Influencers are the changing face of marketing

The FTC wants to crack down on influencer marketing but, transparency aside, people increasingly turn to people like themselves when they are seeking information and entertainment.

The FTC warned Kourtney Kardashian about a lack of transparency around influencer marketing and commercial relationships. [Pic courtesy of Kourtney Kardashian Twitter page.]
The FTC warned Kourtney Kardashian about a lack of transparency around influencer marketing and commercial relationships. [Pic courtesy of Kourtney Kardashian Twitter page.]

There’s a lot of chat about influencers and disclosure of payments for promoting products and brands through their channels.

The FTC has become increasingly engaged with this issue since it first introduced social media guidelines in 2013, most recently handing out warnings to high-profile influencers such as Kourtney Kardashian, who has 22.6 million followers on Twitter, and brands including Chanel.

We discussed the issue with our guest on this week’s The PR Week podcast, Crissibeth/Beth Cooper, an influencer specializing in New York lifestyle and culture.

Crissibeth notes that as soon as there’s a material relationship with a company or brand she writes about or features, she has to "clearly and conspicuously" disclose the relationship. That can be difficult on some channels, especially Twitter, which is why habits such as adding #sp or #thanks to a tweet have become common ways of indicating the relationship, however unsatisfactory that might be.

But influencers such as the Kardashians are receiving six-figure sums for some of their endorsements and, as our recent contributor, Sirius XM’s Mitzi Emrich, pointed out, the small fines or warning letters from the FTC are not making much of a dent in the bad behavior of some influencers. We’ll see if that changes in light of the Fyre Fest legal case, within which some influencers are being sued for misrepresentation.

Actually, I suspect influencers are being held to higher standards than journalists in some respects. Free stuff turns up in the PRWeek office fairly regularly, usually in the form of product samples, often food or booze.

Then there are the times when you are entertained by contacts, whether that’s just a few drinks or being taken on a yacht in Cannes, or to a concert. I have been given gifts at the end of press events, such as a branded diary or wallet.

Outlets such as The New York Times have very strict rules on this and can’t accept any entertainment or freebies valuing more than $10, which isn’t much of a lunch these days.

But, especially in the world of b2b journalism, very little of this is formally disclosed, although I can honestly say my coverage has never been influenced by anything I have received or any hospitality I have enjoyed courtesy of a contact. However, clearly the whole process helps the building of relationships and "greasing of the wheels" of coverage.

Crissibeth is adamant that commercial relationships with influencers "have to come from a place of authenticity," otherwise people aren’t going to believe in the endorsement. For example, she turned down an opportunity to work with Bud Light because she simply doesn’t drink beer and wouldn’t feel comfortable with images like that suddenly appearing on her site. A martini with Grey Goose in it would be another matter…

"You have to do things that fit in with your brand and lifestyle," adds Crissibeth. "If you sell out, your posts would not be viewed in the same light."

There’s a distrust of brands, and younger people want to accept influence from people they can relate to and identify with. According to a survey by [a]list Frontline Marketing, 70% of teen YouTubers relate to people they subscribe to over celebrities; 86% of women turn to social media before purchasing; and 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase based on social media reference.

"You trust your friends over a commercial," says Crissibeth. "Young people hate advertising and actively block out ads. They don’t watch cable - they’re more likely to be on Netflix."

Some mainstream media retains its appeal and she still has a subscription to Vogue, mainly for the high-quality photography, in both the editorial and advertising content.

One thing that came out loud and clear from the podcast interview was that influencer marketing is changing the face of brand communications, and it’s a world that is extremely nimble and fast-moving.

You can’t always insert opportunities into an annual marketing plan – many of them come up on the fly and you have to jump in quickly and take advantage of them, much has Wendy’s did with #NuggsforCarter and Tinder has done with the two Kent State students they are sending to Hawaii on a date.

Tinder’s head of marketing and communications, Rosette Pambakian, told PRWeek’s Diana Bradley the brand did not put a lot of thought into its idea; it just decided to "jump in with the rest of the world" after it saw coverage of the story.

That needs to be an increasingly common mindset for communicators and marketers, always bearing in mind proper transparency and doing due diligence on the people you are going to engage with and potential for negative outcomes and coverage as well as upsides.

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