For most, encountering influencer marketing is as simple as opening their go-to social media app. But at times, it can be difficult to spot.
The influencer marketing industry will likely “grow to be worth $21.1 billion” this year, according to a February 2023 benchmark report from Influencer Marketing Hub. Jon Quinn, a senior lecturer in the Fisher College of Business’ Department of Marketing and Logistics, said influencer marketing is akin to affiliate marketing, which occurs when a third party speaks positively on brands’ behalves.
Companies contract influencers, social media users with significant followings, to post about products because they possess a built-in audience, Jasmine Roberts-Crews, a lecturer in the School of Communication, said. She said consumers typically purchase goods “recommended” by their preferred influencers out of affection or loyalty for said influencers’ online personas.
“It just goes to show how deep human beings can feel about another human being without actually meeting them,” Roberts-Crews said. “That parasocial dynamic is very, very important because it’s all predicated on trust.”
In its 2019 guide titled “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers,” the Federal Trade Commission states content creators should not “mix [their] disclosure into a group of hashtags or links.” Simply put, including an #ad hashtag or #partner hashtag in a post’s caption is not an acceptable form of sponsorship disclosure by FTC standards.
When influencers do not directly voice sponsorships — instead choosing to employ insufficient hashtags — it is often because they want to appear more casual and genuine with their endorsements, Roberts-Crews said.
“You have a situation where consumers can opt out of ads because consumers are getting sick and tired of seeing ads because that can be overwhelming,” Roberts-Crews said. “You don’t want your consumer or your potential audience to opt out of seeing your content or to be like, ‘Oh, this isn’t authentic.’”
Influencers’ sense of sincerity may be jeopardized in followers’ eyes if they accept paid partnerships openly and frequently, Roberts-Crews said. This makes it somewhat difficult to sustain a personal brand over time, she said.
“Content creators and influencers really do have to walk a very tightrope between, obviously like, ‘I want to make money because I have to make a living’ versus being authentic,” Roberts-Crews said. “And I think that’s why it’s so important for content creators and influencers to partner with brands they truly believe in.”
Quinn agreed. Since influencers who achieve success can lose their relatability in the process, they run the risk of coming across as out of touch, he said.
“I think increasingly, consumers are starting to view influencers more along the lines of celebrity endorsements than they did several years ago,” Quinn said.
The emergence of “de-influencing” — a trend that mainly sees Instagram and TikTok users encourage others to stop buying viral products — reflects consumers’ growing dissatisfaction with influencer culture, Quinn said. Though the de-influencing movement is rooted in anti-consumerism sentiments, several influencers have re-interpreted it, he said.
“A lot of these de-influencing posts, that are truly influencing posts, very often are telling you to buy a more economical, more affordable product that works just as well,” Quinn said. “So that’s kind of a response to market dynamics that we’re starting to experience.”
The #deinfluencing hashtag has accumulated over 830 million views on TikTok in the United States alone, as reported by TikTok for Business Creative Center at the time of publication. Considering this level of online attention, influencers’ misguided embrace of de-influencing is likely an attempt to sidestep budding skepticism surrounding influencer marketing at large, Quinn said.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how influencers and brands further adapt to the trustworthiness-focused mindset de-influencing demands, Quinn said.
“I think that influencers are wisely kind of seeing these changes and saying, ‘We need to change our approach,’” Quinn said. “De-influencing sometimes is just influencing in a not-so-great disguise because very often there’s still an affiliate hashtag associated with a de-influencing post.”