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For better and worse, influencers are not celebrities – and marketers ignore that fact at their peril.

Amazon expanded its influencer affiliate program to the UK last week. The British ad standards authority has banned an Instagram video by former Love Island contestant Olivia Buckland. Snapchat’s public relations firm has sued Luka Sabbat for not wearing the company’s spectacles.

Influencer marketing is constantly in the headlines, so I started to wonder if it is worthwhile at all. I interviewed people in the field, and they said the practice can be useful – as long as people remember the difference between fame and influence, the place for the tactic in the marketing funnel, and the issues with measurement and fraud.

The difference between celebrities and influencers

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In 1899, American economist Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class. He found that lower classes copy the wealthy’s consumption to produce a “trickle down” effect in business, according to Mike Molesworth, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School in the UK.

Fast forward eight decades to the time by when celebrity endorsements had become common. In the 1980s, Paul Newman sold salad dressing, and Michael Jordan became Nike’s brand ambassador. In the 1990s, Bill Cosby shilled Jell-O, and David Beckham had his own aftershave.

“With celebrity endorsement, the celebrity lends their fame to a brand or product,” British influencer marketing consultant Scott Guthrie said. “The celebrity often has no affinity or expertise with the product. Communication is one way. It’s the old broadcast model of communications.”

But influencer marketing over social media is not about broad popularity.

“With globalisation, digitalisation and the advent of a truly connected culture, influencers have a newer model available – one with smaller reach levels but far greater influence levels,” Clare Gore, head of affiliates at the UK website Vouchercloud, said. “An audience of 2,000 where 50% are directly interested is far better than an audience of 2 million where 0.005% are interested. It’s targeted, it’s cost effective and it’s efficient.”

Celebrities have typically been foisted on the public through mass media. In the 2000s, hotel heiress Paris Hilton became a celebrity through the media’s coverage of her social life. Then, a sex video conveniently surfaced just before the premiere of her reality TV series The Simple Life. The rest is history.

But influencers are viewed – so to speak – differently from celebrities and those who were known as “tastemakers” in the past.

“Influencers you follow on social media are self-selected, meaning that people choose to follow people who they perceive to be like them or whom they aspire to be,” Sarah Schmidt, director of earned media at the Milwaukee ad agency BVK, said. “Therefore, their endorsements of products, brands or even vacation locations, mean more.”

“Whilst a tastemaker tended to be a curator of brands telling us which we should buy from, the influencers of today are more about creating their own brand and showing how products fit within that,” Mischa Joslin, managing director of branding at the London PR and influencer agency EdenCancan, said.

The best marcom tactic for influencers

One important decision is advertising or direct response. The people I interviewed said the difference is whether an influencer is an ambassador for a specific brand or someone who will endorse anything. Most said influencers are best for the middle or bottom of the funnel.

“We choose to conduct the majority of our influencer campaigns on Instagram. But we understand it doesn’t work in a vacuum, so we see it as brand awareness and advertising, which will be lucky to break even,” Henry McIntosh, founder at luxury UK marketing agency Twenty One Twelve Marketing, said. “Where we can make a difference is gaining a touchpoint with that influencer’s audience and then re-advertising to them.”

“Celebrities bring prestige and credibility to a brand and can significantly enhance awareness via widespread coverage. However, they do tend to be used to raise the profile of a brand in its entirety, not just a solo product,” Joslin added. “Influencers can use social media to specifically expand on the benefits of one product or item and compel their followers to purchase. This is especially the case if a brand can use a discount code that will give an added incentive to buy there and then.”

Gore thinks the two tactics can be combined.

“With influencer marketing campaigns, you’ve got a solid mix of both strategies,” she said. “You couldn’t say that influencer campaigns would be better for either/or – it’s a mix. You’re being a lot more targeted. While you’re delivering brand awareness, you’re also pushing for actual responses.”

The difference in media and campaign planning

Another contrast is that celebrities enter the world through the gruelling process of television or movie auditions or getting modelling or record contracts. Their social followings then increase afterwards. Influencers start by creating anything from a blog to a YouTube channel themselves. The celebrity status may come later.

