The Rise of the Social Influencer

May 7 2018

Popularity of influencer marketing is a rich seam for brands and PR reps but greater transparency is now needed to enhance trust and credibility, writes Owen Cullen.

It seems hard to believe now but there was a brief flicker of time, quite a few years back, when people weren’t sure if social media would catch on. “What’s it for exactly? And anyone can do it?”

The answers to those questions are precisely what has turned social media into the ubiquitous behemoth it is today. Social media is whatever you want it to be. And yes, anyone can do it.

It caught on! When social media then spawned the first green shoots of something called ‘influencer marketing’, many people were similarly dubious. “What’s it for exactly? And anyone can do it?”

Same two answers, same outcome – influencer marketing has become huge. According to Forbes, a whopping 92% of consumers now trust influencers more than traditional advertising or celebrity endorsements. That’s backed up by Chief Marketer, which reported last year that influencer marketing is now both the fastest-growing and most cost-effective channel for customer acquisition.

Influencers a quick, effective route to target audience

So, not difficult to see why social influencers have jumped to the top of the charts. On a practical level, it’s a quick and effective way for brands to reach their ‘real’ target audience. It’s cheaper and offers a better ROI than most marketing alternatives, especially paid-for advertising.

On a broader strategic level, it’s an authentic way to generate and leverage the kind of stories and content that bring brands and consumers closer together. And it offers a strong level of reassurance because social influencers are known and trusted by their followers.

That last point is critical. The first generation of social influencers came to prominence because they built up their communities through their own reputation, attitude, opinions and expertise. Their rise was largely organic; inspiring and persuading people to interact, try things, become a true follower.

It worked. It works. It’s incredibly popular. And both brands and the PR agencies that represent them have reaped the rewards: brand advocacy; brand awareness; share of voice; reputation; leads; sales; and of course, influence. The rise of the social influencer looked unstoppable.

In recent times, however, one or two dark clouds have scudded across the previously pristine blue sky of social influence. As more and more people scramble to re-invent themselves as bloggers-for-hire, it’s starting to become clear that Instagram, Facebook et al are now awash with ‘influence’.

Trust issues beginning to form

This in turn has led to some uncomfortable questions. Has influence become just another commodity? Are things really what they seem? How do I know who’s telling the truth? Who can I trust? Allegations of Photoshopping, covert ads and mass buying of followers have intensified the spotlight.

For brands, PR agencies and of course influencers themselves, this grey area is starting to undermine the very credibility upon which the concept of influence is based. This is a major worry.

The PR and advertising industries are doing what they can. In 2016, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) issued guidelines stating that bloggers/influencers must “fully declare” all paid-for marketing communications, with the onus on advertisers to ensure the influencers they work with play by the rules.

The Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII), meanwhile, has its own set of guidelines, stating that earned media coverage cannot be guaranteed. “If coverage is guaranteed then it is advertising”, say the guidelines, which is “unethical and a disservice to the profession”.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year issued a stern reminder that influencers and marketers must clearly disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media – the first time the FTC has made direct contact with influencers.

Clarity, transparency needed to tackle ’grey area’

As well-intentioned as all these guidelines are, anyone who follows or works with influencers knows how easily things can fall through the cracks and into that grey area. Now more than ever, there is a need for greater clarity, more transparency, around the role and activity of social influencers.

Interestingly, in the United Arab Emirates it was reported earlier this year that anyone wishing to carry out “commercial activities” through social media will soon require a Government-issued permit.

This may seem a drastic measure, but as more social influencers emerge, as the amount of ‘influence’ being exerted on our social channels continues to grow, as more companies seek to leverage that influence to enhance their brands, there’s no doubt that consumers need to know what they’re being told – and by whom.

For PR practitioners, this is nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite. Social influencers will only stay relevant if they are seen as legitimate, authentic, and above all credible. If greater clarity and more transparency help to bring that about, in the long run we’ll all be winners.

Owen Cullen is Managing Director of Cullen Communications, Ireland’s sole member of PRGN

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