Influencer marketing is well past its infancy. In fact, this fast-growing part of today’s marketing mix was estimated as a $4.6 billion industry in 2018 in the U.S. and is expected to grow to approximately $10 billion in 2019. And it’s not just Instagram or YouTube; in China, for example, “WeChat Famous” influencers are starting their own fashion lines (and selling out). China’s influencer economy alone is estimated at $116 billion and growing.

But can influencers and the brands they partner with be trusted by the consumers who follow them? The dust is still settling from numerous high-profile missteps of well-known influencers, and fraud is pervasive. From bots to fake followers to fake engagement in the form of comments, fraudulent actors are working hard to stay one step ahead of platform algorithms, and brand reputation is at stake.

We wanted to better understand the dynamics of “trusted influence” by talking to 1,500 consumers aged 18-to-34 across the U.S., U.K and China about their relationships with influencers and the brands who collaborate with them. The correlation between influencers and trust is evident among savvy 18-to-34-year-old consumers who seek out trusted influencers and follow their every move. Sixty-three percent of consumers told us they trust what influencers say about brands more than they trust the brand’s advertisements. Consumers are following influencers primarily because they have interesting ideas or are entertaining. Also, they are more concerned about quality over quantity—only 18 percent of the consumers we spoke with indicated they are attracted to influencers for their huge following. In terms of trusted influence, size doesn’t always matter.

Consumers will continue to follow influencers as sources of information and inspiration as long as they feel trust is part of the value proposition. We believe that trusted influence—the thing that inspires taking action—is built on real relationships, and it’s these trusted relationships that influencers of all sizes and specialties should be judged by. Influencers are only as effective and compelling as the trust they receive from the consumers who support them.

And it’s not just the relationships between consumers and influencers— but between influencers and brands as well. We believe that these relationships are also built on mutual trust and an alignment of values. Thirty-five percent of the consumers we surveyed say they pay attention to and trust what influencers say because they share their values. When brands and influencers align, they possess the potential not only to amplify influence and engage targeted audiences, but also to co-create cultural relevance for the brands they partner with.

Sybil Grieb is U.S. Head of Influencer Strategy and Programming.
Ann Newland is U.S. Head of Strategic Operations, Edelman Influence.
Melinda Po is Managing Director, Shanghai.