Can you trust influencers?

Simon thinking "Do I trust you?" looking suspiciously at a laptop with an influencer video on it

If someone whose opinion you trust tells you to check out this latest service they’re using, or that a certain style of jacket is their favourite , or that a new bestselling novel would be a great beach read on your holidays, what would you do? You trust them so you’d probably at least consider following their recommendation, right?

What if you knew that same person was being paid to say those things to you – by the company, or publisher – what then? It’s clear that you’re being sold to and while you might still check it out, the trust is probably lessened because now you don’t know if the opinion is really theirs or just motivated by money of gifted product.

This is the world of influencer marketing.

I’m not saying all influencers are doing this. But a lot are, and the phenomenon is growing (just try googling “influencer marketing”).

If you’ve ever noticed how a brand or cause suddenly pops up all over your online social feed, not just in paid ads but in users’ content, sometimes even people you’ve been following for ages who never even mentioned it before, then this is influencer marketing at work.

Let’s take a look at how it works…

How do influencers influence?

Influencers build their audiences by being authorities in their specialist area – whether it’s music, fashion, literature, wellness, political commentary, money management, whatever. People follow them because they’re interested in what the influencer has to say; because they trust that person.

When you follow someone on social media you are signalling that you want to see more of their content. The platform’s AI then works out which content from all the people you follow is most likely to keep you on-site the longest and it will prioritize that. Part of the algorithm prioritizes content from people who post regularly and achieve significant engagement with other users. In other words, Influencers.

For most people, the fact that someone might be being paid to share a link or champion a product or point of view doesn’t even cross their minds.

Here’s a fictional example. Let’s say you follow a surfing expert. They’re a great surfer, and sometimes they post about surfing products and issues. Maybe they review and recommend a new wetsuit. It’s aligned to your/their interests and you think, next time I’m buying a wetsuit, I’ll check that out. Maybe they promote a petition against a marine wind turbine development, saying it’s a threat to sea life. Let’s say you’re pro nature so again, it seems aligned. But what if the expert is being paid by a fossil fuel company to post the link? Then what?

Hopefully, this illustrates how influencer messages and marketing can go beyond ‘here’s a product I like using, you might like it too’ to politically-motivated attempts to manipulate people’s behaviour.

Just because the example is fictional doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

Urban Legend is a platform that connects marketing (and information/political) campaigns with social media influencers. The influencers have built an audience (based on wellness, or financial advice, or the climate, and so on) and they are paid – per click, per post, per conversion – to endorse specific products or messages, hoping to influence their followers’ opinions, beliefs and/or decisions.

Urban Legend, founded by an ex-director of digital strategy for the Trump White House, is facilitating just this. A recent Wired article lays out in detail how Urban Legend,

“… keeps its largest asset carefully hidden away inside its servers: an army of 700 social media influencers who command varying degrees of allegiance from audiences that collectively number in the tens of millions.”

In a world where trust in politicians and mainstream media is at an all-time low, large corporations and political bodies are turning to setups like Urban Legend to push their products and their messages.

The murky world of influencer marketing

If people don’t declare which opinions are paid and which aren’t, how ethical can it be?

According the Cambridge Dictionary, an influencer is:

“someone who affects or changes the way that other people behave”

So, an influencer is someone whose opinions are trusted – by their followers, at least. But Cambridge has a second definition too:

“a person who is paid by a company to show and describe its products and services on social media, encouraging other people to buy them”

The issue here is the trust followers place in influencers. That’s what makes influencer marketing so powerful. But while the law may require disclosure of payment for content, in reality, nobody is really enforcing that requirement. And if an influencer doesn’t openly state that a post or recommendation is paid for, followers assume that it’s genuine.

Plenty of people have a ‘just scroll past’ attitude to social media ads. But you can’t do that if you don’t know what is an ad and what isn’t.

So why am I telling you this?

I’ve seen this happen, where a particular brand or product or message is suddenly all over my social media timelines in a seemingly coordinated way. The Wired article got me thinking about influencers and the impact they can have on people’s buying decisions, opinions, and even values. To quote the article again:

“If an influencer’s financial advice helped you save for a vacation or their fashion tips earned you compliments, maybe their view on the minimum wage, or critical race theory, is worth considering too.”

That’s the logic behind where influencer marketing is fading, and if you think that sounds scary, or unethical, you’re probably right, it is.

I don’t have a solution, and I am not inciting a pile on against influencers. What I am saying is that when we consider marketing from an ethical perspective, paying someone to use the trust other people have in them to sell products or push campaigns is not ethical marketing. It’s manipulation.

Having your own voice and your own opinions has never been so important.