Influencers: When Are They A Bad Bet?

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?

8 comments about "Influencers: When Are They A Bad Bet?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Dani Klein from MediaCom, August 3, 2015 at 1:22 p.m.

    The first 2 paragraphs are spot on, influencers' collective pickiness is good for brands. 

    But the notion that influencers are mainly teenage males is a myopic view of the category. We work with tons of older millennial (i.e. 25-35) female influencers across Instagram & Pinterest who have built reach over time. 

    They are not flashes in the pan. 

    Perhaps if you're only looking at influencers as teenage boys, then yes, they're likely not going to be memorable next year. I think you need to broaden your outlook as to who is an influencer as someone who has staying power. 

  2. Erik Sass from none, August 3, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

    Absolutely, there lots of different kinds of influencers out there, working in all kinds of categories (I know beauty advice for example is a big one for young women) but every time I read about influencers in the mainstream media, it seems to be these guys.

  3. Steve Lundin from bigfrontier, August 3, 2015 at 1:32 p.m.

    This reminds me of Jack Kennedy hiring influencer (with talent) Mort Sahl to write jokes for him during his presidential campaign. Sahl didn't consider JFK a hands off subject after the candidate became the prez, and started using him as content. So much for the relationship. JFK dumped Sahl and Sahl was sore about it for the rest of his career. Of course this story involves actual talent and actual power - a far cry from the players in Erik's saga. A good read nonetheless! 

  4. Steve Goldner from DivorceForce, August 3, 2015 at 2:23 p.m.

    Interesting you should touch on this subject.  Just this past weekend I reflected on influencers and captured these thoughts - "Stop Looking for Influencers, Find Great Partners" at .

  5. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 3, 2015 at 2:37 p.m.

    The brands who worry about the downside risks you cite here, then seek to control the influencers voice, message, and audience. Which leads the influencer's content to become dull, generic, ineffective, and inherently commercial. (And ultimately a waste of money).

    The best way for brands to fail with influencers is to conceive of them the way you do-- as minor talentless celebrities who can endorse and be identified with products.  Commoditizing a human being (like Jared the Subway guy) can work spectacularly well for a brand, but is a very a high risk strategy.

    This is not the only way.  A more effective approach is to use influencers as content creators with  access to audiences --  but giving them enough independence and distance to be creative: less like endorsement and more like patronage.  Influencers can become micro-custom publishers with audiences, expertise, authority, and content.   

    It comes down to this simple rule...when it comes to influencers, the only thing Brands should never try to buy is influence. 

  6. Dani Klein from MediaCom, August 3, 2015 at 2:45 p.m.

    What Andrew ^ said. The only thing I will add to that parting rule: you're buying influence and their ability to create great content. (Once the brand dictates to the influencer, that ability to create diminishes significantly).   

  7. Jeff Ernst from Smync, August 3, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

    The article brought across a number of caveats about influencers that anybody considering this strategy needs to look at:
    - are they actually influencers - not just do they have a good audience that isn't half bots...but do people trust what they say, do people see it as just another ad and will they act (buy, engage, whatever) because of this.
    - when you look at how influencers are being picky and some just out to make money, that tells you the relationship only lasts as long as their paid, people know it's an endorsement and the effectiveness goes down. 

    When you look to build social word-of-mouth or brand advocacy - finding people who have a relationship with your brand, that are trusted and people think they are they to help them...they might not have the scale of audience, but people will act on it 4-10x more and influence can be developed - passion for a brand is much harder, but it sticks provides sustainable impact.

    Check out my article on Social Media Today to understand more of advocate v. influencer.

  8. kait Fowlie from Marketwired, August 4, 2015 at 1:44 p.m.

    "How big of a gamble are influencer partnerships for brands, and how long before some brand gets seriously burned?" This question speaks to the need to build trust with an influencer. Anyone can share our public content online - that, we can't control much. Getting an influencer to help you promote a product or campaign, that happens when you trust and value each other. It's up to the brand to determine the risk of working with someone on that level.  

Next story loading loading..