were safe to eat, and which caves were bear-free. We learn by directly observing, and we learn through stories. Direct observation has taken on a whole new meaning now that we can literally watch our community living the highlights of their lives anytime, anywhere. Stories are only passed on when those experiences are so remarkable that they warrant telling what we’ve seen to other members of the group.

Influencers are the people who cause us to take notice. They incite that evolutionary force that tells us that what is good for them will be good for us. That’s why we like authenticity – someone who is clearly putting on a show teaches us nothing about what will keep us safe, whereas a real person with real consequences makes us feel as though we have gained intimate knowledge about a choice.

Last week I shared the story of #100SweatySweats and how they have built a movement largely because they’ve tapped into the real sources of influence within a community. This week I suggest to you that we are all much more influenced than we’re aware of, and that has major implications for brands.

Influencer Marketing in 2020

As with just about every trend in marketing, the practice of working with “influencers” started out as a great idea, then it got overly simplified, pumped up with lazy money, and then caused a backlash where smart people were calling it out as ineffective. What good marketers will learn in 2020 is not to ditch influencer marketing altogether, but to re-examine how we think about who those people are and how we should be working with them.

Know your community

Great influencer marketing will start with a clear understanding of who the community is that we’re trying to influence. That’s one of the fallacies of the 10-million-follower account – there is no macro-influencer who holds recommendation power over all segments of the population. Every community looks to its own sources for truth and for taste.

Look for sources of trust

Once we figure out who we’re talking to, the next thing that we need to figure out is depth of trust. A distant personality with a highly-watched YouTube channel will get a ton of attention, but the experiences of one expert friend in a group of six will always carry more weight. Getting to the one in six is powerful, but not scalable. Getting a message in front of 10 million may have scale, but it may lack trust. That’s why someone like Jillian Harris is so powerful – not only does she have scale, she has earned the trust of a lot of people in areas like interior design and motherhood.

Create a story worth telling

Our next job is to identify what we want people to understand. Remember, the ability to influence is an evolutionary trait, so simply getting our product into the hands of a popular person doesn’t help to put it in their Evoked Set. What we need to do is let them know that it’s safe, or exciting, or it implies status. Without a clear message that we want people to understand, we might as well put our logo on a billboard. Awareness is an essential step, but it doesn’t cause people to make purchase decisions.

Inspire storytellers

Finally, and only once the first three steps are locked down, we can figure out who we want to tell our story. This is the area that’s really going to change in 2020. The direct one-to-one sponsored post is easy, and it’s familiar. But the way that communities naturally spread messages to each other is through discovery, and through storytelling. When the story is worth telling, we love to hear it and we love to re-tell it. The brands that are most successful at influencer marketing in 2020 won’t simply pay their way into news feeds, they’ll earn it by creating events, experiences, causes, and commitments that the people who have the influence want to share.

There will definitely still be compensation involved in the relationships, and brands won’t be tossing out messages blindly hoping that they get picked up. What will be different is the way that those relationships are structured. They will be much less formal, much more broad, and much more promiscuous. Many brands will hold on tightly to their “influencers”, reporting the same old reach and engagement numbers, professionalizing the process to death, and just like every marketing tactic that’s come before it, they will spend the majority of the money for the minority of the results.

The best influencer marketing in 2020 will come from the brands that understand that influence is not a commodity, it is a human characteristic, which means that it’s messy and contextual. What influences one group will pass right by another, so those brands will be the ones who truly understand their communities, what they care about, and who they listen to. They’ll create experiences that we can observe and stories that we can tell. Will they pick up a bunch of followers in the process? Most likely. But more importantly, when it’s time to decide where to travel/eat/shop, they will certainly pop into our minds as a trusted option, and that’s the best outcome that a marketer can hope for.