Monday 28 January, 2019

Influencer marketing has rapidly become one of the industry’s favourite buzzwords.

The practice of working with social media stars and celebrities to endorse brand messages or products has developed into a billion dollar industry, with recent projections estimating that it will generate as much as $10 billion by 2020.

With 85% of brands applying influencer marketing and over a quarter allocating up to 75% of their communications budget to working with influencers, there’s no suggestion that this lucrative and powerful form of persuasion is a mere flash in the pan.

That said, a series of backlashes and exposures have cast doubt on the credibility of brand-endorsed influencers, with many professionals suggesting that the bubble has burst.

Netflix’s recent behind-the-scenes documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened chronicles the disastrous Fyre Festival – a failed ‘music experience’ that left fans demanding answers.

The organisers had spent thousands, if not millions, on an extravagant launch campaign for a festival that did not exist. Some of the world’s most-recognised celebrities, including Kylie Jenner and Bella Hadid, were drafted in to share promotional pictures and preview film clips of the luxurious festival.

However, the reality was somewhat different. When tickets sold out, organisers scrambled, unsuccessfully, to try and deliver the event. Punters who had paid out thousands of dollars to hang out with their favourite influencers in the glamorous surroundings of the Bahamas were met with chaos, a lack of basic provisions, and a distinct lack of influencers.

With many of the social media stars who had promoted the launch campaign attempting to untangle themselves from the mess by deleting posts or apologising, fans were outraged that some of their most followed and aspiring social media stars and celebrities had persuaded them to pay for an event which was a complete disaster.

The Fyre Festival has amplified many of the grievances that have been aired around the ethics and credibility of hiring influencers to endorse brands. Since the Netflix series aired, communications professionals and regulators have joined an increasingly heated debate about whether the festival has ‘killed’ influencer marketing or merely forced marketeers to re-evaluate the role of influencers within their marketing toolkit.

Many argue that if anything the Fyre Festival documentary demonstrates the utilisation of influencer marketing, with brand managers and influencers now more cautious and the importance of regulation – the responsibility of flagging promoted content –quite rightly emphasised.

Issues raised by the Fyre Festival have coincided with increased warnings from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to a number of high profile UK influencers that their posts could be breaking consumer law, adding further fuel to the fire. Celebrities and social media icons including Zoe Sugg (Zoella), Ellie Goulding and Alexa Chung were named by the CMA as not being transparent about content sponsored by brands, with many stating that they have now agreed to change how they post online.

Current regulations, which require influencers to clearly state that they have been paid or received gifts of the products that they endorse, are in place to ensure that consumers aren’t misled by the content that they view and are persuaded by. But, with online opinions often trusted over any form of advertising or traditional media, especially by Millennials, these regulations are also putting a spanner in the works of an industry that is built on a trusted relationship between consumer and influencer.

Many argue that by following rules and regulations the power of influencer marketing is weakened, with consumers less likely to pay attention to content sponsored by brands. However, the role of influencer marketing within the communications mix is far from dead.

To apply influencer marketing in a regulated and effective way we must focus on authenticity. Authenticity and trust are what the industry is built on, and the reason why consumers believe and are persuaded by genuine celebrity, blogger and social star voices.

The most successful brand and influencer partnerships are those that are built on real relationships. Moving away from partnerships which rely purely on one-off product placements with a star with thousands and thousands of followers, the focus should be on determining who is the best fit with a brand, its message and the target audience.

This fit comes down to several factors – current style of content, personality, previous partnerships – but all have an effect on the credibility of the story that is being told. If a brand or campaign message is a seamless fit with the influencer’s content then they will still be exposed to a brand that fits with their lifestyle and a product or service opportunity, without feeling manipulated. We, as consumers, are then more likely to ‘buy in’ to those partnerships and place our faith in influencer-endorsed brands.

Far from killing the influencer marketing industry, The Fyre Festival has forced communicators to reassess how, where and why influencers can be used to enhance brand campaigns. Those brands who are willing to invest the time in developing the right relationships with the right influencers, will win the day in earning the trust of their customers.