Australia's 'influencer boycott' shows the growing pains of influencer marketing

Is the social influencer bubble about to burst? Maybe not, but it's certainly showing some signs of strain, which may come as a surprise to those of us who predicted its inexorable rise.

Instagram stars were paid thousands to front Australian Health Department's Girls Make You Move campaign
Instagram stars were paid thousands to front Australian Health Department's Girls Make You Move campaign

PRWeek reports that the Australian government has banned the use of influencers from all federal campaigns. First there were revelations about payment to social media stars. Then, what made for uncomfortable reading became embarrassing, as it was revealed that some of these stars had previously made offensive comments on social media.

This is just the latest in a series of unfortunate events that have raised questions about the value and longevity of a marketing tactic whose continued growth and expansion has long been treated as gospel.

Earlier this year, Unilever – whose product range includes such high street staples as Dove soap, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Magnum ice creams - announced that it was cutting ties with influencers who had artificially inflated their audiences by buying followers. At the time, Unilever’s head of marketing warned that social influencers and the brands that use them were drinking in the last chance saloon, warning of "the need to take urgent action… to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever".

Examples of inauthentic and clumsy influencer marketing and a general sense of its nigh-on overwhelming ubiquity, as anyone who has scrolled through an Instagram feed recently, has added to a sense that the party might soon be over.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. If the right lessons are learned, influencer marketing can not only survive – but thrive. This is because recent developments have demonstrated not the intrinsic flaws of influencer marketing as a tactic, but rather the need for greater finesse, refinement and research in its application.

Take the example of what has happened in Australia. Whereas the cost of using influencers might have been justified with reference to the size of the audience reached, particularly when compared with traditional and more expensive advertising channels, the use of social influencers whose (historic) posts were so obviously diametrically opposed to the values of the brands and campaigns was rightly criticised.

The lesson – social influencers can be used, but only when proper robust due diligence and background checks have been done to ensure in order to ensure that they fit with a brand’s values.

What about the glut of sponsored posts clogging up Instagram feeds, to the point where the whole practice starts to appear slightly cynical and forced – the recent (and perhaps rightly ridiculed) post about a certain well-known coffee brand being a good example?

Rather than pulling the plug on social influencers and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, brands should be encouraged to take a more focused and targeted approach, working with social media personalities who are a genuine 'fit' and demonstrate synergy with their brand, rather than chasing the names who have biggest numbers.

In short, I think we are seeing the growing pains of social influencer marketing, rather than any sort of symptoms of terminal decline. The result, I hope, will be a more focused, more authentic type of social influencer marketing – good news for comms pros, and better for the consumer as well.

Alex Goldup is associate director at The PR Office

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