By Dimithri Wijesinghe
“Influencer marketing” is a not-so-recent phenomenon that’s become a near necessity in any serious marketing campaign.
While it’s trendy now to hire a “social media influencer” to endorse your product, brands have been using celebrities, athletes, and leaders to do the same for years. However, while such persons have a dedicated audience, it’s never guaranteed that their particular following would trust said celebrity or famous person to know what they need, owing to the disconnect and unrelatability of the relationship between the two.
As for direct adverts, people are inherently sceptical when they know they’re being marketed to. Of course you’re going to say your product is the best when you’re the one selling it – this is where the influencer comes in.
Influencers are often individuals who have built up a large following on a chosen social media platform around a specific niche, be it makeup tutorials, travel, gaming, etc.
For example, in Sri Lanka, we have Rochelle Wick , a beauty blogger who has a verified account on Instagram. Rochelle has a dedicated audience who trusts that she would only recommend a product that she herself would put on her face. We spoke to Rochelle who corroborates this belief, who stated: “Before selecting a brand to endorse, I try to use their products for a while in order for me to assess them. As a policy, no matter how much money is offered, I always let the brand know that my opinion will be my own and will be honest and authentic. This is another reason why I try to use the product for a while. This way, I only share and review products that I genuinely like.”
This kind of assurance has created a demand for authenticity and has consumers investing in influencers who they are confident about. The driving force in social platforms is the fact that ordinary people watch and comment on other ordinary people.
However, over the years, this simple formula of authentic but creative content has changed. When social media influencers discovered they could monetise their efforts, it encouraged nearly anyone with a decent internet connection and a smartphone to become a social media influencer to capitalise on this easy income.
Come 2019, social media influencers have turned into selling machines and these influencers are no longer authentic, promoting brands they like and giving biased reviews of products. They have gradually become another channel to market brands.
Local Instagram duo ToAlways commented on this, providing: “…we find it sad that if you read some blogs, it’s mostly ‘omg! That’s so nice, it was so tasty’ for everything. They’re not open to giving out criticism even if it is constructive, thereby rendering their content inaccurate. For example, if a blogger recommends a place and I go there and have a terrible experience, I would know that his/her content isn’t genuine. And if it repeats, I may just lose interest in following the influencer altogether.”
As the production of original content has now become a profession, attached to it are bureaucracy and fierce competition. And with that, the once-niche market has soon become saturated.
Social media influencers are a dime a dozen and Jack Bedwani of The Projects brand consulting agency said it best: “The net is so wide, and the term ‘influencer’ is so loose.” Influencers want pay for access to their followers and no longer share opinions but mirror the messages of the brands they represent.
Stay in your lane
As was discussed before, social media influencers are those who generated an organic audience through a niche which best represents them and that plays to their strengths.
Travel With Wife, an exclusively travel-focused influencer duo whose YouTube channel recently hit over 50,000 subscribers, stated that despite the rapid growth in their audience, they’ve taken care to remain with in the genre which got them their following.
They said: “We have made a conscious effort to only endorse those products which are travel-related as that is the primary focus of our content. It makes no sense for us to be promoting beauty or cosmetic products – that will only result in breaking our audience.”
Another local creator who is lauded for continuing to remain fresh and inspired with his content is The Sailor. Despite accepting a number of brand deals, Sailor has maintained an authentic outlook and a genuine interest in travel which translates well onto his content.
Speaking on how he goes about selecting a client who is a good match for himself while remaining true to his niche, he said: “Long story short, I don’t go for gigs which don’t fit my work. For example, I talk a lot about plastic and pollution. I didn’t take many gigs that came my way because showcasing single-use plastics is not my thing. I think all the gigs I’ve taken are relevant to my audience. I haven’t done anything which would disturb my feed. Even in instances where the brand wants to handle the content creation aspect as I cannot for some reason, I establish that they need to be flexible. If not, that’s definitely a no-go.”
Being a pro-LGBTIQ channel, ToAlways also stated: “What we look at when a brand approaches us is whether they’re LGBT-friendly or not. Being who we are, it wouldn’t make sense in general to work with a brand that isn’t, despite what they put forward on the table. That’s something we’re not willing to compromise on,” also adding: “We wouldn’t promote something that we don’t particularly relate to. It has to be relatable to our following but more importantly to us, because we feel that you can never truly get a proper message out if you don’t relate to the product you’re promoting.”
Shenelle Rodrigo, creator of the wildly popular #thisissrilanka project, also added: “I always try to work with brands that I feel my audience will resonate with and may find useful. I love working with brands that align with my lifestyle. It makes the whole process even more enjoyable! Each brand is different in their own unique way and I try to tailor each collaboration to suit their individual needs.”
