I have always been taught to not believe everything I see on the internet. When I was younger, it was easy to close out the pop ups that would appear on my screen telling me I won a free cruise because I knew that was fake. Now, the line between real and fake on the internet has become a lot hazier. This line is the haziest and most unclear on the social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. On these domains, celebrities and people referred to as “social media influencers” can get cash (or at least free stuff) from companies in exchange for a post about one of their products. This new marketing strategy is “the grey territory between an official testimonial and a subtle product mention, which is done almost in passing.” (forbes.com, 2016) In 2017, many consumers think that they have outsmarted advertisements and can resist no matter how flashy the T.V. ad is. What they may not know is that, even if they completely ignore T.V., print, and radio ads, they are still being bombarded with just as many advertisements on a daily basis.
The concept of a “social media influencer” is relatively new. A person of this title may not be a household name but still amasses a significant following on whatever social media platforms they use. For example, Kim Kardashian is definitely an influencer but she is a celebrity first. Social media influencers are more niche-oriented. In fact, it may not be in a company’s best interest to have a celebrity like Kim Kardashian, with 100 million Instagram followers, promote their product on social media. In a recent study done by Markerly.com, “influencers in the 10,000-100,000 follower range offer the best combination of engagement and broach reach.” (markerly.com, 2016) This study found that there is an inverse correlation between the number of followers an influencer has and the amount of likes and comments they receive on their posts. I find this interesting but also conceivable. A person with a smaller following may be seen as more personable/relatable, less of a sell-out, and easier to trust. From my personal experience, I have found myself more trusting of the smaller influencers I follow than of the mega-celebrities I follow.
The growing number of social media platforms available makes it easy for these influencers to find where their voice and brand looks best to consumers. Many utilize multiple platforms in order to get the most reach. For example, recent NYU graduate Skylar Bouchard runs @nycdining on Instagram. The account has 160,000 followers and 3,017 posts which are mostly aesthetically pleasing photos of the decadent meals Bouchard has encountered in New York City and beyond. Bouchard also appears in segments on The Food Network channel’s Snapchat. I have followed Bouchard on Instagram for about year or two and I really enjoy her gluttonous food posts but recently I noticed something odd. Yesterday @nycdining posted an Instagram picture of a delicious looking salad (which wasn’t the odd part.) The caption, however, revealed that the salad was from Wendy’s… To me, a post about a fast food chain’s salad seemed out of place on an Instagram dedicated to the best of the best food in New York City. But then, I saw something that made the odd post make a little more sense: at the end of Bouchard’s caption there was #sponsored. The inclusion of this hashtag made the nature of the post a little more transparent albeit disappointing. Wendy’s essentially saw @nycdining’s audience as a niche to whom they are trying to target the marketing of their new line of salads. As an influencer, Bouchard must have struck a deal with Wendy’s to promote these salads as fresh and healthy on her Instagram in exchange for some sort of compensation. While this is not the most effective pairing of influencer and brand (in my opinion,) Wendy’s new salad line still gets exposure and to be associated with a popular influencer.
An example of influencer marketing that has gotten a lot of media coverage in the past few months is the now infamous Fyre Festival. If you haven’t heard about this comically disastrous excuse for a music festival, basically consumers paid anywhere from $1,500-$250,000 to fly to Exuma for the event, which was organized by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland. Expecting luxurious accommodations, five-star meals, beautiful scenery, and the hottest performers, festival-goers were confronted with shabby tents, little to no food, and dirt fields. The ensuing chaos has resulted in eight action lawsuits, as of May 8th, 2017. On paper, the festival sounded like paradise and was promoted as such. In order to promote the festival, supermodel social media influencers, such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, were paid to post about it.
These posts were cited by numerous festival attendees as what persuaded them to buy their tickets to Fyre Festival. The most important aspect of these posts is that the influencers failed to disclose that the posts was sponsored by the Fyre Festival itself. While rarely enforced, the FTC has guidelines for compensated posts. Specifically:
“if there is a ‘material connection’ between an endorser and an advertiser – in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement – that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless it is already clear from the context of the communication. (FTC.gov, 2017)
However, many think that celebrities and influencers will continue to get away with this kind of sponsored posting until the FTC makes an example out of one of them.
In closing, we need to continue to be careful and vigilant about what we see on social media. In a day and age where social media influencer marketing exists, we should be skeptical about endorsements and do our own research. Just because your favorite food blogger uses a particular brand of almond milk doesn’t mean that it’s actually good almond milk – it may just be the company that offered them money/free products. This doesn’t mean that our favorite influencers can’t provide us with good content; they are just doing what their title implies – influencing.
Agrawal, A.J. (2016, December 27). Why influencer marketing will explode in 2017. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ajagrawal/2016/12/27/why-influencer-marketing-will-explode-in-2017/#47f48020a908
FTC Staff Reminds Influencers and Brands to Clearly Disclose Relationship. (2017, April 19). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2017/04/ftc-staff-reminds-influencers-brands-clearly-disclose
Instagram Marketing: Does Influencer Size Matter? (2016). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from http://markerly.com/blog/instagram-marketing-does-influencer-size-matter/
Kreps, D. (2017, May 8). Fyre Festival organizers hit with sixth lawsuit. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/fyre-festival-organizers-hit-with-sixth-lawsuit-w481274
Leah, R. (2017, May 4). Fyre Festival “influencers” sued for social media promotion. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from http://www.salon.com/2017/05/04/fyre-festival-influencers-sued-for-social-media-promotion/
Newberry, C. (2017, April 19). Influencer marketing on social media: Everything you need to know. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from https://blog.hootsuite.com/influencer-marketing/
Novak, M. (2016, August 30). Average internet celebrities make $75,000 per Instagram ad and $30,000 per paid tweet. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from http://gizmodo.com/average-internet-celebrities-make-75-000-per-instagram-1785956449
Urbaniak, M. (2017, May 25) How to become a social media influencer in ten simple steps. Retrieved June 8, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/05/25/how-to-become-a-social-media-influencer-in-ten-simple-steps/#486f97f013da