Influencer Marketing Is Like Trying To Print Your Own Social Currency

Influencer marketing is dumb. We’re not saying it never works. We’re saying it offers ever-diminishing returns and appeals to businesses and agencies who don’t understand how marketing works. 

Influencer marketing is basically the modern equivalent of advertorials, or paid product placements in movies. The difference is, in a film, the placed product is surrounded by entertainment, and is more forgivable. We don’t mind seeing Audis in every Avengers film, because the films themselves are great, and it’s a fine automobile. The appearances of Hyundais throughout The Walking Dead was far more noticeable; and they – too – pulled it off because the show was a smash hit. 

Paying Kim Kardashian to act like she uses a certain bathrobe isn’t going to work. Not for long at least. It relies on low-information, easily-led people. Put it this way: it’s trying to engineer a fad, and that undermines the very foundations of New Marketing. Since 2010 or so, wins have been driven exergonically, by the public, by offering a great product or solution, and letting them do your marketing for you. To come in and energetically, and in a one-sided-what-is-in-it-for-me?, way, try to cut to the front of the social currency line is to fail to understand marketing entirely, today.

Mark W. Schaefer's Manifesto

To wit, influencer marketing is a fad, popular with companies trying to sell pet rocks, who are ignorant of the reality that sales are buyer-driven now. Here’s a breakdown of why it is failing and will continue to fail, but for a few fly-by-night pet rock companies: 

  • Conflict of interest. Influencers get status – social currency – from helping others with objective, helpful, relevant content. It’s an overt conflict of interest to take money to recommend something.
  • It looks selfish and disingenuous to smart people. This is just self-explanatory. 
  • It mingles ‘currencies’, reducing the social currency value of the recommendation. An unpaid endorsement is one currency form: social currency: “I like this product/person/thing so much I *look better* if I refer it to you.” However, if I am getting paid to recommend something, the social currency value of the recommendation- which is based simply on good will – drops, significantly. 
  • ‘The Influenced’ feel stupid, whether they can articulate it or not. It’s demoralizing to look to shallow and miserable celebrities for what to buy and how to be. Also, only a fool wouldn’t question a celebrity’s motives in making a recommendation, if they’re getting paid.
  • It’s unsustainable. It’s like printing your own social currency: Eventually, it’s so inflated that it has no value, and it eventually degrades the credibility of the influencer. 
  • Its very premise – that you can ‘game’ popularity – is stupid. Not unlike the film Can’t Buy Me Love, it purports to suggest that – for the right amount of money – you can buy popularity. You can’t. If you could, Google would not exist. Terrible companies would simply buy the best search rank – apart and independent of their product or service quality or value, and become Fortune 10 companies. If you could ‘cut to the front of that line’ the systems of Google search and social currency would have no value. 
  • It makes the company paying the influencer look stupid. It spotlights that they don’t understand New Marketing or popularity.
  • It’s selfish. It’ focused on what the seller wants (money), not on what the buyer is getting. And there is a dirty collusion between the Influencer and the company paying them.
  • It makes the influencer look like a prostitute, and dishonest. This is self-explanatory. 
  • It’s an ad pretending it’s not an ad, and therefore a lie. This is just not a good way to live or do business.
  • There are alternatives that are honest. Simply showing the prize-winning boxer in your insurance ad, or the star running back in your rental car commercial, is socially acceptable. Influencer marketing is preferable because it’s lower-hanging, both for the company paying and the Influencer, and, believe us, this cheapness is not lost on consumers. 
  • It relies on consumers deceiving themselves and being star-struck and superficial, or being stupid. Either your consumer base  understands that Celebrity X is being paid to promote your product, but chooses to believe their input still matters (in which case the consumer is superficial), or they don’t know, in which case they are stupid. Neither of these is how we’d recommend you treat your demographic.
  • It doesn’t result in additional conversion, by the influenced recommending it. Because it relies on celebrity to get promoted – and not authentic quality or value or awesomeness – it never gets promoted another degree of separation from the Influencer, because if it were awesome in the first place, the company would not have to pay an Influencer to promote it. And if it does get promoted by the zombies following Influencers, it doesn’t work – because they’re not a celebrity. 

Like advertorials, ‘influencer’ marketing kind of works. On children, the mentally infirm and the elderly. If that’s your demographic, sell your pet rocks and have at it. But it’s not how any premier marketing operation handles the problem of winning customers over.

Now, we’re not saying you can’t do a promotion or paid sponsor spot. But that’s different: it’s out in the open. 

Influencer marketing is unsustainable, paradoxical, and  disrespectful to buyers. Even the name implies they are brainless humans with no agency, no choice. They are there to be influenced

It’s another way for mediocre marketers to try to ‘cut in line’, which has been happening as long as digital or Internet marketing has existed. Does it work? Everything works, sometimes; for a while.

Influencer marketing is like trying to buy press, or paid backlinks. It goes against the very principles of modern marketing. It undermines social currency, conflates motives, misunderstands what actually drives popularity, and relies on a wholly impoverished view of consumers.