Nicky De Silva added: “We basically portray the brand’s image through our creations with an extension of our own identity.”
Niche creators are often viewed as authentic and will have a sizeable and loyal network of people who engage with them.
Marketing platform Socialbakers CEO Yuval Ben-Itzhak stated: “Brands that collaborate with authentic and relevant influencers increase the results of their social media campaigns.” Hence, influencers must also remain relevant while retaining their authenticity.
With regard to the difficulties of staying relevant, Travel With Wife offered an interesting insight, stating: “Even to this day, we have no idea what will get us views on YouTube. Especially for us, with our specific genre, during certain seasons – for example, this current season where political talk is in demand – it is unlikely that a travel video would get the reach. But if you are a news channel, or even a pop culture channel that does gossip or conducts interviews, you can work the current topics in and get your reach.”
Consumers trust recommendations from a third party more often than a brand itself, which is what gives so much power to the influencer. It just seems more trustworthy than traditional advertising. This loyal audience allows the influencer to drive traffic to a brand’s website and increase its social media exposure. However, this “influence” is never a given, as Rochelle Wick stated: “There’s more to being an influencer than having a few thousand followers on Instagram. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.” It’s unpredictable; nobody ever knows when the tides are going to change.
Everything is not as it seems in the influencer world. According to Sarah Faisal, an influencer and content strategist at a well-known media platform, influencer marketing is considered a cost-effective method of marketing and this is primarily due to the oversaturation of content creators.
She said: “There’s a general idea that influencers need not be paid, because if you give them something for free, then they are somehow obligated to talk about it. Because there are so many such influencers now, with every other person with a considerable following promoting products for free, the entire concept has been devalued.” She also added: “The influencer comes with an inbuilt audience, a customer base that they have painstakingly amassed and they’ve built trust with them. I personally believe that that is an invaluable asset and it should be compensated.”
Sarah also said that there’s really no sense of community amongst most influencers. Their mindset is “I’m here for my benefit”, which has resulted in many people operating on their own accord and therefore not allowing for a proper system to get established, she shared.
Travel With Wife also touched on this, stating that form the very beginning, the one thing they did right was establishing a value for their content. Regardless of the value of the product they are being given, they have a professional charge for the content. They stated: “If not, you set a very troubling precedent.”
Zainab Faizal, more popularly known as “queen bae” on Instagram, added that it is important to keep stock of what you’re offering and its value: “In Sri Lanka, the concept of being an influencer has massively been taken for granted, and been used so much for everything. Therefore, it’s lost the true value of its meaning. You cannot self-proclaim yourself an influencer – but I believe in this day and age, we’re all ‘creators’. To be influenced or influential is a whole different ball game. It’s based on the things you do as a person, which will inspire your audience or make them want to try something out or get that product you are endorsing.”
In popular culture
With the speedy increase of the number of influencers, the public has unsurprisingly grown weary and tired of these content creators.
The word “influencer” has become somewhat a curse or an insult said with venom or disdain, it is not difficult to point fingers and declare this is primarily owing to the oversaturated nature of the field. However, this blanket dislike is likely to do away with something that was once beneficial to the general public.
Many of the public comments we gathered regarding local influencers included cynical and unsavoury remarks.
LIRNEasia Researcher, Nebula Award finalist, and author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
An old phenomenon under a new label. They’re called freelance marketers.
My comment is for online influencers that SMEs use to market their product or service: Current influencer culture is not governed. As a result, anyone is allowed to be an influencer and do whatever they feel like, that doesn’t add value to the purpose of enhancing marketing promotions.
Moratuwa University Department of Computer Science and Engineering lecturer Nisansa de Silva
It is basically money out of thin air. (1) Have a decent follower count. (2) Show follower count to a company. (3) Get goodies and deals (while getting paid or not). (4) Give the stuff to the followers. (5) Get new followers. (6) Show increased follower count to a better company. (6) Repeat 3-5.
Very confusing. I find the lives of average-but-inspiring online folk to be more wholesome and influential than misinformed foodies trying to sell a lifestyle I don’t want/can’t afford. Different folks, different strokes. Makes me wonder how many actually pull a profit.
Some are great platforms to get a message across to a selected crowd. But many of them don’t influence me to do anything that they do or buy the product they recommend, in real life. I watch, say wow, and scroll on. Perhaps the younger crowd gets influenced to imitate.
I have doubts on their ability to actually influence someone to make a purchase decision. Using influencers to create awareness works.
Bear Appeal Co-owner Thamara
When this bubble bursts, they’ll adopt a new moniker.
The only influence they leave is a bad influence.