Examining assertions made by Cision in its whitepaper: Is influencer marketing a busted flush? Are the contentions accurate and context relevant? Does influencer marketing get the research it deserves?


Cision, the public relations and earned media software company, recently published a whitepaper called: ‘Is influencer marketing a busted flush?’

The sign-up landing page includes the sentence: ‘This white paper will explore the issues which have begun to plague influencer marketing and whether the backlash from both audiences and marketers will fatally undermine the sector.” Intrigued, I gave up no fewer than nine pieces of personal information to download the report.

Having now read the 13 pages I thought 'Is influencer marketing a busted flush' worthy of analysis. In this article I examine several assertions about the influencer marketing industry and dig into the context and validity of those contentions.

Lack of regulation in the industry

"However, the influencer marketing gold rush happened so rapidly that there were very few standards or regulations in place  to prevent disingenuous activity" [page 2]

Standards and regulations have been in place for many years both from both Advertising Standards Authority & Competition and Markets Authority. The lack of regulation is not the issue. The lack of awareness and adherence to those regulations is a problem. Both watchdog agencies are working hard to rectify this. I write a lot about compliance and ethics within influencer marketing. You can read more about some of their initiatives here:

RELATED: Influencer disclosure crackdown as watchdog investigates

RELATED: How UK watchdog protects consumers from poor influencer marketing

RELATED: 16 top influencers sign watchdog pledge for clarity on ads

RELATED: Helping influencer marketers be clear when posts are ads

Diminishing levels of trust in influencers

“For example, this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 34% of those surveyed trusted social media as a source” [page 3].

The statistic is misleading within this context. The 34% refers to the consumption of news and information via social media as a whole. It does not refer specifically to trust with social media influencers.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer executive summary says “trust in social media as a source of information remains significantly lower than trust in traditional media sources in all regions of the world … people are encountering roadblocks in their quest for facts and understanding, with high concern about fake news” [page 6].

Sure, micro targeting of social media users with fake news through companies including Cambridge Analytica, arguably resulted in the Trump administration and the leave campaign winning the Brexit referendum. The issue is far wider than influencers. It includes all news stories and advertisements run on social media platforms. Oxford Dictionaries made the compound word ‘post-truth’ the Word of the Year 2016. We arrived at this point through a combination of four challenges:

  1. Dwindling attention spans

  2. Loss of journalism

  3. Rise in social media

  4. Digital echo chamber

Influencers are essentially media mastheads of one. Influencers create compelling content which resonates with a distinct audience - as do media outlets. Influence is accretive. Influencers earn their audience’s trust over the long haul just as traditional media outlets do. The difference is often that social media is where increasingly the key audience exists. 

Influencers know what their audiences like, and what they don't care for and they tailor their future content based on that knowledge. It's knowledge acquired through poring over their account's analytics; reading and responding to every comment and made.

Authenticity within influencer marketing

"If a social influencer’s followers don’t believe a piece of content is authentic, then at the very least will tune out and stop engaging with content, at worst that audience will begin to desert them completely" [page 3]. 

This is a moot point. Traditionally, yes, absolutely, authenticity is the bedrock of influence. However, as the discipline matures new branches open up creating a distance between influencers and creators. Jake Paul recently got married to Tana Mongeau - was this a publicity stunt? Probably. It’s likely that the marriage is a commercial ploy to boost both YouTubers' viewing figures. Whilst not authentic it does not mean the content they create isn’t engaging. For Jake Paul and his brother Logan we should view their content like we used to watch WWE wrestlers. We know it's fake but we enjoy the spectacle. 

Shoppers don’t trust recommendations

“71% of shoppers did not trust product recommendations made by social media influencers”, [page 3]. 

The research for this statistic was commissioned by BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme. It focused on buyers of beauty products only; not all shoppers for all  products and services.

The research also found that 36% of consumers take advice from social influences’ suggestions, rising to 54% among 18-to-34-year-old beauty buyers. The study does not explore how these figures stack up against other forms of media. For example, we have no way of telling if influencers perform better or worse when compared with their traditional media counterparts. How likely would the same sample trust a product recommendation from a newspaper columnist, TV programme, magazine or radio show?

I readily concede, however, a more pertinent statistic from the survey; one surrounding disclosure. 82% of people who took part said it was not always clear when an influencer had been paid to promote a product. This underscores the point already made about the need for more awareness to be built around existing disclosure regulations. 

Fake followers

“Fake or lapsed followers are inflating numbers” [page 4].

