‘Influencer marketing’: honest blogging or fake endorsement?

‘It’s in the interest of brands and influencers to let people know when payment’s involved’

 

You haven’t seen anyone wearing a varsity jacket since the Breakfast Club, and suddenly they’re everywhere. You look around and realise that everyone else is sporting eyebrows that look like they were drawn on with a Sharpie by a Japanese anime artist – a trend known as the ‘Instagram brow’ – and you wonder how you managed to miss that memo.

This may have less to do with the mystical forces of fashion, and more to do with the forces of something entirely less transcendent. That something is “influencer marketing”.

Defined by Forbes as a “form of marketing that identifies and targets individuals with influence”, influencer marketing is the phenomenon whereby brands pay people with large social media followings to plug their products on their channels, for anything from a few hundred euro per post up to – for the top influencers working in Ireland – €3,000.

For international social media stars such as models Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne, a single post on Instagram or Snapchat is rumoured to make them around $300,000. Fellow model Miranda Kerr reputedly earns a comparatively more modest $50,000.

Invariably fresh-faced, thick-skinned and likeable, and often with an interest in areas such as fashion, food or fitness, Ireland’s growing army of influencers are one-person media machines, creating content across YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram primarily – sometimes multiple times a day.

The barriers to entry are low: any 17-year-old with a smartphone and a bit of attitude can set themselves up as an influencer. So, too, in the early days, are the rewards. “Don’t expect to get rich quick,” says Andrea Roche, who earlier this year set up a separate influencers section within her model agency, and now represents 60 Irish influencers.

Apart from the few who are famous for something else first – most often as a model or TV presenter – aspiring influencers can spend up to five years building a big enough following on these channels to allow them to “go professional”.

“When I describe myself as a social influencer, I usually subtitle it by saying what that means is that I’ll talk about your brand online for money. But I don’t often describe myself as an influencer, because it does feel a bit like a dirty word here in Ireland,” says Rosemary Mac Cabe, a blogger who has 35,000 followers on Instagram and a presence on Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter.

Dirty word or not, if you haven’t yet heard of influencer marketing, you’d better start paying attention because its reach is spreading. It is the reason that, on a single day last year, the same dress – a floaty, paisley-print, asymmetrical number by Lord & Taylor – turned up simultaneously on 50 popular international Instagram accounts, promptly selling out in stores across the U.S. And it may already be shaping what ends up underneath your Christmas tree this year.

A study by Salesforce found that 70 percent of brands are planning to increase their social media spend this year. A Google Trends search reveals that searches for the term “influencer marketing” has climbed by over 5,000 per cent, making it a “breakout” trend.

There are two schools of thought about whether this is a good thing. The first says that, in an era of content saturation, hard-to-reach millennials, ad-blockers and “banner blindness” – whereby web users have trained themselves ‘not to see’ banner ads – influencers can offer brands an innovative and authentic way to tell their story to consumers, and in particular to that most elusive and sought-after of demographics, millennials, who typically trust word-of-mouth recommendations over advertising.

“It is really just another form of advertising, but it’s much more organic. Each influencer would promote something that genuinely fits their lifestyle or their personalities, and that’s why it works,” says Roche. “Younger age groups are hard to reach with traditional forms of advertising, but they will relate to somebody that they have chosen to follow and they trust.”

That’s one school of thought. The other says that in an era of fake news, this is something almost as shabby: fake product endorsement by people creating a version of themselves for their online audience. Marketing by performance, if you like.

A recent piece in the New York Times by Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, entitled Quit Social Media: Your Career May Depend On It pointed out its cultural shallowness and time-wasting properties, and worried that “a dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”

Then there’s the question of how exactly it benefits those followers. The appeal for brands is clear but the upside for consumers is harder to see – especially when it’s not always easy to distinguish between products that an influencer happens to like, and products they are being paid to say they like. Are your favourite bloggers and Snapchatters sporting that new watch or drinking that protein shake because they genuinely love it? Or is it because someone is paying them to?

