Was 2018 the year that influencer marketing finally got taken seriously? It certainly seems like it.

Influencers in gaming and fashion/beauty influencer to fame this year and were paid handsomely for it. But the system isn’t perfect—fraud, fakes and scammers take advantage of a booming industry. The vetting process is getting better and the analytics are tighter. On the other end of the spectrum, with fraud and FTC pressure comes growing transparency between marketers and influencers: To call an ad an #ad.

Longer-term relationships between marketers and influencers are trending up, with some brands creating influencers from in-house. Diversification of influencer campaigns will also continue next year—brands partnering with many micro-influencers rather than the riskier proposition of partnering with a few big ones.

We’re taking a look back at 2018 and what changed in influencer marketing, with anticipation that 2019 will be the format’s biggest year yet.

Strength In Numbers

Many marketers are drawn to influencer marketing because, if done correctly, the ROI and brand awareness consistently positive. In a report by WHOSAY, 89 percent of marketers surveyed agreed that influencer marketing can positively impact how people feel about a brand. Another study found similar results. In “The State of Influencer Marketing” study by Linqia, 86 percent of marketers who used influencer marketing in 2017 and 92 percent found it efficient.

Companies are seeing considerable ROI. According to a study conducted by Tomoson, they’re making $6.50 for $1 spent on influencer marketing. The top 13 percent of businesses earning $20 or more. The study also found influencer marketing is one of the most cost-effective online customer-acquisition channels, along with email.

“I think 2018 is where the industry has grown up in a quite a few different ways. This is now a standard marketing practice for almost every B2C companies…” said Tim Sovay, COO of CreatorIQ.

In some ways, 2018 was a banner year for larger-scale influencers. It was the year Tyler “Ninja” Blevins became a household name. In June, the gamer, who primarily streams Fortnite on Twitch, partnered with Red Bull. He announced the collaboration to his fans after his regular Sunday stream and simultaneously revealed he would compete in Red Bull Rise till Dawn, a Fortnite Battle Royale duo competition.

A few months later, Blevins appeared in a Samsung commercial with rapper Travis Scott to promote the Galaxy Note 9. The commercial centers around a young woman who fantasizes of being an eSports star. Right at the start, her mother walks into her room and says, “Honey, the local game store wants to sponsor you.” Her daydream concludes with Blevins calling her up to the national team.

Uber Eats also partnered with Blevins, challenging him to eat one doughnut per elimination on Fortnite during his first stream of the day.

Beauty Influencer Jackie Aina—who was named Beauty Innovator of the Year by Refinery29 and Influencer of the Year by WWD—joined forces with beauty brand Two Faced to increase darker shades in its Born This Way foundation line. The highly anticipated shades were released this summer and it proved to be a massive success. The deepest shade, Ganache, sold out on Too Faced’s website on June 28, two days after the launch.

Jerrod Blandino, Too Faced’s co-founder and chief creative officer, approached Aina when he realized their shade range needed help.

The vlogger—known for being outspoken about diversity and inclusion in the beauty business—called out Tarte’s Shape Tape concealer for not having enough dark shades and even made a vlog showcasing the worst makeup for POC.

Fake Followers And Ways They Can Actually Help

Transparency and authenticity will continue to be major topics of discussion in 2019. During Cannes, Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed announced the brand will not work with influencers who buy followers and stated Unilever wouldn’t buy followers either. He urged the industry as a whole to take action on rebuilding integrity and trust.

There are several ways to spot a fake account like spikes in follower or a large number of followers from foreign countries.

Authentic influencers get followers from posting lots of content over months or years and those with hardly any posts are usually fake. Bogus accounts usually don’t follow too many people and their comments can be a dead giveaway.

“This is where I think measurement becomes really important, where it’s not just about reach and views, but understanding that authentic connection,” said Stephanie Chevalier, senior director of brand, content and community for Tubular Labs, a social video analytics company.

“From our perspective, I think a general trend that’s happened is a sort of shift from building for platforms to building for an audience,” said Chevalier. “It’s about really returning back to the basics of building authentic connections with your audience through the content you’re creating.”

In 2018, many brands brought influencers in-house, including L’Occitane and Birchbox. Brands are using one of two different models. They’re either creating an influencer team to manage all aspects of campaigns independently or hiring a manager to strategize influencer marketing and continuing to leave the bulk of the work with external agencies.