Yes, this is a real issue. The white paper references an exhaustively-researched report by the New York Times published in January 2018. It exposed Devumi, a US company which has in the past sold followers to personalities such as British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood; Olympic rower, James Cracknell and Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox.

These UK-centric examples are sportspeople, TV personalities and social media platform advisors. Celebrities yes. Social media influencers. No. 

RELATED: How to spot fake followers on social media

RELATED: Beat influencer fraud with better measurement

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Elle Darby and the Dublin hotel 

“Some brands have begun to question the value of influencer marketing. At the lower end of the scale, luxury Dublin hotel The White Moose Café gained notoriety after it banned social influencers from staying there, following a backlash to it publicising and rejecting a request from YouTuber Elle Derby for a free stay in exchange for exposure.” [page 4]

This was a clumsy brand outreach by lifestyle and travel YouTuber Elle Darby (note the spelling of her last name). Her misaimed approach captured international attention because she failed to undertake digital due diligence on hotel owner.

White Moose Cafe and Charleville Lodge Hotel owner, Paul Stenson, has form for his caustic social media style. In 2015 he hit headlines with his ‘war on vegans’ . Later that year Stenson caused more controversy by doubling the room-rates around the time of a sell-out Ed Sheeran concert in the city. Then going on to suggest Sheeran fans sleep in homeless shelters or dog kennels if they are unwilling to stump up the cash for a room.

Darby's approach was amateurish. Stenson is a seasoned provacateur and publicist. He was skilled at keeping the story alive breathing new life into it a week later with different angles. This example is not a symptom of an entire multi-billion pound industry. 

Keith Weed and influencer fraud

"Keith Weed, the recently retired Unilever CMO, raised questions on a much larger scale at Cannes Lions 2018. He revealed that the conglomerate and its myriad of consumer goods brands would no longer work with influencers who bought followers" [page 4].

RELATED: Unilever’s commitment to fight fake influence decoded

Keith Weed’s crusade against influencer fraud is often trotted out as the reason why influencer marketing is doomed. What is not often reported - or at least not emphasised - is Weed's other comments about the industry made during the same announcement at Cannes last year:

“At Unilever, we believe influencers are an important way to reach consumers and grow our brands. Their power comes from a deep, authentic and direct connection with people.”

The Cision whitepaper neglects to mention that upon leaving Unilever after 30+ years Weed's first investment was in Tribe, an influencer marketing company

Mark Ritson’s arse

“Mark Ritson decided to test both influencers’ selection in what they would promote and the effectiveness of using influencer marketing by offering payment to influencers to promote a photo of his backside, which he masqueraded as a new piece of art known as “The colour of influence” [page 4].

The Mark Ritson article is hilarious. It does not speak to the whole industry. Rather, it confines itself to discussing the sub-channel of influencer advertising. And, in particular, BANJO influencers - those people with a large social media following - whether bought, real or dormant - who Bang Another iNfluencer Job Out without any care for the sponsoring brand or their audience. They are the bullshit influencers.

"Where people take an action based on an influencer campaign – was 0.14%” [page 5].

Ritson's article is now behind a paywall. I recall that the figure was not based on scientific rigour -  by Ritson's own admission. It was a number conjured up to prove a point. However, I have not interrogated the statistic for the purposes of this article. 

Fyre festival 

“What really took influencer marketing’s travails beyond the marketing bubble were both Hulu and Netflix’s behind-the-scenes documentaries on the Fyre Festival debacle, both released earlier this year. The likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, who were paid to promote the festival on their Instagram feeds, were criticised for taking money to promote something without asking more questions, and for which consequentially didn’t exist” [page 5].

Much of the FYRE festival media coverage centred on the use of influencer marketing to promote the aborted music event. Yes, influencers were part of the issue, but influencers played only a minor role in this modern tragedy. The larger villains of the piece were three-fold:

  1. Hubris
  2. Macho organisational culture
  3. Corporate governance

You can read more about that in a related Fyre festival article I wrote. Incidentally, whilst influencers were rightly condemned for failing to disclose their relationships with Fyre festival the Netflix documentary interviewees should have been far more transparent about their producer roles in the film. 

Influencers' part in the Fyre festival should not go unchecked. In influencer marketing's defence, however the FYRE Festival was the first-of-a-kind event. There was no yardstick by which to measure. Those approached to help promote it could only look to the success of McFarland’s other business interest - Magnises, his business partner, Ya Rule, the three-time Grammy nominee with over 60 million records sold worldwide - and the promotional video.

