Do influencers really work for your brand (or themselves)?

Ever been in a restaurant trying to enjoy your meal when an egotistical young wannabe started to push their table closer to the light, table legs screeching across the floor, just to take multiple mediocre snaps of themself “enjoying” their food in a desperate  attempt to build their  “personal brand” on social media? 

It’s all too common…#sigh. 

Some months ago, social media was abuzz for a split second (as it does) with a story of an up-and-coming photographer reaching out to an Instagram socialite with a personal following of 10,000 people and a whopping 500,000 on an even bigger platform. The photographer asked the influencer for a small promotion in exchange for a one-time post of her product photography and equipment.

In response, the influencer asked for unlimited product photo shots for any product she wished for as well as access to the photographer’s lights and equipment any time she needed. “It will be good exposure for you,” the email screenshot that was plastered all over Twitter said.

Needless to say, the photographer stopped responding, turned to social media, and used the word that’s crucified almost every social media influencer since their unfortunate inception: Entitled.

In 2019, Merriam-Webster officially added the word “influencer” to the dictionary, defining it as “a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media.” 

However, we prefer the definition of less official dictionary sites (like Urban Dictionary) that equate the word “influencer” with entitlement, laziness, and being a freeloader, whose worth is tied to the number of likes their avocado toast or photos next to a Ferrari (that isn’t theirs) get. They’re often notorious for disingenuously asking for free accommodation or food in exchange for one subpar photo on their feed, for which they think a brand should be grateful. 

Their official beginnings are a little hazy as some credit big-time celebrities as the first “influencers” with their flashy, exclusive contracts with brands, Michael Jordan’s Nike collaboration being a memorable one. But it’s the filtered, beach-going, selfie-obsessed, hair-vitamin-consuming influencers we know today that probably cropped up with the creation of the social media giant Instagram. 

Unfortunately, many brands see the allure of influencers as their platforms can be a great way to show off their products and copywriting services. They team up with these Insta-savvy stars and try to convince their thousands or millions of followers to buy in. But a lot of influencers instead see this as an opportunity to try and make themselves into their own personal brand rather than advertise the brands partnering with them. 

The word “influencer” has people immediately recoiling. It might be the idea that influencing isn’t an actual job or how influencers have spiralled so far from being authentic human beings in order to advertise something like “flat-tummy tea” that has dangerous side effects and isn’t FDA-approved for a quick buck. Either way, people can’t stand it—and neither can we.

Why is influencer marketing so popular?

Social media is king. Gone are the days of ads on TV reigning supreme. Ads tend to talk at you and not to you, which is why people flock to influencers—they engage with their audience. Gen Z and millennials love that interaction and find that conversations about a product where they can ask questions about it is more trustworthy than just being told so by a detached advertisement. 

While A-list celebrities can endorse a product, they just seem so out of touch with their Malibu beach mansions and expensive 5-star dinners that something they love might not necessarily align with us mere mortals. But an influencer seems closer and easier to relate to so it’s more likely that audiences will buy a product they advertise.

Followers have been exposed to influencers’ lives for so long that they feel they’ve forged a relationship with them, especially if the influencer is engaging and responds to comments and messages. They become a friendly figure in the life of a follower and, therefore, easier to endorse products or services to. Wouldn’t you rely on the word of a friend more than the word of a Hollywood actress who has the means to do anything they want or an advertisement that doesn’t try to engage with you?

More than that, influencers have capitalised on trust. Because people have the freedom to follow only the influencers they want to, they feel like they have more say in what they’re exposed to and what they see on their feeds. They have the power to curate what appears on their feeds, making it feel like an authentic experience between friends. 

But the truth of it is, a lot of these influencers put together these phony friendly personas all in the name of some cash, deceiving  people into thinking they’ve actually got a connection when all most of them do is rake in the spoils that their follower counts contribute to. 

Influence gone wrong

A lot of people are desperate for the age of the influencer to be over (including us). Restaurants, hotels, and even ice cream shops have become sick of their entitlement to free stays or products, their refusal to uphold their end of the bargain in terms of social posts, or even just how insensitive and tone-deaf they can be. 

So many of these influencers have rubbed businesses and brands the wrong way, to the point of being called out on social media—and even taken to court.

Elle Darby, a 22-year old influencer with more than 650,000 Instagram followers, wrote to Paul Stenson, owner of a Dublin cafe and lodge, for a free stay at the hotel in exchange for YouTube and Instagram posts. The owner, unimpressed, sent her a scathing response that went viral and banned all bloggers and influencers from staying at their establishment, signing off a Facebook post with: “Perhaps if you went out and got real jobs you’d be able to pay for goods and services like everybody else. Just a thought!” 

As for the tone-deaf, there are plenty to choose from but one that comes to mind immediately is the terribly-timed and incredibly offensive Pepsi ad that featured Kendall Jenner, one of the infamous sisters of the Kardashian-Jenner influencer circle. 

In an attempt to simulate a #BlackLivesMatter protest, Kendall Jenner emerges from the crowd and waltzes onto the set in designer clothing, perfectly polished, and hands a police officer a Pepsi in order to placate the tension in the air. Pepsi and Jenner were immediately condemned for trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement and making light of real protests where people were actually being violently attacked and killed. 

