Can influencers regain the trust that was once inherent to their marketing?
It was a world-famous music festival for all the wrong reasons: the ill-fated Fyre Festival stranded hundreds of people on the Bahamas’ Great Exuma Island in April 2018, and became the subject and punchline of hundreds of news articles, think pieces, and memes overnight. It wasn’t just the credibility of the Festival founders that took a hit, either. The influencers who were paid to promote the event – a collection of models and actors – were also raked over the coals.
The Fyre incident threw a lot into the spotlight, and influencer marketing was no exception. After the large sums of money paid out to Fyre’s influencer pool surfaced, the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) made it mandatory for influencers to disclose when their content is sponsored (only one out of the hundreds of influencers Fyre hired used the marker #ad on her post).
While April 2018 was a watershed moment for a public discussion of influencer marketing, influencers have been slowly transforming the marketing landscape of certain industries – namely, beauty, fashion, and home – for nearly a decade. And, due to an unhealthy mix of murky acknowledgement, oversaturation, and ranging levels of deceit, it runs the risk of being obsolete sooner rather than later.
What kind of deceit are we talking about? There are “contra-influencers” – ones paid to actively slander competing products. There are the studies that point to only 7-10 per cent of sponsored posts disclosed as such, and that’s after the FTC guideline update. Perhaps most bizarrely, there are the thousands of posts that mimic influencer ones without being sponsored at all, in the hopes of attracting brand dollars down the line.
Founder of influencer marketing disruptor H Hub James Cole sums it all up:
“With every #sponsored post and every soulless endorsement of a product you don’t truly love, your followers trust you a little less. Then, they buy a little less. Then, the brand trusts you a little less because your followers bought less of their product. Then, the brand pays you a little less. Then, you trust the brand a little less in return….it’s a death spiral, and no, I am not being dramatic.”
With all respect to Cole and his smart company: we disagree. Influencer marketing can be brought back from the brink, largely by doing the opposite of what Cole identifies. They should only endorse products they really love and would use, becoming ambassadors for specific brands that align with them (and not just their bank accounts). They should be clear about their endorsements, but just as clear that they wouldn’t be advocating for them if they didn’t adore the product or service.
Some are already leading the charge in being more suited to their niches and more honest and upfront about their sponsorships. Podcasting hosts are great examples of this, whose ads are an extension of their podcast and a delight for listeners. The McElroy brothers’ podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me’s “Money Zone” segment is a hilarious example, where their crack-ups over the products and services they’re discussing are interspersed with genuine endorsements for sweatpants, mattresses, food delivery services, and so much more.
So, if you’re a brand looking to connect with an influencer, make sure that:
1. They love what you do: maybe they’re already talking about you, or have expressed a real need for exactly what you offer.
2. They’re a positive force in the communities they frequent: you don’t want someone who’s going to start something offensive with your name listed right after it. If they’ve done it once, they’ll do it again.
3. They’re realistic: they don’t have hundreds of thousands of (fake) followers, but they have a fair number of engaged, devoted fans who they can delight with your brand.
Set your expectations and build genuine trust with influencers.