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Phoenix from the Fyre: the rebirth of influencer marketing

By Camilla Yates | Planning director

January 28, 2019 | 7 min read

Watching Fyre, Netflix’s framing of Fyre Festival’s disastrous rise and fall, I was struck by one thought. We as marketers have the power to create something out of absolutely nothing. In a world where a shed in Dulwich can become the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, and an unknown author can get 51 million people (and counting) to like a photo of an egg, how can we navigate what is real? Does authenticity matter at all?

Fyre Festival

Fyre Festival - what can we learn?

While it seems that a lot of the marketing world sees the Fyre debacle as a death knell for influencers, I would argue that it will spark somewhat of a rebirthing – because the future of influencer marketing actually lies in the rediscovery of authenticity.

Let’s examine some of the key points the documentary surfaced, and their implications.

'Reality will always hit'

While Billy McFarland, Ja Rule their teams were terrible event planners, their persuasion tactics were second to none. Their influencer strategy convinced people to fork out thousands of dollars on an event that didn’t exist by using a handful of beautiful social media super stars to create a sense of FOMO so great that people ignored any facts or warning signs that Fyre would be anything but the experience of their dreams. Fyre’s story is a stark reminder that at some point, reality will always hit. And such a disastrous mismatch of expectation vs reality will always be deeply damaging.

What can we learn? Brands and influencers need to get back to basics – every strategy should start from the product truth, to ensure the stories we tell have authenticity at their hearts.

'Perceived authenticity'

Everyone involved was happy to promote a product that had no proof of concept. Powerful social media celebrities promoted Fyre Festival for vast sums of money, yet all they saw of the ‘festival’ was an empty island, and the organisers had no previous experience of running an event of this kind. Even if the influencers believed McFarland’s spin, this disregard for any form of due diligence is wilfully irresponsible and will only erode the trust of their followers. The power of social influence lies in its perceived authenticity. As consumers become more savvy to this new form of marketing, episodes such as this will devalue the personal brands that influencers are spending time building.

What can we learn? Due diligence is everyone’s responsibility, and if it’s done objectively and comprehensively it can protect influencers and brands.

'Equal accountability'

The would-be festival-goers thought they’d be partying with the stars. DJ and Producer, Jillionaire said that ‘Fyre was basically like Instagram coming to life.’ Only Emily Ratajkowski tagged her posts with ‘ad’, while all the other influencers let people think their endorsement was organic. When it comes to transparency, brands and influencers must be equally accountable. People need to know when they’re being marketed to, and the difference between a genuine endorsement and a commercial agreement must be made clear. In the past six months, the ASA has released new guidance that provides authoritative clarity, and platforms such as Instagram are making it easier to indicate the nature of a partnership with their branded content tool.

What can we learn? A clear and transparent approach which defines the nature of brands’ partnerships with influencers may at first feel ‘hard sell’ but it will help to build consumer trust in the longer term.

'Gaming the public'

Fyre Festival’s aftermath has got everyone questioning the authenticity of influencer power. Fyre Festival used social influence to game the public. But influencers are equally culpable. Followers, likes and engagement are used as metrics for influence, and they can all be bought. In a New York Times article, software company Dovetale said that, on average, 16.4% of the followers on Instagram’s top 20 accounts were fraudulent. And an experiment by Mediakix revealed how easy it is create and monetise a completely fake influencer account. What’s astounding is that months after this story came out, brands were still willing to partner with these fake accounts, even though the top search results made it clear they weren’t real.

What can we learn? Rather than focusing on empty metrics, the human quality of influencer-brand partnerships will be what drives sustainable long-term effectiveness moving forward.

'Human stories will win out'

People power can outshine influencer clout. In the Netflix documentary, Jerry Media founder Mick Purzycki reflects on Fyre’s rise and fall: "A couple of powerful models posting an orange tile is what essentially built this entire festival…then one kid with probably 400 followers posted a picture of cheese on toast and essentially ripped down the festival." The now infamous cheese sandwich tweet trended without the help of fake followers or bought engagement – it was as human as they come. As was Pamela Carter’s heart-breaking story. The caterer used $50,000 of her own money when her workers didn’t get paid by the festival’s organisers. Since the documentaries have aired, a Gofundme campaign has been set up and has so far raised $195k, smashing its £123k target in less than a week.

What can we learn? Nothing beats an emotive human story.

Fyre is a wakeup call as to how far down the hyper-real rabbit hole we’ve fallen, but it’s stories like Pamela’s that show the continuing power held in what’s real, emotional, and human. It’s this type of authenticity that I think we should all be using as a benchmark, whether we’re brands, or influencers, or just plain old human people.

Camilla Yates is planning director at ad agency Elvis. She tweets via @camilla_y

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