“Digital and social media have eroded barriers to entry for multiple industries, and celebrity is no different,” Matt Kaplan, senior vice president of digital ad sales at Univision’s Creator Network, the US media company for Hispanic and Latin American influencers, said. “Whereas record labels and studios used to be the gatekeepers of talent, today an aspiring musician, actor or stand-up comedian can self-publish and build a following organically.”

However, the major problem with influencer marketing is the media itself. Media planners have always known that every channel has positive and negative attributes. As I wrote earlier, social media is often useless for brands because people only follow other humans. Influencers using social media, then, should work because they are people.

But social media numbers – unlike TV, print and radio – are largely not audited by independent third parties. A reported 12% of Instagram influencers purchase fake followers. The problems do not end there.

Earlier this year, Unilever’s top marketer, Keith Weed, called on the ad industry to combat fake followers, fraud and “dishonest business models” in influencer marketing. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority and Competition and Markets Authority have been investigating failures to disclose sponsored posts. Diageo, eBay and L'Oréal are also addressing these issues. British doctor Francesca Paltenghi has taken issue with influencers endorsing health products without any expertise.

Still, Guthrie argued that influencers and social media are not being treated fairly.

“There are double standards at play between influencer marketing on social media and product promotion on television,” he said. “Only 27% of the UK public have noticed product placement in a UK TV show. Yet Louise Thompson from Made in Chelsea can't take a crap without being reported to the ASA these days for failing to effectively declare paid-for content.”

How to help influencer marketing

Those I interviewed offered numerous tips to maximise investments. Gore said all influencer profiles should be audited, and direct marketing campaigns should include unique URLs.

“Influencer marketing has just come out of the ‘Wild West’ phase. People realised that just because there are a few zeros in a follower count, it doesn’t equal guaranteed return on investment,” she said. “Engagement and likes can be inflated – web sessions are much harder to spoof.”

“Brands need to understand that they will never receive 100% engagement from an influencer’s audience,” Mike Gelfond, president of the Atlanta agency Mastermind, said. “Therefore, we always recommend making the total numbers of followers irrelevant in the selection criteria. When assessing a possible influencer, review average number of engagements over a 30 day period and audience within followers. This can help level set expectations.”

Freddy Tran Nager, founder and creative strategist at Atomic Tango and adjunct professor and the University of Southern California, said marketers should be wary of discounting.

“Some smart marketers are asking influencers to use discount codes to track performance. But then we have to ask, did the consumers buy the product because of the influencer or because of the discounting?” he asked.

Molesworth warned against focusing on vanity metrics such as “likes” and brand followers.

“Marketers’ obsession with measuring the mundane actually drives the market in fake profiles, likes and clicks,” he said. “It’s better to think of influencers as part of a cultural process. Marketers might better to try for lasting and meaningful relationships with influencers whose interests and approaches match the brand.”

The dark side of influencer marketing

The worst in influencer marketing came two months ago not as a result of follower fraud but when Scarlett London published a campaign for Listerine that went negatively viral – the promoter received insults and death threats in response.

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I do not remember Paul Newman, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby or David Beckham getting death threats for their endorsements. Sure, Have I Got News For You or Saturday Night Live might have poked fun at them, but there was nothing as venomous as what people say on social media today. (London declined to comment for this column.)

The differences in reactions to celebrity endorsements and influencer promotions are key to understanding how the two tactics operate. First, social media allows anyone to send instant, anonymous communication to anyone else.

“If Paul Newman were alive and posting about socially-conscious salad dressing on social media today, he would likely receive anti-Semitic, ‘Hollywood liberal’ comments,” Nager said. “If irate consumers wrote letters to the editor or a sponsor with death threats or racist comments, those were probably thrown out. Social media allows even a tiny number of trolls, racists, competitors, or Russian bots to make a lot of noise with no hindrance.”

The other differences relate to what I call the “fifth wall” of social media – the differences in the mental and emotional separations between people and a TV compared to people and a smartphone.

Celebrities make media that we passively watch. We will never meet them or do what they do. But we can interact with influencers, create an Instagram account and theoretically do what they do. In essence, people do not want influencers to be human billboards.

