Tighter rules around what they must declare and a series of scandals have not quite knocked influencers off their pedestal, but there has been a lot of damage to some big reputations and this reflects badly on everyone in the influencer world. Record labels and managers are getting more deeply involved in the influencer world and we look at how they must navigate this new world of regulations and the ever-present danger of scandals. We also look at where things are moving next, why Instagram might be losing its influencer crown to TikTok and why things in China are very different to the rest of the world.
Live by the viral story, die by the viral story. Such is the life of the influencer in 2020 following a couple of years that have seen their community rocked by scandal (such as YouTuber Chris Ingham being accused of sending inappropriate messages to a teenage fan, or Clemmie Hooper trolling other Instagram influencers through a sock puppet account) and greed (far too many examples to mention).
At the same time, influencers have found a raft of new regulations cramping their style. In the UK, influencers now have to adhere to ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) rules on sponsored content, while the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US has issued rules on disclosure for influencers.
Just last week, the FTC appeared to be gearing up for a fresh crackdown on shady and questionable influencer marketing, with commissioner Rohit Chopra calling for tighter rules. “Misinformation is plaguing the digital economy, and recent no-money, no-fault FTC settlements with well-known retailers and brands to address fake reviews and undisclosed influencer endorsements may be doing little to deter deception,” wrote Chopra in a statement.
“ The FTC will need to determine whether to create new requirements for social media platforms and advertisers and whether to activate civil penalty liability.”
Chopra added, “I am concerned that companies paying for undisclosed influencer endorsements and reviews are not held fully accountable for this illegal activity. Going forward, we need to seek tougher remedies for companies that are illegally astroturfing or disguising their advertising as an authentic endorsement or review.”
Even ahead of possible new US regulations, this has all proven tricky for the sector, with rumours rife that some influencers are bending or simply ignoring these rules.
“When you see something that says ‘ad’ [on a post] it’s not as impactful,” says US DJ and entrepreneur Genius, who has worked with the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and K Camp. “It just feel like someone is trying to sell you something.”
Trust, transparency and truth
Tahir Basheer, a partner at Sheridans who works closely with influencers, brands and agencies globally, says that the main issue for influencers has been press coverage around these rules in the mainstream media, which in turn “shines a sometimes unfavourable light on the influencers themselves”.
“The hurdle for those influencers – and therefore the brands – is the level of trust consumers have in them as a marketing outlet,” he adds. “This has meant that the rules are forming a bigger part of brands’ thought processes and perhaps that they are more keen to observe the rules more closely.”
The ASA , Basheer adds, normally doesn’t take a proactive approach to investigation, limiting itself to examining complaints that it receives. “Typically brands or influencers will simply be told to take posts down and ensure that they ‘do not appear again in the same form,’” Basheer explains. “The bigger issue is if a decision is brought by the [UK’s] Competition & Markets Authority, who can be proactive and does not have to wait to receive a complaint.
“That body has the remit to audit influencer activity going back for typically one year, can sue influencers and has a wider power to take such enforcement action.”
The new gods? Or empty vessels?
Add into this melée the persistent rumours of influencers buying followers and you have what appears to be an industry in crisis. And yet, from a slightly different perspective, things might seem rosy for the influencer community. According to Influencer Marketing Hub (not exactly a disinterested party, admittedly), spending on influencer marketing was predicted to grow to $6.5bn in 2019, more than double the 2017 spend.
“I would say the problems with influencers were always there; it’s just that people didn’t realise it,” says one US music marketer. “People, and especially companies, are finally becoming more savvy about the issues that were always there. The initial excitement has turned into more reality. [Influencer marketing] was put on a pedestal.”
Luisa-Christie Walton-Stoev, influencer marketing lead at Atlantic Records UK and a blogger/influencer at Luisa-Christie, says that influencer marketing is “certainly” here to stay in the music industry.
“We’ve only just touched the surface in ways that music companies can creatively collaborate with influencers,” she says. “I also think that artist teams can learn a lot from influencers. They are so skilled in building engaged audiences that invest long term and most influencers do it all on their own, creating a brand from scratch.”
The truth, as ever, seems to be being pulled between the two extremes. “Certain influencers have lost their value,” says Genius. “But there is still an infrastructure there that works. Influencers consistently change. The sort of influencer that might have been powerful, a social media influencer, a year ago may have lost that. But there are also new ones that have come into the space.”
Genius believes that as people have become more aware of the often humdrum reality behind the apparently glamorous influencer lifestyles – the begging letters to hotels, desperate sponsorship deals and lack of accountability – the magic has gone. “The Instagram influencer bubble just kind of burst, ” he explains. “Back in the day, a lot of the influencers we used to do would be supermodels on Instagram with large followings. And that lost its value.”
Reach out and touch… what?
