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Influencer Marketing Needs More Transparency

Influencer Marketing Needs More Transparency

Nik Speller

Nik Speller

March 13, 2018

And it’s the social networks that need to make that happen.

"If it remains unchecked, will destroy this industry from the inside."

 

LinkedIn

Nik Speller
Senior Influencer Manager, Socialyse

March 11, 2018

 

I made a mistake today (Oh, my God, he admits it!). They’re rare; very rare, I know, but they do happen. Actually, I make them all the time: The trick is just not to let anyone know. This one, I have to confess to, though—unfortunately.

The mistake I made was to suggest that someone on Instagram could possibly have been cheating to artificially inflate their following, when they (most likely) hadn’t.

Picture the scene: an account with 25,000 followers, which had remained broadly consistent over a year or so, and then—boom—suddenly, a jump to almost 250,000 followers in five days. Sure, there’s a tiny bit of follow/unfollow action (that seems to be going on), but not enough to spook me and definitely not enough to cause an uplift like that.

What happened, then? Lightning hit the transmitter? Well, that’s what I thought, at first; but actually it was someone who’d created something that went mega-viral and gathered them a heck of a lot of followers—or at least that’s what’s been suggested.

Because, of course, we can never really know; as there’s almost zero transparency in this industry. The account in question shared some stats that suggest their newfound wealth of followers is totally legit, but given that almost every single stat out there can be bought, borrowed, or sold, who’s to know?

And this is the biggest problem that influencer marketing, as it develops and matures as an industry, has on its hands: a distinct lack of transparency, which, if it remains unchecked, will destroy this industry from the inside.

While influencer marketing was a small, cottage industry, with a few nice press trips flying around and a couple of pairs of free trainers appearing in people’s postboxes now and again, transparency was not much of a concern. People could cheat; people did cheat; and most people shrugged and carried on. Now that the industry is bigger and has serious bucks flowing through it, transparency is an absolute must in order to legitimize it and cement it in its place, quite rightly, as a serious and professional marketing channel.

Currently, the numbers on any profile page rule supreme, and there’s next to no validation available.

If I go and buy myself a cool 100,000 followers tomorrow, anyone who stumbles across my account can only take that at face value. The doors of the industry are wide open, therefore, to anyone who wants to cheat to get ahead, paying their way—with not much of an outlay—to greater follower numbers, more interactions, and the paychecks and opportunities that come with that.

The damage this lack of transparency does to the industry is untold, but it’s likely to be huge and to kill the industry if it remains unchecked. Already, hardworking, genuinely creative people are considering getting out, as they see their work go unrewarded in favor of those who’ve bought their way to the top. And if they’re not prepared to leave, they’re at least prepared to commit their energy elsewhere, as they feel less inspired and less enthused by the opportunities the industry has to offer.

Talent will leave, guaranteed—and with it, consumers will leave, as the people they wanted to follow and whose content they wanted to see are no longer there. Aside from that, and this merits a separate article of its own, consumer trust in influencers and their content will fast be destroyed, as they look at the big numbers and question whether they’re in any way legitimate, with no possible chance of an answer.

For everyone who works in influencer marketing, it’s in our interests to improve the state of this industry, which, currently, due to the prevalence of the cheats, has those who should achieve success being downtrodden and those who do being placed under immediate suspicion, with no real way of proving their legitimacy.

I’ve said it before: This is, currently, a proper case of the Flaming Moe’s, with me, and a handful of others, raising a few dissenting voices in an industry that others can’t seem to pump money into fast enough.

A lot of people are waking up and smelling this coffee though, particularly those who work for the brands whose finances fuel this industry. Slowly, very, very slowly, they’re starting to ask where their money is going, who they’re spending it on, and how the influence they’re looking to buy can be proven. This is a question for the social networks. They’re the only ones who can truly validate data and provide the transparency the industry so sorely needs. But, why should they? Influencer marketing uses their networks; However, they don’t gain financially if I pay an influencer to advertise my client’s brand on their channel. The networks are the conduit for the ad and nothing more.

But is that really true, though? The social networks do make money from influencers—a lot of money.

Take Instagram. It’s just a service; not a publisher. A lot of blank pages that need creative talent to fill them. Influencers—at all levels—are that talent. They provide the content that attracts the audience to Instagram. They develop the communities that exist on Instagram. They champion the service to new users and keep existing users coming back for more.

As Sara Tasker brilliantly said in a recent tweet (seriously, more or less everything she says is gold):

“Instagram, for me, is a mutual treasure hunt for the loveliness in daily life. I started when my life was ugly & miserable, & Insta inspired me to seek out better things.”