It was the Instagram picture-perfect idyl of the promotional video which offered the proof of concept needed to sell the event. The promo video featured catwalk models rather than influencers.  The documentary shows these models diving into cobalt-blue waters from a private yacht moored off the white sands of Norman’s Cay. This wasn’t faked. This was a celebrity’s reality; a reality that FYRE festival promised middle-class Americans for a long weekend.

Once the promo video was broadcast and Kendall Jenner had been secured for $250k (way below her usual rate card by the way) it was easier for other Instagram influencers to fall in behind. These influencers were duped along with workman, advertisers and party-goers. Many of the ‘Grammers were gifted access to the festival in return for posting festival promo orange tiles to their accounts.

World Mental Health Day

The analysis of: ‘Is influencer marketing a busted flush?’ Has been negative on the whole, so far. The themes are cogent; the statistics used to qualify each statement are often ‘flakey’, though. In Cision’s defence this is as much to do with influencer marketing as a nascent industry. There is not much in the way of independent analysis. Instead we have to rely on what we have been given. This is often reports and surveys from other vendors attempting to highlight a problem so they can provide the solution. 

The white paper does contain positive elements. There is a worthy case study highlighting the #DontBottleItUp campaign on World Mental Health Day with CALM, Topman, and Chris Hughes. The campaign shows men it’s okay to open up rather than suppress their emotions. The outcomes are impressive: visits to the CALM website jumped 485% with 95% new visitors and 18 times more 18-24 year olds visiting the site. That said it would have been useful to understand the baseline numbers to better understand the growth rates.

The case study succinctly demonstrates that influencer marketing can have a higher calling beyond selling stuff. This is the turf on which public relations should be playing.

But influencer marketing is, of course, amazing at helping to sell stuff, too. The Emily Weiss Glossier is a seminal example of building advocacy, listening, responding and creating products your audience wants by including them in the product development phase.

Future influencer marketing tactics

There is some solid content around advice for future influencer marketing tactics - even if it does feel a like return to Back to the Future. Recommendations include: 

The recommendations remain pertinent but they are long-standing tenets of our discipline.

Image of an egg

The summary page includes two images: one of James Charles; the other - the Instagram egg.Charles is the first male ambassador for CoverGirl. A significant achievement for this YouTuber. However, today he's better known for the public spat he had when his friendship with former mentor and fellow beauty vlogger, Tati Westbrook, went viral. There are plenty of instantly-recognisable influencers with unblemished reputations which might have been used.

The other image: ‘that egg’. The single egg set against a white background which gained a gazillion column inches in January 2019 is not influencer marketing. This is a statement on the state of social media - Instagram particularly. 

It was an experiment made by Chris Godfrey, who was at the time a creative director at WPP's The&Partnership. Godfrey's call to action was simple: “Let’s set a world record together.” His goal was to gain more likes than Kylie Jenner’s photo of her baby, which had 18 million likes at the time. A week later, he had succeeded; the image has over 53.7 million likes and 3.2 million comments.


The headline is provocative. It also follows Betteridge's law of headlines. "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no". The law is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist.

Influencer marketing has its dissenters but the discipline sprung from our dislike of ads and our end of blind trust in media, brands and business. Don't like influencer marketing? Then offer a better alternative.

We do however still trust people like us. We feel that influencers are those people. People we can relate to. Their experience becomes our evidence. We follow their recommendations. We don’t yet see their content as advertisements.

As consumers, we’ve grown savvy - immune to the advertisers’ guile. We’d rather trust the opinion of someone just like us, someone who’s really used the product, to tell us whether the product works or not. Whether it’s worth the purchase price.

Media has fragmented from print, radio and television to online and social media. Influencers have emerged on every media, in every market. We no longer like reading newspapers. The drive to advertise in them is dropping as a direct knock-on effect. Those of us who do like reading newspapers are getting older

Viewing figures for free-to-air television channels show the average age of viewers is greying, too. On the flip-side, almost half of 3-4-year-olds (45%) in the UK have watched programmes on YouTube. Whilst 89% of 12-15-year-olds have accessed the video sharing platform. This year there has been a shift among 8-11s in how they prefer to view content.

The marketing landscape has changed to mirror the shattering of the media landscape. Control has moved from media and brands to the consumer. Communicators need to entertain and inform rather than interrupt with overt sales messages. This is where influencer marketing has found its position.

Editor’s note

This article forms the start of an occasional series which analyses influencer marketing industry reports. Download Cision’s whitepaper. I downloaded it on 20 August 2019.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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    1. Hi Frank. Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this. I think it’s a symptom of the nascent nature of influencer marketing. But yes, a few surprising stats and interpretations of those stats.

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