The influencer marketing backlash: there are calls for better guidelines, increased transparency, and an end to influencer fraud. Here are 15 ways the industry can reverse the trend.


Influencer marketing is facing a backlash. There are calls for better guidelines, increased transparency, and end to influencer fraud.

We have arrived at this point partly because of Unilever’s commitments made last month by their CMO, Keith Weed. Partly out of tall poppy syndrome. Partly because of concerns influencer marketing has reached the zenith of Gartner’s hype cycle. And partly because the media is conflating influencer marketing with influencer advertising.

Influencer marketing backlash: moving on

The influencer marketing backlash will rumble on for some time. It is in the interests of everyone within the influencer marketing ecosystem - the communicators, brands, social media platforms, marketplaces, influencers and communicators - to force a maturation of the industry. What steps can influencer marketing make to move passed this new negative sentiment?

Here I offer 15 ways for the industry to move past the current influencer marketing backlash.

Advertising Standards Authority reversing influencer marketing backlash

Reversing the influencer marketing backlash: Regulators are getting tougher with those flouting disclosure regulations

#1 Improved awareness of regulation

Effective disclosure of a material connection between brand and influencer is a key influencer marketing theme. Lack of effective disclosure erodes trust with an audience.

In the UK we differentiate between sponsorship and advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) oversees advertising whilst the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) oversees sponsorship. In the US both advertising and sponsorship is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) - the independent agency of the US government tasked with promoting consumer protection and regulating influencer marketing.

Globally, the consumer protection authorities of nearly 60 countries work together through the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) to encourage global co-operation among law enforcement agencies. ICPEN has penned its own guidelines for dealing with digital influencers.

The most recent figures from the ASA, the UK advertising watchdog, reveal there were 1,824 complaints about content on social networking sites in 2016, up 193% from 622 in 2012.

A survey by Prizeology earlier this year earned a lot of column inches with its report: ‘Under the Influence’.

It found 71% of people thought there were no rules around the use of influencers, despite being regulated by the ASA, while 61% believed influencers don’t have to disclose that they have been paid to talk about a product.

Almost half of those surveyed were not aware of the hashtags and language influencers must use to indicate their commercial relationship with a brand.

Satisfying influencer marketing disclosure regulation is good for brands, good for influencers and good for their audiences. It’s the legal, ethical and commercial right decision.

61% of women said they won’t engage with an influencer’s sponsored content if it doesn’t feel genuine, according to a global survey of 20,000 conducted by Bloglovin, a blog aggregator site.

Regulators are getting tougher with those flouting disclosure regulations. The ASA recently announced a review into how paid-for influencer and native advertising is signposted online. The organisation is building awareness, too, by meeting with influencers and industry communicators to explain the regulatory system and to listen to expert opinion on how to promote better understanding of influencer regulations. 

fake followers: influencer marketing backlash

Reversing the influencer marketing backlash: stop working with influencers who buy followers and engagement. Stop buying followers for your brand, too.

#2 Stop working with influencers who buy followers

Influence is the ability to alter behaviour or change opinion. Bought followers are either bots or, if human, come from follower farms where the follower has no affinity with your brand.

These bots and irrelevant followers are never going to help you achieve your influencer marketing programme objectives.

Unilever has announced it will no longer work with influencers who have bought followers. This should become the norm. For those at the vanguard of the industry Keith Weed's commitments offered only common sense - nothing new. However, such stance from a global organisation with a €7 billion marketing spend adds weight to the argument and builds awareness with the long-tail of influencer marketing communicators.

#3 Don’t buy followers for your brand

This follows on from not working with influencers who have sought to inflate their influencer by buying followers. An additional reason not to buy followers for your brand is that it is cheating your audience. It also raises the finger of suspicion: If you cheat with your follower figures what else are you cheating us on?

Ethics aside, who wants to be caught up in the next mainstream media expose of fake followers? In January The New York Times article: ‘The Follower Factory’ focused on the buying of fake social media followers and fake engagement by people who want to appear more popular or exert influence online. A practice well-known in the industry the exhaustively-researched NYT article generated a mountain of follow-up stories in other mainstream media outlets around the world.

