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People Are Poking Holes in Influencer Tactics – What Comes Next?

After some big 'gotcha' press stories ran this summer, I went to an "influencer festival" to see how the industry may respond.

by Lauren O'Neill
17 September 2019, 6:50am

R: Vadym Drobot via Alamy Stock Photo; L: courtesy of BorderlessLive

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

It is 10.40AM on a Friday and I am in a windowless room listening to a woman saying things like “the vibe of my page” and “analytics”, so obviously I am either at a Psycle or an influencer event. Today, it’s the latter: I am at BorderlessLive, the “first” self-proclaimed “influencer festival”, taking place at east London’s Tobacco Dock. Happening over two days in early September, BorderlessLive is a networking and seminar event aimed specifically at both influencers and brands within the travel industry (talks include “How To Crush It On Instagram” and “How to Get a Big Time Book Deal”) – only with added yoga sessions, DJ appearances, and bunting, which account for the ‘festival’ bit. Tickets begin at £20, though my complimentary ‘Creator VIP’ entry (#gifted) would normally cost £145.

I’m here because over the course of the summer, we’ve seen a spate of stories about influencers, making the news outside that ecosystem. One influencer was accused of staging a motorcycle accident, when her Instagram post about its aftermath prominently featured a bottle of Smartwater. Some suggested a very grim sort of product placement (it was later confirmed by Forbes that she did genuinely crash, and didn’t have any sort of deal with Smartwater). Another was found to have used fake clouds in her holiday snaps (she said her followers already knew she enhanced her photos in that way). A final slim and conventionally attractive white woman became for better or worse, the subject of a high profile exposé by a woman who used to ghostwrite her Instagram captions. It seems, essentially, that many people have reached influencer boiling point, with our tolerance for their necessary artifice at an all-time low, and our suspicion of them through the roof.

But why is this? Where did the influencer’s public image start to sour? And, more importantly for people with money on the line, how will this industry respond to the challenges around what the future of ‘influencer marketing’ looks like?

In 2019, the influencing industry is valued at $8 billion, and this number is expected to balloon to around $15 million by 2022. The top influencers can command enormous fees (Zoella reportedly earns £50,000 per week through a combination of YouTube revenue, brand deals, and her own products), and a 2018 survey of the USA’s Association of National Advertisers found that 75 percent of brands use influencer marketing. As social media continues to play a growing part in our cultural, social, and consumer lives – in the UK, the average adult spends 12 hours a week using social media, and globally the total users of social networks is up 9 percent in 2019 compared with 2018 – it’s fair to say that influencers are going to be sticking around.

BorderlessLive VICE
The lobby at BorderlessLive.

It’s also fair to say, however, that influencing is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. When you arrive at BorderlessLive, you walk directly into the room of exhibitors – mostly travel brands and tourist boards looking to link up with influencers to spotlight their locations, selling themselves with national delicacies like biscuits and free beer. One of the first sights you’re greeted with is a sign at a brand’s stand emblazoned with the word INFLUENCER, but crossed out. Underneath it, in clear, non-crossed out text, is the word CREATOR.

The difference between the two terms, when you consider it, is stark: one is inherently about getting other people to do – or, more accurately, buy – something, while the other suggests neutrality and, crucially, authenticity. A content creator is simply sharing their thoughts and opinions on this crazy thing we call life for readers, viewers, followers, or subscribers to share. If people happen to buy something based on those thoughts and opinions? Well that’s just a happy coincidence!

I’m being flippant, but these semantics do matter, as I am to discover at BorderlessLive. Following a talk at the Live Stage (a few rows of seats in front of a screen and some stools in the room of exhibitors, at the other side of which is a roped-off VIP area entered via flower archway), I chat with a couple of attendees about their perceptions of both the event, and content creation and influencer marketing at large.

Zarina has been writing her travel and culture blog Dutch Girl In London and running its associated social channels for six years, alongside her day job as a writer and editor. “I don’t really call myself ‘influencer’,” she tells me. “I think I influence people sometimes. Often when you talk about what you do, and you say, ‘Oh, I blog,’ it’s almost like a dirty word.” But Chris, who works for travel blogger Nomadic Matt, and writes his own blog in his spare time, notes that he thinks “Bloggers have it easier than influencers. If you say you’re an influencer, you are gonna get shit on. Which in my opinion is perfectly fair, because there are a lot of scammy, spammy influencers out there.”

For both Zarina and Chris, then, there’s the implication that ‘influencer’ is not a positive label, and that “in-depth content”, as Zarina puts it, has more value than an image on Instagram. As the term ‘influencer’ has been drawn out of its marketing jargon origins and into common parlance, it’s become more maligned precisely because of its implications. Though we might enjoy someone’s posts, we fundamentally don’t like to think of ourselves as under anyone’s influence. When, for example, VICE polled its Snapchat audience for its thoughts on influencers, though 55 percent of respondents said that they followed influencers on social media, 60 percent said that they’d “never” bought a product advertised by an influencer, and when asked “Do influencers actually influence your opinions?” 78 percent said “no.” According to data collected in 2018 by promotions company Prizeology, 44 percent of UK consumers think influencer marketing is “damaging to society.”

