Though influencers only really emerged in the mid-2010s, it would currently be difficult to picture a world without them. This is especially true when it comes to marketing. Sure, they might have simply begun as people with a passion. An eagerness to share their content with the world. But as brands became aware of their persuasive power, influencer marketing became the thing. In fact, Forbes considers influencers to literally be taking over “the entire marketing funnel.”
Paradoxically, however, celebrity influencers have the lowest level of trust among consumers at this point in time. This has led many to wonder what the future of influencer marketing might look like. Because what’s the point of influencer recommendations if audiences don’t believe they’re genuine? If this trend continues, will influencers become obsolete marketing tools? For what is an influencer without marketing?
In an effort to bring us to an answer, I spoke to Lilly Lou, a lifestyle influencer based in Dubai. With over 15 thousand followers on Instagram and 121 on TikTok, Lou has been a content creator since 2015. Indeed, she has first-hand experience with influencer marketing, and how it has changed over time. Surely, if there’s anyone that could help out with answering our questions, it’s her.
Influencers Lose their Influence
Sponsorships and Trust
In order to understand the issue at hand, one must first understand the element at its core: sponsored posts.
This is how it works. “[…] I receive an email or DM from brands on a daily basis, offering collaboration,” states Lily. Subsequently, she decides whether to accept or reject the offer depending on how much the product resonates with her brand. Another factor in the decision is how much time and effort the post might take. It might or might not be worth it, depending on how much pay (in money or products) she will receive.
It’s a simple enough system, really. The issue arises when, unlike Lily, influencers agree to promote products that they don’t truly enjoy. At the end of the day, money is known to make people do wild things. Furthermore, at some point in time, influencer culture was controlled by few, if any, regulations. And it wasn’t until recently that governments began requiring users to clearly indicate when sponsored posts were paid.
So it’s no wonder people began mistrusting influencers. After all, posts could always be advertisements in disguise. Thus, the engine is starting to collapse. If influencer marketing relies on trust but there is no trust, then influencer marketing cannot really exist.
This issue is made worse by the influencer market’s oversaturation. In a world in which anyone can be an influencer, how profitable is it to get promoted by one?
Still, the gravity of this problem is yet to be determined. For, as Lou comments, “yes, the influencer industry is slowly becoming more populated, but so is every other job sector.” Indeed, the fact that there are too many lawyers in the US doesn’t mean that they are becoming irrelevant.
Brands and the Thirst for Control
Now that users’ point of view has become somewhat clear, it’s important to address the position of brands. For, if it weren’t for them, there would be no sponsored posts and, therefore, no issue at all. It’s brands who are behind the whole mechanism of influencer marketing, which has proved extremely profitable for them.
Nevertheless, there is no circumventing the risks of sponsored posts. Because it all boils down to giving products to influencers for them to advertise however they see fit. Clearly, there is great danger in that. How to know that a given influencer’s post won’t damage instead of helping the brand in question?
It’s additionally worth noting that partnering with an influencer means partnering with their past and their ideas—their political ideas. And if cancellations such as that of Ellen DeGeneres have taught us anything, it’s that cybernauts can be vicious. Every time a brand partners with an influencer, it risks partnering with someone whose past might be problematic. In such cases, when the influencer’s wrongdoings resurface, the brand will surely be brought down with them.
So, brands find themselves in eternal limbo. Their desire for partnership is ever present, but their fear of them remains too. This has brought with it less than desirable conclusions.
For, on the one hand, it seems that big brands are considering dropping influencer marketing altogether. On the other, brands generally strive towards more creative control over sponsored posts. The first phenomenon will render influencer marketing outmoded. The second will corrode the influencer’s honesty, furthering the user’s mistrust and making sponsored posts less effective.
All and all, the behavior of brands seem to, whether willing or unwillingly, be impairing the importance of influencer marketing.
But Wait, There Are Solutions!
Making Experts Out of Influencers
Despite the seemingly pessimistic tone of the previous section, the truth is that there are possible solutions to the problem. If people trust experts more than they trust influencers, then why not just make experts out of influencers?
Though this might sound silly, such a strategy is being implemented right now! British beauty brand No7 has begun an educational program that aims to help influencers amass knowledge about beauty and skincare. The hope is that helping influencers actually know what they are talking about will, in turn, help their audience.
Nonetheless, the underlying agenda seems pretty obvious. By creating its own influencer beauty experts, No7 can ensure that its partnerships will seem more genuine. The influencers in question will gain the trust of their users and influencer marketing will be as effective as ever.
The Race Towards Authenticity
And then there is the most obvious solution of all: to be authentic. It’s pretty self-explanatory. If users do not believe influencers to be genuine, then influencers must show them that they are.
Certainly, this is not an uncommon idea. When asked what devices influencers could utilize, Lily urged them to “incorporate more of their personality into their videos.” This will make the audience “resonate with them as a person,” as Lou puts it.
There’s also an aesthetic element to it. For after an era of highly curated social media content, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. People have grown tired of everyone always looking perfect, so the ‘slacker look’ is rising anew. A careless aesthetic, perceived as more honest, is beginning to take over.
As a matter of fact, this strategy has turned into a full-fledged movement. “Genuinfluencers” are becoming commonplace. The term refers to influencers whose main goal is not to make a profit. They just produce content for the sake of sharing information with the world.
Funnily enough, brands highly value these so-called genuinfluencers because they do more than just promote products. But this creates a problem of its own. Because knowing that brands look for authenticity encourages influencers to craft authenticity. Of course, a produced authenticity is, by definition, no longer authentic. So, under pressure to be more genuine, influencers might end up becoming more curated than ever. It’s a vicious cycle.
Still, it would be difficult to argue that urging people to be more authentic is bad advice. Ultimately, it comes down to influencers being willing to be genuine, not just look like they are.
Will there be Influencers Without Influencer Marketing?
It seems, after all, that influencer marketing is not in grave danger. The mistrust of the people affects it, but there are solutions to the problem. Plus it’s clear that brands are not stirring away from the strategy, so the end seems very far away.
But let’s, for a moment, imagine a world in which influencers are no longer an effective marketing apparatus. Would they even exist?
Well, it might be helpful to remember that, as Lou comments, “an influencer’s main priority is to focus on creating good content […].” In case you might have forgotten, that’s what they do! Beyond selling products, they indulge in their passions, they create things for people to enjoy.
And, according to Lily, that’s exactly what they would do if influencer marketing became outdated. For an influencer’s only real source of income is brand partnerships. So, without such a thing, “the people behind the titles will continue to pursue the passions they base their contents around, just perhaps not on the internet.”
So, could it be that the only thing keeping influencers from fleeing the online world is sponsored content? Would offline influencers even be influencers as we now conceive them? Maybe not…
As for Lily, however, being an online influencer will inevitably continue to grow in popularity. “People will start to accept the possibility of this being a full-time job,” she argues. And she might just be right.
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