Without the people who provide this treasure, there’s no value for Instagram’s users in patronizing the service. And if there’s no value, user numbers will drop, usage will drop, and Instagram will have far less of a product to sell to their investors and their advertisers.

No users; no money. It’s that simple.

"Declining consumer trust in influencer marketing will happen, unless something changes."

Of course, we’ve been here before—and people have said to me, “What is Instagram to do?” With the golden carrot of being a megastar influencer dangling in front of people, and that carrot growing ever bigger and becoming (by all accounts) harder to reach, people will always find a way to cheat.

Possibly true; perhaps. But I don’t see Instagram doing anything to combat it. Nothing at all. Sure, a year or so ago, they cut some bot providers (who then started up again under different names) and periodically they kill off some spam accounts. It’s nowhere near enough, though, especially not for an organization that has so much money, power, and technical resource at its disposal.

I mean, I can identify people using bots with relatively basic software. Identifying bought followers is, clearly, more challenging, but it can be done too. So, why can’t Instagram?

Aside from that little point (that the guy in the coffee shop is doing, on a MacBook, what a billion-dollar business can’t see to do), other social networks are acting—like Twitch, which has taken widespread action against bot providers and meted out severe punishments for those caught using them. It really makes you wonder why Instagram can’t seem to do anything about it.

Of course, when you’re growing, making money, and are the absolute darling of the industry, why listen to the few dissenting cranks on the sidelines, telling you that everything isn’t okay and that things need to change?

Sure, there’s not a cloud in The Simpson sky right now; but, that can change very, very quickly. A committed, dedicated, and highly engaged audience can still be a frustrated one, and if something comes along that offers a slightly better service (or a similar one without the frustrations). Then who knows how quickly users will bolt for the door?

Declining user and usage numbers for the established social networks will come to pass unless something changes. Declining consumer trust in influencer marketing will happen, unless something changes.

Disillusioned creatives will leave the industry unless something changes. Brands will think twice about spending more in the industry unless something changes.

And while the industry is riding high, growing at a spellbinding rate and soaking up money from other areas of marketing, now, more than ever, is the time to change—well before that “high” peaks and comes crashing down, as every possible negative future is realized at once.

As someone with a vested interest in this industry (my job), I hope that change comes—quickly—and that the social networks see the need for transparency even if it causes some short-term damage when they admit the extent of automated engagement, fake followers, and the rest. The danger of not changing is the end of the industry; while the opportunities change presents are near endless.

"If it remains unchecked, will destroy this industry from the inside."

 

LinkedIn

Nik Speller
Senior Influencer Manager, Socialyse

March 11, 2018

 

I made a mistake today (Oh, my God, he admits it!). They’re rare; very rare, I know, but they do happen. Actually, I make them all the time: The trick is just not to let anyone know. This one, I have to confess to, though—unfortunately.

The mistake I made was to suggest that someone on Instagram could possibly have been cheating to artificially inflate their following, when they (most likely) hadn’t.

Picture the scene: an account with 25,000 followers, which had remained broadly consistent over a year or so, and then—boom—suddenly, a jump to almost 250,000 followers in five days. Sure, there’s a tiny bit of follow/unfollow action (that seems to be going on), but not enough to spook me and definitely not enough to cause an uplift like that.

What happened, then? Lightning hit the transmitter? Well, that’s what I thought, at first; but actually it was someone who’d created something that went mega-viral and gathered them a heck of a lot of followers—or at least that’s what’s been suggested.

Because, of course, we can never really know; as there’s almost zero transparency in this industry. The account in question shared some stats that suggest their newfound wealth of followers is totally legit, but given that almost every single stat out there can be bought, borrowed, or sold, who’s to know?

And this is the biggest problem that influencer marketing, as it develops and matures as an industry, has on its hands: a distinct lack of transparency, which, if it remains unchecked, will destroy this industry from the inside.

While influencer marketing was a small, cottage industry, with a few nice press trips flying around and a couple of pairs of free trainers appearing in people’s postboxes now and again, transparency was not much of a concern. People could cheat; people did cheat; and most people shrugged and carried on. Now that the industry is bigger and has serious bucks flowing through it, transparency is an absolute must in order to legitimize it and cement it in its place, quite rightly, as a serious and professional marketing channel.

Currently, the numbers on any profile page rule supreme, and there’s next to no validation available.

If I go and buy myself a cool 100,000 followers tomorrow, anyone who stumbles across my account can only take that at face value. The doors of the industry are wide open, therefore, to anyone who wants to cheat to get ahead, paying their way—with not much of an outlay—to greater follower numbers, more interactions, and the paychecks and opportunities that come with that.

