Opinion

The dysfunctional influencer bubble: No transparency and no authenticity

From sponsored weddings to cookie-cutter social media ads – there is really nothing authentic left in influencer marketing, and the brands still clinging to the medium are sadly deluding themselves, writes Mumbrella Asia’s Eleanor Dickinson

When do you ever see a negatively-reviewed product on social media? Or a piece of scathing food criticism? The answer is never, of course, when it comes the influencer scene anywhere in the world. But this is true especially so in Singapore.

What originated as PR people sending bloggers a few free items in exchange for a (hopefully) positive review on WordPress has now become a billion-dollar industry with marketers forking out thousands to individuals in return for just a picture posted on Instagram.

And what with recent reports of Singaporean Instagram ‘dreamer’ Melissa Koh’s ability to persuade brands such as Swarovski and Dior to sponsor her wedding, it seems no event is off-limits if it means access to a 240,000-person following.

Melissa Koh’s wedding

And with brands seemingly prepared to throw money at just about any so-called influencer – although it helps to be under 25 and photogenic – it’s understandable why so many feeds in Singapore now are just full of branded messaging. 

It’s not surprising either. Having seen some of the most prominent Singaporean influencer rate cards, it’s easy to see why people opt for it as a career choice in their droves. One influencer with a 300,000-plus following on Instagram charges S$1,800 per post, S$500 for an ‘Instagram Moment’ and S$3,200 for a blog post.

Another, with a following 60,000 or so can make S$1,600 for an Instagram picture, S$2,200 for a video and S$400 for a ‘Moment’. At the lower end, a beauty/fashion influencer with just under 20,000 followers commands S$500 for an Instagram picture, S$200 for a ‘Moment’ and S$2,000 for a YouTube feature. Nice work if you can get it, right?

While there’s definitely good money to be made here it seems, but ultimately that isn’t what irks me. Everyone has to make a living after all, even if it is in my view a dubious one at that.

It’s the fact that marketers continue to hold dear the idea that by using a social media star, you are still speaking intimately and on first-name terms to your consumer. Many point to it as the equivalent of word-of-mouth, implying audiences should be able to believe and trust everything that comes out of that influencer’s mouth. That is of course rubbish.

A transaction has taken place between a marketer and an individual in order to sell a product or an experience. But when that is not disclosed – as it rarely is in Singapore – both the brand and influencer lose any claim to authenticity. And with that, bang goes the trust of the audience, which is the polar opposite outcome to the one that brands are aiming for.

In all honesty though, it doesn’t take a ‘#Spon’ or ‘#Ad’ to see which posts are genuine and which are not. A quick trawl through some of Singapore’s biggest influencer Instagram feeds and it soon becomes clear that far from honest, personally-held views, these posts are cookie-cutter copies of each other and could have been written by anyone. 

Here’s two for Lancome with Jemima Wei and Melissa Koh. Get the picture?

Jemima Wei

Melissa Koh

Then again: at least these posts have made some effort to tell a ‘story’, even if they are so painstakingly cliched and bordering on a cure for insomnia.

Others, such as these from Bellywellyjelly – also known as Christabel C – and Rachel Wong don’t even bother to post anything other than a product description.

Bellywellyjelly

Rachel Wong

When I spoke to Visa’s content division director, Kris LeBoutillier, he told me the reason so many brands are drawn to influencers is because it allows “someone else do your talking for you“. He said: “All corporations are looking for a way to stand out. If you just stand on a soapbox and say what you want to say, nobody will listen. If you get someone else, who is seen as legitimate, it works quite well.”

Soapbox-style shouting is exactly what I would call the tone of the posts above. And there are many more like these to be found. So much for letting someone else do the talking for you.

And it’s not like the consumers are stupid enough to believe this piffle, though sometimes it seems marketers and the influencers think otherwise. Many called out UOB earlier this year for its #KrisFlyerUOB whereby a number of ‘brand ambassadors’, including Melissa Koh, Bellywellyjelly and Lady Iron Chef were caught posting exactly the same copy on their Instagram posts.

Apart from being downright embarrassing for UOB, incidents like this hardly create consumer trust – which you would think is pretty important for a bank.

However, it is worth saying there are influencers out there whose accounts reflect both transparency and a genuine love of the products they are plugging. It’s ironic that one best practice example comes from an Australian 11-year-old girl named Grace Mulgrew, who has 578,000 YouTube subscribers watching her play with barbies. At the same time in Singapore, the colourful character Xiaxue is one of a handful to use the hashtag #sp at the bottom of her posts.

And it’s clear efforts to clean up the market are underway. Instagram recently announced a new tool to tag advertising partners in posts

Meanwhile, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore issued a fresh set of social media guidelines (see below) last year following a scandal involving influencers allegedly being paid to write negative posts about Singtel’s rivals: 

  • Disclosures of commercial relationships and disclaimers should be made prominent, easy to understand and appropriate for the form that the communication takes;
  • Paid reviews, testimonials and endorsements have to be clearly indicated;
  • Reviews that are disguised as being from impartial sources are not permitted; and
    The use of services and methods that fraudulently boost user engagement is prohibited

Judging from the posts out there, these are not being enforced nor adhered to. Nevertheless, for as long as the ASAS remains little more than an advisory board, you can hardly blame brands for taking their guidelines with a pinch of salt.

Meanwhile there are those within the industry that say the arena is maturing. Jade Seah, an influencer with 67,000 followers on Instagram, claims the “explosion” that took place three years ago has started to simmer down. As a result, it might not be as lucrative as it once was. She explains: “You can still make money, but I hope people will not spend their lives trying to make this a career. Being pretty and taking nice photos is not going to work anymore.

Jade Seah

“You need to have an angle or a niche. There is money to be made but it must be a supplement to your day job, unless you are making content that is truly valuable and educational.”

Aly Ang, an account director at W Asia, who routinely deals with influencer marketing, echoes a similar sentiment. “Overall, the market is wising up to the pros and cons of influencer marketing, there’s definitely been a sense of savviness with working with influencers,” she says.

“Instead of a blanket approach, brands are now taking a step back to evaluate efficacy in the influencers they’re working with. There’s a sense of ‘quality’ over ‘quantity’ so to speak and a deeper thought process with regards to the type of campaigns that will actually engage audiences.”

Maybe there is some hope to be gained from these sentiments. But “engaging an audience” in the long-term requires trust and transparency. Marketers working with influencers need to step up to the mark and encourage this honesty with full disclosure. Given so many of the posts read like blanket advertising copy, there is neither transparency or authenticity. Only a dysfunctional bubble that might soon burst.

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