Voices: Are we losing faith in those being paid to influence us?

I don’t know about you, but my social media feeds have been bursting with people I don’t really know telling me what I need to buy to make my 2023 – maybe even my life – complete.

Of course, influencers are nothing new, but maybe our attitude towards them is changing as we settle in to the new year.

Authenticity is a word that gets bandied around more and more, but when it comes to influencers (and whether or not we are influenced), it’s essential that this core value is upheld.

As someone who works in social media – and with influencers – I get it. Working with people who have a sizeable social media following can be a highly cost-effective way to get your product or service out to your target audience. But what happens when it isn’t?

The number under an influencer’s name is merely part of the package; the engagement (whether people comment on, like or respond to the post) is where the real magic happens. And this is where the disconnect (or lack of faith) comes from.

Now, keep in mind that we all have influence when we use social media. Actually, we all have influence outside of the social media world, too. We can use this influence for good: we can tell people about important causes, raise awareness of issues that matter, or share products we genuinely love. We can also use it for bad: to spout hatred, spread fake news, and tell people to buy stuff we don’t even like (but know will make us a quick buck).

Payment should not define whether or not an influencer is authentic, or whether they choose to uphold their beliefs. These things should be non-negotiable. The best influencers continue to have a genuine affinity with the product they’re selling well beyond the end of their contract with that product’s creator. They should create enough interesting content with it that we end up learning more about the product, and we should see it popping up frequently in their non-sponsored content, even when they’re not actively being paid to talk about it. For influencers to have real influence, this authenticity must be maintained.

There’s no doubt that it can be tempting to sell out when someone wafts cash under your nose in exchange for content. But unlike in traditional media, where ads aren’t as reliant on that human endorsement, the appeal of an influencer is closely tied to their personality.

The short-term gains of this strategy are obvious: influencers are asked to do something with a product, they negotiate a fee, and then they share posts, videos and other content to their audience, featuring that product. They might be educated about the product, or they might not be, but they make money regardless. Their endorsement doesn’t have to be authentic, and it might even make little sense to their audience. It might even conflict with something they said the previous month, or last week, but it’s clear why this option is attractive nonetheless.

However, the cost of this can be huge in the long term. If influencers aren’t authentic and do things that erode the trust of their audience, then their long-term value takes a sharp nosedive. We’re generally influenced by people (and brands, if we’re honest) that we know, like and trust. So if the audience has no trust, then the influencer has limited influence, and that’s a bad business call.

But it’s not just the influencers who need to maintain authenticity: brands do, too. The quick win is tempting. The influencer’s large following and pretty content could give a brand a short-term win, but it could signal to the brand’s current audience that its values are skewed towards exposure rather than loyalty. This can actually prove to be quite a turn-off for savvy social media users.

So what can influencers do? What can consumers do? What can brands do?

Influencers: please play the long game and be honest about what you like; your audience deserves that from you at the very least. Consumers: support influencers who do a good job. Reward them for correctly labelling their content, and when you like what they’re talking about, engage with them and show your genuine (authentic) support.

And brands: don’t encourage influencers to be inauthentic. When you do that, nobody wins in the long term.