Influencers. Relatable, intriguing, entertaining... And selling constantly. Whether or not you know it, whether or not they disclose it, selling is their livelihood. And we're their consumer.
Imagine your 6pm self for a moment. You've managed to get a seat on a busy train, and all you want to do is check out for the day, so you begin your evening Instagram scroll. One of eight posts are official advertisements, such as Nike, Fabletics, Adidas, and then there are sponsored posts from influencers, be it the fitness guru Kayla Itsines, or a complete nobody (who's in your vicinity sponsoring their content to jack up the local follower count). The other posts you encounter probably consist of a small sprinkling of your friends' selfies, adoring dog snaps and then a large smattering from the influencers/bloggers you follow, who, since you've last logged on have uploaded three outfit pics, and/or a cute close-up of their new bag, sent by yadayada (link in bio), you know the drill.
It's now your daily routine. You are so attuned to this way of life, that this speech, these inflections, the #ads and #sponsored don't really mean a thing to you anymore because your brain is now fully trained in the way of the influencer. You find yourself regularly saying, “oh, well, did you see @superinfluencer#1's latest pic? She says that the palette @lesssuperinfluencer happened to be promoting last week, has really bad pigment, and isn't worth the spend (lol). She thinks the Bobbi Brown version is better." Without realizing it, you've just sold a palette on behalf of @superinfluencer, because no doubt your friend will venture on to her page, find the palette's affiliate link and buy it. It was just payday, after all.
This cycle, that has utterly eclipsed traditional advertising, is only just beginning. It's worth noting that while 'influencer' now seems a generic term, we're definitely still in the beta phase for the industry as a whole. Legislation, regulation and rules are typically slow to catch up to a still unchartered business landscape, so while we can expect stricter rules and policing to eventually be put in place, the way the influencer market is right now, there are no sure changes to come anytime soon. “With most industries, innovation happens first and then regulation has to catch up," remarks Denise Lambertson of LMS, who brokers deals between brands and social media personalities. “I would point to Airbnb disrupting the hospitality industry and all of the regulations that cities have been scrambling to coordinate. I believe influencer marketing will be the same. Disclosure laws will continue to evolve."
While Nerissa Coyle McGinn, a partner at Loeb & Loeb LLC, and an expert on emerging media law, is confident the country's Federal Trade Commission(FTC), is only just beginning to gain its footing in terms of market regulation.
That being said, the agency is starting to step up enforcement, with now-constant reminders to include the #ad or #sp. "In the spring, the FTC sent out 90 letters reminding influencers and marketers that influencers should clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media," says McGinn. Celebrities are also in the FTC's purview, as the agency begins to crackdown on promotional posts that were undisclosed. This fall the FTC sent warning letters to 21 Instagram influencers, says McGinn, including celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Lindsay Lohan, and Vanessa Hudgens, after which the FTC announced its first ever case against social media influencers. "Based upon the sudden uptick in this enforcement, I do not think that it is likely to go away any time soon," she comments.
A new kind of celebrity?
The OG influencers were Hollywood celebrities: movie stars, singers, undisputed talents. Before Kim Kardashian, Olivia Culpo or Chiara Ferragni, there was Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, and Nicole Kidman. The ladies of the silver screen were the go-to princesses of Hollywood if you wanted a product sold, whether it be on TV or in a full page magazine ad. This straightforward sponsorship model lasted just until the early 2010s says Kevin Knight, Chief Marketing Officer for Experticity which marked the beginning of a new era of millennial celebrities: bloggers. Fast forward eight years later and money is bleeding from both celebrity endorsements and traditional advertising into this popular, and fast-growing, influencer marketing.
The departure from magazine and newspaper advertising, and move onto Facebook and Instagram and into influencer's pockets, may potentially ring in the collapse of print media, as marketing budgets continue to move digitally, where quantifiable measures can be taken to gauge a campaign's effectiveness. The instant cool factor of an influencer endorsement can help breathe new life into brands behind the times. Having the online equivalent of the 'cool girls' packs a lot more punch than a $100k full-page ad in a magazine sitting in a dental office. Many of today's advertisers are really lean, depending on freelance staff, slashed budgets and interns to create social posts. Thus, outsourcing advertising and brand awareness is becoming the new go-to for brands and startups alike. With affiliate links or data tracking, influencers and online ads are so easily traceable, you would be a fool not to utilize them. When it comes to ROI, the results speak for themselves. For The Daily Harvest, a smoothie subscription company, targeted micro-influencer initiatives worked wonders for the brand profile. "With Daily Harvest, we on-boarded hundreds of micro influencer affiliates that resulted in 19 million social impressions and are a significant driver of acquisition and sales," remarks Lamberton.
