A journalist goes thru the paces during an “Instagram influencer experiment” for Bloomberg

Feb. 19, 2017

bullshit non nuanced influencer marketing

At this point, the word “influencer” is overused and misused more than ever. What Bloomberg.com journalist Max Chafkin wrote about and made himself a guinea pig for revolves around the aesthetics-focused, Instagram-centric “influencer.”

60 Minutes also did a segment on influencers, focusing on the vlogger-Viner-type-of-influencer. You can watch that here.

Sadly, Bloomberg.com and 60 Minutes failed to delve into the subsets within the world of influence marketing, e.g., B2B experts, brand-builders and enterprise-level influencers outlined by Malcolm Gladwell, Brian Fanzo and Rachel Lou Miller.

Or perhaps both media outlets wanted to keep things tight by focusing on the glamour aspect, for impact, and to not confuse viewers.

(Hitting on all facets of the vast influencer ecosystem might have caused confusion.)

Regardless, Bloomberg.com and 60 Minutes failed to mention the many controversies within influencer marketing such as pay-to-play, inconsistent disclosure, native ads, expertise or “lack of expertise”, etc. Why the puzzled look on your face when I say “lack of expertise”? Did you foolishly assume that ALL influencers are experts? No, honey, many are far from experts. Many ARE experts, but many more are NOT. . . And that’s what this article is about. Fasten your seatbelts — a mega rant is coming.

If an influencer doesn’t have expertise, many times that’s FINE – yes, fine. You read that correctly. This is true when it comes to fashion, accessories and footwear influencers. Why? Because there’s visible proof that she (or he) tried on the clothes, shoes, bag or whatever.

On the other hand, a person who is supposedly influential in the world of tech gadgets MUST MUST MUST possess expertise or at least niche knowledge. Think about it. If you’re little more than “a big booming personality” and you don’t know shit from shinola, you really should stick to what’s tactile, and lean on aesthetics. Y’know, stuff which for the most part does not require expertise. THIS is where agencies drop the ball. Agencies, you’re free to send me hate mail, but deep down you know I’m right. You look at follower counts instead of assessing expertise. Shame on you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the shameful things you charge thousands for. Hate on. You know I’m telling the truth. I have friends in marketing and other disciplines — even yours. And we swap stories boo.

However: I must point out something salient: Surveys have shown that consumers don’t care about expertise when they clearly see an influencer looking great in clothes, etc. Let’s be clear: In a perfect world, influencers would always disclose, but, again, research has consistently shown: when a FASHION image on Instagram looks good and inspires, most Instagram users couldn’t care less if they see a disclaimer or not. . . There’s a reason for this kind of reaction, and once you understand it, it’ll be an a-ha moment. [ Scroll past the break below to see the answer. There’s a reason why I put FASHION in all-caps ]

(Shoutout to Ted and Meghan for the event invite!)

So, back to the question:

The reason is: If clothes look good, expertise isn’t NEEDED (in most cases). What looks good looks good, simple as that. But for the many verticals that AREN’T driven by looks (examples: smartphones, tablets, laptops), you almost always NEED AN EXPERT. One example: Consumers care about expertise when it comes to a new smartphone and what it can/can’t do for them. Many agencies think expertise doesn’t matter, and agencies are CORRECT in this thinking when it comes to fashion and, to some extent, foodie and travel influencers. Just three examples. BUT NOT FOR TECH. Let me repeat. NOT FOR TECH.

PR agencies of all sizes have dropped the ball – I’ve seen it first hand – inviting fashionistas to tech events. (I can hear the groans of “But that’s what the client wants! So we’re giving it to them!” Sigh) For the love of God, please tell me how this is a go-to strategy. It shouldn’t be. Here’s why: Anyone, pretty faces included, can plagiarize a tech review – I’ve seen it done. And if the blogger doesn’t add a video to prove expertise, deception can (and sadly, does) flourish and A CONSUMER HAS NO PROTECTION AGAINST IT.

But there are wonderful, noteworthy influencers such as Marques Brownlee with a memorable aesthetic +  strong personality which lends itself nicely to video. But waaaay more germane to my point is Mr. Brownlee’s EXPERTISE (click here). Of all his positive traits, his expertise precedes them all. Put simply, he knows his techie shit inside and out as a real expert must.

There needs to be more Marques Brownlee’s in TECHNOLOGY INFLUENCER marketing. Agencies need to understand this – a pretty face or clown or big booming personality who LACKS expertise is, in several cases (such as tech), a disservice to clients and clients’ target consumers. It’s 2017 and PR agencies are sadly still more concerned with low turnout at client events (Click here for video rant) and other superficial bullshit such as follower counts, which are easily manipulated by nefarious people. And when you thought Klout was important (spoiler: it was never important) you looked at Klout. Again, shame on you. And if you say tech isn’t your forte, well why not begin with logical and simple tactics? ACTIONABLE EXAMPLE: Look at who Marques Brownlee follows, then look at the engagement of those people, and then invite them. 🙄 Note: Doing that is not the cure-all, it’s just ONE thing you can do as a good agency. Even that one tactic is better than what many agencies currently do, especially boutique ones in New York City. So, my eyes rolleth. 🙄

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “big booming personalities” who are considered influencers (many of whom are signed with agencies) yet – let’s be real – they’re really “experts at nothing.” Let’s take a minute to consider the fans of those types of E.A.N. influencers (the “experts at nothing”).