“We tend to place celebrities on a pedestal. Influencers, on the other hand, are supposed to be people like us – an extension of our friends and family,” Guthrie said. “Though Instagram is a place for aspiration, the Listerine example turned aspiration into the surreal. Taco shells masqueraded as pancakes. Helium balloons flanked the bedstead. The bedspread sported a life-size image of Scarlett on it.”

Further, people know that what celebrities do on screen is not real. Sarah Michelle Gellar did not save the world every Tuesday and James Van Der Beek did not own land with a beautiful creek. But social media followers want influencers to be real.

“Influencers have a strong emotional bond with their communities that is built on trust and authenticity,” Molesworth said. “We may expect a celebrity to accept a brand endorsement, but followers of influencers expect impartiality and authenticity, and above all, expect the interests of the community to be put before the interests of brands.”

“Consumers don’t want to feel duped, and sometimes they believe these posts are real – and when they see they are paid for, they suddenly feel like they’ve been wronged,” Joslin said. “This backlash tends to come when the influencer is working with a brand that doesn’t fit with their image or ethos. The comparison would be if your friend invited you round for dinner and then tried to sell you the dinner set they served it on.”

Lastly, Gore added that the backlash to London’s post is an example of bad creative as well as the finding that 47% of audiences reportedly growing tired of an increasing amount of promotional activity on social media in general.

“It’s becoming a more crowded market, and audiences are experiencing content fatigue,” she said. “If you saw a celebrity influencer so brazenly posting poor quality content, they would likely be mocked too. The difference with TV is that actors have a team of people behind them – publicists, PRs and more. Influencers are often standalone elements, so don’t benefit from the approvals process.”

And it is obvious that paying influencers to disparage competing brands risks a PR disaster on social media.

Most influencers are boring and unoriginal

During the short time that I used Instagram, I found it tedious and eyeroll-inducing. Grown women doing juvenile duckface. Numerous men showing off their abs. Married couples bragging about their domestic bliss – even though I knew they were getting divorced within months.

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I saw at least one photo with the above-left Tel Aviv street graffiti every single day. On the right above is a photo that went viral of “Instagram boyfriends” taking the exact same picture of their girlfriends. Influencers have become such a cliche that there was even a Halloween costume of them this year.

Remember, optimisation, which is often doing whatever everyone else is doing, is the opposite of creativity. Celebrities – or at least the producers of the media that they make – have large creative staffs. Influencers work alone and typically only mimic the posts of others. And that is boring.

The “content fatigue” that Gore mentioned may be the reason for Gartner L2’s report last week that engagement rates among influencers of all sizes declined from April 2017 to March 2018.

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Still, the followers of most influencers and the marketers who work with them might want to remember the words of self-described viral blogger and influencer Tim Denning.

“Most of your favourite influencers who you’re trying to copy are not who you think they are,” he wrote last month on Medium. “Their so-called ‘transparent life’ that they are sharing with the world is mostly made up and glorified by unsuspecting strangers who follow them.”

My so-called influencer

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While I was writing this column, Israeli television ran the famous 1990s US teen drama My So-Called Life (sadly, cancelled after less than one season). In one episode, 15-year-old Angela (the breakout role for Claire Danes) is self-conscious following a case of acne and a friend getting unwanted attention from her newly-large chest.

In the bathroom amid people sneaking cigarettes between classroom readings of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Angela stares at a “perfect” model on a magazine cover. I am sure many people today experience the same insecurities while scrolling through Instagram. After all, social media use increases depression and loneliness – and The Guardian has reported a growing backlash against social media among the young. A Twitter co-founder also said last week that showing follower counts was a bad idea.

Angela has an imaginary conversation with the model. She tells boyfriendless Angela that she is lucky to be single and not have a constantly jealous significant other. Angela, she adds, is also lucky to have “amazing” hair that does not need constant management as well as a life that is not so stressful.

I wonder whether teenagers today have such self-reassuring conversations today while seeing countless beautiful people doing awesome things on social media – especially when everything is reinforced by algorithms, follower counts and “likes.” There is even a photo app for men that can add muscle size, tattoos and facial hair.

Yes, media companies have used Photoshop for 30 years. But influencers today exist within a world that is increasingly completely fake.

The Promotion Fix will return on 10 December for the last column of the year.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing speaker and workshop facilitator Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.