Some influencers use hashtags like “#spon” or “#ad” in some posts to denote that an advertiser has paid for it, but not in others, even when both appear to be plugging a product. Some influencers say they only use the hashtags when they are contractually required to by the brand they’re working with. And there’s variation across the channels too – some hashtags seem to be used more often on Instagram than on Snapchat.

Digital influencer and online content creator Ciara O’Doherty has been blogging for six years, since shortly after she graduated in English, Sociology and Political Studies. Now 27, she gave up her job in Easons two years ago to become a “professional influencer”, and now has a presence of 32,000 on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and her own blog, with a mix of paid and organic content, covering fashion, lifestyle and travel. She says: “As Snapchat is becoming more popular, there’s loads of sponsorship going on. People can be paid thousands to talk about a product on Snapchat, and I don’t see it being hashtagged. It’s not that these Snapchatters are setting out to deliberately dupe their audience, but that’s what is happening.”

Mac Cabe, who is 31, worked as a journalist before turning to blogging and posting about her life, fashion, politics, shopping and feminism. She says: “The number one thing my followers care about is not being deceived. They want to know when you get something free, they want to know if you got paid for something.” They don’t like affiliate links “or sponsored content as much as they like everything else”, but if she’s open about it, they will accept it.

She cites her frustration with what she calls the “tarnishing that’s going on. There’s a perception that all bloggers lie. If everybody was honest, we’d all be doing a lot better.” She recently watched one YouTube video that was 12 minutes long, and was clearly an ad. “But it didn’t say anything about it being an ad until the end, when there was a single line about it being a collaboration.”

In January this year, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) issued a reminder that its Code of Standards for Advertising and Marketing Communications – a self-regulatory code – applies to blogging and social media. It says it has since contacted a number of bloggers in relation to their content as part of standard procedure, though it has yet to bring a case to the Complaints Committee.

In November, it issued another note to make those guidelines clearer. “Where celebrities are sponsored by brands or paid directly to promote a brand’s products, it must be clear that their posts are marketing communications,” the note states. “The context of the post or accompanying # may make it clear that it is a marketing communication.”

And it must do so upfront. A disclaimer “below-the-fold on websites, in terms and conditions, or at the end of the piece is not sufficient.” Usually, in blogs or on social media, this disclaimer takes the form of the hashtags “#ad”, “#sp” or “#spon”.

Independent reviews are not regarded as marketing communication, but if “an advertiser has paid the reviewer (directly or in kind) and where the advertiser has significant control over the content of the review”, then it is an ad. If a brand sponsors a blogger but has no control over the material, it is not regarded as a marketing communication. But if the blogger reviews the brand’s products, it is.

“The primary responsibility is on the brand” to ensure the guidelines are followed, says Orla Twomey, chief executive of the ASAI.

Andrea Roche says the influencers who work with her are urged to follow the guidelines. “It’s in the interest of both the brands and the influencers to be very above board and let people know when there’s payment involved. That shouldn’t dilute the appeal to followers: often, these are creative campaigns that the influencer and the brand will work on together.”

Earlier this year, in an effort to bring more clarity to the guidelines, O’Doherty published a YouTube video called How Bloggers and Digital Influencers Make Money in 2016, in which she broke down the different revenue models open to influencers, and made clear why she has chosen to be transparent. O’Doherty adds that “some brands will make it clear at the outset that they want you to flag that the post is an ad, and some won’t. I think it’s up to the content creator to make it clear, and to make sponsored content just as interesting and just as useful to their followers.”

She says she won’t work with any brand that isn’t the right fit. “I once turned down a campaign worth €11,000, because it wasn’t right for me. I still lose sleep about that one.”

To those of us on the outside, the sums of money paid to influencers seem staggering. O’Doherty cites rates for a single Instagram post of between €200 and €700, and up to €2,000 or €3,000 for integrated campaigns across several channels, usually incorporating video. “The bigger the audience, the bigger the fee the brand will be willing to pay,” she says. “But you might only get one of those campaigns in a month.”

