The New York Times has an interesting article this morning about marketing with social media influencers becoming more difficult, in part because the influencers, concerned about their authenticity and credibility, are getting pickier about which brands they partner with. The NYT article cited the example of Ricky Dillon, a 23-year-old “known for creating quirky online videos,” who says he’s getting more selective when advertisers pitch him to promote their products.
If influencers are raising the bar for brand partnerships, that’s actually probably a good thing for everyone. Knowing marketers, they’re unlikely to show much concern for the long-term viability of this (or any other) medium: they would probably just “pump and dump,” moving on when the tragedy of the commons inevitably sets in. Influencers on the other hand have in incentive to protect their own image and reputation -- or at least, the smart ones do.
However the NYT article also raised, if only implicitly, another question about influencers that I have had for a while: how big of a gamble are influencer partnerships for brands, and how long before some brand gets seriously burned.
Okay, let’s admit some basic facts: when you look at many influencers, there’s really not much to them. Of course there’s an endless variety of people online, and some of them have actual talents or useful advice to impart, but a lot of the archetypal influencers brands seem to go for fit the same very predictable profile: they are teenage boys or young men in their early 20’s (rarely older), who are cute, seem sensitive, are “funny” at least in the eyes of the target audience, and maybe they play guitar. And that’s it.
Given this basic profile, it’s not hard to deduce who the target audience is, and in case you need another clue, the picture of Mr. Dillon in the NYT article pretty much says it all: it’s a sea of teenage girls, with not a single guy to be seen (except maybe one gay teen in the back). This phenomenon is nothing new, of course, dating back at least as far as Frank Sinatra, through the present with Justin Bieber, and on into the future with whoever the next guy is.
But in addition to being good-looking, Sinatra, Elvis and Justin Bieber could actually do something -- sing -- whereas the main talent of most of the current crop of online influencers seems to be having nice hair. No doubt a few influencers have the talent, or at least marketing savvy, to turn themselves into the next Justin Bieber, but the majority plainly don’t; trust me, I’ve watched their videos and it’s just not there.
That makes them a lot closer to “Alex from Target,” if you remember him, than Sinatra or Bieber: much more likely to be flavor of the month, transient celebrities than lasting tastemakers. And while there’s nothing wrong with ephemeral phenomena -- they can work as marketing avatars while they exist -- brands also have to be mindful of the risks associated with them, and weigh these against the potential short-term payoffs.
And yes, the risks are real. Again, these are teenage males and therefore by definition pretty much the most volatile and least reliable promotional partners you could imagine. They have huge egos, scant judgment and no life experience, and some of them do stupid, sometimes criminal things.
Just look at the litany of social media stars who have been accused of sexual assault. Yes, they are innocent until proven guilty, but when you have so many cases it starts to look like a pattern. One of the most recent examples is Carter Reynolds, a 19-year-old Vine star who has been embroiled in controversy since a video leaked showing him trying to pressure his then-girlfriend, who was underage, into performing oral sex. Last year there was Curtis Lepore, another Vine star accused of raping his then-girlfriend, another Vine star named Jessi Smiles, in her sleep. Then there was Sam Pepper, another YouTube star from the UK, who was accused of raping several teenage fans, in addition to posting videos of himself “pranking” girls by groping them with a fake hand. Another British YouTube star, Jason Sampson, known as VeeOneEye, was accused of raping a 15-year-old girl.
I don’t know if any of these influencers had brand relationships, but it’s not hard to imagine that at their peak marketers would have been very interested in tapping into their huge fan followings. What would the repercussions have been for brands? And while most social media influencers (hopefully) aren’t predatory sociopaths, how can marketers vet their promotional partners to avoid disaster? Finally, when is the risk just too great?