Kendall ultimately walked away virtually unscathed, retaining her 148 million follower count. She supplied a flimsy apology and still pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars (some even estimate $1 million) for the campaign, one that benefited her even if she was publicly criticised. 

Instagram model Natalie Schlater was no different when the Stockholm-based influencer posed in a white bikini overlooking an Indonesian rice field and captioned her photo with: “Thinking about how different my life is from the man picking rice in the field every morning.” It received immediate backlash and she was forced to delete her account after her non-apology. 

Aside from social media attacks, legal consequences awaited other influencers for not holding up their end of their brand deals.

Bethany Mota, a 25-year-old YouTuber, was sued by Studio 71 for failing to uphold her end of a $325,000 contract. Mota was tasked to show off skincare products in her videos by applying them and talking about their benefits as she got ready for her day in Hawaii where the brand personally flew her and her father (and manager).

Instead, she only gave the products a shout-out in her videos and didn’t include footage of her putting them on. This prompted Studio 71 to file a case for breach of contract and fraud against Mota and her father.

Luka Sabbat, a 23-year-old model, also faced legal troubles when he entered into a $60,000 partnership to advertise Snap spectacles on an Instagram post and three of his Instagram stories and was to be photographed at New York Fashion Week (as well as other fashion shows) wearing the glasses. He instead just posted once for the brand and didn’t don the glasses during the agreed-upon shows, forcing the brand to take him to court.

In what became a notoriously worldwide cringe-worthy sensation that spawned two documentaries and a lifetime of viral tweets, Billy McFarland, brain behind the cosmic dumpster fire and failure that was Fyre Festival, was sentenced to six years in federal prison. Not only that, but class action lawsuits were filed against more than 100 influencers for advertising the event and not disclosing that they were earning from the campaign.

This led the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to remind celebrities and influencers to disclose paid advertisements so as not to mislead consumers and audiences. The credibility of these posts would be called into question and could be reported if paid partnerships remained undisclosed.

But while a lot of influencers’ mishaps and missteps seem like plain ignorance, the insidious underbelly of the influencer industry reared its ugly head in the unprecedented times of COVID-19. 

A video by D’Angelo Wallace chronicles influencer stories in the terrifying age of COVID-19. He talks about the Kardashian-Jenners celebrating on private islands and wasting valuable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, TikTok superstars hosting various mansion parties with  hundreds of guests in COVID hotspots, and irresponsible YouTube stars decrying the existence of the virus and spreading misinformation to their impressionable audiences all in the name of views, likes, and money, revealing that many of them are just in it for the fame and for themselves rather than for the sake of actual public health, which is a slap in the face of healthcare workers and people who have lost loved ones to COVID everywhere.

Their narcissistic entitlement that stems from their followings have given them the idea that they’re invincible and can do as they please, endangering the lives of others and even themselves. Influencers are nothing without their followers and yet they choose to jeopardise their lives just to get paid for their content, showing that they don’t care for anyone except themselves.

Is the Influencer-life real? 

Influencer feeds are so curated and polished that they seem almost inauthentic. Even Australian influencer Essena O’Neill, famous for her beautiful beach photos and vegan lifestyle, revealed in a biting caption that social media and her posts were fake and it took her hundreds of takes just to get a photo she was satisfied with. 

Trust is the currency that followers pay in exchange for the content influencers give them and it’s often taken advantage of. Influencers peddle products that they themselves don’t use or care for, pretend the product or service is the be-all, end-all of the industry no matter how dangerous it might be and sway their audience into buying them.

There are even instances of influencers making huge blunders on their feeds, revealing that they don’t actually care for or possibly even use the products that brands send to them. 

One example is when Scott Disick, a socialite who was previously associated with the Kardashians (yep, it’s a common theme), mistakenly uploaded the instructions for his sponsored post. Instead of just posting the caption sent to him, he also included the time he was supposed to post it, carelessly copying and pasting what was sent to him. He quickly deleted the post but, remember, the internet never forgets and the brand was not happy. 

But another mind-boggling aspect of questioning the reality of influencers is how real they are in terms of appearance. And this is not just about some minor filters, but how they present themselves altogether.

Qiao Biluo was a Chinese vlogger who gained immense popularity for being so incredibly beautiful that she was nicknamed “Her Royal Highness” by fans. Unfortunately, during a Livestream on a popular platform Douyu, a technical glitch caused the filter to disappear while she was streaming, revealing that she looked nothing like her persona and that she was actually a 58-year-old woman. Her follower count dipped considerably, with many absolutely shocked at her transformation (or the reality).

Aga Brzostowska, 23-year-old Instagram model, was slammed for cultural appropriation after netizens found old photos of her showing that the dark-skinned beauty was actually a white Polish woman. The Instagram star sported cornrows, over-tanned her skin to appear darker, and had surgery done to appear more curvy on her feed. The internet accused her of “blackfishing,” that is, altering the self to appear black in order to gain a platform. This offended people of colour, saying that their race is not a costume that privileged white people can take on and off as they please. 