The damage this lack of transparency does to the industry is untold, but it’s likely to be huge and to kill the industry if it remains unchecked. Already, hardworking, genuinely creative people are considering getting out, as they see their work go unrewarded in favor of those who’ve bought their way to the top. And if they’re not prepared to leave, they’re at least prepared to commit their energy elsewhere, as they feel less inspired and less enthused by the opportunities the industry has to offer.

Talent will leave, guaranteed—and with it, consumers will leave, as the people they wanted to follow and whose content they wanted to see are no longer there. Aside from that, and this merits a separate article of its own, consumer trust in influencers and their content will fast be destroyed, as they look at the big numbers and question whether they’re in any way legitimate, with no possible chance of an answer.

For everyone who works in influencer marketing, it’s in our interests to improve the state of this industry, which, currently, due to the prevalence of the cheats, has those who should achieve success being downtrodden and those who do being placed under immediate suspicion, with no real way of proving their legitimacy.

I’ve said it before: This is, currently, a proper case of the Flaming Moe’s, with me, and a handful of others, raising a few dissenting voices in an industry that others can’t seem to pump money into fast enough.

A lot of people are waking up and smelling this coffee though, particularly those who work for the brands whose finances fuel this industry. Slowly, very, very slowly, they’re starting to ask where their money is going, who they’re spending it on, and how the influence they’re looking to buy can be proven. This is a question for the social networks. They’re the only ones who can truly validate data and provide the transparency the industry so sorely needs. But, why should they? Influencer marketing uses their networks; However, they don’t gain financially if I pay an influencer to advertise my client’s brand on their channel. The networks are the conduit for the ad and nothing more.

But is that really true, though? The social networks do make money from influencers—a lot of money.

Take Instagram. It’s just a service; not a publisher. A lot of blank pages that need creative talent to fill them. Influencers—at all levels—are that talent. They provide the content that attracts the audience to Instagram. They develop the communities that exist on Instagram. They champion the service to new users and keep existing users coming back for more.

As Sara Tasker brilliantly said in a recent tweet (seriously, more or less everything she says is gold):

“Instagram, for me, is a mutual treasure hunt for the loveliness in daily life. I started when my life was ugly & miserable, & Insta inspired me to seek out better things.”

Without the people who provide this treasure, there’s no value for Instagram’s users in patronizing the service. And if there’s no value, user numbers will drop, usage will drop, and Instagram will have far less of a product to sell to their investors and their advertisers.

No users; no money. It’s that simple.

"Declining consumer trust in influencer marketing will happen, unless something changes."

Of course, we’ve been here before—and people have said to me, “What is Instagram to do?” With the golden carrot of being a megastar influencer dangling in front of people, and that carrot growing ever bigger and becoming (by all accounts) harder to reach, people will always find a way to cheat.

Possibly true; perhaps. But I don’t see Instagram doing anything to combat it. Nothing at all. Sure, a year or so ago, they cut some bot providers (who then started up again under different names) and periodically they kill off some spam accounts. It’s nowhere near enough, though, especially not for an organization that has so much money, power, and technical resource at its disposal.

I mean, I can identify people using bots with relatively basic software. Identifying bought followers is, clearly, more challenging, but it can be done too. So, why can’t Instagram?

Aside from that little point (that the guy in the coffee shop is doing, on a MacBook, what a billion-dollar business can’t see to do), other social networks are acting—like Twitch, which has taken widespread action against bot providers and meted out severe punishments for those caught using them. It really makes you wonder why Instagram can’t seem to do anything about it.

Of course, when you’re growing, making money, and are the absolute darling of the industry, why listen to the few dissenting cranks on the sidelines, telling you that everything isn’t okay and that things need to change?

Sure, there’s not a cloud in The Simpson sky right now; but, that can change very, very quickly. A committed, dedicated, and highly engaged audience can still be a frustrated one, and if something comes along that offers a slightly better service (or a similar one without the frustrations). Then who knows how quickly users will bolt for the door?

Declining user and usage numbers for the established social networks will come to pass unless something changes. Declining consumer trust in influencer marketing will happen, unless something changes.

Disillusioned creatives will leave the industry unless something changes. Brands will think twice about spending more in the industry unless something changes.

And while the industry is riding high, growing at a spellbinding rate and soaking up money from other areas of marketing, now, more than ever, is the time to change—well before that “high” peaks and comes crashing down, as every possible negative future is realized at once.

As someone with a vested interest in this industry (my job), I hope that change comes—quickly—and that the social networks see the need for transparency even if it causes some short-term damage when they admit the extent of automated engagement, fake followers, and the rest. The danger of not changing is the end of the industry; while the opportunities change presents are near endless.

Nik is one of a dedicated team of influencer marketing specialists, based in the Havas London office.

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