Making friends & influencing people

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I scroll past Instagram posts that contain the words ‘Ad’ or ‘Gifted.’

There. I’ve said it. Twelve words that will forever doom my Instagram feed and guarantee an immediate drop of least one hundred - highly influential - followers.

Friends. Before I explain why, let me say state quite clearly, for the record that I am not a troll, or a ‘hater’ and would never, ever dream of making negative or upsetting personal comments on anyone’s feed.

But a lot has been said amongst the interiors community on Instagram recently in defence of the ‘content creator’ which suggests that if you’re not fully supportive of the efforts of these influencers or appreciative of the hard work it takes to be one, then you basically ‘don’t get it.’  I feel it’s only fair to explore the other side.

If you don’t want to see it, they cry, then you can always de-follow me.

Well yes, I could. But then I wouldn’t know what you were doing today. How you were?

That you just found the Curtains of Dreams in Homesense.* That you sometimes doubt yourself as a mother.

I wouldn’t know that you’d had a shit day at work, had just poured a glass of wine and sat down to watch the last Game of Thrones. That your long-awaited kitchen revamp had started. That after years of trying and failing to conceive you were finally pregnant. That you dread the day your eldest goes to university. That you can’t decide between Railings and Stiffkey Blue (Railings, every time).

I follow you because you’re funny, even though you’ve been known to make me cry. I follow you because I’m in awe of your living room. I follow you because your ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ literally blow me away.  I follow you because your life feels like my life, even though you actually own a JuJu hat which I can never justify buying.

I follow you because you feel like my friend, even though we’ve never met.

I don’t follow you because De’Longhi thinks your feed is a good brand fit for their new toaster.* I don’t feel inclined to buy said toaster because you have (been given) one. In fact it upsets and sometimes it irritates me that I feel I’m being sold a new toaster in my limited down time.

I sometimes wonder whether I feel offended by these ads because, years ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I used to be a journalist working on local newspapers. As a news reporter the line between editorial and advertising was very firmly laid down, and we were taught that being an impartial balanced voice was fundamental to our credibility and indeed to the credibility of the entire profession.

Even being called on to write the occasional ‘advertorial’  - that is paid-for promotional editorial  – on behalf of an advertiser felt like selling out, and we all avoided it wherever possible.

Of course backhanders between journalists and industry have been going on since the beginning of time. It’s clearly impossible to write an authorative piece on the new BMW X5 without being handed the keys to one for at least a weekend, and, as someone who progressed from newspaper journalism into travel PR, I can say with absolute certainty that travel journalists spend entire lifetimes travelling the world - often with their families - at the expense of tourist boards and airlines.

Yet while these freebies are routinely offered as quid pro quo for anything from a full-length feature to a simple name-check, there are no deals in place to guarantee positive coverage. There is no visibility of, or control over, final copy for the sponsor.

The bottom line is that a journalist retains the right to write whatever he or she likes, even if that is negative, which sometimes happens.

I know this because I have been one.

Yet in today’s new media world, the line between advertising and editorial has become increasingly blurred.  One individual can have the social media reach of the population of a small country – greater than any journalist on any publication – and yet be a ‘pen for hire’ available to the highest bidder in still relatively unchartered waters, regulatory-wise.

The UK’s advertising watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and separately the Government’s Competition and Market’s Authority (CMA) have this year attempted to regulate the industry, in this country at least, insisting influencers are transparent about when content has been sponsored and explain that content has been paid for before followers engage with it. But it’s hard to track, with numerous celebrities noted for failing to signpost very obvious brand deals.

It’s only going to get worse. In 2018 a study from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) found that 65% of multinational brands had plans to increase their influencer investment in the coming 12 months, with Instagram being the main target.

In its mildest form, influencer deals involve accepting a gift in return for agreeing to post about it. In other cases, influencer copy is reviewed, tweaked, and re-written to reflect brand values and messages, it’s formally approved, and then it appears on the feed of someone who’s actual opinion we are genuinely interested in. Our swipes and comments are tracked and analysed as part of an actual marketing campaign.

Both are ads, yet how do we know which is which?

I fully accept that being a content creator must be hard work.  Staging a show-stopping interiors photograph – beautifully yet informally arranged cushions, casually discarded sneakers, recently plucked blooms shoved nonchalantly into a hand-blown vase -  is a thoroughly exhausting experience (many of us do it just for fun) and let’s face it, would usually be the job of a creative agency team complete with photographer and stylist.  Writing engaging copy while sticking to a brief would then be the job of a copy-writer.

At least three people – potentially many more – would participate in getting this sort of marketing campaign in front of the consumer, and yet in the case of the so-called influencer, there is only one.

All this in return for a toaster? Who is being exploited. Us? Or them?

Maybe it’s in return for a sofa. That seems fairer.  Or in reality probably hard cash, and suddenly the words ‘ad’ or ‘gifted’ don’t seem to cover it when actually you’re reading fully paid for advertising presented as general chit chat.

No-one’s claiming the influencer’s job is not hard work. The point is, do we want to see it?

Don’t get me wrong, I am in complete awe of anyone who’s gathered followers in their (hundreds of) thousands, off the back of a gorgeous feed and a personality that shines so brightly that any brand would actively seek to be associated with theirs. I don’t judge anyone for doing this. For making that choice.

I just fear that once you’ve handed control of a post to a brand, however much you might genuinely love the brand or product, you’ve lost YOUR voice, which was the very reason I  - we - followed you in the first place.

When I pick up my phone I’m looking for inspiration, companionship, food for the soul.

So in the same way that I flick past the adverts in Grazia,  I’ll choose to scroll past the ads on Insta. But please, please, keep me posted on your interiors journey. And what you’re having for tea.

*any resemblance to any actual persons, brands, events or instagrammers is purely coincidental