With great power comes great responsibility

I had such positive feedback on the session I created for this year’s Silicon Beach, that I’ve reposted the article I wrote for the event’s accompanying book. The piece below was originally published there, and on LinkedIn.

‘Influencer’ is now a well-known, lusted-after job title, with many people (both young AND old) craving a life that appears to provide a high salary, lots of travel and an abundance of free products & parties.

We all know the stats; people trust influencers more, they pay more attention to them, and there’s a hell of a lot of money being thrown that way by advertisers. Bloomberg states it at $255m a month (which I’d say is probably far lower than the actual figure) – and this is only set to rise. Linqia polled US CMOs in November of last year, and 48% of them stated this investment would ‘significantly increase’ for 2017.

The developing influencer marketing space is popular, vibrant and of course, starting to be gamed by those wanting a piece of pie. Buyer be warned: there are far too many ‘gurus’ and ‘ninajs’ that will spin you a wicked tale of influencer marketing magic, only for it to turn out to be snake oil.

The secret sauce? Common sense and co-creation every time. It’s really not rocket science.

For me, what’s more interesting is the sense of responsibility that comes with holding so much influence. For an influencer, once they start to become popular and grow a following, there are additional factors that come in to play when their community truly starts to listen to what you have to say.

Whether it was Uncle Ben in the 2002 Spiderman movie, or Churchill, or even Voltaire that originally said it, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. And in the world of influencer marketing, this couldn’t be more accurate.

With greater access to more content, the things our influencers do and say now have direct impact of the minds of our youth. And not just teenagers, but kids, babies even – those in the most vulnerable stages of development. If you’ve got an iPad, you can watch a video of a blogger reviewing a new must-have product. It’s the evolution of pester power, but in a way, far darker because it’s not regulated.

Take this as an example; there’s a well-known fitness blogger in the UK that’s recently written a sponsored post about a fertility/contraception app. The app promises to be ‘as effective as the pill’ and is the first to be given government approval as a contraceptive. The media constantly points out that the app will work wonders, for some people. These people will likely have, in addition to a clean sexual bill of health, one or all of the following: a predictable sex schedule; regular periods; the time and ability to abstain from sexual activity on certain precise, consecutive days every month. That’s quite a tight set of parameters.

It requires proper reading to even work out how this app works, and while I have every confidence in people’s ability to use Google appropriately to look in to this, I’m also reminded of how low people’s attention spans are these days. Is it a responsible thing to post about such an involved product in among lighter 30 second reads on diet and workout tips? Possibly. Possibly not.

Then there’s the clearer cut examples like that of High On Life SundayFundayz, a group of four men from Canada and New Zealand who travel the world making videos of living life according to the mantra “if you can you should”. While on a tour around the US, they crossed marked boundaries and ignored well-posted signs forbidding their actions at Yellowstone National Park. In the process, they trampled a delicate ecosystem and were reported to the National Parks Service, who launched an investigation of their actions. This resulted in the group fleeing to Canada and shutting down their social media accounts for nearly two months.

While the group eventually faced appropriate consequences, things sadly don’t always work out that way.

YouTube recently decided to take a bold stance against videos that could be considered “controversial, religious and supremacist” but might not violate the site’s terms of service. This announcement ironically came at the same time that PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg), the world’s most-subscribed YouTuber, sees his company revenue climb. Kjellberg was fired from Maker Studios as well as his YouTube Red original series after making anti-Semitic jokes this past February, but that hasn’t appeared to slow down his earning. Although his company profits dropped 90% between 2015–2016 (dropping from $8.6 million to $930,000) the profit drop does not necessarily signify a drop in interest in his content, in fact quite the opposite.

What does this all mean to the individual? The influencer that genuinely wants to retain a sense of doing what’s right, but is then lured by the potential thousands of potential earnings. While some who act out of turn get their comeuppance, others continue to explode in popularity. Is it worth the risk?

In reality, we as agencies and brands have a big part to play. We’re the ones incentivising content creators to constantly make things bigger, better, more daring. There’s a sense from many influencers that if they don’t do it, someone else will. While this can sometimes stimulate creativity, it can also encourage taking short cuts ethically and legally in pursuit of content. Brands want the best possible content, and influencers rely on the income. As influencer marketing continues to grow, this tension is only going to become more prominent.

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