Text by Sarah Johnson, co-founder of The Akin.
A few years ago, everyone was talking about the importance of hospitality brands engaging influencers to boost brand awareness and bolster marketing campaigns. However, times are changing and the influencer economy has come full circle. Where once brands were welcoming influencers in with open arms, they’re now having second thoughts. In fact, 76% of marketers are struggling to determine the return of investment in influencer marketing (Linqia 2018). This change of heart is related to real shifts in how social media influencers are being perceived by consumers.
In our recent “Future of Influence” report, we looked at how consumers’ increased awareness of product placement on social media, as well as algorithms, paid-for posts, and ‘seeding’ (brands gaining favour with influencers through free products/services) is creating a feeling of scepticism and distrust among consumers. We also reported on how the proliferation of tech and social media has led to the democratisation of ‘influence’, meaning that we’re all drowning in data and content with no way of telling what’s reliable content and what’s not.
All this raises questions in consumers’ minds about the authenticity and ethics of influencer marketing, leading to a recent Statistica report to conclude that over a third of people feel that influencer marketing is damaging to society. In short, the power of influence as we knew it is being eroded.
Hospitality brands have started responding to these shifts in a variety of different ways. Earlier this year, luxury hotel Charleville Lodge in Dublin infamously banned all social media influencers, following a very public spat with an influencer requesting a free stay. The highly-publicised move from the hotel became a maverick PR stunt in its own right, likely generating more international publicity than a single influencer could, and represents a change in the value brands and consumers are placing on influencer-generated content, versus content generated directly from the brand.
Other hotel brands have responded to shifts in the influencer economy by making it harder for influencers to acquire and request freebies. For example, The Ace Hotel and certain Starwood properties require all influencer to fill out a detailed application form before their request is considered. Other properties are reporting that they’re simply overwhelmed with requests from influencers, making it impossibly time-consuming to engage with them at all.
Elsewhere, hospitality brands who are less informed about the influencer economy are vulnerable to the rise of fake social media influencers. US marketing agency Mediakix recently conducted an experiment using a fake Instagram account to secure offers of a wide range of free hotel stays and restaurant meals across the US. They’d used the same account the year before in a similar, highly-publicised experiment, revealing a lack of awareness of the current status of the influencer economy across the hospitality industry and further undermining the role on influencers.
Despite all these issues, we’re not about to see the death of the influencer just yet. Instead, we’re set to see significant shifts in the way the influencer model works and brands need to understand this changing context to stay ahead of the game.
To start with, brands should see influence not merely as a marketing tool but as a way to shape culture and attitudes in society. In our 2018 Changemaker Report, we found that two thirds of people tend to trust brands more than they trust governments and media. We also reported that 56% of changemakers take more inspiration from brands than they do from influencers, with only 30% making decisions and purchases based on influencers they follow. This means that brands need to understand and take advantage of the renewed power they have to influence conversations and behaviours both inside and outside their category in order to generate genuine connections with consumers.
Recent examples from outside the hospitality category include Nike’s 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign (featuring Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams and many more), which exploded far beyond the world of sportswear, and environmentally conscious outerwear brand Patagonia who are suing Donald Trump for eliminating protected lands.
Another interesting development of note is the surprising rise of the VR influencer. Their success is ironically down to the very fact that they aren’t real, giving them an honesty and integrity that human Instagram influencers no longer have. The fictional VR influencer Lil Miquela is a 19-year-old, Los Angeles-based, Brazilian/Spanish model and musician who has over 1.4 million followers on Instagram. She fills her Instagram feed with ‘outfit-of-the-day’ shots, featuring Chanel to Supreme, shares pictures of herself attending events with fellow influencers, and even uses her platform to support social causes. The learning here is that consumers have become so sceptical of the traditional influencer economy that they’re finding VR influencers – who they know to be fictitious from the get go – a refreshingly appealing alternative.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that the conventional definition of an ‘influencer’ is shifting and reliable sources of taste are becoming much harder to find, let alone trust. As the hospitality industry has seen, reviews and feedback from public forums are experiencing a boom and brands who facilitate this are held in higher regard than opinions of social media influencers. This means that brands are, once again, in a position to be more influential than ‘influencers’ and brands that rely on paid advocacy threaten to erode trust and respect with consumers. Instead, integrity must be a priority for brands aiming to shape culture and lead in their category. This can only be achieved by partnering with virtuous talent and creating content rooted in brand integrity, avoiding transparent influencer strategies at all costs.