The Problems with Influencer Marketing

When I was prepping to write this blog post, I did a bunch of research on where we are currently at in the world of Influencer marketing. Maybe it was just the search strings I used, but I was hard pressed to find anything really negative about what’s happening currently.

What’s weird about that is, that is not what I’m hearing on the street.

I have a unique view on this because I have a foot in both worlds. In some worlds, I am considered to be an influencer, and then I also work on the other side, as a marketer and someone who works with influencers.

A few weeks back, I attended an invite-only dinner for influencers. There were lots of Vancouver’s food bloggerati there, and some special guests as well. I ended up sitting beside a prominent business owner, and put this exact question to her.

She was quick to tell me that she no longer does influencer marketing for her business. She has dismissed it as a marketing technique. I got a real sense of frustration from her.

A few days later, I met up with a girlfriend who runs a very similar business to mine–marketing and PR. She expressed some frustrations as well with influencers.

So, let’s break this down a little. What are the current problems with influencer marketing? 

How do we prove ROI? When you’re working with an influencer, there is obviously something that company wants you to help them sell. How can you prove that the company has gotten their money’s worth? Even if they give you a unique URL to send traffic to, the nature of social media is that sometimes people see things online and the sale might still take place, but not necessarily from your direct URL. Or maybe it takes place later. One major complaint I’ve heard from businesses is that they don’t see a real return on their investment.

Where’s the line between advertising and PR? This is something I run into all the time. Many influencers, when first presented with an opportunity from a business, are often pitched by a PR firm. What that means is, the publicist is pitching the influencer and asking them to create content based on something the business is going to be sending them. At first, there is often no mention of cash. What then often happens, is the influencer will go back to the PR company with their price for a sponsored post. If, at that point, the PR co has a budget and agrees to the influencer’s price, then that’s when you cross the line from publicity to sponsorship or advertising. A contract is signed, and money is given in exchange for services. In many ways, this is easier, because the contract makes things clear.

With straight-up PR, that’s not always the case. If a PR company pitches me a product, and they send it to me in the mail, they might suggest what it is that they want in return. But without a contract, there’s nothing they can really do if I don’t produce. They likely want me to write a blog post, but I may only give them an Instagram post or even a few tweets or an Instagram story. Everything is very grey and undefined, and this is one of the major problems with influencer marketing today.

Does cash = devaluing? Okay. So let’s talk money for a sec. Let me be clear: while most of us bloggers started off doing this for love, the reality is that eventually you need to at least try to make some money at it. Being an influencer is an immense amount of work, and many folks are doing it part-time, while working a full-time job. Making videos, creating blog posts and taking pretty photos for Instagram are all incredibly time-consuming, and for many of us, it’s work that we are not getting paid for. We do it because we love it (hopefully), but also because we’d like to make a little money from it, eventually, as well.

So. Here’s the problem: the small guys, the littler businesses, the ones that probably most of us feel more aligned with, and would like to work with, often don’t have the money to buy influencers. Who does? Big businesses. So, maybe you really love small businesses, like say your locally-owned mom-and-pop coffee shop, but Starbucks comes knocking. What do you do? I’m guessing the majority will take the money.

The problem is, if you take a sponsored post that is “off-brand,” how does that effect how your audience sees you? Does it dilute or devalue your brand? And in doing so, does it dilute the value of the brand you are working for?

If I (vegan cookbook author) started writing posts about meat for money, you all would be super unhappy with me. But turning down cash is hard (I won’t write blog posts about meat, though).

Reporting–does it happen? Not always. As an influencer, I’m required to tell you when one of my posts is sponsored. On Instagram, I need to (by law) tag that post with #spon, #sponsored or #ad. But not everyone does, and what’s the consequence? If you get caught, it can be some pretty severe fines, but I think many feel like they are small enough to fly under the radar. If you’re not being paid to put up a post, but you do get something for free in exchange, how do you tag that? Personally, I use the tags #partner or #ambassador or #advocate, but it sure can be confusing.

Creating unrealistic expectations and fakery. There was this story recently of a woman who literally went broke trying to become an Instagram super star. Instagram has become big business over the last few years, and the prospect of fame and fortune causes people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally do. It’s well known that fashion bloggers often go to the store, buy clothes, take photos and then return them, giving the image that they have a much bigger wardrobe than they actually do. Some of this, I get it, is in “fake it till ya make it” territory, which, let’s face it, is a game that all of us need to play to some degree or another to get ahead. But at what point does it become fakery and inauthentic?

Okay, so clearly the next step here is to talk about how we can make Influencer Marketing work. How we can deal with these problems head-on and make everything better for everyone. But that’s another blog post. 🙂

What are your experiences, positive or negative, with influencer marketing? If you own a business, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 9

  1. I was also looking for reviews/feedback on how successful influencer marketing was as well! I also help small small local businesses with their social and it’s really hard to illustrate the ROI of influencer marketing for old school business owners.

  2. Hi Rebecca, great perspective and insights – as usual! I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. I truly believe that for any influencer marketing campaign to be successful, there must be clear expectations set for what does success look like. As well, there really should be a win-win-win strategy in play – a win for the brand, win for the influencer and most of all, a win for the audience/community/tribe.

    The biggest issue I see all the time is that brands want to do ‘one off’ campaigns involving a single post, tweet, IG share or the like. One post?! You kidding me? And some of the expectations are unfounded and frankly unrealistic based on the low frequency. The best success I’ve had personally have been with longterm partnerships with brands and companies that align with my passions, mission, and vision… I could go on and on… but will leave it at that for now.

    Thanks for continuing to provide insightful articles and creating fantastic conversations in an industry that is still just getting started!

    Talk soon.

    Ps – when you coming to Bali?

    1. I totally agree. If you bought a TV commercial, you wouldn’t just play it once, right? You’d buy lots of repeats. One-offs aren’t very successful in this world where we are constantly overwhelmed with content.

      Oh, Bali. I would love to….

  3. A very relevant topic. Like all trends, excitement starts the ball rolling and FOMO brings all the boys to the yard. Then, like in the days, someone asks a pertinent question and no one has an answer. Then there is a slowing stage, cooling, a bit of back tracking. Wheat/chaff sorting, the fly-by-nights drop off, while the believers persevere. I’d hazard a guess that micro-influencers are where we need to understand how to structure that value proposition. How to you compensate a micro-influencer? Is that where partnership/ambassador programs make more sense? I’ll be following your post with more curiosity. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing your great article. I think, one of the biggest misconceptions about influencers is that they are someone with a large social media following. But an influencer, therefore, is someone who has the power to influence the perception of others or gets them to do something different. Influencers must have a combination of three key factors: reach, contextual credibility, and salesmanship. The higher these three factors, the higher the influence potential of an individual.

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