Hence why, in 2017 on Instagram alone, Knight says marketers spent $600M. “For better or worse, influencer marketing is here to stay," he states. “I expect more brands will focus influencer efforts on the people who influence the bottom of the purchase funnel – the people consumers are actively looking to for advice on what to buy, but who may have very few Instagram followers."
"There have been some high profile cases like the 'Fyre Festival', where consumers felt cheated because big influencers mislead them by not disclosing brand partnerships." - Arnab Majumdar, Co-Founder of Peersway, influencer marketing services
The successful equation: who will envy and look to emulate this lifestyle and persona, with just enough money to buy a piece of it, whether it's a product or engagement. No longer are we reliant on Hollywood celebrity for outreach to the people. These influencers are taking you into their homes, opening up their calendars to you on blogs, showing you their wardrobes, their mail, explaining their daily thoughts in motivational posts. This access and openness may seem organic, but it's very carefully edited. This illusion of perfection may seem enviable but could have potential consequences we're not seeing, but that's a whole other story.
When it comes to social influencers, the accessibility makes them almost tangible. Their responding to comments makes them human, when they shout you out on a story, they're your friend. When Jennifer Aniston promotes Aveeno, you scoff at the likelihood that she actually uses such a mass-market brand. But when @superinfluencer#1 promotes Bobbi Brown, you believe, because, you've been following her for two years, and she's your girl.
Greed or gumption?
The question of whether influencers on the hunt for more money or more followers are enviable entrepreneurs or taking advantage of a system still largely unregulated is a theme everyone is talking about.
Everyone from The New York Times to The Daily Mail has been curious where the advertising revenue is disappearing to, and the answer is not exactly heartwarming. The Times broke a story which examined the nefarious back-channeling that goes into the buying and selling of follower 'farms', and The Mail, along with outlets from across the globe, recently commented on the story of Youtuber Elle Darby, who was 'exposed' by Irish Hotelier, Paul Stenson upon emailing him for a complimentary stay.
What Darby didn't realize when sending the email enquiring about a freebie, was the man who would ultimately receive the message is notorious for his internet trolling and had in fact already accumulated quite the following on social outlets himself by virtue of his mischievous humor.
The story broke with furor as Stenson published the email Darby sent on his channels, simultaneously lauding her self-respect while berating her endeavour to get a gifted five night stay at the hotel in exchange for some favorable social media exposure.
What's crucial here is that every single influencer, especially those who focus on travel in any sense, has sent one of these emails. Every time you see a beach pic with a favorable mention of the 'hosts' that allowed the picture and all the extravagance, inherently implies an exchange such as this has taken place, whether or not it's stated explicitly. Darby is one of thousands who have sent similar business negotiations out in what reads almost like a mass PR email, just specific to that influencer who had, according to her, boosted sales at Disneyland because of a recent collaboration with them.
The comments below all posts associated with the debacle highlighted a few key points, one of them being that Darby was asking 'too much' for someone with a sizeable, but not exactly mega, influence, roughly 100K. Was she greedy? Or was this simply another occasion where, if she sent out enough emails, put in the grind, she would find someone amenable to such an exchange? I think here, given the profitability of the industry, the latter is the more appropriate.
What is perhaps most exciting about this market is that people of any age can launch a business off the back of their social exposure if they have enough savvy in the online world. Despite the gumption, she, like many young social stars, is not yet versed in the prowess self-management.
Darby, responding to the post in an emotional video, acutely evinced this youthful naiveté by making a sweeping statement about all those negatively commenting about her: 'It made me so sad to see that the majority of these comments were from older people. The older generation [over 30 years old]... They have absolutely no idea what social media is nowadays." Ageism, anyone?
As for those aspiring influencers wishing to make a fast buck, they will be weeded out as the industry ages, according to Catty Berragan, Creative Director of Social Chain, a company devoted to the creation of viral online communities. Micro-influencers now who are 'selling out' to brands that do not corroborate with their style or their brand ethos, i.e. a fitness instructor promoting Cadbury's chocolate, will lose out to those who are ultimately devoted to audience retention - those with gumption. Those with greed will simply pail into mere existence.