For example, Reebok hired Purvi Patel as their senior manager of influencer marketing and operations to develop a team to handle the brand’s digital influencer marketing campaigns. In order to review the hundreds of influencers, Reebok uses agencies and other tools to do the pre-vetting work.

“Many brands still look for that one celebrity they can lock up in a contract in sponsorship, but now there is an opportunity to increase; to build an influencer network that helps you get your story out across thousands,” said Neil Patil, CCO of Tubular Labs.

Large brands may still be aiming for large- or macro-influencers, but their smaller equivalent—micro-influencers—play an important role going forward. Micro-influencers are cheaper and more approachable with follower counts in the range of 1K to 100K.

A study by Markerly found that micro-influencers have better engagement. Still, some believe it’s not how big or small an influencer is, it’s all about what is best for your brand.

“It really doesn’t matter the level of the talent, it depends on the idea and once you have the idea if you would like it to involve mommy bloggers or local smaller reach talent—if it matches your idea great—those same lower-level talent are going to reach 7 to 25 percent of their fan camps, so it’s a mathematical process,” said Steve Ellis, CEO and founder of WHOSAY.

“You can have one person with a million followers to reach 7 to 25 percent of their followers or you can have 1,000 people with 1,000 followers reach the same 7 to 25 percent. Frankly, it’s hard to manage 1,000 people, but ultimately the math is uniform.”

Transparent, Authentic Content

One thing has been really clear this year: transparency is vital. The Federal Trade Commission ruled paid advertisements must be disclosed by influencers to clearly reveal their relationships to brands. They sent more than 90 letters to marketers and influencers to remind them that they need to “clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationship to brands.”

Instagram created the “paid partnership” tag for posts and stories to make it clearer to users when the content is sponsored. However, it seems some brands and influencers aren’t sticking to the rules.

Most recently, beverage company Diageo was accused of running a noncompliant Cîroc influencer campaign. Truth in Advertising (TINA) along with the FTC felt Sean “Diddy” Combs and other influencers failed to properly disclose connections to Cîroc. If the accusations are found to be legitimate it could hurt consumer trust.

This situation is not shocking. Last year, Diddy got a letter from the FTC reminding him of the ad disclosure rules and Diageo got one from TINA for undisclosed Cîroc ads with DJ Khaled.

However, it’s getting more complicated. The Atlantic recently published a story about Instagrammers posting fake sponsored content and staging fabricated ads to get the attention of brands in hopes that they get their first sponsorship deal.

There is an aspirational quality to many influencers and the “influencer” experience is so ingrained in popular culture that everyday people want the feeling of being one—and the perks that come with it.

In October, Sephora hosted the beauty retailer hosted its first Sephoria House of Beauty in Los Angeles which drew crowds with its bevy of samples, Instagrammable activations, master classes, product customizations and celebrity appearances. It was also a chance for Sephora to learn more about their customers and beyond just making a transaction—every attendee had an RFID tag to track engagement.

Going Forward

“Authenticity” will be the most important word for influencer marketing in 2019. For a campaign to be successful it must feel or be genuine.

Payless’ fake luxury boutique Palessi is an example of influencer marketing gone wrong. Attendees didn’t know they were looking at actual Payless shoes marked up at a much higher price. One good thing is that the shop didn’t keep any of the money from the purchases, but it didn’t leave a good impression on millennials according to YouGov.

Influencer marketing will continue leaning towards video and live streaming—it’s hard to fake “authenticity” in real-time. With this in mind, look for “genuine” influencers to continue to thrive.

“We like to think of it as quality views, where people are actually making the choice to watch your content and stay engaged for quite a long time. There are real people at the other end of it,” said Nate Harris, marketing manager for CreatorIQ.

Instagram is currently the main platform for influencer marketing, but emerging channels such as TikTok could become a strong competitor.

Advancement in measurement and other technology will also lead the way in the evolution of influencer marketing.

“When we got into the business back in 2014, the primary metric that we could report to our clients was impressions. Less than five years later, a consumer can see an influencer’s ad on social media and we can track—in an anonymized and consented fashion—if they went into a store, how long they dwelled there, and in some cases, if they even made a purchase,” said Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, a social intelligence company.

“2019 will be the year of attribution. The Holy Grail for marketers is being able to measure if their marketing spends led to getting shoppers into a store and ultimately making a purchase.”