While influencing others isn’t new, the idea of an ‘Influencer’ is. We’ve seen a huge growth of individuals with large followings on social media pitching themselves as the magical conduit between brands and consumers. Vast sums have been spent, but there’s a new mood, and an anti-Influencer sentiment is building.
One of the surprise Netflix hits of recent months was the documentary, 'Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened’. It focused on the naive attempt to hold a luxury music festival on a Caribbean island. ‘Influencers’ were vilified and blamed for enticing people to part with their cash. More than regular models, because they used their huge social media following to promote the festival, they we’re given, rightly or wrongly, some of the responsibility for the festival’s spectacular failure.
Left - Fyre Festival catering, not quite as promised
Buzz Carter, Head of Outreach at Bulldog Digital Media, a digital marketing agency, says, “Negativity towards Influencers has been brewing for a while now, following multiple scandals over the past few years, like Warner Brothers paying YouTube Influencers for good reviews for ‘Shadow of Mordor’, multiple Influencers not marking paid posts as ads, Influencers pushing gambling and scams to a young audience (RiceGum & Mystery Brand) and the ongoing issue of fake followers and interaction.
“This has been in the background for a while, but with the Fyre festival documentary, it’s boiled over.” he says. “Influencers only work when their audience trusts them, but all of these have shown an untrustworthy aspect to Influencers, but I definitely think the Fyre Festival doc. was a catalyst for a lot of the negativity going around now, as it showcased the issue to people who wouldn’t have thought about it.”
The general public are finally understanding the meaning of the term ‘Influencer’. What first started with bloggers and YouTubers has morphed into ‘Influencers’ and ‘Content Creators’ over the past few years. The dictionary definition of ‘Influencer’ states; “a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.” It is usually focussed on the Instagram platform.
Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO, Socialbakers, a social media marketing platform, says, “It is centred around Instagram because Instagram really is the social media platform from which influencers were born. Because of the highly visual nature of the content posted on the platform, it is the place where brands are seeing the most engagement on their content. Hence it is also the place where celebrities and influencers are able to interact with these brands to drive mutual benefit.”
The Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) has issued guidelines to tidy up the difference between sponsored posts and non. Recently, sixteen social media stars including Rita Ora and Alexa Chung have been warned by the Competition and Markets Authority that their posts could break consumer law. Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) said: “Responsible influencer marketing involves being upfront and clear with the audience, so people are not confused or misled and know when they’re being advertised to. The relationship between Influencers and their followers relies on trust and authenticity, so transparency is in the interests of all parties. This guide on the standards will help influencers and brands stick to the rules by being upfront with their followers.”
The guidelines state you have to declare #AD or similar, when you’ve been ‘paid’ in some way (can be freebies, doesn’t have to be money), AND, had some form of editorial ‘control’ over the content. It’s not an ‘either/or’ – there has to be both ‘payment’ and ‘control’ for this type of post to count as an #AD under the CAP Code.
The BBC’s recent broadcast of a Panorama provocatively titled ‘Million Pound Selfie Sell Off’ focused on the negative types of things Influencers are promoting like fad diets and teeth whitening. It jumped on the Influencer backlash which is rippling out to the wider public. It’s creating feeling of being hoodwinked or cheated.
Erica Davies, a former newspaper fashion editor and womenswear and home Influencer with 130K followers on Instagram, commented on Twitter in response to the Panorama programme, “Transparency and honesty is key. But equally, the playing field needs to be level. If one platform is under the microscope, then there should be a united set of rules targeting ALL advertising across newspaper and magazine journalism, print titles AND social media.
A few people’s untrustworthy ethics on social media platforms is bringing negative heat onto Influencers in general. “There are a lot of responsible, trustworthy people trying to provide interesting, creative content on social media, that doesn’t just involve ‘selling stuff.’ It’s a shame #BBCPanorama didn’t talk to any of them.” she says.
Anybody can be an Influencer, and there are many crossovers between jobs, but it’s the fixation on the numbers of followers and engagement that is creating an environment for people to cheat the system. There have been recent articles calling out people for buying followers and “cheating” the system. Is this a sign of the bubble bursting for Influencers and the saturation of the market or is this an element of jealousy of those “living their best life”?
If you consider yourself to be an Influencer then everything is self-promotion. Your entire business is based on pushing yourself and proving your influence and trying to monetise that. But, people are growing tired and suspicious of vacuous content.
William Matthews, Menswear Marketing Specialist, says “Anti-Influencer sentiment is being fuelled by opportunistic, uninformed individuals who can’t base their opinions on relevant frames of reference or experience. “I love this” means nothing unless you can explain in a meaningful, informed way why that is.