"10-15 years down the line, all these micro-influencers now that might be making full-time livings off this, those deals won't be around," says Berragan. "Because brands are going to start to mature to value where the tangible ROI is coming from, which nine times out of ten is coming from the larger scale partnerships with people with massive audiences and strong affiliation with the brand itself."
A future without integrity?
Regardless of the context of the argument, whether you fall on the side of the bloggers or those who were calling them out, there lies a difficult ethical issue associated within the email, that goes beyond the effects of traditional advertising methods.
Darby, had she been granted a complimentary stay at the hotel, was poised to stay on the condition her exposure would be beneficial to the hotel - ie. positive. But is it really? How much are the brands getting back? The jury is most definitely still out.
The wording of the email calls into question the very legitimacy of influencers' 'reviews.' Are you giving this place five stars and thumbs up because they've done a stellar job or because you got the the room for free and thus have entered into a tacit agreement whereby you MUST give a good review, because if you don't - who else would gift you a complimentary stay in the future, for a negative review? We've come to depend on reviews that are organic, to choose one restaurant over another. Inserting an advertising agenda into this equation may be inadvertently turning smart readers away from trusting these influencers. The lack of impartiality in blogger reviews may make the whole operation null and void, much like a pop-up, or an Aniston Aveeno ad.
Integrity, authenticity and impartiality are all buzz words in the media conversation but ultimately everything comes down to intention. For someone with a following, is your intention to create a space for people to go and feel enlightened, motivated and a little envious? Is your intention to give sound advice and personal recommendations? Or is your intention, purely, to make money, no matter where or whom it comes from? The distinction it seems, is crucial.
"Those people who are looking to make quick money now, will eventually become irrelevant, and those that rise to the top, those that are looking to protect their audience right now, will grow a following that trust and believe in them." -Catty Berragan, Creative Director of Social Chain
The issue of authenticity was acutely highlighted in the recent case of defamed YouTuber Logan Paul. A young adult, with an audience reach of 20M people, who took his blogging camera and a few pals into Japan's Aokigahara forest, also known as 'suicide forest.' After finding an apparent victim of suicide, he decided to film the body and upload it to his channel, undoubtedly believing it would become viral content. What happened was indeed viral, but resulted in disaster PR for Paul who has since had to scramble together multiple apologies, with Youtube taking action to ensure his channel suffers monetarily. His youthful ignorance coupled with Darby's certainly signals a worrying trend in that this influence these youngsters are wielding, isn't necessarily the kind that is beneficial or desirable for an even younger demographic looking to these people for inspiration and engaging content.
Back to Ireland, where influencers have come under scrutiny by a few Instagram accounts, who rose to fame at the same time as the Darby scandal was ongoing, but for completely different reasons.
The now-removed account titled @Bullshitcallerouter quickly rose to prominence at the beginning of January as it began posting photos of Irish influencers next to unedited pictures of themselves. Thanks to facetuning, photoshopping, skin-smoothing and figure-augmenting apps, the women and girls on display had drastically changed their appearance, purposefully omitting their vulnerabilities or imperfections to an impressionable audience. Both @Bullshitcallerouter and similar account @Honthehuns, run by Fiona Daly, aimed to highlight the dangers of such photoshopping, given that these influencers' followings have been so demonstrably swayed and moved by their new celebrities. Seriously calling into question the portrayal of a false reality, Daly is adamant that things must change in order to protect these young followings.
"Many Irish influencers have followers as young as twelve, if not younger," remarks Daly. "These girls are looking at these pictures and trying to emulate them, whether it is through restricting their diet or going hard in the gym. They don't realize that the girl in the picture doesn't even look like that, none of it is real. The influencers tuck in their waist and slim down their arms and legs via the app Facetune, with some even altering the structure of their face. This is besides the skin smooth and teeth whitening which now appears to be widely accepted as the “normal" and expected thing to do."
If the industry is to continue as is, one can only hope, that like other fledgling industries, it will embrace its flaws and actively address changing them as it gets bigger and reaches a larger audience. Without painting every influencer with the same brush, I think it's safe to ask of those you are following and appreciating every day on your feed: am I following because it's what I want to see, or am I following because they're being paid to tell me what I want to see? Hopefully as the industry matures the difference between fact and fiction will indeed become clearer. Those influencers genuinely dedicated to providing authentic content for you will remain on your feed everyday, bouncy and colorful, while the others will be but a whisper on a feed that once was.
WRITTEN BYAmy Corcoran