Here’s the short analysis. [ Read past the CNN tweet below to get into the weeds ] Just because you have a large viewership doesn’t necessarily mean your viewers consider you an expert in anything. A percentage of your viewers will be competitors 😮😮 and/or people looking to COPY EVERYTHING you do. 😮😮 If you’re a vlogger or ‘grammer, you should’ve known this from day one, via your own instinct. If this is news to you (the fact that some people are looking at you only to copy you), well, uh, sorry? I can’t think of any other words for you other than “Are you that naïve?”

Many of the E.A.N.’s fans are very young “fanboys” and “fangirls” (we’re talking high school freshmen and often much younger!) so those fans are unlikely themselves to have expertise in anything. (Hey, maybe they relate to the E.A.N. influencer because of that common ground. Or maybe there’s an emotional bond? A spiritual bond? Who the hell knows?? The fans being children or very very young adults, it’s natural that most won’t be experts at anything. Experts who are still in junior high and high school are the exception, not the norm)

. . . And so 3 the questions are:

(1) Are those fanboys/fangirls simply watching and listening to “aspire to be like” that E.A.N. influencer? In many cases, yes.

(2) Are the kids analyzing the E.A.N. influencer’s mannerisms, cadence, enunciation, etc., etc.? In many cases, yes.

(3) Do they sit there watching the E.A.N. influencer with a credit card in hand, ready to buy whatever the E.A.N. influencer shills? Highly doubtful, but I could be wrong. And children shouldn’t use credit cards anyway. #JustSayin #JustMyOpinion

(Or worse, are the kids looking to emulate E.A.N. influencers as a career!?!? GOD HELP US! [Side rant: If the overwhelming majority of 16-year-olds today are grooming themselves to be professional influencers on social media, then I hate to say it but we’re fucked as a society and the future’s not bright. Let’s hope this ISN’T the case. I strongly doubt the U.S. Department of Labor puts “influencer” high on the priority list of what America needs.])

I’m sure I’ll receive hate mail from agents who stand to gain via the flawed narrative that says influencer marketing “works better than anything else”, never mind that it’s overcaffeine-ated with hype, bad actors, pimps, etc. To be crass, I’m pointing my finger at the agents who stand to gain by aggressively face-fucking us with a bastardized flavor of wholesale influencer koolaid. This type of koolaid does not respect very crucial nuances.

To be clear, I’m not against influencer marketing. Quite the contrary: I’m a proponent of influencer marketing. Or perhaps I have a bias for expertencers (“influencers who have expertise”, the opposite of E.A.N.’s)

. . . I’ll tell you what I’m against: I’m specifically against willy-nilly influencer vetting and pairings, and agencies are the most culpable because they exploit uninformed clients.

P.S.: No one should call himself or herself an influencer. A third party needs to do that. Self-proclaimed influencers must be taken with a grain of salt. (Honestly, it’s best to totally avoid this type of fauxfluencer. They tend to be unpleasant to even be in the same room with.) Finally, there are influencer lists compiled by humans and there are influencer lists compiled by algorithms. The latter is usually the real deal; the former is fleeting and subject to all sorts of immature favoritism, cliques, etc. When someone asks me what I “did” to get onto the Cision Top 50 influencer list, I shrug and say “I honestly don’t know. You’d need to ask the algorithm as to how I got onto that list.” (That specific list was compiled by an algorithm, not by a person.)

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4 thoughts on “A journalist goes thru the paces during an “Instagram influencer experiment” for Bloomberg

  1. I enjoyed your post Alex and agree re E.A.N influencers. Calling yourself an influencer is like buying yourself a T-Shirt with the words: ‘World’s great lover’ emblazoned on the front. The power to self appropriate such a claim doesn’t rest with us. Rather, such descriptors can only be bestowed upon us by others.

    Others decide who influencers are. They’re influencers because they … er … influence. Influencers are change agents. They form or change opinions. They alter behaviours. They don’t just have a large following on Instagram.

    For me, though, a bedrock trait of influence is authenticity. And Instagram isn’t the place to find that authenticity. IG is the antithesis of authenticity. Whereas Snapchat offers a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach IG is the Berocca of social media platforms: “You, but on a really good day.”

    1. I think brands are scared of experts, Scott. On that same note, I feel brands and agencies strongly prefer bloggers over journalists at this point. .. .. Journalists are a coin toss or roll of the dice in that you can never know with 100% certainty what kind of coverage they’ll write. And there’s an overabundance of venal bloggers and astroturfing services; they’re all a banquet of Faustian temptation for brands.

  2. Great piece Alex. The true definition of an influencer is somebody that can change behaviour or beliefs.

    It always makes me smile when I see “influencers” getting free rides in First or business sharing their pictures with people that would love to but don’t have the money. Likewise, social followers doesn’t necessarily translate in to sales. I follow many luxury car marques but, sadly, am in no position to purchase. Yet!


    Startup | SmallBiz Communications Advisor

    1. Thanks Lyndon. Agencies need to parse, vet, etc.Y’know, all the stuff which falls under the umbrella of value and service!!! Instead, they use retainers to look for new wins! #infuriating

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