As influencer marketing becomes increasingly saturated, influencers are pushing the boundaries. They need the follower numbers and the advertising dollars that come with a larger audience.
So they’ve started thinking outside the box. Straightforward product or service advertising partnerships are not the only ways to generate cash. Their personal lives and private moments are now up for grabs as well.
To say this has caused outrage in the marketing industry (and beyond) would be an understatement. Take US influencer Marissa Casey Fuchs (@fashionambitionist) – her partner Gabriel Grossman’s staged proposal/engagement generated widespread vitriolic accusations that the pair had misled both followers and brands with the stunt.
But should we really be surprised, let alone disgusted? Celebrity moments of love have been highly commoditised for a long time. While it’s easy to get caught up in the incredulity that such a private moment could be commercialised and held up in public, surely it’s just another evolution of how celebrities "sell" their significant occasions to magazines such as Hello and OK!. In the social media age, is it really any different to Hello being at your wedding? This is #love for the 21st century.
When influencers live their whole life in public and enjoy the validation they get from their fan base, it hardly seems shocking that they would consider such a move. This sense of unfiltered 24/7 access is what differentiates them from traditional celebrities. It’s yet another part of the ongoing shift in what is acceptable from a moral and cultural standpoint. Remember when we thought it was bizarre that people shared their lunch on social media? Now it’s considered pretty normal and food brands make frequent use of the images as user-generated content.
The bigger question for marketers should be whether associating themselves with this kind of behaviour is damaging their brands. Personally, in most cases, I don’t think we should be unduly worried. The key, as always with influencer marketing, is to be upfront and unashamed of partnerships and, most importantly, ensure that they feel natural – not forced – for the brand.
Grossman/Fuchs and their brand partners could probably have avoided much of the criticism if they’d been far more upfront about the stunt. Investing in influencers isn’t a dirty little secret. It’s media spend and, if done well, can be a productive creative partnership.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about some aspects of influencer behaviour. Crass insensitivity in posing for pictures at Chernobyl is definitely not OK. Neither are incidents such as YouTube star Logan Paul infamously sharing a video of someone who had apparently ended their own life.
It’s worth remembering that many influencers are young men and women, with no formal media training, often without agents to advise them and prone to making mistakes and bad judgment calls. Giving influencers "creative freedom" is something that’s often talked about in influencer marketing, and while this is important it’s also just as vital to protect your brand with clear rules around any partnership.
And as the influencer marketing industry matures, so will official regulation. Here in the UK, there are guidelines in place designed to make the industry more open and transparent. The Advertising Standards Authority recently applied its rules to identify anybody with more than 30,000 followers as a "celebrity" and, therefore, subject to its oversight.
But no amount of regulation and red tape will stop influencers’ ambitions from growing. They’re now established celebrities, but without the additional revenue streams that usually come with fame (such as music, film and so on). To maintain their status, they need to keep building their audiences, make sure they’re being talked about and push the status quo in order to gain traction online. Social media is their channel for doing so.
The question is: what will we see next from ambitious influencers? Naming children via polls? Sponsored births? Given that Robbie Williams famously live tweeted his wife giving birth five years ago, perhaps it won’t be long before online celebrities start offering brands the opportunity to be part of these life-changing events.
My advice for brands would be to tread carefully, but keep an open mind. A partnership undertaken in a transparent manner, that is a natural fit for the brand, complete with great creative and the right, responsible messaging, can be beneficial for everyone involved.
Mobbie Nazir is chief strategy officer at We Are Social