#4 Better influencer vetting by brands

When recruiting an employee to join your work team you do background checks. You gather references; check qualifications. You undertake digital due diligence. You look through their LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

You check that nothing potentially damaging sticks out. You do that because you want to know you’re hiring who you think you’re hiring; not a veneer. You do it because this candidate employee would be representing your firm.

Well, influencers are representing your brand, too. So you need to check that they are who they say they are and that their values are in tune with yours – or your client’s.

  • Audience size - is it bought, bot or organic.
  • Demographics The influencer’s audience maps on to your brand’s target audience in terms of age, gender, and where they are located in the world.
  • Engagement:- The engagement ratio between the selected influencer’s past branded and non-branded content has been analysed. Their sponsored content generates acceptable engagement levels for the purposes of your campaign.
  • Content themes:- Best-performing themes for branded content have been identified. 
  • Benchmarking:- The engagement rate of each of the selected influencer’s past branded and non-branded content has been analysed and outperforms fellow influencers in your industry vertical.
  • Brand values:- Does the influencer uphold the same values as those of your brand. If you represent a family-oriented brand influencers who swear, smoke and appear drunk may not be suitable for your audience.
  • Tone of voice:-  Is the influencer’s voice commensurate with your brand’s?

#5 Influencer no fraud self-certification

Influencers could self-certify that they have not bought followers or engagement or colluded through Insta-pods and follow4follow schemes.

Giving misleading or false statements would  break the agreement terms of any sponsorship relationship with a brand. The terms could be included as part of the influencer agreement document.

If influencers have sought to inflate their influence in the past through buying followers or engagement then a modified self certification declaring that this schemes end on [date] and have not been used since.

Media Kit for influencers reversing the influencer marketing backlash

Reversing the influencer marketing backlash: influencers should all consider creating media kits to help professionalise the industry and promote their services

#6 Influencer credentials - a professional media kit

Influencers should all consider creating a media kit. This dynamically-updated document sets out all the relevant information a brand looks for at the influencer selection phase. It seeks to quantify influence with hard numbers whilst pointing to the softer criteria important to building a relationship such as tone of voice and brand values.

  1. Reach: Breakdown of audience figures by platform. Include the no-fraud self certification mentioned above.
  2. Demographics: I once met a young woman with an Instagram following of around 100k. She had worked with several iconic British-centric brands: producing sponsored content. However, she had only recently moved to London from Turkey. Around 90% of her following was based in Turkey. She produced eye-catching content for the British brands. But in terms of reach and impact: the campaigns were failures.
  3. Engagement rates:  Engagement rates for organic and paid-for content.
  4. Content examples: Provide a brief portfolio of best work in terms of creativity and versatility.  
  5. Previous brand collaborations: List the brands and any testimonials
  6. Sponsored work success: Consider introducing a case study from a past brand collaboration. Include the scope of the brief, the creative solution and the impact in terms of measurable results.

Meaningful relationship influencer marketing backlash

Reversing influencer marketing backlash: Brands should create fewer, but more meaningful and longer-term, business-growth relationships with influencers

#7 Fewer, but more meaningful longer-term relationships

Savvy brands and influencers alike are forging fewer, but more meaningful relationships with each other.

Gia Kashyap is an Instagram influencer with 111k followers. She has worked with over 200 brands in the last four years but speaking with the Economic Times this week she explains:

“In the past one year, there is a huge difference. Brands want to now work with only four-five influencers, not 30 like they used to,” said Kashyap. “They also make sure you don’t work with multiple competing brands. It’s just not about number of followers anymore. They look at quality of content, past brand endorsements and so on. They are much smarter now.”

One-off campaigns are being replaced with longer, often episodic, co-created content which mines deep insight and understanding about both the interests of the target audience and knowledge of the brand’s product or service.

Ditch the tactical and the temporary in favour of long-term business growth partnerships with influencers. Much of the hard work connected with influencer marketing is front loaded. Setting goals, identifying a long list of potential influencers, screening the list to whittle the potential down negotiating building a creative brief.

Real influence is accretive. It strengthens over time. There needs to be consistent, long-term content and, in addition, honest recommendations from sources that consumers trust. 

