Mail Online 'exposé' of Instagram tactics asks questions of influencer marketing

An article published today on Mail Online in which a travel blogger rails against tricks of the trade used by influencer marketers gives a platform to important questions about the world of influencers, industry commentators agree.

Sara Melotti, a travel photographer who has 27,900 Instagram followers, said she felt the platform had been "reduced to some meaningless algorithm dynamics and who has the time and the cash to trick this system wins the game".

Writing on her blog that she wanted to "come clean", Melotti questioned the ethics of working as an influencer, saying: "We are now basically walking billboards for brands and companies because through us they can reach consumers (our followers) in a much more genuine and effective way."

In the post, which forms the basis of the Mail story, Melotti said she had used Instagress - a follower bot service that PRWeek revealed had been shut down by Instagram last month - to increase her followers, but said she had felt "conflicted" about using it. Melotti argued that companies who pay for posts are unaware that the follower and 'like' numbers they see are "incredibly inflated" due to the "tricks and shenanigans" used by influencers.

Using follower-inflating bots was described last week on PRWeek by H+K Strategies director and influencer expert Vikki Chowney as "really unethical". Chowney's colleague at H+K, influencer manager Alison Metcalfe, today said it was "important that the general public are informed about this topic", and important for agencies to educate clients to partner with influencers not purely based upon seemingly impressive numbers.

"The more that platforms can do to take action about this then great, but by identifying influencers to work with not purely based on their follower figures also naturally eliminate the need for influencer to manufacture their audiences to get brands to work with them," she said.

Nik Speller, founder of influencer marketing agency Three Letters, said he hoped the Mail story and other coverage of the matter could lead brands to ask for more transparency in this area.

"It's refreshing to see this story picked up more widely in the media. I and others have been saying for a while now, that it was only a matter of time before it did. What happens next will be very interesting. I expect more brands and advertisers will start to ask questions of Instagram and the validity of their data," Speller said.

Frank Marr, co-founder of A Marr + Associates, said that media like the Mail had "a role to defend unbiased content". He said that the ethics of influencer work - where many content creators expect to be paid by the brand they work with - was not as clearly defined as ethics in journalism, although he added that this was "slowly starting to change".

He said: "It is essential influencers consider the importance of ethics behind their stories and accuracy of their reporting for the sake of the industry's reputation - PRs also have a role in this."

Marr also said the story "looks like a bit of a publicity stunt" for Melotti, who he suggested could gain a lot of followers off the back of it.

Read next: Instagram's 'really unethical' follower bots a problem - but both platform and influencer agencies need to work at it

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