Over the last month, the media-storm around BBC One Panorama ‘Million Pound Selfie’, and the infamous Fyre Festival on Netflix has caused yet another backlash about the lack of transparency and authenticity in the influencer marketing industry.
Celebrity endorsements are not new news though. Whether we like it or not, celebrities have been promoting brands for hundreds of years, 250 to be exact. The first known history of celebrity endorsement globally dates back to the 1760s when a pottery and chinaware company called Wedgwood used royal endorsements to show value in the company and promote its products.
It’s only until now that marketers have cast a cautious eye on these celebrity influencers – people who have gained influence through talent such as musicians, actresses or models – because they have been failing to mention #AD in their posts, which seems to be at the top of everyone’s newsfeed.
However the media has completely ignored the evolution that has happened over the last decade, a new influencer has formed. A content creator or digital influencer is someone who has influence because they create digital content – social, blogs, video – they are passionate about for their community. Therefore, they care deeply about being authentic and transparent with their audience. This type of influencer is one who brands partner with because they have proven to be more effective than your traditional celebrity influencer.
Despite this crucial difference in motive, I’m not going to ignore the fact that digital influencers have had their own issues with authenticity. Last year there was a reported 12% of influencers who had suspicious accounts, meaning they bought fake followers, and brands were concerned about wasted marketing spend.
A wider look at digital and authenticity in influencer marketing
But if we take a look at the wider digital industry, this issue is quite minimal. According to the IAB, $8.2 billion dollars is wasted every year on programmatic ad fraud – that’s four times more than we spend in influencer marketing total. Programmatic ad fraud has been a major concern for over ten years yet we don’t see any major outlets publicising this issue. Despite programmatic being more of a concern, with the threat of a brand being placed next to hate speak, porn, and other evils.
Could it be that the celebrity factor in influencer marketing has escalated a relatively normal issue we face in almost all digital channels? Here’s a quick recap of the measures the industry has put in place to ensure brand safety and authenticity:
- Instagram announced last year that it is cracking down on accounts using third-party apps to enhance followers and engagement. They stripped users of fake “likes” and comments from third-party apps.
- Most influencer agencies and platforms have a fraud detection system in place whether it’s utilising machine learning technology to measure influencer engagement ratios or follower growth and whether they have utilised a bot app or direct access to influencer accounts.
- It has become quite obvious when an influencer is buying fake followers or acts in an unprofessional way (the previous posts are all public), and marketers everywhere are able to do a spot check of content manually.
So is transparency as big of an issue as we think?
The issue is not because of lack of tools in the industry or that nobody cares, the issue is due to a focus on platform over people, fast campaign turnaround, and the belief that this is simply a marketing tactic instead of what could be a full funnel approach. The industry is maturing and we (marketers, agencies, platforms, social media platforms) have strict measures in place to blacklist and weed out influencers who are not being transparent or authentic.
So, although the media has put a big bright shining light on a relatively normal issue in digital marketing, it’s now time for us to focus on what’s more important; how we can be more creative and strategic in our influencer approach. An Instagram post of an influencer holding a shampoo bottle smiling at the camera is not effective anymore (and was it ever really?).
We really need to move past these so-called authenticity issues and think more like humans instead of marketers, because the issue is irrelevant when you’re working with professional and quality influencers. The questions we should be asking ourselves are:
- Do we have a strong quality control process?
- Have we established a good working relationship with these influencers?
- Are they professional and are they going to work with us collaboratively?
- Is their content creative/high quality?
- Are they respectable in their community and have they generate strong engagement? Do people genuinely engage with their content?
- What content is their audience most engaged with and why?
We need to stop buying influencers programmatically through platforms and start treating them like people.
The future of influencer marketing could be bright
There are so many passionate and quality influencers who create content and build digital businesses because of pure love for their niche. These influencers are entrepreneurs and creatives, whether its art, food, parenting, tech, travel, entrepreneurship, beauty or fashion, they are people who are real and honest and have grown an authentic community around their passions.
If you’re working with the above type of influencers then authenticity and transparency issues are not a problem anymore.
Becoming a digital influencer takes a lot of time and effort, so it’s not about making a quick buck, it’s about fuelling a life-long passion. If we don’t fuel this passion by shifting our thinking and approach as humans, then yes, we will see this industry become less authentic and less effective. But I have hope that marketers are more human than we think.