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Influencer marketing in the age of mistrust

14 May 2019  |  Emily Knox 
Influencer marketing in the age of mistrust

Although there appears to be an influencer backlash, today’s trust issues are just teething pains, writes Emily Knox

Trust is in decline, and it has been for some time - not just in influencers but in social, and even wider digital, media. Only 4% of internet users trust what influencers are telling them on social media – and only 8% believe the majority of what they see on social media platforms is accurate. That was the finding of UM’s 10th annual Wave study which tracks 56,000 internet users around the globe.

Fake news, and fake views

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the now infamous effect of social media on recent election and referendum outcomes, the US and UK are more cynical about social media and influencers than other regions. Only 36% of Brits trust blogger and vlogger opinions on products and services, while just 44% of British internet users say they are influenced by opinions shared online – down from 46% last year.

Meanwhile, a 2018 Bazaarvoice study found that 62% of people think that influencers take advantage of impressionable audiences, 54% say they misrepresent real life and 49% think they should have stricter rules about sponsored posts. It’s no surprise that fake news was the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year in 2017.

In fact, according to Taylor Lorenz of The Atlantic, the entire Instagram aesthetic of Millennial pink interiors, perfectly arranged clean smoothie bowl breakfasts and an overly curated, idealised and stylised aspirational aesthetic is on the way out as consumers hunt for more authentic experiences and connections.

Distrust amongst sellers as well as buyers

It’s not just consumers who are questioning their faith in the ecosystem. Advertisers are losing trust because ad fraud is the number one cyber crime in the world by revenue, costing $19 billion every year. Influencer fraud is also increasing – in 2017 a Sway Ops study found that 50% of engagements on Instagram sponsored content are fake, with bots presenting an enormous challenge to advertisers.

And a stat that will bemuse some; in 2018 Rand Fishkin analysed Donald Trump’s 54 million followers with his SparkToro Fake Followers Audit tool and found that 61% were either bots, posting spam, inactive or actively tweeting propaganda.

So what does all this mean for us – for advertisers?

Succeeding in the sea of cynicism 

When trust is so scarce, the value of that trust increases immensely. But it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s perfectly possible to use influencer marketing to grow audiences and drive sales – and many brands are doing so with great success.

In this age of distrust, it all comes down to verification and authenticity.

Verification means that the ads you’re buying will be seen, the engagements you’re paying for are with real people, and the influencers you’re working with have genuine followings. And authenticity means working with partners who truly know and love the products and services they’re promoting.

We’re seeing brands like eBay switching from using high profile influencers to investing in its own sellers as co-creators and Diageo coordinating a community of mixologists rather than relying on one-off co-promotions with demi-celebs on Instagram.

Meanwhile, Unilever has declared that it will never work with influencers who buy followers and l’Oréal is combatting fraud with its own bespoke internal vetting process and performance analysis metrics.

The craving for authenticity means brands are increasingly keen to be seen as walking the walk – not just talking the talk – when it comes to playing their part in making the world a better place. There’s a greater sense of brands being open and honest about who they are, who they’re working with, and what they’re doing.

Brands who are leading by example in this field include Iceland axing palm oil, the Co-op ditching the lavish Christmas ad trend and donating the money to charity instead, and Ben & Jerry’s staying true to its hippy roots by championing causes such as asylum seekers’ #RightToWork in the UK.

Golden rules for engagement

To successfully engage in influencer marketing in this era of eroded trust, there are four golden principles:

  • Keep your message authentic – and always stay true to your brand, no matter who you’re collaborating with

    • When you’re working with a creative, high-profile influencer it can be tempting to veer too far in the direction of their style at the detriment of your own brand voice. Don’t risk sacrificing your own sense of identity and values. Every influencer collaboration is about co-creation – not sublimating your identity to fit with theirs.
  • Vet your co-creation partners – are they the right fit for you?:
    • Go beyond their last 10 Instagram posts when deciding if they are the right fit. What is this person’s background? How do they interact with their fans? Who else do they work with? Do they have anything in their history which you’d be unhappy to be uncovered? And importantly – do they share a genuine connection with their community?
  • Choose long-term, authentic relationships where possible – not one-off ‘media buys’:
    • Companies like eBay, L’Oréal and Diageo are increasingly engaging influencers with long-term, multiple campaign contracts where they can work together, create mutual value, ensure exclusivity and maintain an authentic voice and authority when talking about the brand and its products or services.
  • Know what success and value means to you from the outset – benchmark, track and pivot in real time:
    • As with any other digital campaign, be clear about what you’re trying to achieve before you engage any influencer talent. Is this a brand awareness campaign or are you launching a new product? And are direct sales or following acquisition your major objective? Make sure you’re able to track these effectively using your own social intelligence tools and data.


The power of influencers is only set to grow as an increasing portion of the population become digital natives. Although there appears to be an influencer backlash, today’s trust issues are just teething pains – which are natural for any new channel. As social strategies become more sophisticated, there’s no doubt that influencer marketing will continue to drive brilliant business results for brands.

By Emily Knox, Head of Social and Content at digital performance marketing agency Tug

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