"Hats off to the fantastic influencers who have worked hard to evolve their taste, opinions and truly understand their subject matter (in the same way journalists/editors do) with hard-won experience and relevant frames of reference. They add huge value to the media mix for brands.” he says
Consumers are also switching off. According to a report by Mindshare, Google Trends queries like “social media harms your mental health” and “social media seriously harms your mental health” have risen in the last 12 months, by +5,000% and +4,000% respectively. The report by Mindshare entitled ‘Trends 2019’, which holds quantitative research from more than 6,000 consumers aged 18+ across the UK found 61% of consumers are doing more to monitor their own screen time, 72% of consumers have begun to unfollow certain people and accounts altogether and 66% of people have started to hide social media posts from people with differing views.
With the decline of print, digital, including social media, is going to be a more important way to reach consumers for brands. “While influencer marketing has been around in some form or another for a long time, it's really only in the last year or so that it has become such an important tactic for marketers.” says Ben-Itzhak. “As with anything that involves exchanging money for a service, the practise is open to a certain amount of fraud and misbehaviour. It will bring greater dependency on marketing technologies to help brands identify the right Influencer and as to help Influencers vet the brands before they work with them.
"If you look at celebrity throughout the ages, there has always been competition from within and jealousy from the outside. Influencers are very much an extension of that. What will be interesting to see in the next months/years is how much credibility consumers will continue to give to macro influencers, such as the big name celebrities who have a high price tag for each post, versus the micro-influencers, who have smaller follower numbers but greater credibility with their niche communities.” says Ben-Itzhak.
Influencers wear many hats and celebrities promoting products isn’t a new concept. What Influencers have to realise is, this direct dialogue with their followers makes them look more responsible. How much do brands employ Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner for their modelling skills rather than their social media numbers?
“For the future of the industry, I can see Influencer marketing being put under tighter regulations on what they can promote and how they promote, as well a crackdown on fake followers, Social Chain are actually working on a tool to see through follower fraud. So in the future I think influencer marketing will thrive, but it will be more carefully used by brands than it has been over the last few years.” says Carter.
These documentaries and programmes have put a spotlight onto this Influencer world and is making the general public become more cynical and wary of social media Influencers. It will be interesting to see whether this new toxic environment makes brands want to distance themselves and implodes the entire market entirely.
I’ve also written - Digital Hindsight
It feels like we’re one data breach, revelation or exposé away from deleting Facebook. Not to mention all the other platforms. Some of us have been on these social media channels for nearly a decade and we’re tired. Social media is starting to feel a bit of a chore and people are reassessing their relationship with it. The novelty factor is waning and it seems like we’re bored of seeing the same images repeated and, even those who’ve made it their business to ‘influence’, via social media - ‘Influencers’ - seem bored themselves of making and posting the same images.
“There’s definitely a sense of content and Facebook fatigue and more importantly, a loss of trust. As a first-gen blogger, it was trust that built our communities ten years ago and that was in no small part because at that time blogging was purely a passion project, not for commercial gain,” says Navaz Batliwalla, editorial consultant and blogger at Disneyrollergirl.net
“The reason social media content has become formulaic is down to the cynical commercialisation of it all. To reach mass eyeballs, your content has to be fairly mainstream which is why so many blogs and legacy media have adapted similar aesthetics and tones of voice. It’s diluted the uniqueness and personality. Inevitably, it becomes a slog to create that sort of formulaic content too, so the creators themselves get bored - and it shows.” says Batliwalla.
Instagram has clearly peaked and it being the centre of brands’ and people’s focus is changing. There are only so many flat-whites or magnolia trees people are going to be interested in. It’s all got very annoying and basic.
Instagram recently made changes so people can no longer manipulate engagement and artificially increase following. Those who think they’ve got more engagement than Elizabeth Taylor will now have to rely solely on the whims of their ‘followers’ and it’s almost certain they won’t be able to sustain their likes and followers in a market that is mature and growing bored.
“For me, the big content killer has been the algorithmic changes. Bloggers who relied on Instagram for their main income have panicked as their engagement plunged since the introduction of Instagram’s changes last year. I noticed certain tactics like comment pods and lengthy over-shary posts, a kind of desperate click-bait attempt to keep followers interested. It’s also the reason for so many more ‘look at me’-type posts because selfies and outfit posts tend to get better engagement on Instagram. But again, with certain influencers, it just doesn’t come naturally and it’s a turnoff to their followers. I'’ve been there myself! Finally, the sheer volume of sponsored posts is exhausting to read. It’s too much.” says Batliwalla.
For me, it was when they allowed you to save your best Instagram Stories - ‘Story Highlights’ - that I felt like this had become a job and required too much thought, rather than something fun and interactive. The more things they introduce, the heavier it all becomes. You see people tapping away on their Facebook accounts on their phones on the train: liking pictures, commenting and keeping up. It’s like a full-time job. People will reduce the amount of their free time they spend on these sites.
Even the biggest ‘Influencers’ can’t rely on their numbers. Just look at people like Ella Mills - Deliciously Ella - 1.3m Instagram followers, closing her delis, Millie Mackintosh, reality star and influencer - 1.3m Instagram followers, folding her clothing line, and the ultimate influencer of all Victoria Beckham - 19.6m Instagram followers, made around 60 workers redundant recently after new investors ordered a review of the business.
