Monday 25 June 2018 10:45 am

Influencer marketing, fake followers, and sponsored content. Can brands and consumers trust online creatives?

Luke is a former City AM features writer, now features editor for Tyto PR

FACEBOOK, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and myriad other social media platforms have enabled clever and entrepreneurial creators to make a living by producing content for internet users to enjoy, whether that’s a makeup tutorials, video diaries, or simply cracking jokes while playing video games. It’s why YouTube stars such as Zoella and PewDiePie have become household names… at least among teenagers.

Many of these creatives have been able to monetise their online following by becoming influencers: promoting goods and services to their legions of followers, or receiving brand sponsorship. As social media has become ubiquitous, influencers have rapidly become an important part of the marketing landscape.

But an announcement made last week has rightfully brought attention onto the sector. Consumer goods giant Unilever said that it would no longer work with influencers who buy followers, and called for greater transparency of influencer marketing. The news raised questions about “fake” influencers, who boost their follower count artificially through bots.

Read more: Unilever to stop working with social media influencers who buy followers

Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weeds said “urgent action” was needed to restore trust between brands and influencers.

“We believe influencers are an important way to reach consumers and grow our brands. Their power comes from a deep, authentic and direct connection with people, but certain practices like buying followers can easily undermine these relationships,” he said.

Fake followers are a real problem. A brand may pay huge amounts for a sponsored post – research by Rakuten Marketing found some brands willing to pay as much as £75,000 for a celebrity endorsement on Facebook – that reaches few actual humans.

Sometime the follower count may be real, but the content is the issue – a Singapore-based Instagram user with more than 100,000 followers was last week caught posting stock photos and claiming them as his own work.

It’s not just a concern for businesses either, as influencers have the potential to dupe consumers into buying shoddy products.

An infamous example was last year’s Fyre Festival. Marketed as a luxury music festival, and endorsed on social media by celebrities including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, it was a disaster. The event’s organisers now face a $100m lawsuit, and one pled guilty to wire fraud to the US justice department.

While these events raise doubts about influencer marketing, it’s worth mentioning that this is not an entirely new problem. While social media influencers are a modern phenomenon, their roots are as old as advertising itself. There’s a long history of celebrities and sports stars being paid to promote products – along with concerns about their ability to deceive consumers, and the line between them simply liking a product and being seen to endorse a brand.

The origin of influencers goes back to the advent of the internet, when bloggers built up an audience, and then (in some cases) cashed in by using affiliate links to direct readers to online retailers, receiving a cut of the sale.

Bloggers then evolved into influencers over the last decade, as social media rose in popularity thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and faster internet data.

Now, this new generation of creatives is making vlogs and posts, and bloggers have ditched their desktops in favour of mobile and social media.

Brands leapt onto this new trend in order to leverage the relationship between an influencer and their audience. A middle tier of marketing agencies soon emerged to connect brands with influencers.

“Influencer marketing can be an excellent way to build consumer trust and authenticity in a brand,” explains Edwin Bos, chief innovation officer at customer engagement platform Reevoo. “Influencers’ own niche interests attract audiences that are likely to enjoy similar products and experiences.”

However, many brands and agencies made a crucial mistake: they measured an influencer on their potential reach – their follower count. This incentivised unscrupulous influencers to boost their following through fakery.

“The focus on ‘reach’ among marketers is driving fraud in influencer marketing, as creators are encouraged to value their own monetary worth on the basis of their follower numbers,” says Matt Donegan, chief executive of influencer marketing platform Social Circle. “To make the industry more transparent for brands, the key is in measurement and changing the definition of success.”

Diligent brands and agencies understand this, and instead measure the impact and engagement of an influencer, such as the number of clicks or shares a post gets, or – most importantly – the sales they generate.

“We only compensate an influencer based on their ability to drive sales, which is not something you can buy or fake,” says Amber Venz Box, president and co-founder of influencer marketing platform rewardStyle. “That way our brands are protected, because they are only paying when content performs, but on other platforms they are paying for reach which could be fake.”

This may protect brands, but influencers must also be transparent with their audience, for the sake of their own reputations, and the law. Contrary to popular opinion (research published this year found 71 per cent of UK consumers believe it is unregulated), influencer marketing in fact does come under communication laws.

The Advertising Standards Authority has several guidelines on how content should be labelled, such as using #ad on sponsored material.

“Our rules are clear that influencer ads should be obviously identifiable as ads. People shouldn’t have to play the detective to work out the status of posts, tweets and snaps,” says a spokesperson for the regulator.

Another disincentive for bad behaviour is the consumers themselves.

A shady influencer may try to mislead their followers for short-term gain, such as endorsing a product they don’t actually support, but in doing so they risk alienating their audience. Smart influencers are transparent about branded content, because they don’t want to deceive their followers, according to digital strategy consultant​ Scott Guthrie.

“Failure to disclose a material connection with a brand diminishes trust. Lose trust and authenticity, and you lose the power to influence an audience, and with it the hope of future promotional work.”

Unilever’s announcement not to work with fakers is a common-sense policy that more brands should adopt. Beyond that, brands and agencies need to examine how they measure success – stop paying for reach, and put more value on impact.

But influencers must be careful, too. At the moment, they benefit from audiences that are hungry for content, and brands that are desperate for consumers’ attention. But the fake news phenomenon means that audiences are becoming much more sceptical online.

If influencers overplay their hand, by working with too many brands or not creating enough quality organic content, they risk losing their following and will find themselves #alone.

Read more: It's time to reclaim social media from the trolls