YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have a lot in common. They’re all massively popular social media sites that connect creators with their fans. More recently, however, they have become even more than that. While exposure to one’s fans is thrilling, it soon becomes clear that those followers demand consistent, quality content on a regular basis. With the constant deluge of content being churned out, creators can fall into relative obscurity rather quickly. This means, in order to stay relevant, creators must put in countless hours of work to maintain their following. Oftentimes, these content creators do not make enough revenue off their platform’s advertising to sustain such work. This is a problem for both creators and advertisers. Enter the rise of influencer marketing. In plain terms, influencer marketing is the modern day equivalent of celebrity endorsements. These practices go back as far as we can remember, but some of the most notable celebrities teaming up with the biggest brands are people like Michael Jordan and Nike, Justin Timberlake and McDonalds, Britney Spears and Pepsi, Ellen Degeneres and Covergirl, and the list goes on. Having a celebrity tout your product is one of the most effective ways to increase sales and engagement around your brand.
While celebrity endorsements are still quite prevalent, the last 10 years have brought us a rise in a non-traditional endorsements: Influencers. Marketers came up with the term influencers as a way to describe internet personalities with a huge online following, who, as the name implies, influence their fans’ opinions and ideals, which in turn influences their purchasing decisions.
These sponsorships can take many forms. There are social media posts about the product or brand, sponsored videos that talk about the brand sandwiched between their regular content, sponsored blog posts, podcast ads, giveaways, and discounts for followers of the particular influencer.
The rise of influencer culture means becoming a celebrity doesn’t have the rigid requirements that it once did. These days, you don’t need to be a basketball star or Oscar-winning actor to gain millions of fans. You can be a video game streamer, a makeup artist, a pet owner or an up and coming artist. In fact, huge followings can be born of even the most [seemingly] obscure interests. Whether that’s whispering and tapping into people’s headphones with the ASMR phenomenon, rating people’s dogs, playing D&D, or 90’s throwback pictures.
This surge in popularity for influencers has many benefits for the influencer, the brand they are touting and the consumer. First, it means that fame is now accessible for millions of “regular” people, with many gaining massive amounts of followers with only an internet connection and a camera phone. This phenomenon has redistributed advertising revenue to include the general population; taking it out of the hands of a select few and into the hands of the average person, whether that’s someone opening Kinder Eggs and unboxing toys, or baking treats with video game and comic book themes, or simply complaining about things like hugs and babies. While these seemingly simple ideas would likely never make it to network television, online they have garnered millions of followers and even made millions of dollars for the some of these creators.
This rise in influencer culture has also benefited the consumer, giving them access and exposure to specific content they never would have otherwise seen in the mainstream media. Today, you can find images, videos and commenters on virtually any subject in all corners of the internet. This is awesome, because, let’s be honest, where else can you see an entire channel devoted to random things being crushed by a hydraulic press?
These people and social accounts then use their massive following to partner with brands and offer an “endorsement” that they share with their followers. This kind of native advertising allows brands to circumvent modern problems like premium, ad-free accounts, internet ad blockers and consumers who are cutting the cable cord and no longer seeing TV advertisements.
It should go without saying, but obviously this has also benefited the brands that these influencers partner with in a big way. How much does it cost to pay LeBron James to advertise for Nike? It’s not cheap. Tens of millions, in fact, and that does not include costs for filming commercials, designing the campaigns, paying artists, and buying the ad spots on television and online. But money paid to an influencer with an Instagram account one million strong can be pennies on the dollar for major brands. In fact, a recent study found that on average, businesses generate $6.50 in revenue for each $1 invested in influencer marketing. This also creates opportunities for smaller companies, (think: subscription boxes or specialty cat litter) to get a foothold in a market that was previously cost-prohibitive for them.
With all those benefits, influencer marketing sounds like a win-win-win. But what are the downsides, if any, of such a massive shift in the way we approach marketing? It turns out, there are several.
Let’s take a recent example of influencers gone wrong. Caroline Calloway was an Instagram personality and lifestyle blogger. Caroline posted about her experiences in college, her love life, traveling, and generally living like with purpose and authenticity. Unfortunately, that persona all but unraveled in September when her former ghostwriter, Natalie Beach, published a blog post about her experience with the Instagram star. According to Beach, Calloway’s adventures began innocently enough, but soon evolved to become a public debacle that many now deem a complete sham. Beach revealed that most of her “travels” with Calloway were nothing more than rushing from one landmark to another while Calloway made Beach take endless photos in a multitude of poses, then hurrying back to wherever they were staying to write meaningful and profound captions about spontaneity and authenticity. After a failed book deal, according to Beach, Calloway began to spiral, abusing alcohol and drugs and staying holed up in her apartment alone. During this time, Calloway admitted that she had actually paid for tens of thousands of fake followers, creating her personal brand on a foundation of lies, but still gaining followers and selling tickets to a life coach-like speaking tour that would never occur. Understandably, Calloway’s fans were furious. They felt they had been cheated, and just like that, Calloway instantly became a social pariah.
This story is a sad example of influencer culture gone wrong, but not unique. Many other supposed “influencers” have shared secrets of lying about current brand sponsorships to entice real advertisers, falsely inflating their number of followers with fake accounts, and even plagiarizing content. These sort of scandals show us that even those who are revered by so many have their faults. Finding out your idols aren’t who they say they are; aren’t living the life their Instagram accounts would imply is disappointing and frustrating. They feel tricked.
This sort of disillusionment can severely damage both the influencer’s following and the brands they promote. Consider when popular YouTube or Instagram personalities are caught using racial slurs or touting known conspiracy theories. Many popular advertisers will pull their support from the account or channel, lest they be linked to the behavior or beliefs themselves. It is important that advertisers understand that when they invest in “average joe” influencers, they are creating a partnership with someone who are likely inexperienced in advertising and business in general. Famous actors and musicians are well-versed in the optics of brand sponsorships, a 17 year-old Fortnite streamer likely does not have a PR consultant or agent, and does not understand that every word they say has a consequence and reflects on the products they promote. After all, many of these people are making a living off of simply narrating their lives or blogging about their interests. One of the wonderful things about most online influencers is that their authenticity attracts and resonates with their followers. They aren’t so far removed from the general public like major celebrities are.
So what does this mean for the parties involved in this revolutionary form of marketing? It means we must manage our expectations. It means companies must understand that working with inexperienced influencers is a risk. It means content creators must understand that there is a fine line between authenticity and selling out. It means consumers must understand first and foremost, these influencers are human beings. They aren’t perfect, they often make mistakes. Putting blind faith in someone who runs an Instagram account with millions of followers and expecting them to remain authentic while continuously churning out new content will often result in disappointment.
While influencer marketing is exciting, it is a delicate balance and must be treated carefully. Influencers, advertisers and consumers alike should not be careless about the brands they are promoting and the products they are consuming.