Opinion: The dishonest and wasteful practice of influencer marketing
The better part of the last decade has been marked by the obsessive and reckless adoption of social media influencers as a marketing tactic. It’s time for marketing professionals to say goodbye to influencers and re-focus on what matters.
Ironically, it was a search for more transparent marketing that led us into this mess. Influencer marketing was built on the faulty premise that trust in traditional and digital media was dying and that influencers were authentic voices customers could trust. Agency reps argued that an online endorsement from an influencer carried the same weight as a recommendation from a trusted friend. Because 92 percent of consumers turn to people they know for referrals, it was assumed that this applied to online influencers.
And, miraculously, marketers bought into this unsound sales pitch. A whole new industry emerged, which saw brands pour billions of dollars into a questionable and unproven practice. Eye-popping sums were directly deposited into the pockets of non-professionals who happened to have hefty followers. It’s estimated that by 2022, up to $15 billion will be spent by brands on influencer marketing.
Investment in influencer marketing has become wildly disproportionate. For instance, Beauty giant Estée Lauder has already committed a staggering 75 percent of its advertising budget toward influencer marketing. A recent survey of marketing professionals from consumer consulting firm Talkwalker found that 69 percent of respondents identified influencer marketing as either an important or top strategic priority. What makes this budget allocation and prioritization even more confounding is that 84 percent of marketing professionals feel that demonstrating the ROI of influencer marketing is a challenge that still can’t be proven. Spending that much time and money on an unproven tactic is reckless, lazy and negligent.
The inability to prove the ROI of influencer marketing should be enough to convince any half-decent marketer to de-prioritize it. If that’s not enough, here are two additional reasons why influencer marketing needs to die in 2020:
Influencers know that the bigger their audience, the bigger the paycheck
This has led to influencers artificially inflating their numbers by buying fake followers. Andrew Hogue is a researcher and developer at IG Audit, a tool which estimates the number of fake followers an Instagram account has. In a recent interview with the BBC, he admitted that his team found that “20 to 30 percent of influencers will be artificially inflating their metrics in some way, shape or form, whether that be buying fake followers, fake likes, comments or even story views.” Additionally, it’s estimated that Instagram alone has more than 95 million bot accounts, making it easier for influencers to access a bigger audience.
But since fake followers and bots don’t buy products, it’s a bum deal for brands. A 2019 report from Cheq, a cybersecurity company focused on the digital media, found that this fraudulent activity will have cost brands $1.3 billion last year. It’s extremely difficult for brands to tell if an influencer is buying followers, so why take the risk?
Influencer content is not more authentic
Let’s be honest, influencer content is just another form of advertising (albeit one without oversight). Yet consumers find it difficult to identify when influencers are advertising. In fact, a survey from Prizeology found that almost half of respondents weren’t aware of what language influencers use to identify to audiences that they are being paid for a particular message.
Rather than offering a more authentic experience, influencer marketing has blurred the lines in troubling ways. All transparency has been lost. For instance, fashion influencer Marissa Casey Fuchs aka @fashionambitionist, rose to notoriety last year for her less-than-honest online behavior. For her more than 175,000 Instagram followers, she chronicled a lavish scavenger hunt that took her from New York City to Montauk to Miami to Paris and culminated in a proposal/wedding. The only problem was, what was shown to be spontaneous had been pre-planned and pitched to brands in advance so that she could cash in on her journey of love, and on the couple's followers.
A pitch deck with detailed descriptions of the itinerary was shared with brands, offering them “the opportunity to align with this momentous occasion and the beautiful cities she will be visiting along the way.” While the couple insist that they received no direct payment, their scavenger hunt did feature items from Flywheel, LoveShackFancy and Glamsquad, who were tagged in posts. Jewelry brand Jade Trau was also featured and gave a substantial discount on two items. However, none of the posts clearly disclosed whether Marissa or Gabriel had any financial, employment, personal or family relationship with the brands, which is a breach of FTC guidelines. This type of influencer content isn’t authentic, it’s fraudulent. And companies have nothing to gain—and a lot of credibility to lose by investing in such dishonest and self-aggrandizing ploys.
It’s time to put influencer marketing—one of the biggest marketing distractions of the past 10 years—out to pasture. We need to stop chasing vanity metrics and unproven tactics, and go back to the fundamentals of marketing and advertising. Brand guardians should focus on developing work that is truly creative and based on rich consumer insights, rather than outsource to unreliable amateurs. If our work is good enough, we won’t need an influencer to pass it off as authentic.