While online fitness guru Sheridan Mordew has undoubtedly managed to influence people, she may have trouble making friends.
When the social media influencer, who publishes training videos for her thousands of online followers, insisted that her well-documented trip to Dubai was an essential business trip, she met with little sympathy. In fact, Mordew is one of several online personalities, including the stars of Love Island, Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex, who have come under fire in recent weeks for their lockdown jet hiring in the Middle Eastern city-state.
For many influencers, the controversy will be the first impression of control under the public eye. Beyond the backlash, however, the saga threatens to prevent the growth of an up-and-coming segment of marketing and creates a dilemma for brands looking to capitalize on the rise of so-called content creators.
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Proponents of influencer marketing have long argued that its value lies in authenticity and relatable content – traits that can build brand trust and drive purchases more effectively than traditional advertising methods.
Alexander Frolov, managing director and co-founder of the social media verification platform Hype Auditor, describes influencer marketing as “one of the most effective methods to close the gap between a brand and its audience”.
Fitness influencer Sheridan Mordew has defended her decision to travel to Dubai (Instagram / shapeupwithsher)
For many Britons, the influencers’ decision to flaunt extravagant trips to Dubai while most people were locked up at home shows a wildly misjudgment of the public mood.
In addition to a public backlash against social media, influencers from the marketing industry have been criticized.
Influencer marketing consultant Scott Guthrie describes the stars’ actions as “deaf” and adds that they “took advantage of” government policies.
“Legally, they may be fine, but they didn’t pass the odor test with their target group,” he says. “By writing to the gram of lounge chairs by the pool, they have proven to be deaf, devoid of skill and understanding of the audience and the content.”
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Influencer marketing has been no stranger to controversy in its short lifespan. The emerging ad format is attracting criticism from both consumers and brands.
In 2019, UK regulators took crackdown on the sector after social media celebrities complained about not labeling their posts and ads, risking misleading consumers. Revelations about the number of fake followers on popular profiles also raised concerns that brands were wasting their ad spend.
The only way is Essex star James Lock in Dubai (Instagram / jameslock_)
Even so, the Covid-19 outbreak last year provided an opportunity to restore trust between advertisers and social media creatives, and to drag the often derided marketing category into the mainstream.
The use of social media has increased significantly in the past 12 months. Global bans have increased the number of views and clicks on sponsored posts. For brands that can’t run professional advertising campaigns, influencer marketing offers an inexpensive and effective alternative.
Ecommerce retailers heavily reliant on influencer marketing have also emerged as winners from the pandemic, seeing a huge surge in sales at the expense of the main drag. Boohoo’s acquisition of the Debenhams brand and ongoing talks about a deal between Asos and Philip Green’s Arcadia empire suggest that this trend will only accelerate.
Then, in November, it emerged that NHS chiefs were making plans to use influencers to boost uptake of the vaccine, giving the sector the much-needed dose of legitimacy.
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Influencers have come under fire for their lockdown trips to Dubai (Getty Images)
Build back trust
However, the recent scandal could undo this progress. After a violent reaction to her actions, fitness influencer Mordew made her Instagram private, meaning only approved followers can view her posts.
Additionally, the saga could also spark reckoning for brands whose reputation is based on the actions of their partner influencers.
Richard Exon, founder of the advertising agency Joint, says the long-term impact on the sector is difficult to determine.
“An event on its own doesn’t do much harm in any way, but when a pattern of behavior occurs it could be more substantial,” he says.
One problem is the growing divide between authentic influencers who have a dedicated following and the success of Love Islanders who are suddenly gaining online fame.
Guthrie refers to the reality TV stars as “banjo” influxers for willingness to “take out another influencer job,” adding that they lack “the care for their online followers or the sponsorship brand.” .
So making sure advertisers are aware of the distinction between these different categories of social media stars could be key to building trust.
However, regardless of the negative press, industry professionals remain confident that influencer marketing is a powerful tool for brands trying to reach new audiences.
“Despite some high profile [negative] Cases and despite the dark areas of the web, social media is full of skillful people who would not have had any attention before…. and that’s very attractive to companies, ”says Exon.
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