Why the PR industry's approach to influencer marketing is all wrong

Dare I say it, but influencer marketing is a bit of a con.

Yes, the harnessing of the power of trust and recommendation to flog anything from cosmetics to building materials is a burgeoning sub-sector that has grown to be worth tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of pounds a year.

But much of that spending is a self-defeating waste of time and money because the whole point about influence is that you have to earn it, not buy it. You can see the appeal.

The power of conventional advertising is waning as increasingly sophisticated consumers tire of being sold to – influencer tactics allows brands to sidestep consumers’ bullshit detectors by leveraging the power of people they trust. So what’s the problem? Well, there’s the moral question.

The recent case of wellness blogger Belle Gibson who is being investigated by Australian prosecutors over her claims to have cured her cancer by eating healthily shows just how easy it is for commercial pressures to unduly influence the influencer.

Fortunately, advertising authorities have given a very clear steer on the issue. In the UK, the ASA says that if a blogger or vlogger is paid to promote a product or service and an advertiser controls the message, then it becomes an ad and must say so. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that marketers use hashtags #ad or #spon to make it absolutely clear.

Morality aside, there is the question of efficacy.

The paradox of influencer marketing is this: the moment you pay an influencer, you compromise the integrity of their influence and therefore its commercial value to the marketer. Influencer marketing works best when it is genuine and authentic. Consumers’ bullshit detectors work as well on a sponsored celebrity tweet or blog as a hard-sell TV ad or online banner.

No one really believes that multi-millionaire footballer Cristiano Ronaldo uses Herbalife products, so why does the company pay him megabucks per tweet promoting them?

The fundamental mistake is to approach influencer marketing as 'paid for' as opposed to 'earned' media. Paying for influence turns it into old-fashioned celebrity endorsement, which is great for awareness, but not so good for influence. Put simply, it’s the difference between advertising and PR.

When I suggested this article to PRWeek, did I start the conversation by discussing the size of the bung I would slip the journalist who commissioned it? You may not be amazed to learn that I did not. Instead, I spent time developing an idea and explaining why it was important and interesting.

Any influencer worth the name is not only honest; they are fiercely concerned about guarding their reputation for integrity. That is their greatest asset and that is why they have value. So give them something that will interest their readers/followers and reflect well on them. No money need be involved.

That is exactly how our industry should approach influencer marketing. Sadly it doesn’t.

Warren Johnson is the founder and CEO of W

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