Can You REALLY Trust Social Media Influencers?

Danielle Beurteaux

Deep Focus, an international digital agency, recently released its Winter/Spring 2015 Cassandra Report: Gen Z research report. In 99 Facts on the Future of Business in the Digital Economy, The Digitalist noted:

~Woman photo messaging from boutiqueGen Z want to be engaged by real people, especially in advertising where they are nearly twice as likely to want to see “real people” than celebrities (63% vs. 37%). Because of this desire, Gen Zs are more likely to visit YouTube than any other social site (85%) and would prefer their favorite brands communicate with them there than anywhere else (40%).

So, what is the definition of “real people”? And if real people are paid, in currency or product, are they still real people?

Klout was launched in 2008 and it didn’t take long for some corporations to begin using Klout scores to identify consumers they hoped would be valuable to their brand. High scores could mean preferential treatment and freebies, all in the hope that positive social media ripples would reach an “influencer’s’” many followers. Not a bad ROI, if it works. And Klout recently announced that it would begin including YouTube numbers in its scoring measurements. (One of Klout’s strengths is that it uses numbers from a variety of sources, including Facebook and LinkedIn, for its scoring system.)

The cautionary tale of the beauty bloggers

But what about trust and ethics? Back in 2008, the Federal Trade Commission updated its rules to cover new media environments, requiring full disclosure about free products or payment. There was already a backlash against some bloggers who were soliciting and then writing positive reviews about products or experiences they’d received gratis. In spite of the FTC’s guidelines, questions have been raised about bloggers’ and vloggers’ noncompliance. And according to a recent report, paying hefty fees for product placement isn’t paying off for brands.

Genuine vs. real

If you still watch television on an actual television, you’ll come across those “real people” testimonial ads, a tried-and-true advertising technique. (Whether they work or not is another question.) And just like the retirees talking about how much a muscle cream changed their lives, a vlogger touting the latest product is using the same modus operandi: they’re both about relatability.

Now we have what’s probably a natural development – people who aren’t celebrities or actors (aka amateurs) becoming social media stars employing a natural, DIY style to maintain a sense of relatability, and/or modern-day aspirational thinking. But getting paid for it. Which makes them … professionals? Once someone accepts payment, has a high Klout score, is running a YouTube channel or blog or Instagram account as a business, has agency representation, and brand affiliations, are they any more a peer than a Kardashian?

But perhaps more interesting than those waiting to be influenced are the amount of people aiming to be the next influencer (just take a look at the comments at the end of the above linked Harper’s Bazaar piece). They don’t want to buy the shoes, the car, or the trip – they want it given to them. If everyone is an influencer, who’ll be left to influence? Welcome to a future where everyone is subtly or overtly pushing products to everyone else.

The latest move by Twitter, which recently shut down a host of “parody” accounts, demonstrates how some so-called influencers aren’t quite what they seem to be. Maybe some of their followers know these accounts aren’t owned by real people, maybe they don’t, maybe they don’t care. But it doesn’t mean they’ll rush out to buy whatever is hashtagged.

Don’t confuse genuine with real. Once social media product pushing becomes so ubiquitous and obvious it can’t be ignored, there goes its value.


Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.