Influencer marketing year in review 2019: from Fyre Festival to Instagram outages and like-hiding to the rapid growth and professionalisation of our industry.
Welcome to my influencer marketing year in review 2019. Many of you have enjoyed some of the 50+ articles about influencer marketing I’ve written this year for this site.
You may also have read my guest posts or ghost-written articles. Some will have seen me speak at industry events in Naples, Ravenna, Cairo or throughout the UK. You may have read my whitepapers, and reports, too. Others of you have listened to some of the podcasts I’ve guested on or attended one of my lectures about influencer marketing at universities across London and the south east. Thank you for the support.
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In this influencer marketing review I trawled back through my articles and notes to capture the major themes within our industry month-by-month.
Influencer marketing in 2019 began much the same way that 2018 began: with a Paul brother scandal. Logan Paul grabbed the headlines last year with his Japanese suicide forest vlog. This year saw his younger brother, Jake Paul, publishing branded content for Mysterybrand an online gaming site. Theh appalling Paul produced content alongside Ricegum and Morgz who, combined, boasted 35.8m YouTube subscribers at the time of the scandal. The incident centred on the averagae age of their core audiences. As 8-16 year-olds the creators had a moral duty to do the right thing by their young and impressionable viewers.
Still on the topic of kids and YouTube, an Ofcom study showed that half of children in the UK prefer to watch YouTube than television. Kids enjoy vloggers as a source of content, creativity, inspiration and aspiration. This gives creators a moral obligation not to exploit their impressionable audiences.
Children aged 8-15 feel that linear free-to-air television fails to reflect their experiences, in terms of showing children that look like them, who live where they live and do the sorts of things they and their friends like to do. Children feel pushed from this traditional programming towards the Internet.
YouTube feels more personalised according to the report. Children can more easily navigate to programmes and content they like, that are aimed at them, and content specifically tailored to their hobbies and interests
Fyre sale for influencer marketing
Still in January Netflix aired its documentary FYRE: 'The greatest party that never happened'. 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:
- Billy McFarland's delusional self-belief that motivation and positive mental attitude could trump ability, experience and the construct of time itself.
- McFarland's feedback-absent macho culture which saw dissenters (aka anyone with a different point-of-view) removed his inner circle.
- Corporate governance and access to cheap money - McFarland was able to raise tens of millions of dollars for the festival. Some of the money was siphoned from his other companies, some from advertisers, some from festival goers. Corporate oversight appears to have been absent, throughout.
Yes, influencers were rightly condemned for failing to disclose their relationships with Fyre festival. However, shouldn't the Netflix documentary interviewees have been more open about their producer roles in the film, too?
16 celebrities and online Influencers signed a pledge with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to improve the way they label their social media advertisements. The influencers including singers Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora and TV reality star Louise Thompson avoided further CMA action (potentially court cases) by signing the formal undertakings.
The pledge was not an admission of guilt but an assurance that their future marketing would be amended to comply with the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
The CMA also announced new guidelines surrounding influencers. One of the guidelines makes clear that if an influencer has a present relationship with a brand (or had one in the near past) they should declare that in their content going forward, too.
This was an important development but was under-reported at the time. This guideline will promote fewer but deeper and longer-term relationships between brand and influencer. Both will look towards shared values & tone-of-voice rather than hard metrics, alone.
February brought us the Influencer Squad - a group of influencer fraud vigilantes who outed 28 influencers they claimed had bought followers and /or engagement.
Influencer fraud is hurting the influencer marketing discipline. The commercial negative impact of influencer fraud is placed somewhere between $500m and $1.3 billion a year depending on which dataset you rely on. The squad was self-appointed. It denied a right to reply and they ran the risk (regardless of how small) of calling out honest influencers in error.
Instagram began testing new creator accounts. These offered influencers more in-depth analytics over their follower counts plus the ability to filter direct messages. Instagram beta tested creator profiles with a small group of high-profile Instagram users to bring awareness to the innovation. But I warned users to prepare the ground for the acceptance of content needing to be promoted through advertising spend in order to maintain the engagement rates creators have grown used to on the platform.
Still with Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app began to suffer from technical outages. These service failings continued to plague the powerhouse platform throughout 2019. It was a reminder for many to start thinking about being platform agnostic. Ultimately Instagram's outages remind brands and influencers alike to have a backup communications plan, and not to neglect the platforms they own through building solely on rented land.
News UK launched The Fifth, an independent full-service influencer marketing agency. The new company works with emerging social talent and established mainstream voices across media channels. Meanwhile London-based influencer marketing platform Social Circle shuttered.
As our industry grew it became apparent that influencer marketing lacked a common, shared vocabulary one that shared values and a shared purpose.
Influencer marketing continued to suffer from dissenters - particularly journalists. However, the discipline sprung from our dislike of ads along with an end of blind trust in media, brands and business. Professor Scott Galloway has said that "advertising has become a tax the poor and technologically illiterate pay". Instead of moaning about influencer marketing dissenters should offer something ‘better’ to take its place. Until such a time presents itself we should pay attention to influencer marketing’s worth.
Also in April Instagram began testing hiding likes. Would removing the like counter be another step towards organic reach being squashed? Better UI and added features like Creator accounts and Branded content ads provide the carrot. Might there by a Zuckerberg or Mosseri-shaped stick around the corner getting set to beat down organic reach?
Samsung sent out pre-sale versions of its new Galaxy Fold premium-priced smartphone to journalists and influencers for review. It did not go well. Many reviews showed problems with the hinged-screen.
Including influencers within the Samsung Galaxy Fold product development process would have prevented broken-screen reviews I argued.
