It’s safe to say influencer marketing is very much here to stay. Sponsored brand collaborations have changed the fundamental human behaviour of how audiences consider and purchase new products and services.

So influential has it become (no pun intended) that it’s now also becoming a desirable career choice; with an estimated market size of $2.38 billion in 2019, it’s not hard to see why.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The influencer space is experiencing a cultural shift, having been marred by high-profile flops (and outright fraud), which has led to some unease among brands and advertisers.

The term ‘influencer’ is becoming something of a dirty word, as evidenced by a recent discussion at VidCon London where James Hancock, co-founder of Free Focus, stated, “It’s a little bit insulting to say to a creator that they are an influencer. They create more than just influence.”

In light of current perceptions of influencers and the way brands use them, should we be taking a more cautious approach? And what might that approach look like?

The human psychology of influence

The power of influence and the responsibility it requires is becoming more complex than ever. Are online audiences at risk of being overwhelmed by these messages, and what role are brands playing in this onslaught?

Image: Influence At Work

According to psychology and marketing professor Dr Robert Cialdini, there are six key “Principles of Persuasion” that people respond to in human behaviour: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking and Consensus.

Authority and Liking drive persuasion in influencer marketing

In my opinion, influencer marketing specifically taps into two of these buckets: Authority and Liking.

Authority is where individuals are influenced by the opinions of credible, knowledgeable experts, whereas Liking is based on the principle that we tend to behave favourably towards people we like.

Brands of all sizes and industries look to create a voice and movement that brings customers along for the ride, which will ideally result in a “tribe” of influential people that support their cause. It makes total sense for brands to choose this as a way to get more customers, but we’re potentially reaching a saturation point where this is being taken too far.

The Fyre fallout and Payless prank

Details recently revealed in two rivalling documentaries on the failed Fyre Festival in April 2017 indicate that the influencers involved in promoting the event (including Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Shanina Shaik and Hailey Bieber) were not only uninformed about it, but many didn’t even attend; all they did was ensure the iconic orange tile was everywhere to be seen.

Image Credit: “The Fashion Law”, BBC News

This does however demonstrate the true power of Authority, as these Instagram images were the driving forces behind the press frenzy and resulting ticket sales.

Despite organisers paying influencers such as Kendall Jenner as much as $250,000 for a single post, the return on investment for the campaign was staggering. But the influencers themselves weren’t even sure what they were promoting until it was too late, which it has now been revealed breaks trade law.

Collaborators who did in fact attend (using tickets received in exchange for their “influence”, of course) were unsure what was about to unfold – one such example being CC Clarke Beauty, who posted video accounts of their experience.

Other brands have found ways to exploit influence in a more subversive, satirical way. Discount shoe retailer Payless created a fake luxury brand named “Palessi”, invited influencers to attend the store’s grand opening, and charged them almost 10 times the price to see whether they’d actually fall for it – which they did.

Although the influencers were refunded for the money they spent, the footage quickly went viral and is being used across social media and cable network ads. The prank was successful because it sparked the trigger of Liking among Payless’ target audience by acknowledging the fact that these fashion influencers would never have endorsed a budget shoe brand.

But regardless of how successful this stunt was, its main achievement was in highlighting the issue of integrity and authenticity among influencers. If they would go to a grand opening for a fake brand without even confirming who or what the brand is, what does that say about the influencer space in general?

The formula for influencing with integrity

Both of these examples should be a cautionary tale for brands: without integrity in both the message and the execution, the influencer proposition starts to look a bit weak.

The reassuring thing in our current climate is that advertising bodies worldwide are cracking down and enforcing integrity and honesty in influencer partnerships on both sides, policing brands and influencers alike.

In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority and Committee of Advertising Practice have released an updated influencers guide on disclosing sponsored content, gifting and previous campaign collaborations, in light of recent investigation into Millie Macintosh and Britvic amongst others.

Australia also has guidelines issued by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), which are self-regulating but the fines are substantial if Australian Consumer Law is breached: up to $220,000 per post for influencers and $1.1million for brand violations.

This isn’t to say that brands shouldn’t engage influencers; brands should definitely consider influencers when they can make an impact on not only the campaign objectives but also the brand purpose.

If we could create formula for success for brands on working with influencers, it might look something like this:

Clear brand message + Influencers with integrity & affinity to message = Authentic success

Influencers don’t need to be part of every campaign or promotion. Make it count and brief them properly. They have a responsibility to understand the campaign fully, and to create content that is genuine to their lives. And if your brand fits within that sphere of authenticity, then it’s a great match.

Elly Russell

As a Digital Strategist at iProspect, Elly is responsible for leading and setting the Experience strategy and execution for her clients, across Beauty and Education. Originally from London, UK, Elly's career background is in content and outreach.