- "Follow farms" and fake sponsorships make it easy to masquerade as a legitimate influencer.
- Several high-profile YouTuber scandals have also highlighted the risks of influencer marketing.
- Many brands are finding better success with so-called micro-influencers, prioritizing audience engagement and conversion rates over follower count.
"How to take a pic worthy of an Instagram influencer," OnMilwaukee reported last week. "We asked Dallas influencers to explain what or whom they are influencing," posted the Dallas Observer the same day. A few days later, Olivia Jade, beneficiary of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, announced she'd be leaving the University of Southern California to become a full-time influencer.
At this point, it's safe to say that influencer marketing is no longer the secret sauce it once was. There's also some indication that the power of influencer marketing has peaked.
"In the last few months, we have seen a consistent downward trend in converting from influencer marketing," said Jeff Byer, CEO at Jeff Byer Inc., a web design and promotion company. While Byer does not consider the data conclusive at this point, he does note a marked change in consumer behavior.
"There will always be value for brands to reach influencer audiences – that will not go away," he said. According to Byer, what's different is that sponsored posts are no longer garnering the same audience interaction they once did.
"They now expect it – just like banner ads and TV commercials. It seems they have become immune to branded posts and are able to filter them mentally."
That loss may be due to several factors.
One metric that's certainly peaked in influencer marketing is trust. Inflating your Instagram follower count is easy and inexpensive: "Follow farms" can sell Instagram users thousands of fake followers for the price of an Uber ride. For a small premium, these followers can be "engaged" followers – fake accounts that not only follow you but like your pictures, thus raising the all-important likes-to-followers ratio. Users can also set up "follow-unfollow" bots, which scrape the followers of competitor brands or influencers and follow them, get followed back, and then automatically unfollow a few days later.
The practice is not merely deceptive to other Instagram users, but costly to sponsors – a recent report estimates fake followers cost brands $1.3 billion.
Another consequence of the ease of purchasing fake followers is that the barriers to entry – a strong following – are low for those trying to make it as an influencer. Couple that with the rise of influencerdom in the popular consciousness, and influencing has become a saturated field. As a result, wannabe influencers are now finding increasingly dubious ways to beat the competition.
One example is the practice of "SponCon," which is when users tag brands in photos and captions in a way that suggests product placement, without any sort of business dealing with the brand. The con is twofold: It signals a certain lifestyle to followers and credibility to actual potential sponsors.
There's no doubt that influencers have lost their trustworthy insider status. Whether that's converting to a decline in audience is less clear.
"If you follow your favorite influencer, it doesn't matter if they have bought some followers," said Anna Komok, head of marketing at HypeAuditor, a website that spots fake Instagram and YouTube followers. "You like their content, not their number of followers or likes. These metrics are only useful for prospective advertisers."
That's not to say that audiences aren't growing skeptical. "Influencers have problems with audience trust, but it's not because they artificially inflate their numbers," Komok said. "It's because many of them advertise everything they were paid to."
As Komok explains it, many influencers gain popularity through the good endorsements they give, whether that's fitness advice, sustainable clothing brands, or the best contouring palette you can find at a drugstore. When influencers abuse such endorsement power by accepting any and all sponsorship deals, they lose their audience's confidence in them as reliable sources of advice. This may lead to a decline in click conversions on the marketer's end.
YouTube influencing has also suffered a few high-profile scandals in recent years. In 2018, Logan Paul faced outrage for his vlog of Japan's Aokigahara "Suicide Forest," featuring an apparent suicide victim. This past week, another YouTube star was denounced by her fans after accidentally uploading a video of her hitting her dog. Pettiest of all – though perhaps most consequential to marketers – was beauty blogger James Charles' feud with fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook over, among other things, choosing to sponsor Sugar Bear Hair vitamins over Westbrook's competing line of supplements.
All of this goes to show how the very genius of influencer marketing – their relatability with audiences – can backfire. Unlike mainstream celebrities, influencers are amateurs by definition. That realness also presents a certain risk.
Influencer marketing solutions
While influencer marketing has passed its honeymoon phase, there's no need for brands to abandon it yet, as long as they're strategic.
Slapping a few product placements on the largest following you can afford will no longer suffice – social media consumers are too savvy for that now. Instead, Byer suggested seeking out influencers according to their perceived credibility.
"Many influencers don't manage their ratio of promoted posts to natural posts," he said. "Reviewing an influencer's feed ratio from the past three months is becoming a more reliable indicator of conversion opportunities."
This leads to marketing's newest trend: the micro-influencer. Rather than choosing the influencers with the highest follower counts, some brands are now finding better success soliciting those closest to their target audience.
While micro-influencers may not get your brand the same levels of exposure, their value lies in their credibility and engagement with followers. This translates to higher conversion rates, which is how Byer suggests brands should be evaluating their influencers, rather than by follower counts. "This will force [influencers] to be more genuine or pay more attention to the audience reaction to brand posts," he said.
Obviously, follower count should not be discounted entirely. The key is to get the highest follower count possible without suffering a decline in engagement.
According to Komok, there is no "sweet spot" – it all depends on the influencer, product, location, etc. However, "if you have a niche product, most likely your target influencer has up to 15,000 followers."
For many brands, this won't be enough exposure. "To obtain significant results, you need dozens or even hundreds of micro-influencers," Pomok added. "But you will definitely be satisfied with the results."