We do have to acknowledge the green-eyed monster in the reporting of Influencers, especially by traditional press. These attractive people living their best life and getting paid to do it. Beats working in McDonald’s. But, it’s got crowded, they’re not cute forever and we’ve all seen that ‘wow’ picture before. Ultimately, unless they’re traditionally famous, have a respected talent or you fancy them, why the fuck do you care about what they are doing? It seems strange that so many people are supposed to care about people they don’t know. They don’t.
Christophe Brumby, Creative Strategist at Amplify (brand experience agency for clients like Facebook, Google and Spotify) says, “As publishers see their influence wane and as Influencers fight for control, everyone is taking matters in their own hands… What we are seeing as a result is a new age of convergence where publishers such as Refinery 29 are turning their staff into influencers and where influencers are starting their own publishing ventures with the likes of Street Dreams, a collective of creators rooted in photography, bringing their community offline through a print magazine, photo walks and shows. It may not be long before we see publishers and influencers teaming up together to maintain relevance with their audiences while reducing their dependence on social platforms.”
“Social media did not invent influence but in bringing the ‘social’ into traditional media, they dramatically changed the rules of the game. Social media have atomised and democratised influence, effectively transferring power from the traditional media to every individual user; turning everyone into a potential influencer capable of measuring their personal media value,” says Brumby.
“Despite a rise in marketing spend, many influencers argue that the current model is not sustainable as platforms and brands are taking advantage of a highly fragmented landscape where they do not hold much leverage as individuals. On the one hand, they are increasingly reliant on the platforms that ultimately own their audiences and dictate the rules of engagement, often feeling at the mercy of sudden algorithm changes," says Brumby.
In a recent article in the Financial Times about the death of Influencers, it quoted a fashion PR director saying, “Whatever you do — don't market yourself as an Influencer. Stick to journalism. That's a proper craft.” There's definitely a feeling of distancing themselves from the label 'Influencer'.
Robin James, digital content producer, Youtube creator and blogger says “I don’t use social media in my personal life. It’s not real life and I find it exhausting, It takes a lot from you without giving back and a feeling of you’re missing life. That said, there’s a flip side, Instagram Stories is the real side of what ‘Influencers’ are up to.”
“Audiences are going through Instagram double tapping without reading and being social media zombies. In terms of business, I produce stuff with more thought and heart and not just a pretty picture. That sort of production and quality of content will survive. I tried to take the production down slightly to be more connected to an audience and become a bit more raw,” he says.
James recently qualified as a barber to give himself more expertise in the grooming arena, “I decided to do that to have a lot more authority, and become an expert in an area. One was editorial and secondly, was commercially: I can do this, I can cut and style it. I trained for six months.”
So, what’s next? What would we do with all that spare time if we reduced our ‘socialising’?! I think there’s a place for something like Facebook, but more a Wikipedia model of philanthropy. Run just to wipe its face, it would be more like what a lot of people think Facebook is rather than a huge marketing site.
I think we’ll see a return to searched for, permanent, or as permanent as the internet allows, content. People looking for something and finding a trusted voice.
Everybody is striving for authority and longevity. I think those ‘Influencers’ who have nothing to say or say nothing with disappear. The rest will have to evolve to beyond just the visual and sound bites as the audience matures and also, no doubt, the next wave of young consumers will be into something else.
Will we see the end of thirsty attention seekers seeking validation on Instagram? Probably not, but I think it’s definitely had its moment. Marketeers, who always take a while to catch up, will continue to chuck money at this for a little while yet, but it’ll fall off soon.
But where do we go next? Good print isn’t dead, but, ultimately, it’s digital.
“I’ve noticed a renewed interest in long form content, more like essays. People are yearning to read blogs again. Informed opinions, observations, not just news and product reviews. I write a monthly insights email (called The Beauty Conversation) with two beauty industry colleagues and we’re nurturing our community to build trust and engagement. It’s not about numbers at all, but the relevance and quality of our audience and our niche content.” says Batliwalla.
Everything has become so disposable and ultimately forgettable. This is the modern life we live, but it will bounce back, not fully, but partially.
Can you remember when you met somebody new and you’d say “What’s your Instagram?” That's stopped. I can’t be bothered anymore. It’s full and I don’t want to waste more of my time deleting accounts. As the Instagram hysteria subsides it will take the pressure off ‘reach’ and ;followers; and plateau into a record of pictures for genuine friendship groups.
All those ‘Influencer Marketing’ companies that have popped up with have to move into digital marketing and have a broader scope. I used to joke that there were more platforms than Clapham Junction. It just doesn’t feel funny anymore.
Read more expert ChicGeek Comments - here
Read - You're Fyred! The Anti-Influencer Backlash has begun...