Let’s talk about…. influencer marketing — survival of the most popular

Last week I received some backlash on social media.

I know, who doesn’t nowadays right?

This particular person’s problem with me was that my “product placement” was terribly placed. I was told to get a job instead of writing “fake reviews”, followed by some defamatory remarks insinuating I don’t do anything of any real purpose.

OK, let’s say I spend my days writing fake reviews for companies and not doing a lot else. Now, I only have 4,000 followers. I know micro-influencers are becoming the hottest thing in town but REALLY?! You think I can work the internet magic and get paid so well to not need a job based on 4k followers?

Needless to say I obviously do have a job. Monthly Ryanair tickets and AirBnB fees don’t come without a full time pay cheque and arguments with HR about getting a bank holiday Monday off so I can zip across to some European city somewhere.

So. Why am I so irked at these comments? Two reasons.

1) The anonymous culture we live in. That feeling of being able to say whatever one wants to another person online because it can’t hurt them right? It is felt across all corners of the internet, but I think Instagram is definitely high up there on the ‘platform for anonymity’ award. The fact is, anyone with access to a computer can set up a multitude of accounts online to do whatever they please with, and do not have to be held accountable for their actions. (If you’re interested in more stuff like this, please read “So you’ve been publicly shamed?” by Jon Ronson).

nature-laptop-outside-macbook

And the other reason:

2) The attack on product placement. But not on the product maker — on the placer. And this is what I mainly want to talk about here. Aside from the unprovoked attack on my socials, this blog post is also prompted by reading about the argument between Dublin hotelier Paul Stenson and social media influencer Elle Darby.

If you hadn’t heard, back in January an Instagrammer reached out to the hotel ahead of her trip to Ireland to enquire if the brand would want to collaborate with her. Like for like. The exchange became a brutal virtual slaughter of influencers everywhere as the hotel owner took the exchange to the press.

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collaborations. 

When I was a teenager I was into photography. Starting out with landscapes, then band photography, moving into portraiture. I sourced wannabe models in my local area and we worked together on a Like for Like basis. Otherwise known as ‘tfp’ — time for print. Or ‘tfcd’ — time for CD/digital versions. No money would change hands. I’d give up my time taking photos of them, gaining experience with my camera and learning how to work with different models, and they would gain photos of themselves to use in their portfolios. Win win.

All my adult life I’ve worked in marketing teams and I would frequently use the ‘like for like’ offer when contacting potential business partners. For one particular company, we’d offer them an advert in our conference brochure for them to put a link to our event on their website. It’s a helpful way for (typically small) companies to get their foot in the door. Usually a successful method for businesses without Virgin-sized budgets to still accomplish any kind of marketing strategy. Working with brands on this basis can be highly effective and is vital for survival in this cruel digital world.

In the case of the hotel versus Instagrammer, the hotelier responded by insulting her online and utilising the publicity for its own agenda (pretty smart on their part if you ask me).

However, did the Instagrammer really do anything wrong? Really?

Yes, essentially, in carefully placed words, she was asking for a free stay at a nice hotel. Perhaps she was misguided and naive at contacting this particular hotel because it seems the owners are relatively controversial online, so maybe an unpredictable backlash could have been expected. And she failed to recognise the hotel already had an incredibly large social media following in their own right already — the question obviously is, could she actually have benefited them? Maybe. Maybe not.

Following this public outing, she received a huge amount of abuse from random internetters. Calling her a scrounger. A waster. A freeloader. An expectant little brat. Demanding she gets a real job. The girl is only 22 years old (I know I wouldn’t have been able to cope with such furore from thousands of strangers back when I was that age). No one really knew a thing about her yet she received all this flack for what she’d done. She’d been punished, potentially irreparably financially and emotionally, for asking the question that many before her have asked.

I’ve done it myself, way before social media was such a huge deal. Back in my teenage years I would contact band managers and ask them for a photo pass to attend gigs for free. The band didn’t really get a whole lot out of it — I was an unknown little photographer trying to hone my skills. I didn’t have a MySpace following of 20,000 people. I wasn’t sponsored by Nikon. But still, a lot of bands obliged. They gave me what I wanted. Some politely declined. Some didn’t respond at all, usually the better known bands. I didn’t take it personally — I knew it was a big game to play and a lot of bands already have photographers following them around. However my following did grow over time, and as that happened I was able to expose a lot of up-and-coming bands to new eyes and ears via my photo blog.

