S1E4 - The Dark Side Of Influencer Marketing - No Followers & Still Broke

Advertising has been around since basically the beginning of time. As companies grow and technology changes, the methods used to gain the interest of consumers has also changed.

Over the last decade or so, one new method of advertising that has grown in popularity is influencer marketing. This is due to a few factors.

1.      The growth and availability of social media platforms as well as the ease of use of these platforms has literally made a direct communication line between companies and the consumer possible

2.      Instead of word of mouth traveling between friend groups or an individual’s wider social circle, through social media platforms, companies and influencers have been able to connect with people who they would never have met in their day to day lives. An influencer following is made up of hundreds to millions of individuals who have the same interests, goals or behaviors. Making this the prefect medium for effective advertising.

3.      Review based purchases have become a huge part of consumerism in the world. Consumers can quickly and easily search for specific products on websites like google or YouTube and then get a detailed report on what a product is, how its used, what the pros and cons are as well as how much a product lives up to its advertisement from a diverse group of individuals. Like for instance, in the tech industry, if an individual wants to know every single thing about the newest phone on the market, they can search for it and watch countless videos without ever leaving their homes. And this has proven to be extremely profitable for companies, so of course they have quickly invested into this avenue for marketing their products.

4.      The changes in methods of payment has also contributed to the success of influencer marketing. Companies can establish contracts, monitor analytics, and pay an influencer all online without ever meeting the influencer. This cuts down on costs for meetings, ad space and leg work behind each sale.  Platforms like Instagram have even begun to make specified changes to their platforms specifically for companies seeking influencers and for dealing with the entire process.

Influencer marketing can be described pretty simply, its basically when companies or business owners advertise their products or services through individuals who have large social media followings. The point of influencer marketing is to provide captivating non advertisement like testimonials for products or services with the intention of swaying and influencing purchasing decisions.

Companies seek out influencers that fit their target markets by analyzing their follower count, the level of engagement between the influencer and their followers as well as the lifestyle or brand that the influencer has. If all these check out and fit with the company’s goals, then they contact the influencer and begin the process of setting up a marketing campaign while also setting up a compensation plan that both parties can agree to.

Over the years, the requirements for just how large of a following it takes for these companies to contact individuals has slowly been increasing. In the early years of Instagram and YouTube, an individual would only need a following of around 1000 – 5000 individuals to start earning an income on these platforms. And while these numbers are still profitable for both companies and influencers, a larger following is something that companies and influencers value much, much more.

Today, an individual can fall into two different groups on the influencer spectrum.

1.      You can be a Micro-influencer, meaning that you have anywhere between 2,000 to 100,000 followers.

2.      OR you can be classified as a macro-influencer, meaning that you have well over 100,000 individuals following your profile.

The more reach an individual has, then the more they can request in compensation. Which can lead to some pretty interesting and creepy situations.

In an ideal scenario, individuals and companies that use this method of advertising would be honest and ethical in their advertisements. They would avoid making false claims and avoid targeting individuals that they know would purchase anything and everything that an influencer gives the stamp of approval.

But, like with any technology, there is a darker side to the world of influencer marketing.

Let’s go through my top three creepiest parts.

1.      The practice of buying followers and engagement. After the introduction of social media platforms like Instagram, it wasn’t long before individuals began realizing that there was money to be made.

Companies all over began popping up that focused on selling followers or likes. They provide packages of anywhere between 50 new followers to thousands of followers. Individuals could pay these companies to increase their follower account almost instantly. The cost ranges from $10 to hundreds of dollars and even though these companies claim that the followers are real, there are no assurances.

Over time, individuals who used these services began noticing that the new followers were usually bots or accounts which were hacked and once these hacked accounts began seeing that they didn’t remember following these new people they would immediately unfollow.

As I looked through a few websites for companies selling followers the refund policy seems to be pretty standard across all of them. Refunds are not issued unless under very special circumstances. Once the followers are bought and the process begins, the buyer has no way of getting a full refund. Some of these companies offer at most a 50% refund under those mentioned special circumstances, while others clearly and explicitly state that under no circumstances will a refund request be offered or honored. Which means, if these companies do in fact sell you fake followers you cannot go after them to recover that money ever.

Additionally, Instagram has begun to comb through all of its members profiles in search for fake accounts and once they identify profiles that are fake, Instagram immediately deletes them. Meaning that not only do you lose your money, you will also eventually lose the followers you paid you hard earned money for, leaving you in the same exact place you began.

The consequences of companies finding out that you have fake followers could be pretty substantial as well. You may have to pay back the money paid to you for marketing campaigns. And while this may seem far fetched, the purchasing followers with the intention of making money as an influencer could be considered fraudulent behavior legally and could even result in jail time or additional fines if companies do decide to pursue legal action.

In a recent article on Forbes, Unilever CMO Keith Weed announced that “the company is pushing for greater transparency in the influencer marketing space to combat fraud in the digital ecosystem; create better experiences for customers; and improve brands’ ability to measure impact.”