Extending beyond the single campaign benefits influencer marketers with:

  • Better results as both influencer and marketer know how each other works along with their brand voice and values
  • Faster turnarounds on creative activation as it removes repeated identification, selection and creative briefing requirements
  • Increased cost effectiveness. Not having to front-load influencer work with repeated identification, selection and negotiation each campaign
  • Bulk discount. Cost per creative post can be negotiated down when it forms part of a long-term commitment between influencer and brand.

influencer process influencer marketing backlash

Reversing influencer marketing backlash: All successful communications work starts with understanding your business and communications objectives

#8 Better pre-campaign planning process

All successful communications work starts with understanding your objective. The planning phase essentially answers questions like what are we trying to achieve? How exactly are we going to go about achieving it? And, how will we know whether or not we’ve achieved our objective?

The planning phase begins with knowing who you’re seeking to influence (the audience). What the client wants to accomplish. And how this work fits into your client’s bigger communications and business strategy.

You need to know what the budget is, what the timings are and fundamentally whether or not an influencer marketing campaign will be the most effective channel to meet your client’s communications and business objectives.

Is the goal to build brand awareness? Drive more sales? Nudge people into downloading an app? Or is the goal to prompt prospective customers to search for more information about a product?

Avoid poor planning problems. Set up measurable and realistic goals. Having a detailed plan will give the campaign a vital dose of purpose. What Key performance indicators (KPIs) are you going to measure your campaign with?

influencer benchmarking influencer marketing backlash

Reversing influencer marketing backlash: use platform, and vertical benchmarks

#9 Use platform and vertical benchmarks

Without industry benchmarks brands still have no idea what their campaigns’ performance means in the context of the broader market.

Take the fashion and style vertical. More than one-in-three (37%) of all uploads to Instagram fall within this vertical. Engagement on organic content is 3.62% but for sponsored content the rate is 3.52% according to CampaignDeus, an independent benchmarking, measurement and reporting influencer marketing company.

Without knowing engagement rates by platform, sector and organic vs paid-for how does a brand know if it’s marketing is over or under performing?

Armed with this benchmark information you would know that a piece of paid-for content on Instagram within the fashion vertical which generated an engagement rate of 4.1% was overperforming by 16.48%.

Benchmarks help you compare your influencer marketing performance against your competitors and the broader industry. This data can guide you at the creative brief stage and provide insight when evaluating success after the campaign.

Influencer industry benchmarks will become an essential part of a marketer’s toolbox as the channel continues to grow over the coming years.

#10 Industry disconnect between demand and ability to measure

76% of communicators cite measuring the ROI of influencer marketing as their top challenge according to an industry survey reported in PRWeek.

Yet little more than a quarter (28%) of communicators use platform-specific metrics with their influencer marketing programmes. Just 22% use success metrics provided by influencers and only a fifth use social measurement tools to demonstrate ROI, according to a report featured in Econsultancy.These statistics illustrate a disconnect in the industry. Whilst more than three-quarters of communicators appreciate that effectively measuring investment return is paramount, most lack the tools or know-how to do so capably.

This is a case of Physician, heal thyself. As marketers it is our duty to our clients to ensure we are up-to-date with relevant tools and know-how to undertake our work to the best of our ability.

#11 Measuring impact not impressions

Impact is the ultimate indicator that your influencer marketing programme has moved the needle at an organisational level. Measurement of impact might include increased sales revenue, or improved long-term reputation with your targeted publics.

The Association for Evaluation of Measurement and Communication (AMEC) has set out a robust methodology for planning and measurement a campaign.

Every conversation about influencer marketing measurement should start with AMEC's Integrated Evaluation Framework.

Effective measurement and evaluation are core tools for communicators as influencer marketing moves centre stage. Both to satisfy our clients and to demonstrate leadership of other marketing disciplines attempting to take ownership of influencer marketing.

#12 No silver bullet in EMV

Summarising an influencer’s reach, resonance and relevance into a two-digit number doesn’t address the complexity needed for measuring campaign effectiveness. As communicators we should resist at all cost turning to EMV - Earned Media Value as an ROI silver bullet.

