There was a time that ‘influencer marketing’ was the hot new thing. Something young marketing executives pitched to their managers as a trend worth investigating. Then the CEOs started having conversations with their kids about Instagram at the weekend and suddenly everyone was talking about it. Agency and client meeting rooms across the world came alive with questions. ‘What is influencer marketing?’ ‘Should we be using it?’ ‘What are the risks?’
But guess what? Now, even your mum knows what influencer marketing is – and chances are she doesn’t approve. You don’t have to work in the industry to know what an ‘influencer’ is these days, because they’re apparently everywhere. There was a time you could just have a favourite Instagram account where you’d go to get fitness tips, pick up a couple of recipe ideas and maybe buy a copy of that book they’d been mentioning for some reason. But now they’re an influencer? Eww. No.
In the last few months, we’ve seen Instagram influencers defending themselves against perplexed middle-aged news presenters on what exactly they do for a living, radio stations publishing research to show “most shoppers mistrust influencers”, companies calling for greater transparency around what constitutes an #ad and agencies questioning whether or not this is all the last gasp of a dying fad. The truth is, marketing trends come and go, but what is it that’s got everyone from your mate Dave the electrician to the Senior Ideas Ninja at Wanking Penguin so concerned about influencer marketing?
Well, it’s probably a few things. But one of the main issues seems to be with the whole perception of influencer marketing. We’ve had not one, but two documentaries detailing the rise and fall of the Fyre Festival, which showed how influencers were used to sell out a horrifically mismanaged and possibly fraudulent event. Reports have been put out on Reddit that show how certain influencers have either bought followers or are loading up their accounts with bots and spammers. There was even a survey that showed 82% of people now ‘mistrust’ influencers. Head to social media, and you’ll find no shortage of people trying to convince their followers (yep) to jump on the anti-influencer bandwagon.
Now just to be clear, I’ve got no skin in the game. I don’t make money from podcasting or blogging, and I certainly don’t make a penny from social media. Yes, I work in marketing, but I have no particular like or dislike for influencer marketing as a concept. Like all things, I think there is a time and a place it can be deployed, but that there are good people and bad people out there making a living from it. But as long as they are being honest about what they do, I don’t begrudge any of them their chosen career. What does bother me though, is the underlying sense from those who are against it, that they’re somehow above or immune to marketing influence. It’s like all of a sudden, while attacking this new and terrifying way for brands to communicate with audiences via a ‘trusted’ medium, we’ve all forgotten that most of the things we spend our money on are chosen as a result of influence – even if it isn’t in the traditional ‘advertising’ sense.
Take your mate Dave the electrician for instance. A good bloke, and he seems to know everyone. Remember when you had a leak in the bathroom and it caused all that damage in the hallway? Finding a plumber was a nightmare, but you mentioned it to Dave and he told Rob. Rob came round the next day and sorted it for £200. Rob seemed like a good lad too, even pointed you in the direction of Steve, the plasterer who fixed up the hallway for another £200. When Dave popped round to check the electrics hadn’t been damaged by the leak, it was only right to chuck him £50 for his help and the recommendation. But what if I told you Dave took £20 of the £200 you paid Rob? And Rob took £20 of the £200 you paid Steve? What are you focused on now, the quality and price? Or that these three have been passing around your cash? What if we remove the money from the equation and just admit this is something that happens? Haven’t we all recommended someone we know for a job? Don’t we all hope they’d do the same for us?
And sure, influencer marketing is relatively new and not exactly the same thing as a recommendation from good old Dave. But then, Dave wouldn’t have mentioned Rob if he didn’t think he was up to it would he? It wouldn’t look good if he recommended someone and they turned out to be useless – event if he did stand to get an extra £20 in his pocket. And that’s kind of my point. While I 100% agree that influencers need to be honest about when something is or is not an #ad, I think it’s up to us as consumers to think about the people and the brands we trust. We’ve been doing that for years anyway, so why is this any different? And I know, when the people become the brands, the lines become more blurred. But as always, the good will out and the the bad will be found out. And for our part, we need to be grown ups and accept that when we click ‘buy’, other forces are at work. And all of them are getting paid.