And now, in a mad online world, this is how a lot of businesses function.

influencer marketing. 

TV and newspaper advertising is so expensive and not targeted enough, and for a lot of small businesses it just doesn’t make sense anyway. Web advertising is also expensive and a minefield of information for small businesses whom may not be quite there yet in the digital world. Other traditional methods like billboards and leaflets just don’t work unless it’s advertising a local business.

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Influencer marketing has of course been around for years and years, but previously more commonly known as celebrity endorsement. There’s been evidence of endorsements dating back to the 1700s, but it really took off when cigarette brands in the 50s and 60s used celebrities, and in the 80s Nike famously used Michael Jordan which propelled them to international status.

History lesson over. I’m sure this is nothing you didn’t already know. Just that with the rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ age, of course all of these methods of advertising have moved online. Brands quickly realised how much of a reach their product or service would get if someone with lots and lots of followers online posted about their brand. Instagrammers with lotttts of followers (think Selena Gomez) can earn up to $550,000 per post.

Do you think a little jewellery maker can afford that? A small technology start up? Of course not! For small businesses to get their foot on the ladder, ‘micro influencing’ was born. Rather than people with millions of followers, Instagrammers with as “few” as 1,000 followers found themselves being offered collaborations. However — and this is where micro influencers are usually treated differently — instead of being offered money to post about a brand, they are more likely to just be offered a free item, a product, or a free use of the brand’s service.

SONY DSC

And this is important marketing. If Selena Gomez promoted a make up product on her IG (if I happened to be following her) I’d see the brand. Awareness raised — check ✔️. Would I buy it? Nahh probably not. I’m sure a lot of die hard Gomez fans may well do, and this is why celeb endorsements work — a respected individual with a sh*t-tonne of fans is promoting a product — all those fans are going to immediately see this product as their way of associating themselves with their idol, they may buy a product to be more like Selena. Or something like that.

So I may not buy something that Miss Gomez promotes. Because from my point of view I can see straight through the marketing and sales pitch and know that, whilst Selena has posed with this product and written a good statement about it, I doubt very much she uses the product legitimately to have any kind of real love for it. It’s just a thing that she’s been paid $$$ to promote, that then gets chucked away with all the other stuff she’s been paid for.

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Now if one of my friends, my cousin, an Instagrammer who I’ve been following for a while and engage with, happens to post that same make up product, I may well buy it. I trust my friend’s opinion on the matter. Enter micro influencing. Someone with a smaller following is more likely to be closer to that following; it’s likely a higher percentage of that following includes family members and friends — legitimate peers who are likely to listen to you. People who are on your wavelength. There is likely to be a lower percentage of randomers thrown into the mix, spam accounts etc. I dread to think how many spam accounts follow someone like Selena Gomez who, as at 18 March 2018, has 134m followers. Staggering right?!

advertising rules. 

So. Micro influencing is now a thing. A big thing.

For years this went on unregulated, with Instagrammers collecting freebies, being given free hotel stays, some getting paid, and they could post whatever they wanted on Instagram to keep up their agreement with their collaborator businesses.

Last year it was decided Instagram posts fall under the category of advertising and the Federal Trade Commission, the Advertising Standards Agency and other applicable forums decided influencers, acting as advertisers, needed to state explicitly if they are working with a brand, have received free things or payment on behalf of promoting a product or service. Many Instagrammers solved this by adding #ad #spon or similar to their posts. But even this isn’t good enough if the # is hidden or at the bottom of the post — it is required to be easily visible.

Even editorial or blog posts that appear to be content-based need to have disclaimers if they mention brands that the author has had any kind of personal partnership with such as being sent a free product.

“making bank”.

Plenty of Instagrammers are really making the whole micro-influencer thing work for them. They get free stuff or a cheque. Of course there will be backlash from either people who don’t understand how this works, or, simply, people who are jealous they can’t get on that ladder. The reaction towards Elle Darby seemed to be backlash from the former types of people. They don’t understand how the whole endorsement thing works and so see this strategy as a freeloader just getting free stuff.

