Influencers, influencer marketing, and the tricky question of trust

'Influencers are more than white-teethed reality stars, they're YouTuber gamer (like DanTDM), food bloggers and more' / YouTube

Trust is such a big topic in the world of influencer marketing and an incredibly tricky one too. It’s not something that can be easily defined, explained, or summarised in a simple soundbite.

So, when a global study from UM appeared earlier this week, claiming that ‘only 4% of people trust what influencers say online’, it was hard for me to see this as much more than a neat attempt to produce a headline-grabbing statistic.

That said, it’s without doubt that trust in all forms of online information is in decline and, in some cases, freefall. Influencer marketing is no exception, with many influencers (spurred on by agencies and brands) seeming to work as hard as possible to undermine any trust their audience had in them on a daily basis. Honestly, the number of pieces of content in my ‘Authenticity Zero’ folder is growing at a rate of two a day.

However, claiming that people have such little trust in influencers overlooks one important fact: influencers do sell. They sell products, brands, ideas, messages, and lifestyle. I know, because I see the data that shows it.

So, how does someone come to, what I believe, is such an incorrect conclusion?

The issue is three-fold.

Firstly, a common mistake made by people both outside and (surprisingly) within the influencer industry - and one most definitely made here - is to treat influencers as a homogenous collective. And they’re not. Period.

The word ‘influencer’ is a fairly generic, catch-all term for a huge variety of different people, all of whom have influence, of differing amounts, in differing ways, for many many different reasons.

When we say ‘influencers’, we mean YouTube gamers, we mean food bloggers, we mean Instagram photographers, we mean Twitter commentators, and more besides. However, when someone is asked about influencers, they commonly think of pearl white-teethed reality stars, with beach-ready bodies, who clutch slimming teas they’ve never used and tell the world how great they are.

Those people aren’t trusted; they don’t influence, or at least if and where they do, most folks won’t admit it.

This brings me nicely to my second point, which is that most people asked, don’t (necessarily) realise when, where, and how they have been influenced.

I’m not talking here about ads that haven’t been properly declared on social media; I’m talking about how one person will follow a vast array of people online, all of whom can be given the term influencer and do exactly that: influence.

These are the YouTuber gamers, the food bloggers, the photographers, and commentators mentioned earlier, but, when surveyed about influencers, I guarantee its those pearly white teeth catch alls that respondents are thinking of and not these wider groups at all.

Finally, in a similar vein, the UM survey seems to assume that influencers are followed, primarily, for their opinions on products, brands, and services.

This idea fundamentally neglects the very essence of influencers and influence. Audiences don't follow them solely for their opinions, in fact, it’s way more likely to be for something else of value first — their humour, personality, culture, ethos, aesthetic, or style. Investing in their opinions follows later, if at all.

However, it’s a firm belief of some marketers that following influencers purely to hear their opinions is exactly what online audiences like to do.

This attitude has given rise to the idea that a ‘product first’ strategy is the way to go, when attempting to sell a brand through influencers: so advertisers think if they have the right people, holding the product in the right way and saying the right (on brand things) then the sales will come flooding in. This is a belief firmly reinforced by the social networks, through their constant attempts to make direct sales, via influencers, technologically simpler.

Of course, selling a product in this way undermines consumer trust, as in most cases it lacks authenticity. If influencers suddenly appear on feeds with a product they've never mentioned before, holding it tightly, and smiling at the camera will garner nothing more than a cynical reaction from all but their biggest fans.

To genuinely influence an audience into making a purchase more subtle techniques of promotion by association are usually needed. This could be ‘natural’ integration into an existing lifestyle, and the creation, development, and continuation of a firm and believable narrative, all of which help to deliver the authenticity so necessary for an audience to take note, consider a product, and (one day) make a purchase.

It’s this subtle side of influencer marketing that has a real impact on an audience in a way they’re unlikely to note and in a way which won’t have them shouting about how little they trust influencers when those taking a survey decide to call.

Nik Speller is head of campaigns at Influencer, he tweets @NikSpeller

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