Writing in Adweek Sam Cookney of influencer platform Traackr gives seven reasons why EMVs are not fit for purpose:
  1. Irrelevance - The growth of influencer marketing is response to the diminishing effectiveness of advertising - so why undersell yourself by comparing with this old metric
  2. Lack of consistency - each vendor has its own methodology for calculating the figure
  3. Misleading price tags - EMV doesn’t tie to the actual value driven to your brand
  4. No consistent influencer pricing - Influencers adjust their fees depending on how much he or she wants to work with that brand, what the campaign is and, ultimately, what’s in it for them
  5. Doesn’t recognise different objectives - A financial figure doesn’t fit all goals and help you measure performance in specific areas
  6. Quantity, not quality - EMV is a purely quantitative metric. It doesn’t take into account the sentiment of a post or competitor mentions.
  7. Target audience - EMV treats all audiences as equal. It fails to discern the demographics and relevance of influencer audiences.

united influencer voice avoiding influencer marketing backlash

Reversing influencer marketing backlash: influencers might consider forming an organisation to protect and promote their growing industry

#13 United influencer voice

I’m a member of both the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). As such I am proud to be bound by their codes of conduct and ethics.

These organisations advance professionalism by making their members accountable to their employers and the public through these codes and by setting standards through training and producing best practice and skills guidance.

It might be time for influencers to consider forming such an organisation to protect and promote their growing industry. Influencers could similarly consider joining existing organisation to add gravitas.

The National Union of Journalists works to “improve the pay and conditions of [its] members and protect and promote media freedom, professionalism and ethical standards”

The NUJ rules state that "[t]he union shall consist of journalists, including photographers, creative artists working editorially in newspapers, magazines, books, broadcasting, public relations and information, and electronic media; as advertising and fashion photographers, advertising copywriters, editorial computer systems workers…"

In the US SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists represents approximately 160,000 actors, programme hosts, recording artists, voiceover artists and other media professionals.

Or Equity, the UK trade union for creative practitioners. With over 43,000 members the union is united in the fight for fair terms and conditions in the workplace.

influencer agreement avoiding influencer marketing backlash

Reversing influencer marketing backlash: Create better systems, processes and guidelines including influencer agreements and creative briefs

#14 An influencer agreement

No one intentionally enters a new relationship thinking it will turn sour. Both parties of a savvy, professional relationship will agree terms in writing ahead of formalising any work. A written agreement helps clarify any uncertainty and gives both parties something to fall back on if there are any problems. I’ve written a step-by-step guide to creating an influencer agreement.

#15 An influencer creative brief

Similarly, start an influencer campaign on a the right track with a set of guardrails which harness the best of structure and creativity.

As a marketer by the time you arrive at the stage of sharing your influencer creative brief you will have already have identified, vetted and selected your influencer through a data-driven process.

You should feel confident having completed this data-driven process that you have identified the most appropriate influencer for your campaign. Have faith in your decision. Don’t give the influencer a script. Guidance is not the same as control. You need to be able to provide your influencer with a series of guardrails in order to get the most from the business growth partnership.

Be open-minded to feedback. Be prepared to tinker with some of elements of the creative brief following a creative briefing session with your influencer. Here I outline how to draw up a creative brief for an influencer.

influencer marketing backlash

An end of the influencer marketing backlash

Ultimately it is the commercial imperative rather than moral indignation or finger pointing that will force a maturation of influencer marketing.  

Brands benefit from influencer marketing through taking a system-based approach and using a specific methodology to the discipline. The process starts with planning your objectives, aligning those communications objectives to your business goals.

The process continues to include careful selection & effective vetting of would-be influencers to ensure they’re the right fit for your brand.

The structured approach leads to building a mutually-beneficial business growth partnership between brand and influencer over the long run rather than tentpole influencer advertising.

With increased influencer marketing spend comes a greater need to demonstrate value return on investment (ROI). Accurate data and robust, independent campaign performance evaluation, along with industry benchmarking, will become a fundamental part of the influencer marketing campaign planning process.

Influencer audiences will increasingly demand higher-quality sponsored content from the creators they follow, too.

Fail to deliver either and the business model collapses for both brand and influencer.

As communicators we should be led by the legal term: caveat emptor “let the buyer beware”. We must be aware of the risks inherent within influencer marketing and seek to remove these risks through a systematic approach towards influencer selection, vetting, briefing, measurement and evaluation.  

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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