What does it take to have a large number of authentic followers on Instagram? Well, looking to people I follow who have in excess of 20,000 followers it appears to take dedication, commitment, sacrifice and often upfront financial investment that may never be returned if the strategy fails. An Instagrammer has to be their own Marketing Manager. And there’s a lot to learn about writing a marketing strategy — I know. I worked in marketing for about 7 years before I even created one for a company from scratch. To be successful on the platform you can’t just post sporadic photos whenever you like. It takes commitment to engage with potential customers. It’s putting social media as top priority when you take part in activities or go away on holiday. It’s setting up photo shoots on any day off you have to provide you with content for the coming weeks when you may not have time to shoot. It’s scheduling posts. Writing engaging captions. Interacting with followers constantly. Deeply analysing your social media statistics to learn when is the most effective time to post. It involves growing the necessary backbone to take a public virtual crushing if you happen to post the wrong thing or disappoint your fans in some way. To someone who doesn’t understand this, it probably seems terribly sad.

But the people who capture this correctly, can make a career out of it. They make a career out of promoting, say, make up products because the public see them as subject matter experts, and therefore brands are willing to pay them to promote their products. Many travellers gets paid to travel the world and stay in cool places because people see them as gurus in ‘wanderlust’ and follow where they go which leads to more money for hotels, airlines, cafes, sightseeing spots and more.

However the grass is not always greener and we have to appreciate that these people are always ‘on’. They don’t have an off. They’re always connected and followers can be demanding. Followers are incredibly fickle. I know, because I’m one of them. I unfollow people all the time if I think they no longer post interesting photos. If an Instagrammer has an ‘off’ day and posts something undesirable, they could easily lose a chunk of their follower base which could lead to a huge drop in revenue. Imagine living your life like that? Isn’t that stressful to imagine?

don’t hate the player, hate the game. 

It’s time to stop ripping on people for promoting products. As long as they’re doing it legitimately and not hiding any partnerships, we just have to appreciate that this is the future. Jump on board. You may find you enjoy the life.

Of course you can stay bitter if you want to. But maybe it’s time to stop victim blaming. Instead of blaming the influencer, turn your wrath to the brand. The brand that requests promotion of products for a high sum of money. Next time you see someone promoting a handbag or make up product, or some cool new bit of tech, don’t hate on them or tell them to get a real job. It is highly likely the company approached them in the first place and offered them a sum of money for a quick promo slot. After all, if Nike contacted you offering some free trainers and £5,000 to post a photo of you wearing them, are you gonna turn it down? Didn’t think so.

disclaimer.

Now, to finish, I will note that I do not have any affiliation with the company that I was accused of ‘product placing’. I’ve never been in touch with Loopy Cases other than to place an order, which I paid in full for. Loopy neither paid me nor provided me with “free stuff” to promote their product (I wish!). I’m just a fan. I just posted a photo and thought it relevant to mention their product because their phone case saved me from dropping my phone over the side of a cliff face (win!).

Now that’s not to say I don’t work with companies, or wouldn’t in the future. I have, and would again, with brands that resonate within my own little realm. However I would always make it clear that is the case. You may have seen I post occasional photos from one of my favourite bag companies, Yoshi. My posts will always state #ad or #yoshibags_partner, because, yes, I have received free items from this company. They haven’t once asked me to mention them, to review them or post photos of them, but we have a Like for Like unspoken agreement to help each other out. They are a high quality accessories brand and I happen to love the products, which is why I said yes.

I do not want to have any kind of reputation as being illegitimate or untrustworthy. Just for future reference, if I’m raving about a product and haven’t stated I’m working with the company, then that means I’m a paying customer and am just a fan and compliments are due!

On a final note, as much as my Instagram looks like I don’t work, I do. It’s currently Thursday, and I started writing this blog whilst eating my breakfast this morning, and I’m just finishing it up on my break at my job at a gym (yes I work evenings and weekends too). So yes, I have a job and yes I pay taxes, and I hope that effectively means I’m not an “oxygen thieving cretin”.

Now let me get back to my chips and salad whilst I think of the next brand I want to offer a collaboration to….

✌️

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