The Problem With Influencer Marketing

Scandals are unavoidable when individuals are given the reins

4Jan

There are many points at which YouTuber Logan Paul should have stopped to question a video blog in which he explored the tragically infamous Aokigahara. Paul and his team visited the Japanese forest - which is known for the high number of suicides attempted there - as part of a content-creation tour. Claiming they were there to make a 'fun video' about reported supernatural action, the group came across an apparent suicide victim, who appeared to have hung himself.

Paul blurred the victim's face out of the video, but featured close up shots and clips of him allegedly making jokes about the situation. The callous tone of the video drew vehement criticism across the internet, with celebrities like Aaron Paul weighing in to castigate the YouTuber, and Paul has apologised both via text posted on Twitter and a YouTube video.

In his initial apology, Paul claimed he didn't give the video proper consideration before publishing it, citing his constant output as the reason. As critics pointed out, though, it takes some time to chop up, edit, and publish a video - for none of his team to have considered how deeply insensitive the video blog was throughout this process is astounding. Paul claimed that he did not publish the video 'for the clicks', instead insisting he was 'raising awareness', but used the image of the victim as the thumbnail and titled the post 'We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest.'

It's unlikely the apology will do much to stem the tide of online criticism, though it's unclear just how it will affect Paul's career going forward. His videos garner millions of views and his fan base are young enough that they may not see just how gross a mistake posting the video was. Even so, brands may be wary of partnering with the 'star' after he has proven capable of a lack of judgment of this magnitude.

Another embarrassing influencer move - though for entirely different and less offensive reasons - was Zoella's 2017 advent calendar. The 27-year-old has been one of the most successful vloggers on YouTube for eight years, and is pulling in a reported £50,000-a-month. It's partly for this reason that her advent calendar, which sold for £50, featured only 12 doors, and contained items like glitter and a pen, was widely panned for being overpriced and exploiting a young fanbase.

Influencer marketing is clearly a powerful tool for brands in the digital age. In an era when audiences are craving authenticity, brands that partner with popular 'influencers' have the opportunity to connect with groups they may otherwise be overlooked by, without having to put together wildly expensive video campaigns or increasingly ineffective display advertisements. The impending marketing challenges posed by GDPR legislation - set to come into full effect on May 25th - will only make influencer marketing a more attractive proposition, and there is a growing number of companies looking to connect influencers with brands.

For all its positives, though, influencer marketing does mean brands have to relinquish some control over how their message is spread. The point of using people with significant followings to push a product is to deliver 'authentic' messages to potential customers. Recent changes to legislation have meant that it must be clearly signposted that a piece of content is sponsored, but audiences will still assume a degree of support from the individual to the brand they're promoting. To achieve this, brands have to give the influencer creative control over the manner in which the message is delivered, to let them present the message in a way they know their audience will connect with. There are countless examples of Instagram posts from celebrities looking bored posing in front of products they clearly have no interest in, though, so brands should offer come creative directive to influencers they aren't convinced will put the effort in.

Also, association with people in the spotlight is not always a good thing. As with Logan Paul (and to a lesser degree Zoella), being professionally linked with people who make ill-judged missteps is a bad image for any brand. Had Paul been wearing hat from a company that pays to have him wear it, for example, that brand's image would have been pasted across every piece of negative coverage that flooded the web in the aftermath of the scandal. This is the inherent risk involved in influencer marketing and, to a degree, it's out of a brand's hands once the deal has been struck.

If there's one thing large companies in particular don't like, it's unpredictability. Most influencer marketing campaigns will be successful in building audiences and credibility through endorsement, but others will reflect badly on the company when the influencer they choose disgraces or embarrasses themselves in some way. For CMOs that like to be able to predict the outcome of any given campaign, going down the route of using an army of influencers might just mean too much instability. Are you going to get a creative, gleaming endorsement for your investment, or will it just be an NFL star looking bored giving a thumbs up behind a pile of your chocolate bars?

The takeaway for brands is twofold. Firstly, it makes sense to partner with influencers that genuinely care about your brand, or at least have some prior experience with it. There is no greater turn off for audiences than shoddily done marketing from influencers that clearly don't care about the product they're pushing. To find them, brands should approach influencers who already fit into their target demographics and enquire about their opinion of the product - nothing seems more forced than an endorsement from someone who has never used a product themselves. Secondly, brands have to be careful with the influencers they choose to partner with; edgy YouTubers might be a way of getting a wide reach, but the association could turn sour if negative press explodes as it did in the case of Paul. So yes, influencer marketing is going to continue to explode as we take further steps into 2018, but it may well make some marketers uncomfortable as they relinquish control. 

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