The narcissism these influencers display makes us all the more skeptical. Who are they posting for? For brands or for themselves?

The question becomes: Can we trust these people? Many have fooled us with fake advertising, fake appearances, even fake race of all things. Whether or not the life of an influencer is real at this point is blurred almost as heavily as their FaceTune filters. Can these people be trusted to influence millions of people into purchasing products or services that often seem dubious at best and harmful at worst?

Is it a job, though (and is it stable)?

Many don’t consider being an influencer a real job (neither do we) as it can be seen as a narcissistic endeavour to promote themselves through freebies and false lifestyles without having to work for any of them (no, taking curated photos and posting them with a hashtag is not work) .

Stability is another thing to assess, especially given how the digital landscape is always changing. Consider when Instagram decided to take away the visibility of their likes system. Influencers everywhere began to panic, knowing that part of their income depended on the number of likes they received aside from their engagement and follower count. 

The instability also comes from how a lot of their fans only follow them for their appearance. Their bodies and looks don’t last forever (as the Moulin Rouge song goes: “Men grow cold and girls grow old and we all lose our charms in the end”). Younger, trendier influencers will replace them and they will soon become people who seemed faux-famous at the time, even with the “magic” of plastic surgery.

But one thing that’s worth exploring is how much influencers really make. There are different tiers to influencers, of course, depending on how many followers and engagements they have (such as micro influencers, mega influencers, etc.). 

Kylie Jenner, for example, a celebrity influencer, can make up to $1 million for every sponsored post. Other smaller influencers, like macro-influencers (who have 500,000-1,000,000 followers), can earn about $5,000-$10,000 per post. But it varies depending on the audiences and what kind of influencer they are, as well as other factors such as what kind of partnership it is. An estimate is about $1,000 every 100,000 followers

But most people aren’t Kardashian/Jenner and won’t make the sort of coin they do by  consistently partnering with brands, making it unpredictable and unstable. Mega-influencers may not struggle much with getting sponsorships, but smaller ones can definitely run out of opportunities. 

So is it a job? If substance and meaning is your goal, no. If shameless self promotion is, yes. 

Has it worked before?

While there is tons of content that record several influencer fails, there are a few genuine influencer success stories. Even though influencer marketing is not the most reliable option for brands, these collaborations did very well despite it being a gamble. 

Television personality Chrissy Teigen did a good job with her down-to-earth campaign for BECCA Cosmetics. As someone who’s popularly known for being cheeky on social media, people flocked to the launch because of her likable personality. Because she herself is part of the target market of the cosmetics line, she created something that was widely successful as it catered to what makeup enthusiasts like her wanted.

One influencer who instantly caught on was Loki the Wolf Dog, an Instagram page that was started by the dog’s owner, Kelly Lund, to document his dog’s growth and misadventures. The account quickly gained attention, to the point that they attracted a five-figure deal with Mercedes. The two continue to work with different brands, leading to an estimate of $10,000 per post.

Andrew Rea, the man behind the wildly popular cooking series Binging with Babish, has more than six million followers on YouTube. His irreverent personality, humour, and sincerity have gained him sponsored posts, of which he discloses plainly and with a comedic edge. He’s become so popular that he was able to make cooking his full-time job, despite being self-taught. 

These influencers have gone through the trouble of following contracts to the letter and, instead of being guided by arbitrary numbers, worked out and negotiated every clause carefully. They come to specific, worked-out terms with brands, which seems rare in the influencer industry. 

What actually works better

While there are influencer-marketing success stories, they’re often few and far between and are a toss-up for brands who want to drive online growth

What really works is the creation of consistently high-quality content that engages with an audience. Instead of gambling for a hit-or-miss success rate with influencers, a dependable framework and process can be much better in the long run. 

Quality content can boost traffic much more reliably and at a more steady rate. Small and medium-sized enterprises should be producing their own content (or engage a content agency if they don’t have the means or time to do it internally). 

After all, content agencies are in it for you and your brand, and not to frame a semi-decent selfie with some pseudo-intellectual comment that benefits an Instagram star more than your actual brand’s product or service.

Engaging social media content is more than just a couple of mindless posts that barely mention a brand. It’s about driving growth and boosting brand image and awareness. And content agencies will always have in mind, that it’s not about them, but about their clients.

Influencers are a highly polarising subject. They’re branded as callous, self(ie)-obsessed, freeloaders that pose precariously on digital platforms that can change in a blink of an eye. Not only do most of them create distorted personas to engage with a following they may or may not actually care about, they stand on the shoulders of these followers in order to allure more brands for deals, money-minded and hungry for exposure. 

Influencer marketing is ultimately a gamble that you might not want to bet on, not just because they may not hold up their end of the deal, but because of their entitled, spoiled, and grandiose senses of self. They care about their perfectly curated feeds more than how they can help your business while content agencies do the opposite and are reliable, professional, and want to help. So if you’re eyeing a Kardashian-Jenner (we should tally how many times we mentioned them here) or a mega influencer that asks for unlimited use of your studio, maybe sleep on it—you might just end up with a headache instead of someone who can market your business.

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