Influencer Sign BorderlessLive VICE

If even some of an influencer’s potential consumers are growing sceptical, it’s up to influencers and their industry to change tack. Back at BorderlessLive, I attend a talk called “Finding Your Voice In a Saturated Industry” hosted by Erick Prince, who introduces himself as a “travel journalist and photographer” otherwise known as Minority Nomad. The first slide he presents features the title of his seminar in bold text, and then in smaller text underneath: “AKA how to stop using those ridiculous pastel colour themes on your Instagram profile. Seriously, is this 2016? Get it together!!”

Prince’s talk is best described as being about moving away from the tropes that have already become predictable and hackneyed in the eyes of consumers, and towards “Finding who you are and presenting that to the world.” In other words, it’s a talk about individuality and authenticity – about becoming a content creator instead of an identikit influencer, in a marketplace where consumers and brands – themselves digital natives, or made up of them – are more than savvy enough to tell the difference.

He is a funny and engaging speaker with really interesting things to say about the importance of diversifying your skills in our current economy, and about being a black man in the world of travel blogging. It’s a good session that everyone there seems to get a lot out of – but often, though what Prince is delivering is essentially business advice, his sentiments (“Fail daily,” “Focus on being the greatest you of all time”) feel like they’d be more at home coming out of the mouth of a life coach or motivational speaker.

On reflection, it’s pretty obvious why Prince took this confidence-building approach. The fact is that in an influencer economy – especially one where your route to success increasingly involves building a trusting and engaged audience through individuality and honesty – the person and the brand or business are the same thing. So of course a speaker like Prince would combine the professional and the personal: how could he not?

There's a fundamental discomfort to knowing that we live at a time when capitalism has been so successful that even the self has the potential to be a business. Obviously actors, musicians, models and other celebrities have been building brands for decades, but these brands have rarely been so squarely rooted in a person’s being. Now, reality stars and influencers have changed that model and are usually best known for being themselves. In some ways, it’s no wonder that influencers are mistrusted: it’s jarring to feel like you’re relating to someone organically, only to find that you’re actually being sold to – indeed, it was only last year that British authorities properly investigated influencers incorrectly labelling their sponsored posts. And sometimes, influencers do live up to negative stereotypes – just look at the brief backlash when it turned out model/influencers Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Emily Ratajowski had all reportedly been paid six-figure amounts to advertise a festival that didn’t really exist.

While you can criticise this sort of behaviour, it’s important that those of us who choose to live our lives at least in part on the internet remember that few people online can claim to be immune to or outside of some of the practices – brand-building, self-mythologising – for which influencers are often critiqued. In particular, journalists can seem keen to cry ‘gotcha!’ when it comes to influencers – as in the much-covered June 2019 case of the ‘influencers’ supposedly taking photos at Chernobyl, which i News later found to be inaccurate on a number of counts. It’s important that rather than trying to catch influencers out – out of some need to show that journalists and influencers are different (they are, and most people know this) – journalists accept that influencer marketing is here to stay, and remain vigilant in holding influencers to account where necessary (which is often, as it’s a new industry only feeling out its regulations) rather than jumping to conclusions born out of personal discomfort or even resentment.

For influencers’ part, more responsibility is needed if they’re to continue succeeding. The Prizeology data, after all, suggests that 71 percent of the UK public think that the Advertising Standards Agency should be doing more to enforce disclosure about payments or sponsorship from brands amongst influencers, and “Over half of the UK public (56 percent) believe that brands and influencers should be punished if they don’t disclose.” And if authenticity is key, and telling the truth is cornerstone of authenticity, then surely only good for both influencers and consumers can come from such declarations (and many influencers themselves will be amongst the first to highlight this.)

Really, what consumers want is clarity – and while social media will never be façade-free for anyone, not least the people whose personal and professional lives take place on it, if an industry-wide charge towards authenticity is what is needed to provide consumers with a completely transparent sense of what they’re being sold and when, then it should be welcomed. This change is strongly desired both outside the industry and within it: BorderlessLive, for all its photo walls and Speed Networking, was full of people, themselves bloggers, who actively want to break out of the influencer mould, and into something that feels a bit more real. Ultimately, it’s consumers who decide the success of the influencer model – and while the move towards “content creators” over “influencers” may seem like an attempt to avoid calling a spade a spade, it will, ultimately, live and die by our response to it. It is, therefore, on us to consume consciously, on the authorities to enforce standards, and influencers to actually be real, and, funnily enough, to remember something Erick Prince said: “My content is not for me – it’s for you.”

@hiyalauren