Mac Cabe says promoted ads or sponsored posts offer brands a good return, and one is that is – crucially – measurable: “An Irish magazine might have 20,000 to 25,000 people who buy it each month, and they might read that magazine once, if you’re lucky. If you pay €1,000 to take out a full page ad in an Irish magazine, out of 20,000 people who buy it, how many are going to stop and look at your ad? But I can show you that if I talk about your ad on my Snapchat, 14,000 people are seeing that moment. If I talk about it once a week for four weeks, that’s a very good return on investment.”

Rob Lipsett, a 23-year-old fitness blogger who has launched his own range of clothing, quit his job in a start-up over a year ago to focus on working for himself. He now works with brands like Lynx, HTC, Lifestyle Sports and MyProtein and has a following of over 100,000 on his YouTube channel, a blog, and online store and a Facebook page.

He says: “The first year, like any business, is very hard work. I was working full time and I’d do maybe four videos on the weekend, so I could spread them out over the week. Now it would definitely be one of my main sources of income.”

Like Mac Cabe and O’Doherty, he regards authenticity as essential to his appeal, and once turned down a €5,000 deal because it wasn’t right for him. He says a “six-figure salary” is well within reach for top influencers in Ireland. “It’s literally a dream come true to be able to work with brands I love and get paid for it.”

Roche points out that not every post created by an influencer is paid for. “For most influencers and bloggers, it’s their full-time job. They create lots of content that they don’t get paid for, so when they do get paid, they get paid very well. If you want to get rich quickly it’s definitely not the road to go down, because there is a lot of work involved. But if you’re doing well and you have the followers, and your followers understand you have to make a living from it, then it works well for everyone.”

The 60 influencers Roche represents are a mix of celebrities, such as model-turned-author Rozanna Purcell, and those who, like O’Doherty, grew their reputation entirely online. They range in age from their teens to 30s, and she is looking to recruit influencers in their mid-40s. Around 15, she says, are working “flat out” as influencers.

So are there any downsides?

A lack of work-life balance is one issue social influencers seem to suffer from, though they are reluctant to complain about it. Mac Cabe says that although she hopes to blog full time, she still needs to supplement her income with other work. O’Doherty, who is now a full-time influencer, says she works seven days a week, every week, posting multiple times a day. “I absolutely love what I do. I don’t see it as work. But it’s not as easy as just pushing a post to Instagram. There can be a lot of behind the scenes work to get the content right.”

It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t offer a lot of room for, well, a private life. But both O’Doherty and Mac Cabe say they keep their relationships largely separate from their social media lives, at the request of their partners. “Other than that, I don’t hold a lot back,” says O’Doherty.

“I want to share more about the industry, and what goes on behind the loveliness. I’m quite open, for instance, about the fact that I use FaceTune to make myself look better in selfies. I’m planning to get Botox soon, and I’m planning to vlog about that.”

The other issue you might expect to hear more about is online trolling – but there seems to be surprisingly little of that too. “If you have a decent following and you’re putting your life online, you will no doubt get a bit of hate, but it literally couldn’t faze me any less. If someone has time in their day to post a bit of negativity about me, they have way too much free time,” says Lipsett.

“You have to remember that your followers are human. Most of the negative reaction is jealousy,” Mac Cabe says. “They’re at home with four kids, and looking at you on Snapchat getting a free make-up palette along with six other things that day. You need to have some self-awareness and empathy. Sometimes, I’ll ask for their address and send something out to them. God, that makes me sound like Mother Theresa. I’m really not.”

How do they explain what they do to their families?

Lipsett laughs. “It’s funny you should ask that. My parents literally don’t get it. I live on my own with my girlfriend in an apartment, I drive my own car and support myself completely, so as long as I’m not living off them, they don’t care. One thing they do get is that I do a bit of public speaking, so they’ll say ‘so Rob when is your next talk coming up?’ but they wouldn’t ask ‘when is the next video out’?”

Mac Cabe says her mother shared her excitement when she starting making money from promoting brands. She adds: “You do have to maintain your sense of humour about it all. You’re a human being who has somehow garnered a semi-decent online following, and you’re now making a living recommending things to buy. You’re a glorified online sales person, except you’re getting free veneers.”

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