I was quoted in the Daily Telegraph arguing that this was Samsung’s version of a concept car. It’s their direction of travel. The phone was telling the world that the electronics manufacturer is a leader; not a follower. The handset is designed to wow the tastemakers whilst normalising the concept of multiple-screen phones for the masses down the road.
The Galaxy Fold incident did, however, produce one positive effect for influencer marketing. When Tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee uploaded a second review on the ill-fated phone he cemented influencer marketing’s place within crisis communications programmes.
On the eve of the 2018 Cannes Festival of Creativity the then Unilever CMO Keith Weed caused a stir when he laid out three commitments about influencer marketing. Many were surprised, therefore, in May 2019 when Weed’s first personal investment having retired from the British-Dutch consumer goods company was in Tribe - an influencer marketing platform.
What is less well-known is that in the very same speech that Weed gave about influencer fraud he also praised influencer marketing: “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,” said Weed.
With Instagram still testing hiding likes I asked how influencer marketing would change if Instagram hid follower numbers, too. Would content quality improve? Would power switch from the creator to the platform? Would scenario analysis help firms anticipate change?
A perennial question around influencer marketing is: which creative discipline should own influencer marketing? Marketing’s function is to identify, anticipate and satisfy customer requirements profitably. Public relations, on the other hand, looks to earn understanding and support and to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and all of its publics.
The future of influencer marketing should not be decided by one creative industry alone. As the discipline seeks to professionalise, marketing, advertising and public relations practitioners should work together to build on best practice and define a channel which works best for audiences and organisations alike.
June was also the month when fashion influencer Marissa Casey Fuchs pimped out her wedding proposal to the highest brand bidder. Or, at least, her fiance Gabriel Grossman did. In doing so the couple showed social media’s hand in both context collapse and 'authenticity as performance art'.
July was a month of influencer facts and figures. We learned that influencer spend in the US and Canada is up 83% year-on-year.
In July we learned that “consumers need to see at least three branded posts from social influencers before they seek more information about an endorsed product and five such posts to make a purchase.” The respondents of a Hello Society survey also said they were more than three times as likely to follow an influencer on social media than to follow a brand directly,
We also learned that Asia Pacific (APAC) is set to lead influencer marketing becoming the world's largest influencer marketing platform market by 2024 surpassing North America.
Love Island contestants challenged an influencer fraud claim made in a magazine article. This demonstrated influencers’ march towards professionalism as they began to safeguard their professional reputations.
More questionable statistics were published; more assertions about influencer marketing were made in the media and by providers with ‘skin in the game’. Cision, the public relations and earned media software company, for example published a whitepaper called: ‘Is influencer marketing a busted flush?’ The report contained at least nine instances of misrepresentation or flimsy research being cited.
Tupi Saravia, an Instagram influencer from Buenos Aires, used Sky Control on Quickshot the free photo-editing app to manipulate clouds in her posts. And we were outraged! But, Is Saravia any different from any of us posting images to social media platforms? Miquela Sousa addressed this point in a 2017 interview. Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela a virtual influencer computer-generated digital human asked: “Can you name one person on Instagram who doesn't edit their photos?” The incident showed us that image manipulation should be judged on its intent to deceive.
Brita Water Filters ran an influencer activation playing on the trope that travel influencers always photoshop their images. The company worked with 21 influencers to meet two objectives: highlight the plight of the world’s oceans at the hand of single-use plastic and, in doing so, sell more water filters.
The Australian Influencer Marketing Council (AIMco) launched in September to provide a platform for companies working within influencer marketing to work more collaboratively and develop best practice standards. AIMCo outlined the key principles of its members as:
- Commitment to transparency and accountability to engender marketer confidence and trust
- Ensure good citizenship and adherence to agreed industry best practice and disclosure standards
- Promote measures designed to drive positive marketing outcomes from Influencer Marketing
The code spans influencer vetting, advertising disclosure, contractual considerations including content rights usage and metrics reporting. A separate guide for buyers is also being created and metrics will be addressed in a detailed review in coming months.
Unconscious bias is an issue within any industry. For influencer marketing, it is not just ethically wrong but also a lost opportunity for brands to engage with wider groups. I was invited to speak in Italy at a conference exploring this area.
I co-authored a #FuturePRoof guide to give public relations a voice around the critical area of governance for influencer marketing. The 4,400-word report characterises the influencer marketing market, including applicable media law and guidance. It covers, too: the guidance for campaigns where no money is exchanged; gifts in kind such as accommodation or travel; and financial payment.
Online conversations around influencer marketing have dropped by 42% year-on-year according to one report. My own analysis via Google Trends showed that influencer marketing is continuing to climb in search popularity. This is particularly pertinent against other related topics: content marketing, branded content, and social media marketing.
The average cost for a sponsored Instagram photo has risen 44% from 2018 to 2019 alone according to a report by IZEA published in November.
Influencer marketing remains great value - especially when compared with the alternative, however. Influencers are content creators with the added benefit of combining content with distribution. They are creative directors, photographers, editors, producers, promoters, and community managers. Combining the hourly rate to hire someone to form the inspiration for a shoot, to hire a model, to hire a photographer, to identify a location for the shoot, to edit the images and then to distribute the branded content to a pre-screened audience. That has to be good value to opt for the influencer. Not least because, as consumers, we tune out traditional forms of advertising.
Instagram started insisting that creators tag their business partner in branded content posts. Seemingly even when the content was organic. The Facebook-owned platform said their message was only about making “Instagram a more trusting and transparent community.” The motives behind the decision must surely be more about cash than compliance.
Thanks for reading my influencer marketing year in review. I'll follow up later in the month with some trends for the year ahead.