by Andrew Baxter, CEO, Publicis Worldwide Australia.

Word of mouth has always been the most effective marketing channel – getting advice on a product or service from someone you trust. Originally it was from a neighbour, friend or family member, then radio hosts and magazine editors found themselves becoming trusted advisers. Celebrities likewise. At that point, marketers recognised the leverage such influencers had with a multitude of consumers.

Twenty years ago, quick-thinking brands started to tap into this by sending products to magazine publishers, hoping for a favourable photo or review. They did the same to organisers of events where trusted celebrities might be, hoping for a front-page picture of a well-known person with the product. And when marketers started paying radio announcers for editorial-style positive remarks, those announcers were embroiled in the infamous cash for comment saga.

In today’s digital world, influencer marketing is even more prevalent. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian have built business empires recommending and endorsing brands to their millions of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube followers. And recent guidelines mean there’ll be no repeat of cash for comment as hashtags such as #ad will clearly indicate when someone is promoting a brand.

Marketers in the fashion, fitness, jewellery, make-up, swimwear, car and tourism categories have jostled to link their brands with the most influential people on social media. And they’re not always celebrities, actors, musicians or sports stars. Many simply have a passionate interest in things such as photography, travel, yoga, parenting and video games, and have developed huge social media followings for it. Match the right brand to that audience and it is little wonder 94 per cent of marketers in a recent survey saw influencer marketing as an effective tactic and 84 per cent planned on using it in the next 12 months.

In the first quarter of 2017, Adidas announced it had engaged a team of 25 influencers in an attempt to double its sales of female sporting goods over the next four years. Amongst those influencers were sports stars like Ana Ivanovic, but they also included a DJ, an author, a model and a personal trainer.

Locally, car brands such as MINI and Jeep have been working closely with their influencers, from models to artists to designers. MINI’s most recent campaign for its convertible tapped into five fashion influencers along with Vogue magazine.

One of the biggest challenges for marketers is identifying the influencers best suited to help drive results. Take Ray-Ban, which might have a new sunglasses line coming out. There are thousands of possible influencers. Which have the strongest connection with the target market? Who has the largest follower base? Who gets the most interaction with their posts? Who is already a passionate wearer of the brand so that the alignment is more authentic? Whose values align with the brand the best? Who is not already working for a competitor? How much will they charge? And who is happy to be paid to promote that brand?

Thankfully a number of start-ups are either simplifying or automating this process. Australian company connects brands with top-quality, hand-picked influencers. Similarly, Aussie start-up Tribe has built an app that automates the entire process, from an algorithm picking the most appropriate influencers, to enabling approval of the posts and paying the influencers. Similarly Scrunch uses data to make informed decisions and tracks ROI of the campaigns.

They’re bringing influencer marketing full circle. They’re enabling consumers to get recommendations in a seemingly personalised way, and allowing everyday people to recommend brands they use and love. It’s the essence of word of mouth as a marketing channel.

And it’s classic marketing – quality, engaging, authentic content delivered by trusted and likeable influencers, who have a target audience, their followers, that can be extremely relevant to a brand. All delivered through a mobile phone they reach for over 150 times a day.

It’s no surprise that around a third of marketers now see influencer marketing as an essential part of their marketing strategy, and over half are planning on increasing their spend in this area in 2017.

This article first appeared in The Australian.