Anyone who’s ever been to a spa will have probably seen that girl pouting into her phone at the edge of the pool without daring to get her costume wet. “What is she doing?” you might have whispered. Quite possibly posting her review to thousands of Instagram followers.
She might later go for a nice lunch, courtesy of the latest trendy opening in town before heading to a free show, all of which she’ll blog on her popular and well-read online outlet. It might seem like a dream for the brands, who get to reach Anna’s (let’s call her Anna) followers for very little effort.
However, for every Anna, there are a thousand Sarahs, whose reviews never make it onto social media – and if they do they’re badly written and missing the point – or whose impressive “reach” actually comprises a load of paid-for bots.
In 2011 Anna Sward started her website proteinpow.com as a blog based on cooking with protein powders (as opposed to using them for shakes). She says, “I was one of the first people pushing this message to a mainstream audience by posting hundreds of recipe posts and content about using protein powders to make healthy snacks. My blog's mission was simple: expand the reaches of protein powder cooking.” Soon after she launched the blog, big brands in the UK and US started getting in touch sending her products to cook with and magazines started asking her for content. Then she started a column for a bodybuilding website and was offered a book deal. The brands loved being featured by Sward and in turn she was able to pursue her mission of expanding the reach of protein powder cooking. Sward’s story is not unusual. It’s a classic influencer journey, in fact.
In 2015 she shed her influencer cloak and began launching her own retail products. “I got to experience the 'birth' and rise of influencers first-hand, not as a blogger but as a company owner,” she says. And a couple of years ago something changed.
Sward believes that posting branded products has gone from “being something people do as a 'by the way' into something people want to do as either a job or a way to get free products, any free products. The influencer marketing world often collides with authenticity and, in so doing, prevents actual influence.”
As this world of 'influencers' grew, so too did companies designed to herd them (and extract money from them). This is all fine and no problem for big brands with gigantic marketing budgets that can afford a 'mass attack' of influencers and it’s great for the bloggers who have suddenly found a way to monetise their presence. But, says Sward, “SMEs with small (or no) marketing budgets get left behind and it's harder for them to get out there when, even many of the people who post branded products that they genuinely like, start thinking, ‘Hey, I'm not going to post this unless I get paid or get X product for free.’”
If you combine this trend with the fact that social media has markedly reduced the organic reach of small brands, then you end up with small brands losing the kind of reach they once organically (and genuinely) had on social media platforms.
And from the company’s point of view, Sward adds, “When you get influencers all doing the same thing, authenticity goes out the window and with that goes actual influence. So, for example, you have people posting about different brands back to back – all of them 'amazing'. As a follower/fan/reader, what you then glean from that is a) that person got X for free or b) that person got X for free AND got paid for it.”
For many SMEs, this loss of authenticity has removed the value of working with influencers, “unless what one wants is advertising and a kind of stifled reach, silent reach, a perceived 'inauthentic' reach for the sake of reach alone.” Sward adds, “This kind of reach that most 'professional influencers' offer is really just disengaged advertising, plain and simple, the kind that will one day rain praise and love on your product and the next day crown your competitor's (or anybody else's) as the best.”
Zoe Smith is founder of virtual PR agency Ooohh Ltd. She says, “An influencer should ALWAYS have a passion for your industry and be able to convey the key messages of your brand coherently and appropriately, capturing the key points without giving it a new life of its own. If you're allowing someone to send a message out about your product or service, then you need some elements of control over how that looks and as such, an influencer that wants to build a professional relationship with you is key.”
She says, “I think that choosing an influencer off the back of their social following is a mistake. Social status can be easily forged with today's technology and engagement numbers should always be presented before locking in an influencer. It's also important to remember that for some target markets, the influencers you need may not necessarily be online.”
Unfortunately, says Smith, “a lot of bloggers and influencers come across very disorganised. It may be in part to the high number of requests they receive on a daily or weekly basis, however we often have cases of missed posts, forgotten posts, mistimed posts or generally incorrect information that is posted without letting us have a glance at it first. On some occasions, we have experienced bloggers and influencers not following through at all which for a small business can have quite a negative financial impact. Regardless of whether or not they liked the product, it would be helpful for the brand and decent of the influencer or blogger who has received either a payment or a free product/service to provide feedback if their opinion is negative and they do not want to post it to their content.”
Smith believes the sheen is starting to wear off the excitement of social media influencers. “Marketing tactics are constantly changing and what we think is the golden goose with influencer marketing now will probably look extremely outdated in the space of a couple of years,” she says, “Sadly, many influencers are charging such outrageous fees for subpar content that the cost benefit can be hard to justify. It is also a very unregulated form of marketing which if it does have contracts, are often very lightly put together and not something that small businesses can really take further.”
Coverage in a national paper, says commercial director of Distinctly PR, Liz Walker, can still be “invaluable to a brand in terms of awareness and can have an immediate impact on product sales.” Her company has used bloggers to get coverage for client events but it’s not always gone to plan. “All too often,” Walker says, “bloggers are only too happy to remain within their familiar ‘blogger circles’ and have no real interest in networking with people outside of their known community.”
Walker, who has had some good success with engaged bloggers, believes that while influencer marketing is a great way of connecting with an audience away from advertising in magazines and papers, “influencer marketing should not be seen as an alternative to more traditional channels but rather should be run alongside in order to connect with their fanbase on a personable, more relatable level.”