Changes at Instagram itself have also contributed to this decline. “When Instagram changed its algorithm from being a timeline to being something more complicated, it affected influencers’ ability to reach their audiences,” says one major label marketer in the US. “That is very important as business or brands. If you are paying people for reach based on followers, you are probably being ripped off. Because a lot of those people won’t ever see the post.”
Instagram’s experiments with hiding likes, which the company has been testing since 2019, are also hindering the influencer market. “I haven’t seen likes on a post for a while,” says one marketer. “As a business person, when I try to decide which influencer to use, that can be frustrating.”
Rather than spelling the end for influencer marketing, however, she believes business will simply move elsewhere. Surprisingly perhaps, Genius says Twitter is now hugely important (again) for influencer marketing as people look to drive organic conversation. “We focus more on influencing the conversation around music. It’s all about the chatter. Somebody wants to hear from somebody else that this is something hot,” he says. “It may not be the large influencer account. It may be somebody that’s in your circle that comes across in your timeline.”
The key here is that most overused of words – “authenticity”.
Genius says, “If you look at your Twitter, you will see stuff that your friend retweets from an account that you may not be following. So you may just be on your feed and you see something pop in your feed, as somebody retweets from another account. A lot of time we work with that level of influence.”
He adds, “We might put a piece of content out there through one of our pages, we see that we are getting feedback, we take that actual conversation feedback. So somebody goes, ‘Hey this is a really dope video.’ We retweet that comment into more feeds. In essence that person becomes the main driver or the main influencer, the normal person that might have had a conversation.”
TikTok takes talk from Instagram
TikTok, clearly, is another huge platform for influencers right now, thanks to its booming popularity, youthful audiences and – for the moment – organic feel. “Influencer marketing is moving from Instagram onto TikTok,” says our US marketer. “And that’s not a bad thing as anyone can get their videos seen on TikTok.”
TikTok recently launched its Creator Marketplace to allow brands to connect with talent, with more than 1,000 TikTok creators currently listed. According to a recent AdAge piece on TikTok, advertisers pay TikTok stars “anywhere from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars” for videos, with CJ OperAmericano, who has 715k TikTok followers, doing deals with companies including Taco Bell, Alba Botanica and Missguided US clothing recently.
“It’s not like an ad that someone would want to click away from,” CJ OperAmericano explained. “It’s not just an informational boring ad. It’s an actual story that makes the viewers want to participate in the product or the activity that I’m advertising.”
The organic and the long term
Authenticity can work in many ways: Genius says that marketers are finding success with influencers who have a more organic appeal, such as dancers and SoundCloud rappers, while Walton-Stoev says music marketers should always work with creators who genuinely like the music they will be promoting.
“If it’s obvious that if someone is only posting about something because they are being paid, followers and fans switch off,” she says.
Similarly, Joe Gagliese, co-founder of Viral Nation (viralnation.com) believes that influencers should be given creative freedom to promote a song “as long as it is on a positive note and within brand guidelines”.
“Influencer marketing is about creating one-to-one connections, but at scale,” he adds. “The best influencer marketing campaigns produce organic influencer content that audiences feel speaks directly to them.”
Authenticity, however, is a double-edged sword. A paid campaign – whether straight ad or influencer endorsement – cannot, by definition, be entirely authentic. Meanwhile the more brands pile into a platform for its supposed organic appeal, the less organic it will become. Twitter, you could argue, currently works for authentic conversation precisely because its advertising offer has yet to take off.
As such, marketers need to make careful choices about platforms when working with influencers. “People may want the hottest platform, people may want to grow their base on Instagram, but sometimes that may not be the right platform to grow,” says Genius. “It may be better to do stuff on YouTube.”
Walton-Stoev says that there are “so many kinds of influencer marketing activations that work in music”.
“Simple things such as Instagram Story shares of new releases, soundtracking video content on Instagram/YouTube/ Tik Tok, to more complicated long-term collaborations telling a story or building a narrative between the artist and influencer, so that they grow together – and usually end up creating awesome content together, too,” she explains.
Genius also firmly believes in the power of narrative as part of a long-term influencer campaign. “You should know what kind of narrative you are going for around the story,” he says. “We work with our clients long-term, which is three-tosix-months, six-months-to-a-year. We are trying to influence an overall message over time. It’s not just one piece of content or this one song.”
For all the apparent crisis in the influencer world, then, Genius says that influencer marketing is here to stay, if not necessarily in its current shape. “I think [influencer marketing] is always going to be around because, even in the general sense of the word, there will always be people who have influence in one way or another,” he says.
“I think that the platforms are just going to change. What we have historically thought of as influencers – which is people with large social media following – has changed. That is not the influencer. You have to work really hard to find who the real influencer is. And realise that an influencer is not just someone with a large following.”
Our US marketer agrees. “There are more and more influencers out there and more and more niche accounts. It becomes more about finding niche influencers and the right audience, rather than just the big influencers,” they conclude