Have Instagram Influencers Lost Their Sway?

As consumers become acutely aware of sponsored Instagram posts, will a new form of authentic brand promotion come to the forefront?

Despite their ubiquity on our social feeds, the importance of influencers is being called into question. According to a report by Linqia, 76% of marketers are still struggling to determine the ROI of influencer marketing and cite it as their number one challenge in 2018.

Audiences are also becoming wise to paid product placements, with almost half of British consumers stating they would actively avoid clicking on an affiliate link to prevent an influencer from receiving a commission. With 7 out of 10 hashtags used on Instagram connected to brands, it begs the question as to whether this marketing trend has reached saturation point.

This is compelling companies to construct a more seamless and immersive ad experience, driving a shift from overt visual merchandising to an invisible, subconscious integration of the goods or service into influencers’ wider creative narrative. The recent rise of virtual influencers such as Lil Miquela has opened a new avenue for product promotion, but also an almost satirical acknowledgement of the artificial influencer lifestyle. As i-D’s deputy editor Felix Petty notes, the digital avatar celebrity is ‘an exercise in reflecting the emotional emptiness of influencer-society, and the shallowness of a method of communication that reduces all language to images and platitudinous one liners’.

Arguably, seemingly relatable influencer marketing is beginning to lose its lustre. Impacted by the Federal Trade Commission’s compliancy regulations, fraudulent follower numbers, data privacy scandals, and controversial sponsored posts – such as a recent Instagram post by Kim Kardashian West promoting appetite suppressant lollipops to her millions of followers – it’s no surprise that over a third of consumers feel that influencer marketing is damaging to society. Even brands are beginning to backlash against influencers, with a Dublin luxury hotel going as far as banning all bloggers from its premises after receiving collaboration requests in exchange for free stays.

As our highly individualised and increasingly demanding consumer culture continues to grow, the concept of a celebrity or influencer peddling a product will become less effective – instead, consumers want to be educated and inspired in other ways. They will make purchases informed by independent research, recommendations from online communities and sub-forum exchanges with fellow product aficionados – something we’re already witnessing with the revival of Facebook Groups. Elsewhere, the rise of eco-influencers points to a priority shift from displays of affluence to activism.

As a recent Nielsen survey revealed, 83% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family over advertising, while word-of-mouth impressions drive sales five-times greater than the equivalent number of paid impressions, according to a report from WOMMA. As a result, even major PR firms such as Edelman are taking note, integrating online forums such as Reddit into their PR strategies.

So, are we over influencers? Certainly, consumers have wised up to their less-than-authentic output. The rise of IRL recommendations, and expectations of honesty and transparency from brands, mean that as consumers use their own initiative to make purchases, the future of influencers might shift towards championing a cause rather than consumerism.

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