Experts warn that brands who treat influencers as a ‘bolt-on for reach’ are doing more harm to their marketing mix than good, and that ‘followers as a currency’ should be binned.
Manifest founder and CEO Alex Myers said influencer marketing works best when talent becomes a genuine advocate of a brand, rather than being paid to post awkward photos on an Instagram feed.
"We need to look past paying to post things. Even in an advertising model I don’t think paying to post works," he said at a PRWeek Breakfast Briefing.
"Endorsement is for sale, but advocacy can’t be. The influencer model won’t exist in a very short period of time if people are just selling their influence."
He added: "Brands need to understand their responsibility to protect the future of the influencer, as well as understand the credibility of their campaign."
Picking up on the superficial side of influencer marketing, The Communications Store influencer marketing strategist Stephen Farrell said he gets frustrated by brand managers that look at followers as a proxy for success.
"Something that really bothers me is when I go into a meeting and we show them a roster of who we think they should work with, but the client goes for the one with the most followers, he said.
"We have to think meaningful rather than mass. The followers have been the currency of this industry for too long and we need to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful about what we are doing, because it will ultimately have an impact on the return on investment."
Karmarama social and influencer lead Katie Hunter took exception to influencer briefs that are nothing more than an afterthought to marketing campaigns.
"Maybe over the last couple of years influencers have been seen as a bit of a quick fix and a bolt-on to campaigns to maybe get reach and scale very quickly, whereas now there is much more onus on quality of content," she said.
"Influencers need to produce work that feels authentic and is an end product that's going to be integral and right for the campaign."
Earlier in the PRWeek Breakfast Briefing, Edelman UK head of influencer Philip Trippenbach said that influencer campaigns work better when they are about brand advocacy in an authentic way, rather than pushing products on posts.
"Plastic celebrities awkwardly posing with products in their feed is not success. If you have to use the guidance #ads to shoehorn your way in with budget then you’ve already failed," Trippenbach said.
Trippenbach also encouraged marketers to choose their talent more wisely, by assessing their relevance, authority about category or brand, the size of their audience and their accessibility.
Myers added that relevance and authority are really important – in other words, choose talent that makes sense for your brand.
"Something we always look at is advocacy," he said. "If they’re a fan of a different brand it’s going to be difficult to work with them, but if they are a fan of your brand that is the catalyst for a meaningful relationship.
"It’s far easier to find a fan and make them famous than find someone famous and make them a fan. People often forget that the brand itself is an influencer."
PRWeek is aware of many influencer campaigns in which controversial talent has been chosen for campaigns where the fit with brand is questionable.
Singaporean social media star Wendy Cheng, known online as XiaXue, has made videos where she has tried to apply makeup like an ISIS terrorist and said that if you don’t have a light face powder, you can just "use cocaine".
XiaXue has more than 1.6 million followers across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube and has worked with major brands, including Disney and L’Oréal.
"The idea that a brand can offer an influencer a grand to just post something online is not just irresponsible, it’s shit," Myers said about pay-to-post.
All of the speakers at PRWeek’s Breakfast Briefing agree that a lot more work needs to go into choosing the right influencer for a brand and making sure that influencer marketing is an integral part of a campaign, rather than an afterthought to try and amplify reach.