The fact that companies are no investing money into tracking profiles and measurements for engagement means that they no longer want to play in a system where they can get taken advantage of more often than not. I wouldn’t be surprised if these large companies begin lobbying for stricter rules when it comes to the online space and influencer marketing profiles.

It won’t be long before we start hearing about lawsuits from these companies against influencers that actively use fake followers to bolster their profiles attractiveness.

And to be honest, if I were an influencer, I would start looking for legal representation mostly due to the fact that no matter how hard you try to keep your followers organic and real, at the end of the day, these social media platforms just aren’t implementing enough security measures for profile creation to assure that all their users are honest and real.

Both companies and influencers must then take this task upon themselves. And this task can prove to be extremely difficult and time consuming as an individual’s follower count grows.

2.      The practice of advertising any thing and everything companies will pay you for as an influencer.

As companies started investing money into influencer accounts, it became easier and easier for influencers to advertise things that not only didn’t work, but that they had never actually used. For example, things like tummy tea that countless of influencers have boasted their love for all over social media.

The company that makes tummy tea allegedly claims that drinking the tea daily will lead to weight-loss without a proper fitness regimen or diet in place. They haven’t shown the science behind the tea’s ability to promote weight loss.

Now you may be thinking that regardless of whether the company has covered the science behind the tea, influencer testimonials are definitely an indicator that the tea works. But how can individuals be sure that these influencers have even used the tea in the first place. Well, they can’t.

False advertisement of products has a few consequences that I find interesting.

One of which is a change in our behavior or belief system that directly impacts the way we perceive the world and our ability to change it.

When a company tells you that their product will help you, most of us are a bit skeptical. But when a friend, or person you follow closely on social media platforms tells you how much they love a product and how much it has helped them reach their goals, our skeptic meters are just a bit skewed.

We have seen this person’s journey and are a lot more trusting of their recommendations, meaning we are much more likely to take a chance on a product or service they recommend to us. Companies have started figuring this out, and the companies that just have the goal of making quick money by deceiving consumers without actually giving them a product that lives up to its advertised use are finding influencers that also have the same money-making goal in mind.

Its difficult to know just which companies and influencers are doing this, and that could lead to some interesting law suits in the future between influencers, the companies making fake products and consumers who feel taken advantage of.

And we have to start wondering, in a world where bots can post comments and like posts, do we ever really know whether the effectiveness of a product or service is real?

For instance in the case of the Fyre festival which was advertised by hundred of social media profiles as the next big thing in the world of getaway luxury music festivals. Influencers, models, and artists across the world were all posting the same thing “You have to be there” The FOMO was real and thousands of people spent upwards of over 3,000 dollars each on airfare, tickets to the festival and even added perks that all turned out to not exist once they arrived to the “secluded” island. Instead of beautiful villas, they had tents with blown up air mattresses, instead of gourmet food prepared by world renounced chefs, they had a slice of bread with a slice of cheese served.

Who should be responsible for honest ethical marketing? And will guidelines be put in place to assure that companies and influencers intent on duping consumers are held responsible in cases like this? Will there be a way for consumers to recover the money they spent and where do they go to report bad business practices or false advertisement?

MY hope is that either influencers become stricter in the products they market to their followers, or that companies become more ethical in the products and services they create and sell to all individuals.

Or we as consumers can begin to apply the same caution that we have for companies, to the very influencers we trust when making purchasing decisions. Overall false advertising hurts everyone in the long run. It damages the company’s brand, the influencers credibility and hurts our pockets as we try to figure out just which products actually do what they say they should.

And last of all.

3.      The perpetual quest to live like an influencer and have a full online persona may change the way we see the world.

Its been shown that how we respond to the notification of a new like or a new follower is similar to the brains response to drug use. We are forming an addiction and each time that notification dings, our brains release a small bit of dopamine which reinforces our behavior. We begin to seek validation from people we have never even met.

Over time this changes our reality, it changes our standards for beauty, success, and even our expectations of what life should be like. It changes the way we have conversations and the way we maintain relationships and friendships.

Slowly our online personas begin to take over our entire life. We begin participating in events solely for the excuse to post how much we are enjoying our lives instead of actually enjoying our lives. OR even taking on extra credit card debt to maintain a certain luxurious lifestyle that mimics our favorite influencers profiles. Yet at the end of the day, we don’t have much to show for it since our relationships suffer, our credit scores suffer and our overall happiness with the real part of our lives begins to decrease over time.

The cycle is endless.

Additionally, the more we see others post of their lives, the more we post bits and pieces of our lives that used to be considered private. And as the fight over our how much of our privacy we can hold on to in this online world continues, I’m interested to see just how much of a role influencer marketing will play in the struggle and how long it will take us to forget that privacy was something we wanted in the first place.


Photos By:

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

Photo by Kym Ellis on Unsplash

Photo by ZACHARY STAINES on Unsplash

Music By:

Rod Hamilton