Confessions of an influencer marketing exec: ‘Micro-influencers are the biggest scam’

Influencer marketing is going through growing pains. Pay rates and proper disclosure are still all over the place, brand expectations are hard to manage, and it’s safe to assume some of the 20-year-old Instagram-famous rich kids are impossible to work with.

But that doesn’t mean the industry is on the verge of fizzling. According to a 2016 study by TapInfluence and Nielsen Catalina Solutions, influencer marketing delivers 11 times higher ROI than traditional brand marketing.

For the latest installment in our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, we spoke to an influencer marketing executive, who has been straddling both sides of the industry for the past seven years, about the problems still riddling the space. Answers have been edited for clarity.

Let’s start with the brand side. How are they approaching influencers today?
On one end of the spectrum, brands come in with a specific strategy. On the other end, you have brands saying, “I just want an influencer to talk about my product, and here’s my budget.” Big, mass brands tend to get very granular, down to controlling exact wording. If you control every word, what’s the point of working with someone who built their following based on their own voice?

Are brands still questioning the value of influencers? 
I think the higher-up people on the brand level are finally taking the channel seriously. They also have more choices; a few years ago, there was a limited group of top influencers, and everyone wanted to work with the same people, and that created an inflated marketplace. The rates were skyrocketing, and brands got upset. Now we’re seeing more competition among influencers in the market, which is a good thing. Brands have more choices, and certain influencers can’t get away with charging an insane amount of money, like six figures, for an Instagram post.

Did the rise of the micro-influencer take the air out of the six-figure post?
I have very strong opinions about micro-influencers. It’s basically the biggest scam started by the countless influencer marketing platforms that popped up over the past two or three years, who find it a lot easier to recruit and work with super small influencers who will do anything for a $100 gift card. Everyone talks about how these “micro-influencers” have such high engagement, but who cares about a 20 percent engagement rate on a post when only 10 people liked it? All it does is start a cycle where brands are working with a network of hundreds of tiny influencers that are totally hit or miss. That means you’re losing quality, too. There’s no chance all of them are going to be an actual fit for the brand.

So, how do brands know what to pay influencers when there’s so much misleading information out there?
If a brand works with an influencer on its own, it might be difficult to figure out the best price, because rates can fluctuate a lot. We’ve seen influencers accept lower pay for brands they’re more excited to work with or have actual affinity for. It also depends on timing: If you’re in touch with an influencer during a time when they don’t have much going on, you’ll get a better rate than if you were to approach them when they have five other deals lined up at a busier time. It’s like the stock market, and brands don’t always understand that. But now that there’s more balance in the market and the marketplace has expanded, people are charging more decent rates.

How do you deal with influencer egos?
The thing about this industry is that there’s still a lot of young talent that gets into it and can skyrocket within a year. Someone who’s 20 years old, who suddenly has millions of followers and brands throwing money at them, is probably totally unprepared to deal with that. And their agents don’t take the time to educate them on how to work with brands or how the industry works.

I find it fascinating: Influencers are still not aware of some things that are very obvious in marketing, like sticking to a schedule. To them it’s not important. They’ll just say, “Oh, you know what? I’d prefer to post this Instagram tomorrow because I’m just not feeling it today.” For marketers, that’s a nightmare. Your campaign is delayed a day, and you need to update clients and agencies, and suddenly it’s a crisis.

So, the agents aren’t doing enough to help prep their clients?
Oh, totally — and that’s really their value. Yes, they’re sifting through the deals, but what they should really be doing is educating the client and guiding them in the right direction. We’ve worked with agents who are unable to even get ahold of their clients, and you start questioning everything then, because brands rely on the agents to make sure everything goes smoothly. They’re supposed to be able to reassure you that the influencer will be held accountable, especially if they’re young or inexperienced.

Have you ever had to blacklist an influencer from your platform for bad behavior?
When there’s a history of bad behavior, we make sure that person isn’t put in front of clients who are very particular or for a big campaign. A bad reputation can definitely damage the influencer’s career, because the clients themselves notice. For brands, it’s not just about the numbers. We’ve seen the biggest people with huge followings deliver the absolute minimum, while someone who’s on the smaller scale has gone above and beyond for a client. So guess who the client wants to work with next time? It’s something I wish influencers would think about more: that they’re providing a client service.

We’ve seen a lot of high-profile brand ambassadors get dinged for not following FTC disclosure rules. Should brands and influencers tread more carefully?
As far as disclosure goes, I think it’s actually gone too far. Don’t get offended, but it feels like the press is chasing and outing certain people about disclosure to the point that it feels like a witch hunt. Why is saying “I’m working with” or “partnering with” brand X misleading to anyone? Why do we need ugly hashtags and long disclosures on every piece of short content? The consumer is smart enough these days, and they understand that this is what influencers do for a living. We need to get over that fact and stop penalizing brands and influencers like they’re doing something illegal. There’s no creative freedom for disclosure.

Is there a case to be made that there are too many influencers?
The term is definitely overused. Kendall Jenner isn’t an influencer, she’s a celebrity. Someone who has 5,000 followers on Instagram can’t be calling themselves an influencer. So, it’s a little bit all over the map. I wish there was a better definition for the professional who’s doing it full time. If you’re just doing it as a side hobby, that’s a nice hobby, but you’re not a professional influencer.

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